Thursday, December 16, 2010

Feeling the Burn: Or, How the Russians Taught Me to Love Music...

Editorial note:
Quite a lot has happened since my last post. I've moved cities, and with it gained a much more strenuous commuting schedule. As it turns out, this has all but eliminated my disposable free time, and with it all but wiped out my habit of carefree, philosophical musings due to the time crunch and stress of it all. However, there is a possible upswing. I've applied to two of the local conservatories and if all goes well I'll become a full-time discipulus once again! We shall see. In the meantime, I've been meaning to put this entry up for a while now. -D.A.

I find myself mumbling "Oh those Russians..." a lot these days.

There are some conductors, directors, etc. that just plain inspire you. Their skill and artistic vision are stunning to behold, and you hang on their every action to learn more and gain what wisdom you can. Meanwhile, you have a blast rehearsing and performing with them. Then there are the others. You know, the ones that do it all wrong, ask you to do stuff that you completely disagree with, and if they only sought your opinion you could tell them how their entire aesthetic is misguided and could be improved so much more if you showed them how it's done...

Or, at least that's how it feels inside when you're working with them at the moment.

One of the hazards of being a artist who actually thinks and
creates, is that you'll inevitably develop your own style, your own preferences, and most sacrosanct of all, your own opinions of how things should be. This means that frequently you'll find gigs or other artists who rub that the wrong way. The first reaction is usually that rant above. If you hang in there, however, often you'll be surprised what you learn once that first wave of "Hey, this is different and therefore bad!!" wears off.

At least, this has been my experience with a Rus
sian conductor I've been performing with lately. (Actually, it's felt more like the Russians have been stalking me lately... but more of that maybe later.) If you have no prior experiences with Russian musicians or performers, allow me to illustrate it in one little cartoon.

(Credits: Pablo Helguera)

In a word, the Russians are intense. After two rehearsals I've decided to coin the term "Russian Cadence," which is when the pace of a piece is slowed to 1/8th its original speed, the volume is twice as loud, and every singe note is dictated individually and freely by the conductor. (And by the way, this doesn't happen at the end, but at the end of the very first phrase. This continues to happen three or four more times throughout the piece. For the actual end, the singers will stop to breathe twice before landing, much like Wiley Coyote falling off an extra-long cliff.)

Also, Russians do not sing forte. They sing FFFORTE the likes of which will pin you to the back of your chair like mannequin in a wind-tunnel. Do not even get me started on how to follow a Russian conductor's hand signals, I've yet to figure it out...

Now, so far you've only gotten the brunt of my mockery. I'm sorry for that, but please stay with me because I do not want to end it there. You see, after a short while I realized that this wasn't just one conductor. I've come to sing under and with a handful of Russian groups lately, and it's universal. Every Russian musician I've ever encountered has this trait. I was tempted at first to write it off as weirdness. But then, ever so slowly, I saw what it really was. Something I thought I had, but turns out was sadly missing. Something very, very important for a real artist. It was passion.

The Russians really know how to make music. They don't just go through the motions. Ever.
They (gasp) actually allow themselves to express their emotions in the moment of art. Whether it's a four-bar phrase or an entire oratorio. Whether its a folk song or an opera aria, they burn into it. Here in the Boston musical scene, especially the trained classical scene, we're taught to be precise and professional. So we're neat and tidy, and record well on CDs. But this comes with a bit of a price, that of detachment. Now it doesn't have to be this way, and I'd bet money the teachers aren't promoting this, but it's a serious risk. It's one I know I've fallen into often.

So when the time came to perform in front of an audience under this Russian director, contrary to my first impressions of "what have I gotten myself into!?", I was extremely humbled and found myself asking "how did I manage to get myself into such a great performance?" If I could muster half that excitement for the music I sing... well, I don't even know what would happen, but it sure as anything would be leaps and bounds in a better direction than I am now.

This doesn't stop at pure music either. It's just as obvious in their worship practices. It's easy to look at Russians in church from TV or stereotypes and say they're a bunch of stodgy ritualists with no feeling. But let me tell you something: Go to an Orthodox cathedral sometime and try to tell me that after you've heard them. This August I sang at a church dedication in Albany, New York. (That's the service where they consecrate the altar with the relics of a saint and anoint the entire building.) There were 6 bishops, 25 priests, and 25 more deacons and altar servers in a domed-ceiling church gilded with gold, covered top to bottom in frescos and murals,
singing at the top of their lungs for 3 hours straight, only to get up and sing another 5 hours the next morning. Now that was something.

So back to my point, or perhaps, to conclude. I was wrong about the Russians. Oh sure, they still make me laugh a lot, and they sure are weird at times. But they know a lot more about doing things from the heart than I do. And I hope I can learn a thing or two more from them before I'm done. Maybe I can take up their example and sing with a bit more gusto when I get the chance.

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