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We are sitting in the basement of St. Ignatius of Antioch on the Upper West Side, making our way through a particularly complex fugue section in Bach's Jesu meine Freude. Sixty of us--sopranos, altos, tenors, basses and everything in between--are working to perfect the piece, which is to be the lynchpin of the Central City Chorus winter concert, "Immortal Bach," a collection of Bach and Bach-inspired pieces assembled by the musical mind of our director, Phillip Cheah. Phillip, who never backs away from challenging his choir, is trying to get us to see the genius of Bach's work, weaving a theme through each voice part as the fugue heightens. "You are Bambi," he says patiently, pointing at the wide-eyed altos. "And you," he gestures grandly at the rest of the chorus, "are the forest. Background!!" It's a recurring metaphor in our rehearsal process to help us visualize the progression of a theme in a given piece. It's one of Phillip's original sayings, and it sinks in. We run through the fugue passage again, and the altos rightly emphasize their dominance at the right time. "Bravi, bravi!" is Phillip's response, but always with the caveat that there is more to perfect. We plow on, growing ever more confident and excited for our upcoming performances.
I sought out Phillip one windy fall afternoon between rehearsals to chat more about Immortal Bach.
Jessica Marshall: What inspired you to mold a concert around Bach?
Phillip Cheah: Bach is both pivotal as a composer not only for his musical contributions to the oeuvre but also for the pedagogical aspects of his compositions. His choral works are some of the most celebrated of the canon, among them the motets of which two anchor this concert: Komm, Jesu, komm and Jesu, meine Freude. Bach's masterful use of contrapuntal and fugal techniques coupled with his exploration of the artistic and technical possibilities inherent in various genres have inspired and informed countless generations of composers, a selection of whom are highlighted in this concert's programme. These works by Mendelssohn, Reger, Rheinberger and even Nystedt demonstrate the far reaching influence of not only Bach but the Austro-Germanic musical tradition as well.
JM: This is not traditional holiday season concert fare. Why stray from this choral tradition?
PC: Holiday season concert fare certainly has its place, of course, since it helps to affirm and celebrate the mood of the season. But this Bach-centric program is also celebratory in its own way through the exploration of the compositional threads which bind and connect the various composers in this musical fabric--a kind of meta-counterpoint, if you will. The audience is also presented with an alternative musical offering that helps to cleanse the aural palette and take a break from the ubiquity of holiday fare.
JM: How does one go about developing a rehearsal plan for a concert like this? What do you tackle first? Bach or his contemporaries?
PC: For this concert, I felt it necessary to provide the singers with a general idea of what all the pieces sound like early in the rehearsal process, particularly with the Bach. Part of his genius is his subtle and elaborate planning that slowly unfolds over the course of a large-scale structure. By rehearsing Bach with Reger and Schütz, the singers are also able to see and hear for themselves the musical connections between the composers, whether it is the expansion of the chorale genre or the melodic gestures that gives life to the text being set.
JM: How do you inspire a choir to take on this repertoire? It's pretty challenging and complex.
PC: It is my belief that well-written music, no matter how challenging and complex, will inspire and aid performers as they learn because an inherently good composition makes learning the musical contours, pitches and rhythm a somewhat logical and certainly satisfying process. Notes on a page are, of course, merely a starting point. Rehearsals are also a journey of discovery for both singers and conductor as we tackle a musical line to find the right vowel that will create the best tone and blend for the group or deconstruct and distill a series of runs to discern the underlying pitch movements that then informs how the notes should be phrased.
There is also the idea of demystifying the apparent complexity of a piece and decoding the patterns that create the structure not only of a phrase (micro) but of the whole work (macro). One of the easiest--and most crucial--things to do in any imitative passage of music is to identify the theme or melodic fragment that is being imitated and then highlighting the "route" of said theme/fragment as it is passed (i.e. imitated) from voice part to voice part. The idea of foreground and background gains clarity as textures are delineated. Above all, there is the absolute satisfaction of learning a tricky passage of music and finally nailing it so that one is ultimately able to make music rather than simply singing the correct pitches and rhythms.
JM: What are your hopes for the audience attending Immortal Bach?
PC: My hope is that the audience simply has a beautiful and fulfilling musical experience as they listen to the pieces being performed. It would be a fantastic bonus if our performance is able to elucidate these musical and extra-musical connections between Bach and the other composers on the program for the audience so that the juxtaposition of these seemingly disparate pieces makes sense as the works are re-contextualised and, in essence, refracted through the prism that is Bach.
JM: What's next for the CCC? Can you give a preview of the spring concert cycles?
PC: This season has kind of a "back to basics" overarching theme. Our March concert, "My Funny Valentine," is a programme of choral love songs bookended by Brahms's popular and beloved Liebeslieder and Neue Liebeslieder waltzes with sundry pieces by Morten Lauridsen and Reginald Unterseher as well as an arrangement of the eponymous work.We close our season in June with "Now is the Month of Maying," a selection of bucolic madrigals and motets about spring. I am also very excited to announce that the opening concert of our 2013-2014 season will be devoted entirely to Benjamin Britten whose centenary will be celebrated some mere weeks before the performance in December. The concert will feature, among other works, his early (and rarely-heard) cantata The Company of Heaven, so stay tuned!
The Central City Chorus will be performing Immortal Bach twice at St. Ignatius--once on Saturday, December 15 at 7 PM and again on Sunday, December 16 at 3 PM. Tickets are $25/$20 seniors at the door, and $20 to pre-order at centralcitychorus.org
Jessica Marshall is the Digital Editor at Time Inc. and a freelance writer for MTV Networks. She also coaches Figure Skating at the Wollman Rink Skating School and has been a member of the Chorus for over four years.