October 20, 2012
As I type this, I am sitting on Bus #3 with about 1/3 of the Symphonic Choir, and we are on our way to the Kimmel Center in downtown Philadelphia to sing the second performance of Verdi’s Requiem with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The students of Westminster have a special relationship with the Maestro and new musical director (this is his inaugural season in Philadelphia). In the fall of 2012, the Symphonic Choir performed Brahms’ Ein Deutches Requiem with Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra. At the piano dress rehearsal, the Montreal native (with a charming French-Canadian accent) won us with his rich artistry, luminous imagination, and immense and remarkable energy.
The electricity that sizzled through the choir was intensified for Verdi, because all of the returning students in Symphonic Choir have been talking for an entire year about how wonderful it is to work with Maestro Nézet-Séguin. He certainly didn’t disappoint! At the Verdi piano dress last Tuesday in the Playhouse, we worked for just under three hours to continue polishing our sound, refining our textures, and deepening our personal philosophies of the work.
We were seated when he entered, and he was greeted by joyful, enthusiastic applause that seemed to take him sincerely by surprise. He was very happy with the work Dr. Miller and Dr. Brandau had done to prepare us, and he continued to hold us responsible for our own musicianship while also insisting we unleash all the drama that Verdi requires.
Last year, at the end of the Brahms rehearsal, the Maestro stuck around the Playhouse for nearly an hour to talk with students, post for pictures, and sign scores. He did the same again this year – he was so collegial and accommodating (this is not a small choir! There were multiple lines that wrapped around the room). He took a moment to greet each person he met individually, and to personalize each autograph. This type of behavior has built a relationship with the student body at Westminster that is unique. He did not have to take this time to spend with us – no one would have thought twice if he had left the building before we had been dismissed. The result is that students for years will recall with joy and admiration the process of creating art with Yannick, and each one of us will have felt that we had a personal connection.
We were in Philadelphia all day yesterday (Friday) for a tutti morning rehearsal. Before we began, Yannick spoke to us all and said that he was in this capacity to lead, but more importantly to serve. He smiled at the choir and at the orchestra, and I am pretty sure it was physically impossible not to smile back. This spirit ran through the rehearsal.
There is a section at the start of the work where the choir is a cappella. Much rehearsal time has been devoted to the technical proficiency of this very exposed section, and after the choir sang, Yannick told us that our dynamic level was fine, but our intention was not rich enough, not at a level of meaning equivalent to our ensemble. We sang it again, 160 pairs of Westminster eyes intent on the Maestro. When he cut us off, the orchestra shuffled their feet in appreciation. Yannick smiled broadly and said that we had received the highest compliment from one of the most discerning orchestras in the world. This brief exchange gave insight to the rapport between conductor and orchestra – there is a musical, artistic, and professional respect and appreciation flows freely and the proof is in the music.
Our first performance absolutely brought down the house! Sold-out and electrifying, at the end of the work the Maestro held the silence for an eternity, allowing the gravity of the Requiem to settle into every soul in the Kimmel Center. When he finally released the silence, the audience very literally leapt to their feet. The cheering was overwhelming, and the roar of the crowd in appreciation for the choir was matched only by their ovations for the Maestro himself.
As we traveled back to Westminster, we talked together about how we had been a part of something historic: the headlining opener for a season of one of the greatest American orchestras, with a new Maestro who is reviving and refreshing a concert-going audience in an age where orchestras around the world are in danger of dissolving. And we get to do it again tonight! And again on Sunday, and once more at Carnegie Hall next Tuesday. Bliss.
Westminster Symphonic Choir Conductor Joe Miller, Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Jordan Saul after the rehearsal at Westminster Choir College.