Sunday, May 22, 2011

Venezuela, Week One

View of the Andes from my bedroom window on Monday.
It has been a busy week, and uncharacteristically, I haven't kept a journal!  So I'll list some highlights of my trip so far here.

The cathedral on the Plaza Bolivar, Merida
Monday (May 16) was my first full day in Merida.  The schedule was light, which was good because I was still pretty jet-lagged.  In the morning, we stopped by the cathedral, which is quite elegant.  It dates from the 1820s and is one of the older buildings in Merida.  (Not too many old buildings survive, because they are not keen on historic preservation here.)  Noa, Edzar (her husband) and I had lunch at a panaderia that also has a cafeteria-style lunch line.  But what a cafeteria!  All manner of hot foods (in the local style, of course), salads, and so on, all for a very reasonable price.  We had a little spot we liked for lunch last year--it was just around the corner from the music school--but, alas, it has closed.  So now all the music professors go to this same panaderia.  That evening, I met with the top choir in town and got to rehearse movements 1, 2, and 6 of the Brahms Requiem with them.  They know them remarkably well (the pianist couldn't get there because of the weather, so we sang the music mostly a cappella) and were very responsive.  We hope to have a public reading of as many movements of the piece as we feel comfortable with on June 4.

Shrine to Pope John-Paul II
Cathedral interior
Tuesday.  In the morning, I attended a class on traditional Latin-American music.  These students attend lectures on certain days, then practice playing the music on others.  I had gotten to hear them practice last year, and it was one of the highlights of the trip.  This time, I heard a lecture--entirely in Spanish, of course.  Fortunately, there were also PowerPoint slides (also in Spanish), and I'm a little better at reading Spanish than hearing it.  I would say I got 30 - 40% of what was going on--enough to understand that the talk was about tango and its roots in traditional Argentine forms.  Two interesting things I learned:  tango was originally danced only by men (I'm sure of this and know it wasn't just a language confusion, because there were photos), later by men and prostitutes.  It was after the French somehow got hold of it (on this I was less clear) that tango moved from the brothels and barrios to the more respectable parts of Buenos Aires, though it kept traces of its origins:  the slightly competitive character from when it was danced by men and the overt sexuality that it gained in the brothels.

That evening was my first rehearsal with the orchestra.  We read the Brahms Variations and the Mendelssohn Symphony.  Lots to do!  But for the most part, the orchestra is willing and cooperative.  They even responded to my more outrageous suggestions--like that the string players consistently use no vibrato.  (There is some research that supports doing away with universal vibrato in music before about 1930.  Beyond that, though, it's a good rehearsal discipline:  it encourages people to play more accurately in tune, and they have to be more expressive with the bow.)

Wednesday.  In full swing.  I gave a 2-hour lecture in the morning, basing it on my PowerPoint concerning 5 essential aspects of singing and their application to rehearsing choirs.  Noa translated capably, as she had done the night before in orchestra rehearsal.  She knows my speech patterns very well and can quickly convert them into Spanish.  Lunch was again in the panaderia, then after a short rest, it was time to rehearse with the trumpeter, soprano, and keyboard player for the Bach.  They are all very fine, and it seems promising.  That evening, orchestra rehearsal, getting down to the nitty-gritty in the Brahms and Mendelssohn, and reading the Bach with the strings.  Noa's mom drove me to rehearsal.  I was apprehensive:  she speaks no English, and we already know something about my Spanish (although people who met me last year do notice an improvement and are quick to remark on it--mission [to be better than last year] accomplished).  It was fine!  She speaks very clearly, and I understood most of what she said and was even able to respond appropriately.

