The news has come out today that the BIS, the Swedish-based label that has been making sensational recordings featuring Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra, has canceled the upcoming recording session with the Orchestra. In a message that is both painful (and to be honest, embarrassing) to read, the company stated that it felt the Orchestra would not be “in good enough shape” to complete the recording in line with BIS’s standards of excellence.
This has me thinking back to happier days, and a joyous recording I was privileged to make with them in 2006—Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. The Ode to Joy. I took part as a singer of the Minnesota Chorale.
I was also the Public Relations Writer for the Orchestra at the time, and my boss asked me to write about my experiences for the Orchestra’s newsletter, Orchestra Times. I happily obliged with the following piece. Shortly after it appeared, Osmo himself told me how much he enjoyed it, and suggested with a wink that BIS producer Rob Suff would appreciate how I portrayed him (I hope so!). Enjoy!
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Monday, Jan. 16, 6:50 p.m.: We Chorale members are whisked onstage with great speed—we’re on a timetable and every moment is valuable. It’s amazing how different the auditorium feels. The regular lights make a low hum which would be picked up on the tape, so temporary ones have been set up. Their light is harsh and focused, etching shadows into the walls and making the Hall seem more angular than usual.
7:00: As we bustle into our spaces, a booming, God-like voice comes over the PA system (with a suitably God-like British accent). It’s producer Rob Suff relaying which sections we’re covering and the time allotment for the rest of the night. The directions are all straightforward, but since they are delivered from multiple speakers designed to carry over an orchestra at full volume, it’s like being spoken to by He Who Must Be Obeyed.
7:06: In that moment which occurs between Osmo raising his hands and music blasting forth, something strikes me… the Hall is unearthly quiet, even more so than at a regular rehearsal in front of an empty house. The ventilation, lights and anything else that might make a sound is off. They usually produce a gentle white noise that is shocking in its absence.
7:45: This is totally unlike a concert. After a fast run through of a section, we go back and fix things, sometimes singing the same measure 8-10 times to get it perfect. It’s somewhat disorienting singing random phrases of music out of sequence. We also quickly realize how important it is to pace ourselves in a recording session.
8:32: I think things are going well. Osmo keeps cracking jokes—good ones. And for a Finn to let loose like that….
8:51: He Who Must Be Obeyed stops us mid-take to clarify the text. The booming voice points out, “Chorus, the diction is fantastic! [“fantastic” means we’ll only need 2-3 more takes.] But it’s coming across as ‘geh-geh-ben.’ Could you make it sound more like ‘geh-geh-ben’?” Not entirely sure what the difference is, we try again. Another stop. “Still too much ‘geh-geh-ben.’ Just a little more like ‘geh-geh-ben’ please.” Perplexed, but nervous about screwing it up, we sing it again. “Sorry, no. Now you’ve gone too much the other way, and it sounds like ‘geh-geh-ben.’ Not ‘geh-geh-ben’ or ‘geh-geh-ben,’ but could you try ‘geh-geh-ben’?” Three takes later, we get the pronunciation right, although I swear I have no idea how.
9:10: We’re tired. Beethoven wrote the vocal part to meet the demands of the music, not the singers. But the levity of the recording session has made it easier easy to keep the Freude in our voices. We’re all so excited to be part of the project, and hope that our passion carries into the recording. Of course, the most vocally athletic sections are due up tomorrow….
Tuesday, Jan. 17, 7:34 p.m.: We’ve spent the first part of the session cleaning up minor problems from last night. Not for the first time, I wonder if BIS will add a bonus track of outtakes… maybe in a forthcoming “Very Special Collector’s Edition?” We finish all the sections with the soloists, and as they leave, the Orchestra and Chorale give them a huge, warm round of applause. Visibly touched and appreciative, they return the favor, giving us a standing ovation of our own. He Who Must Be Obeyed brings us back to earth with a pleasant, but firm reminder that we’re 2 minutes into our 10 minute break….
9:28 No time to write! We’ve been hammering away at the most vocally demanding section of the work, right up to the moment the producers legally need to get us off the stage. Even with proper breathing, pacing and fluids, I feel like I’ve been shouting for the past hour. But as tired as I am, I’m in the zone. I’m not at all ready to quit. Regardless of what the critics might say about the CD, this has been a wonderful project, and I’ve been thrilled to take part in it. But I’ve got to run—He Who Must Be Obeyed is telling us in his thunderous (yet unfailingly polite) voice that the chorus needs to clear the stage in 2 minutes so the Orchestra can run another section.
9:39 A last thought as I start my car: I hope the CD gets released in time for Christmas. I think my mom is planning to use them as stocking stuffers for everyone she knows….
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I note with pride—and now, sadness—that this recording was nominated for a Grammy, and stands as a great testament to what an amazing partnership we had.