THERE'S a crossover point at which music becomes more than an assemblage of notes, rests, and dynamic markings. Somewhere along the rehearsal process - if it was a good one - the struggle to make music yields to the power of the music itself. This was my experience in preparation for a concert of the Verdi ``Requiem.'' I've done quite a bit of choral singing, but nothing really prepares you for Verdi. Not with full orchestra and professional soloists. It was one thing for the choir to rehearse in the confines of our church-basement practice room, with simple piano. Each of us strained to hear the lines of our own part, attempted to mesh with the three other parts, tried to wean ourselves from the score so we could watch our director, the Rev. Larry Hill.
In the first full rehearsal with the orchestra - the musicians were professional, paid by the hour in accordance with union rules - suddenly the comfortable routine was shattered.
As an alto, I stood behind the trombones. Three of them. The rest of the brass and woodwinds were stacked, row by row, in front and to the side of them. When they launched into the ``Dies Irae'' for the first time, with the crashing rush of demons loosed from hell, I couldn't believe it. I was singing, but my voice was as effectively drowned out as if I was singing underwater.
The mezzo-soprano soloist stood up to sing, and her deep, rich voice cut through the orchestra like a knife through cheesecake. I listened, wondering whether the chorus was ever going to be heard above all the musical pyrotechnics. Fortunately, I've been through this crisis of confidence in preparation for other concerts - orchestras can get carried away, and they have to learn where to play under the vocal parts. Our director began to pull the orchestra back.
One by one we worked through the inevitable glitches and mangled lines. Pitches were tuned as we listened for our parts inside the orchestral arrangement and tried to hear our fellow singers. We fought our instinct to retreat back into the written score when we got buried under the orchestra, missing subtle cues and some of our major entrances.
Somewhere along the way, with help from Larry's marvelous hands and the encouragement in his face, we began to expand vocally. We breathed deep from the center of our bodies, felt the music underneath us, buoying us up, carrying us along with potent certainty.
The whole character of the music - Verdi's music - was suddenly illuminated from the inside out. My confidence in our interpretation of the music soared. I heard canyons and mountains in the fugal passages that I hadn't been aware of before. The trombones became heraldic, the bassoons and clarinets seductive. The violins shimmered under long glides of the bow. I couldn't resist the music's pull.
The morning of the concert I woke to vibrations of Verdi in my head. I thought about the 100-odd other chorale members who all must be waking to the ``Requiem.'' Later, I drove to the concert with Verdi going full tilt on the tape deck, singing at the top of my lungs. I dropped the volume only at intersections; it's hard to sing without moving your lips so as not to attract attention.
When I arrived, women in long, black concert dress and men in dark suits jammed the hall, scanning their scores and adjusting ties. Larry took some ribbing for his immaculate tux and tails. Musicians wiped their foreheads and puffed into their instruments. The energy was a palpable tension in the air.
The choir crammed onstage behind the orchestra. The house lights dimmed, and the first cello notes floated across the hall. Music like this, with Verdi's flair for the dramatic, is felt as well as heard. The audience hushed, the focus intensified. I felt the hair rise on the back of my neck as the sound welled up and poured over the listeners, saturating them.
The Latin of the requiem mass echoed the resonance of the music. Through the words, allied with the music, I felt the striving of people throughout all ages who struggle for liberation, redemption, and an affirmation of things eternal.