Thursday.  In the morning, I worked with the fourth-year conducting students, who had prepared the fourth movement of the Brahms Requiem.  As they conducted, I talked about how to choose a tempo, where one's attention must be at each moment, and the detail with which one has to memorize in order to conduct without a score.  Then there was a rehearsal with two conductors who are giving their graduation recitals soon.  One student was preparing his arrangement of an American pop song, "Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand."  He hoped I could help the choir get a better sense of swing.  (Me?  Really?  I tried.  It did seem to get better.)  I was also able to make some slight suggestions about the arrangement (mostly putting a consonant in front of nonsense syllables to make the rhythm clearer) that helped.  The second student was conducting a Mendelssohn motet based on the Song of Simeon.  The choir sounded fabulous on this, so we worked on interpretation--my stuff on singing with imagination.  The transformation was quite astonishing and very exciting--so much so that no one wanted to leave!  They stayed until 12:30, half an hour beyond the normal stopping time of the class.  Noa was especially impressed by this.  She says they're normally getting anxious at about 11:55 and are walking out the door, no matter what is going on, at 12:00.  In the evening, another 2-1/2 hour rehearsal with the orchestra.  (These rehearsals all take place in a low-ceilinged room that has little ventilation and no air conditioning.  I come out drenched!)

Friday.  Another 2-hour lecture in the morning on vocal and choral rehearsal techniques.  I'm trying to tell them most of what I know!  In the afternoon, I got to hear Noa's really wonderful choir--teenage girls singing with a lovely tone and great intonation.  Noa has made great progress with the group in the few weeks she's had them.  In the evening, orchestra rehearsal.  Elizabeth arrived today, after a great deal of discussion and planning about the best route and best mode of transportation from Maracaibo to Merida, given the condition of the roads.  (The choices are to fly from Maracaibo to Caracas, stay overnight, then fly the next day to El Vigia and drive to Merida, or drive from Maracaibo to Merida--an 8- to 12-hour trip, depending on how you go.)  We ended up sending a car for her, and she made the trip in about 9 hours without notable incident.

Me with one of the choirs, Noa (center) translating.
 Saturday.  Big day!  Orchestra rehearsal in the morning.  These are very detailed and therefore slow going, but we're making good progress.  I think the concert is very promising.  The music is splendid, and the players are getting a real sense of how to do it well.  We had lunch at Noa's mom's house--a really wonderful lunch of soup and stew, both made in a traditional style.  Then in the afternoon, I held a 3-hour choir clinic.  Six choirs sang, and I offered suggestions and tried to help them sound better.  I think I succeeded in most cases--despite the wide range of music (from traditional Venezuelan, to American pop, to Gospel, to Renaissance motets) and differing levels of the choirs.  It was tremendous fun, and everyone was very kind.

I love the happy faces as one of the choirs sings!
In the evening, there was a sort of choral festival, and one of the groups from the afternoon asked me to lead them in a performance of Alice Parker's arrangement of "He's the Lily of the Valley."  The choir is made up of older teenagers, most of whom are my Facebook friends.  We had a grand time, and this is without doubt the highlight of my trip so far.  I was especially proud of the soloist, Roman Lopez, a young baritone with an appealing voice and a very engaging air on stage.

The evening concert.  Roman is to the left of me.
 Sunday.  We're having a leisurely morning with time to update the blog!  It's sunny today for the first time since I arrived; we're taking the opportunity to do laundry and hang the clothes out to dry (we hope they'll be mostly dry before the onset of the afternoon rains).  Later, I'm having lunch with another family, then listening to the choir for the graduation recital, then working again with the Bach soloists.  Sue and Miriam arrive here tomorrow!

The view of the mountains this morning!  Very clear!
ADDENDUM:  As I was getting ready to post this this morning, the family that was taking me to lunch arrived.  We went to one of my favorite restaurants anywhere, the Hostal Madrid where they have an asopado to die for and (as a restauranteur in Tempe likes to say) a paella to kill for.  I had the asopado and Elizabeth had the paella.  Amazing.  Afterwards, I was supposed to have two rehearsals, but both were canceled at the last minute.  So this amazing family (Cristina Amaro--a fine and delightful soprano--her charming mother, her aunt--who is the general manager of the orchestra--and Cristina's boyfriend Juan-Pablo) took Elizabeth and me on an adventure!  For the first time ever, I rode to the north of the city into gorgeous mountain scenery and on to La Culatta, which is in the Paramo (moor).  Much of the vegetation is reminiscent of the English moors, and when the fog rolled in, well, it was pretty much like you imagine in the north of England or Scotland--fitting, since I'm immersed in Mendelssohn's so-called "Scottish" Symphony.  Pictures soon!

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