Mozart, Apples and Icing

Ewashko laurence
Laurence Ewashko © Russell Baron

One of my favourite things about choirs is how conductors use images to produce the kind of sound they want.

I’m singing in the chorus for the Mozart Requiem with the NAC Orchestra  February 27-28. Chorus Master Duain Wolfe works with us this week, and Pinchas Zukerman, who will conduct the concerts, begins rehearsing us the Monday before.  But the chorus began preparing in advance of all that, so last weekend 170 of us crammed into an over-warm Rehearsal Hall B to work with Laurence Ewashko.

Growing up in a Mennonite community as he did meant you were practically singing as infants, Laurence will tell you. A former conductor of the Vienna Choir Boys and a strong baritone himself, today he is the chorus master for Opera Lyra Ottawa, and a professor of voice at the University of Ottawa where he teaches choral techniques, conducts three choirs, teaches vocal repertoire and has a private voice studio.   

Laurence is a master with images. Whether visual, tactile, or even of taste, they somehow unlock singers’ imaginations, and inevitably improve the sound.

In one passage of the Offertorium, he sought aggressiveness from the tenors and basses.

“Bite the apple!” he told them.

It worked.

When we turned to the lyrical, sad and much gentler Lacrimosa, he stopped us again.

“Put some velvet in it,” he said. Sure enough, there was plush.

Of course, context can be everything. An example: singers will often borrow old scores from the choir librarian rather than buying them new, and sometimes they’re scrawled with pencil markings leftover from whoever used the music last. On my seatmate’s score, written in large cursive across the first page of the Lacrimosa, was the phrase “Spread the Icing.”

We had a little snicker about that. It seemed so pedestrian.  Yet if we were in the rehearsal hall at the time the comment was made, it probably made perfect sense.  I bet the singers sounded positively chocolatey as a result.

If you are in Ottawa, I hope you’ll come. Mozart’s Requiem is one of the highest achievements in the history of Western music. The piece is deliriously beautiful. Its fullness, harmonies and crunchy suspensions send electricity to the scalp, tears to the eyes and a pull to the throat on a regular basis.  It’s why we singers long for it to be on the season, and why many of us will sing it again and again, year after year.

Great music is like that.

Apples, velvet and icing aside.

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