16 May 2013

Hiding amongst the bustle

There’s a bustle of people before an orchestral rehearsal. It seems a whirlwind to a jazzer who’s used to quartets and quintets. We were at the Albert Hall for a rehearsal of Bach cantatas to be performed for the Canberra International Music Festival. We are billeting one of the viola players and driving a cellist so we had entré. I was amused by the busyness and the activity, but then the music pulled me up as I was writing this. Bach cantatas are superbly beautiful, dignified and majestic. It wasn’t sounding so sharp and the horns sounded a bit cold, but the glory shines through. This is a reading gig, of course. The practice doesn’t repeat choruses. This is lengthy runs of bars, then stops for advice from the conductor, then perhaps comments from the singers. These are mature players so there was discussion, expansion on themes to clarify understanding. Perhaps some questions on stage layout. Twenty players and eight singers, all sitting as discussions continue. Some were injecting comments and suggestions. I guess, like a captain, the conductor directs, but this seemed pretty chummy and collegiate. Then back to Bach’s perfect balance.

A bit later I realise the other side of the bustle is the need for patience. It takes time for groups of people to do things. Conductor Roland Peelmann moves the singers and players around: singers in pairs, up front and in the wings; the trumpets standing behind; the strings spread out and pulled back. The playing is still relaxed and a little rough. Feeling out the band. This is the necessary, preliminary business, not the performance. Casual. T-shirts not skirts, although there’s still some black. There’s a fair bit of time spent just sitting around. Then back again, singers to a row behind, back to standard configuration. Then a line of classic Bach and it’s sounding great. What’s the change? This has livened. It’s more challenging, perhaps more practised at home. Rolling swells of strings, then counter-tenor and gathered voices. These are only eight singers – not a choir – but they are four clear lines.

“No French ballads: da da da DA”. So said Roland when the baroque lost just a little of its formal elegance. This is not music to emote even if it’s of great grace. There’s intellectual rigour and protestant propriety here: masterful and ordered. I doubt he’d present this way on stage, but Roland is a physical and profoundly spelling out the piece.

It goes on like this. Two hours, no stop. The orchestra gradually settling into a whole. There were some terrific individual performances. The singers were wonderful. Max McBride was rock solid as sole bass. Paul Goodchild excelled on the piccolo trumpet and got some gentle applause from his colleagues. Then the larger orchestra ends to give way to a delightful quintet, but before the orchestra leaves the stage, Roland has another gem about Bach: “Did you notice? It finishes on a chord with three sharps … three crosses. Bach’s never short on symbolism”. How much can there be in this music? I’m floored.

Roland Peelman (conductor) was rehearsing the Song Company with guests Rachael Thoms (alto), Tobias Cole (counter-tenor) and Andrew Goodwin (tenor), and the Canberra Festival Camerata with Calvin Bowman (chamber organ) and Clare Tunney (continuo cello).

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