Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Adaptability and the Stravinsky Mass

We performed the Stravinsky Mass last week.  It's a really quirky, fun piece to play.

The Mass is scored for 10 wind players and chorus.  It's best done in a church with small vocal forces.  Some parts are for solo voices and the top two lines are preferably sung by children.  It is acerbic, contains a lot of polytonality and is very concisely written.  There are no wasted or unheard notes in any of the wind parts.

My student, Joe Cannella, thought it would be interesting to hear how we put this piece together, given the small forces and unusual stage positioning.  Thus this post.

If you'd like a recording to reference while reading this, click on the link below.


This is the stage setup we used.  Though it seemed the most logical, the arrangement posed some logistical problems that needed to be solved.

Putting the brass on the front edge of the stage required them to hold back with attacks and delay more than usual.  Generally, those in the back of the orchestra work hard to stay on top of -- or even slightly ahead of the beat -- to make up for the distance between them and the front of the orchestra so the audience will perceive no  lagtime between them and the violins, for instance.  It was quite the reverse in this case, for I know our brass players had to delay entrances so they could be with the chorus.

Although I was a little closer to the conductor than I like to be (!), it was nice to be able to see our brass players' embouchures and gestures.  This is never a possibility in the full orchestra.

Although we only had one (!) rehearsal for this piece, during it we were able to get comfortable playing together pretty quickly through watching and listening.

In our orchestra we look to the conductor (in this case, Franz Welser-Möst) for bringing us in, dictating tempo, etc. but not really for maintaining time and playing together.  We try very hard to bring a chamber music ethic to everything we do. Thus, it's more about listening, watching each other, remembering how it went in rehearsal than following the stick. 

This means being knowledgeable of other players' parts, especially when they directly affect your own.  It means communicating visually, writing in cues, listening and picking up on other people's body language all in the service of playing together.

Articulation/reaction time

One area of concern in this piece is matching articulation and judging reaction time for entrances.  There are parts in the score where it's clear Stravinsky wanted a blended chorale sound.

Other times he certainly wanted heterogeneous articulation for various reasons. In the excerpt below the bassoon provides punch to the trombone long notes but not much else.

This gives the bassoon/trombone line a harpsichord-like articulation with a little sostenuto thrown in.

Stravinsky and Prokofiev used this blend of two disparate articulations all the time.  Here it is in 2 bassoons in the Symphony of Psalms:

Going back to the section from the Mass excerpted above, the bassoon begins the passage with the oboes as part of a double reed choir, switch to spicing up the trombone line and go back to double reed choir again.  What I tried to do is match the oboe articulation (a bit longer, perhaps, than my usual Stravinsky staccato) and then be VERY crisp to make the trombone combination more pungent, then back to oboe choir.

I like to think composers like Stravinsky, Brahms, etc. enjoyed making the bassoon switch roles in one passage because they thought of it as a very versatile instrument!

Later in the Mass, Stravinsky turns the tables and has the bass trombone punctuate a bassoon line:

Read the Instructions Carefully

With the advent of the 20th Century, composers became less sure that their pieces would be interpreted accurately.  Mahler's scores abound with directions not to do this or that (nicht schleppend!).  Stravinsky didn't admonish as such in his music, but he was very meticulous when marking scores and parts.

The Mass contains some very unusual markings in the bassoon parts.  Notice in the excerpt below that, while everyone else is marked legato or slurred, the bassoons are marked marcato in articulation. The sound of everyone's long sustained playing can romance the bassoonist into skimping on the marcato, but then the passage would lose its flavor.  Perhaps the idea of a pizzicato bass is what's elicited here.  A commonplace in baroque music (think Air on the G string).

Another spot that warrants close attention is this passage from the Credo.  I scratched my head a lot trying to understand why the tenuto quarter notes are there.

Then in rehearsal, I heard Franz go over this passage with the Chorus alone.  He wanted a flowing line that led right to the last syllable of each phrase. In every case this coincided with my tenuto quarters.  So the tenutos (not in the Chorus lines, by the way!) serve as a landing place for the phrase and underline the Chorus' breathing and phrasing.  Smart guy, that Stravinsky!

Playing with a chorus

In the passage just above, I had to be careful not to drive the rhythm too much with all the meter changes because if I did, I would get ahead of the chorus.  Remember that mixed meter is just Stravinsky's way of grouping rhythms in a phrase.  Visually it looks fragmented, so I always try to look for the pattern or the big picture when changing meters. Also, the Chorus adopted a more flexible, flowing approach to the text and wasn't trying to be too rigid.

Going for the big picture helped me start with the Chorus and phrase with it. If the passage were purely instrumental, I might have given it more punch and drive, but it helped to think of it more this way:

Generally, a chorus acts just like any large group.  Members try to fit in, not stick out or lead; thus, there is a certain inertia in the action of a chorus.

Since we usually play in front of a chorus, I can't see it.  So there's a certain amount of "feeling" my way around, listening for breathing or movement, etc.  Balance is often an issue.  Sometimes music balanced in rehearsal without a chorus needs to be adjusted with the chorus. The Stravinsky, being for small forces, wasn't a problem, though.

The Mass has some wonderful moments. There is the typical high register solo for the bassoon:

In the Sanctus, Stravinsky depicts the smoke rising from the swinging censers in the procession through the nave of the church to the altar in the trombones:

This is played three times (Holy, holy, holy).

The bassoons outline the footsteps down the aisle in the procession described in Benedictus "qui venit" (who comes in the name of the Lord):

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