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Volume 1, No. 1: January 5, 2004

Watching Perlman's "Messiah"

Essay by Michael Bouman

Last month I had a wonderful experience singing Handel's Messiah with the St. Louis Symphony under the direction of Itzhak Perlman. I want to tell you about what made that experience so special, but to do so, I've got to tell you a little of my musical history.

I don't know how many times I've sung Messiah; probably fewer than a dozen, but it has been a part of my life for over forty years. The first time I heard it I was in the 8th grade. It was performed by the county choral society, and Mr. Fegly, the husband of my English teacher was the baritone soloist. All I remember about that evening was the pleasure of hearing a chorus and orchestra in an auditorium. Live music was absolute magic to me. That same year, Itzhak Perlman, who was my age, appeared on the Ed Sullivan TV show as a teen prodigy. He was already on his way to becoming an international superstar.

I didn't know about Perlman back then. I was more interested in Elvis, who had also been on the Ed Sullivan Show some years earlier. I spent most evenings in my room with my guitar and my sheet music. In school, we all took a music appreciation class from a teacher who was considered a freak because he'd graduated college with the skills and interests of a concert pianist. He made sure that we all knew about the American sensation, Van Cliburn.

As far as I knew, only one person in my school was studying singing, and I didn't know about this until one memorable assembly. Out walked Bill, age 15, and delivered the blustery recitative, "Thus Saith the Lord," from Messiah. His performance was quite Martian in the general context of student life. I still remember the impressions of it: the most prominent larynx of anyone I knew; nerdy glasses; a particularly bland tone the color of mushroom mousse; and extraordinary guts to get up there and be "laughed to scorn." His performance did reveal, though, that people our age were aspiring to become artists as adults, and this was no small revelation.

When my dad installed a modern stereo system in our home that year, Messiah became one of the staples of our family repertoire. This was the Philadelphia Orchestra recording, Ormandy conducting. I gave it a lot of play.

During the 60s something of a revolution was going on in musicology. The manner of performing Baroque music was reconsidered in ever-widening circles, and the "fat sound" of that Philadelphia Orchestra recording was supplanted by a completely different tonal palette. Several schools of interpretation developed in the ensuing years, but I remember the shock and surprise of hearing for the first time that "new" Baroque sound on the Messiah recording of Charles Mackeras. I was in grad school studying voice and choral conducting when it was released and I nearly wore it out! One of the main differences in the sound was accomplished by using oboes to double violin parts and reducing the number of violins, so that the sonority was quite reedy. That recording also featured phenomenal ornamentation of the solo voice parts, in the manner of a real Baroque performance. The Mackeras recording, and another by Nikolaus Harnoncourt that same year, redefined how Messiah should sound. I couldn't wait to become part of that world!

I got to sing those Messiah bass solos for the first time in a Christmas concert of the Symphonic Choir at the State University College in Oswego, New York. I was there in my first job after grad school, working as a sabbatical replacement, which meant full-time for half-pay! The faculty trumpter developed a cold sore on his lip the day before the performance, so I had the rare experience of singing "The Trumpet Shall Sound" with the trumpet part played an octave lower, in the range of a trombone. This novelty, I hope, distracted the listeners from my unsuitability to sing that repertoire! I had not yet understood that one's voice is not defined solely by its range, but also by its size and tonal quality. I was, unknown to me, a light lyric baritone.

In 1972 I conducted a full Messiah with the Durango Choral Society at Fort Lewis College. We used a new edition by Watkins Shaw that featured the results of the latest scholarship. Good people were in that ensemble, and I think we did a creditable job. I conducted for five more years at the College of Santa Fe before moving to Vermont to work for the state humanities council. For the next few years I performed the bass solos in several Messiah concerts, some of them conducted by my wife at Johnson State College. No, my voice had not grown larger and richer, but I was plausibly musical and very available. When she quit that job to concentrate on her performing career my singing took a ten-year break.

Messiah was the second St. Louis Symphony concert I attended when I moved to St. Louis in 1995. The chorus was prepared by its new director, Amy Kaiser, who had moved from New York, where she was highly regarded as an orchestral and choral conductor. I joined the Symphony Chorus in 1998 and have performed three or four Messiahs since then. They have all been different. When it was announced last spring that Itzhak Perlman would conduct Messiah this year, we were filled with anticipation, for this would be a unique opportunity.

