MSOC members prepare for final concert

By Michael J. Dunne
Special to the Journal Inquirer
May 6, 2004

The Manchester Symphony Orchestra and Chorale’s final concert of the season will be on Saturday, May 8, at 8 p.m., at the Manchester Community College auditorium. The concert will be preceded by the Manchester Arts Commission’s “Gathering of the Artists,” from 6:45 to 7:45 p.m. in the auditorium building foyer, featuring an art exhibit, artists’ demonstrations, music, and refreshments.

Admission to the artist gathering is free. Concert tickets at the door are $12, seniors and students $10, and children under 18 free.

Violinist Jody Danielson says, “Performing with the orchestra is very fulfilling and exciting for me. The joy of making music is at the heart of the experience. The violin has been a lifelong love affair for me, so any time I get to spend with her is a joy and is very rewarding to me.”

Music director Mark Bailey says, “Being able to bring individual singers together and to cultivate in them a sense of ensemble, capitalizing on their talents and musical vitality for the benefit of the group and, more importantly, the music itself, is thrilling for a conductor like me.”

Ask any member of the Manchester Symphony Orchestra and Chorale and you’ll get about the same answer. What keeps them coming back is the delight of joining with others in close teamwork to create the beautiful music that comes from their talent and efforts. Having an audience to appreciate their work adds to the thrill.

That’s all going to happen again in the Manchester Community College auditorium on May 8, when the orchestra and chorale join to present Johannes Brahms’ “A German Requiem,” one of the most beautiful and popular works in the orchestra-and-chorus repertoire.

“Requiem” will actually be the second performance of the evening. Before the intermission, the orchestra, led by the newly arrived orchestral music director Lewis Buckley will perform Brahms’ “Academic Festival Overture.” Buckley is also music director of the United States Coast Guard Band, holding the rank of captain. His career spans 37 years of conducting, composing, and performing music nationally and internationally.

Conducting “Requiem” will be Mark Bailey, in his last concert as music director. Broadly experienced in the choral, orchestral and operatic repertoires, Bailey has been artistic director of the Yale Russian Chorus since 1995, and is music director of the New Haven Oratorio Choir and the New England Benefit Orchestra. After almost five years with the Manchester Symphony Orchestra and Chorale he is now taking time to pursue other directions of career development, including increasing his guest conducting appearances,
coaching professional singers in Russian music, and writing.

Here’s a preview of the Brahms “Requiem” part of the evening: As the time for the Brahms “Requiem” approaches, the members of the orchestra and the chorale members, all dressed in their “concert black,” are in place. The two soloists, soprano Louise Fauteux and baritone Maksim Ivanov, are ready as well. The familiar sounds of an orchestra tuning up drift over the audience.

A scattering of applause grows as the conductor, Mark Bailey, steps from the wings to his place on the podium. In white-tie formal dress, he turns to the audience and bows, smiling. As he turns back violists and cellists raise their bows, the chorale singers open their books. Bailey’s eyes move, checking — is everything ready? There is that moment of intense, electric silence familiar to concert-goers the world over. The maestro’s arms move. The concert has begun.

Moving from that first moment of silence the cellos, violas, and bass viols softly set the beginning phrases. After 14 measures of gentle introduction, the chorale joins in. Almost a whisper at first, their voices, gradually gaining volume, evoke the kind of peace that Brahms envisioned.

“Selig sind, selig sind. Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Brahms wrote his “German Requiem” to be a source of comfort and consolation for those who mourn the loss of loved ones, in contrast to the more usual requiems, prayers to God to save the deceased from the horrors of damnation. The result of 11 years’ work (1857-1868),
the “German Requiem” is a masterpiece, bringing together orchestra, soloists and chorus in movements that range from peaceful invocations of hope (“They who sow in tears shall reap in joy”) through exhilarating marching tempos (“The redeemed of the Lord shall return again, and come rejoicing into Zion!”) and gorgeous passages of praise (“How lovely is Thy dwelling place, O Lord of Hosts”).

The ending then repeats the theme of hope and consolation: “Selig, selig.” This masterwork of Brahms is so beautifully written that it is not unusual for the audience, and sometimes even the performers, to be moved to tears.

It is not surprising that staging a work of this complexity requires a great deal of preparation. The orchestra and chorale have been rehearsing intensively under separate conductors, Lewis Buckley and Mark Bailey — an arrangement that allows the two groups to rehearse on the same day and time.

Lewis Buckley, the orchestra conductor, approaches preparation for the piece in a methodical way. Relying on the fact that many of the instrumentalists have performed this work previously, Buckley first leads them through the music in large blocks, giving the group a general familiarity with the music and the sound of their playing together, as well as identifying the more difficult passages. Then the players work through the smaller passages group by group, and then in the full ensemble until they are mastered. Conductor and instrumentalists work together closely, because time is short. There are just five orchestra-only rehearsals scheduled for this concert, with three more combined-ensemble rehearsals that include the chorale and the soloists. The instrumentalists do a lot of between-rehearsals practicing at home, as do the chorale members and soloists.

In the chorale, the good news is that there are 12 Monday evenings of rehearsal time available.

The disquieting news is that there is a great deal to learn. The music is complex and varied, made up of soft, slow-moving passages, high-volume marching tunes, and elaborate fugues, with complicated interweavings of the voices (sopranos, altos, tenors, basses, and soloists). The group must learn to bring all these elements into a smooth, well-blended whole — and they must do it all in German. Bailey and the interim rehearsal conductors usually begin with a “run-through” of the music similar to the orchestra’s, where difficult passages are identified and marked for further work, and the music’s dynamic shading and interpretations are worked on.

Then the group settles into learning the German pronunciation — the chorale is fortunate that two of its members, who come from Germany, can be its pronunciation tutors. Finally, the “problem passages” are worked through and the tempi of the various passages practiced.

The final three rehearsal evenings bring together orchestra, chorale and soloists. The first combined rehearsal is in the ensemble’s usual space, generously provided by Manchester High School.

The other rehearsals, at Manchester Community College, are performed much as the concert will be on Saturday night, with special attention being given to sound balance and blending in these new surroundings.

And then, concert night, where it all comes together. The audience is there, expecting to be caught up in powerful, affecting musical works that offer glimpses of arresting beauty and majesty.

And the performers, excited by the exhilaration that comes from blending their individual talents with others’, join together in a performance that in its final form, after weeks of hard work, has become a majestic whole, greater than the sum of its parts.