"People. There are two ways to sing Bach. Very staccato. And very legato. The second is much harder, but also more rewarding. Better musically. So let's do it that way."
Aanyone who invades one of the three weekly rehearsals of the Collegium Musicum is immediately aware of the energy generated between this new group and its conductor, F. John Adams. Organized last June, the Collegium Musicum combines the resources of 70 of the University's better vocalists and one of its finest young conductors. After hearing Adams' reading of the "St. Matthew Passion" last year in Sanders, Michael Steinberg pronounced him "outstandingly gifted." Not the least of these gifts is his ability to elicit from each musician in the group the best he or she can produce. Adams' prowess as a conductor, the caliber of the individual performers, and a varied repertoire, including Bach's "Jesu, Meine Freude", Brahms Opus 104, Purcell's "Funeral Sentences", three Byrd motets, and works of Debussy, Sermisy, Vecchi and Lassus, promise an excellent concert.
The Collegium was formed in response to increasing inequities in the choral situation at Harvard. There was a clear need for an excellent standing mixed group, oriented primarily toward undergraduate musicians, which would represent Harvard on tours outside of Cambridge. This function was not fulfilled by either of the other two mixed groups or by the Harvard Glee Club (HGC) and Radcliffe Choral Society (RCS) performing together. Of the extant groups, the University Choir is tied to Memorial Church and does not tour, and the Harvard-Radcliffe Chorus, which admits anyone who wants the opportunity to sing, is intended primarily as a training ground for freshmen with no previous choral experience. These could not remedy the inequities. Further, there were inherent difficulties in combining the Harvard Glee Club and Radcliffe Choral Society for joint concerts. First, the resulting group, 130 or more voice, was too large for any music except a major work. Second, joint concerts often meant double rehearsals for both groups since each was usually already preparing and individual concert repertoire. The major conflict between RCS and HGC, however, was a growing asymmetry between opportunities offered to each group. As Adams noted in a discussion after rehearsal Monday, "Each year it becomes clearer that there is a far greater public demand for male choruses than for female choruses. Concert fees are a good indication: HGC can bring in top fees of $1500 or $2000 or a single concert, fees which enable it to do more extensive touring than RCS, whose top fees are seldom more than a third of these figures."
It was these inequities which led to the June reorganization. The women of RCS voted to incorporate into a mixed group, the Collegium Musicum, with the option to dissolve the merger in June of this year should the reorganization prove dissatisfactory. The arrangement certainly seems more than satisfactory from a musical point of view, and will provide more tour opportunities for the women than was possible with RCS.
Adams commented, "Everybody is much happier this year than last, and I think that in two or three years, when Collegium is well known and accepted, there will be no question as to the necessity of the merger nor the advantages for women musicians which will result from it."
One graduate student who had been a member of RCS both as an undergraduate and after noted, "One of the biggest problems with the merger was the alumnae of RCS. There was a kind of nostalgia involved in maintaining the autonomy of the group and its name, especially now, when the alumnae are confronted with the impending merger between Harvard and Radcliffe colleges. We solved the problem by incorporating as RCS within Collegium, leaving the women the option to dissolve the merger if necessary. Also, we plan to give one concert per year of women's music here in Cambridge."
It is clear that the Collegium provides its members with superb musical opportunities. In addition to their December 3 concert, Collegium will sing with the Boston Symphony. Michael Tilson Thomas conducting, in his new Spectrum series. One of the pieces performed will be "Pot-pourri" by Harvard's David del Tredici. The Collegium will also present the Mozart Requiem on April 23 in St. Paul's here in Cambridge, and may sing at the Loeb Arts Festival later in the spring.
The widespread enthusiasm about the Collegium's concert schedule seems to indicate that the group will remain incorporated in June. Many of its members find the kind of musical and touring opportunities it provides unequalled by any other group. One alto commented after rehearsal that she felt more pressure to excell musically in the Collegium than she had ever felt in previous years singing with RCS: "The quality, the tone, the music, is so universally good that even the smallest mistake by one person is immediately obvious to everybody. So there is pressure from within the group for continual improvement in addition to John's demanding standards. It's difficult, but really worth it."
Another vocalist added. "We're all just one big family, so no one gripes if John singles somebody out and says. That's wrong."
"And he does," a disgruntled bass dropped on his way out the door of Sever II.
It is this internal pressure to excell plus the excitement generated in Collegium rehearsals which distinguishes the group from others in the University. The group seems musically very flexible and responsive. Certainly Adams is a conductor of extraordinary sensitivity. He has great respect for and insight into musical texts themselves, which he can communicate to his musicians:
"Look at the text, people. Bach didn't leave us many musical marking because he didn't have to. It's all in the text. Basses--storm up that chromatic scale on "Sie noch so brummen." Brummen means, well, movement, confusion, like the French brouiller, boulverser. Make beautiful German vowels people: "Sie noch". And sopranos, pull that C-natural in measure 15 for everything it's worth. It makes the most ghastly chord for "sin"..."
Two of the group's members noted that Adams had taught them a great deal not only about the individual pieces under rehearsal, but about musicianship, vocal technique and music history as well. The tenor said. "In the Bach Motet, John continually points out the musical symbolizations of the text. I had always known that Baroque, music did that, but I tended not to notice it as much as I do now. I sing much more intelligently now." The soprano agreed: "It's difficult to mediate between concentrating on the small, glorious moment and the macrostructure of a piece of music. John points out through his conducting that the small moments are the integral parts of the whole work. I've learned to look for that now."
One member added. "It isn't always that serious either, you know. A while ago, we were singing a Sermisy chanson which begins Au joly boys, en Tombre d'ung soucy,' and John pointed out that the whole phrase moved toward Tombre and its very nasal French vowel. Well, nobody was singing it correctly. So finally he said. 'When you sing Tombre, see nothing but a tremendous nose: Tombre,' which was really a good way of explaining to a vocalist that French vowels should vibrate in the nose and mask of the face when he or she sings. But it was such a great way to get it across." Someone interjected. "Definitely. Better than lots of technical description. At least we left laughing."
The feeling among members of the group seemed to be that although the rehearsal schedule is demanding, the time was well spent. "Sometimes it's really a musical experience: sometimes it's just meat and potatoes," someone noted, packing up his music. "But generally I enjoy rehearsals." Certainly enthusiasm seemed high to an outsider last Monday night in Sever II.
Several members also commented that the group will improve as it matures and grows together. As Adams phrased it. "The concert, which will be taped, should teach us all a lot, especially about the mix and the way we work together under performance conditions. I'm confident that, given the seasoned musicianship of the members and the rehearsal time. I will be very pleased with the concert sound." One of the basses added. "Yeah. And if it's good now, by the time of the Mozart Requiem in the spring, we should be great."
Tension is obviously high within the group as Friday night gets closer, but that friction is translated into musical alertness by Adams and the members of the Collegium. The group seems to work well together.
Everybody Stand up. The whole motet from the top Remember the title. 'Jesu, meine Freude. You are renouncing the world and its pleasures and passions for Christ. Listen to the text. And get a good breath before you start. Remember, there's 25 minutes of very demanding music ahead of you..."
If the excitement generated in its rehearsals is any indication of performance possibilities, then the Collegium Musicum will be a very welcome addition to the roster of musical performing groups in Cambridge.
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