Perlman has been a violinist of international renown since his early teens. Born in 1945, he made an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show on TV in 1958 and was a super-star by the age of 20. He recently branched out into conducting (see his bio at Sony Classical), so we singers knew that we would be a part of the formation of a major talent in a relatively new role. In our four chorus rehearsals before we met Perlman, Amy Kaiser prepared us to be, above all, flexible. We had no idea how Perlman would approach the work, so we rehearsed within the range of the likely.

Our first meeting with any conductor is always a "piano rehearsal" with no orchestra. This is where the conductor gets to know what sort of "choral instrument" is available for the concert. It's where he or she teaches the chorus how a piece is supposed to sound. The first impression of Perlman is his warmth. He took the stage in the unassuming manner of a person still learning a new job but confident of his aptitude. We in the ensemble were in a position to watch a towering musical intelligence at work in a new role. That personal warmth established instant trust in the labor that would follow.

At one point he told a story about a chamber music rehearsal in which one of his colleagues kept insisting that they go back over and "correct" a movement that seemed perfectly fine. He realized after a while that his colleague was simply indulging his own pleasure in that movement, but couldn't say so directly. So Perlman told us, "you'll understand now why I must find a lot of fault with the way you sing The Lord Gave the Word." For him, the busy hubbub Handel writes for the chorus on the words "great was the company of the preachers" is one of the most delightful strokes of genius in the whole work. What a surprise when he demonstrated in his own rich baritone voice how he wanted the passage sung! We came to anticipate his pleasure in those passages and to make that pleasure our own.

The next night we got together with the orchestra, and of course we couldn't wait to see how he would work with the violin section. He immediately addressed three fundamentals that would color the entire performance. First, he wanted sectional agreement on the amount of vibrato to use. In some Baroque performances the strings use very little vibrato. Perlman wanted enough to "warm up" the sound without getting into the Romantic sound of fifty years ago.

Second, he paid careful attention to tempo. It was obvious from the start that he had a clear idea of the tempo of each piece, and he was remarkably consistent in establishing the right speed in a work lasting three hours. He actually changed several of his tempo ideas when he realized that the chorus would sound more effective at a slightly slower or slightly quicker pace.

Third, he paid attention to degrees of energy. A lifetime of solo experience at the highest level had taught him that a player's inputs of energy are sensed by a listener as transmitting interpretive meaning. He singled out for attention the orchestral introduction to the bass aria, "Why do the nations so furiously rage together?" This is a brisk aria with a lot of flash in the violins before the singer enters. In the five seconds before that entrance the violins play a repeated pattern of very fast notes, and it was in that pattern that Perlman crystalized how he wanted a total commitment to "bow energy." What he heard was an energetic beginning to the passage, and then a sense of "coasting." What he asked for was an input of equal energy on every single note from the beginning of the passage until the entrance of the singer. What he got was the most exciting moment in the concert!

When a world-class violin soloist works with a world-class violin section, you see and hear the sort of suggestions and responses that are well outside the usual scope of rehearsal talk. This is what we all were hoping to observe. On the night of that first orchestra rehearsal, during our break, a number of the violinists approached Perlman and asked if he would try out their violins. He cordially took each instrument in turn and demonstrated some bravura passage or other to show what the instrument sounded like in his impressively large hands. What a wonderful moment!

On each succeeding rehearsal and performance I watched our conductor make adjustments based on what had happened the previous night. A different baton gesture here, a different form of encouragement there. In one performance it seemed that one of his gestures had brought out a bit more violin sound than he wanted. In the next performance I saw him make the same gesture half as big, and he got about half the response as the night before. Seeing this kind of responsiveness has been a veritable banquet of experience during my tenure in the ensemble.

There on the stage it struck me as never before that we're being "played." I felt as if I was a part of a great musical intelligence, to the degree to which I could be an instrument worthy of his mind. I think that's the essence of being in a conducted ensemble. You're in the service of the great mind who wrote the piece, and you're also in the service of the great mind who's trying to bring the piece to life. For me, these experiences on the stage of Powell Hall, five or six times a year, have woven together all the threads of my life as a musician.