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Monday, Mar 24 2014 02:17 PM

HERB BENHAM: Requiem for a drowned-out choir singer

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Herb Benham

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By HERB BENHAM, Californian columnist hbenham@bakersfield.com

The No. 1 maxim for a choir rookie: "First, do no harm." (The rule works for doctors, too.)

Recently the Bakersfield Master Chorale sang Verdi's "Requiem Mass" with the Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra, conducted by John Farrer at the Rabobank Theater. The piece required importing a bass, tenor, soprano and alto from out of town.

"If you run short of air and can't make it to the end of the line, keep your mouth open," advised Farrer at the midday rehearsal before the concert.

I can do that, keep my mouth open, mainly because I'm stunned at how much of this piece I don't know.

I thought "The Messiah" was hard, but Verdi's "Requiem" makes "The Messiah" look like "Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star." On Page 193, there is a series of descending sharps that end in a flat. For someone who barely reads music, I felt like an ice fisherman who realizes the ice is cracking after he's taken off his caribou boots in front of an ice fire.

"I'm not sure people can even hear us," said a choir mate at our Friday night rehearsal, the first one with the orchestra.

Underheard is a pervasive feeling for a choir when it pairs with an orchestra and four soloists.

"The trombones are drowning us out," someone said.

Yes, those darn trombones. Then you have the oboes, the violins, the big violins and the really big violins and the guy with the oversized drum. The musicians were excellent, but I'd like to see the orchestra trimmed to a harmonica, a whistle and a guy on a comb.

I have another suggestion. "The Requiem" is long. I have several ideas on how to shorten it.

Start with pages 65 to 80 -- cut. Who needs them? They're a snooze. The solists are carrying on, the orchestra sawing, blowing and tooting and the choir is parked on their sanctuses being ignored.

Pages 157 to 166 -- gone. Forty-seven to 52 --extraneous. Pages 101 to 124 -- mortis.

Verdi's "Requiem" is more interesting when the choir is singing and the orchestra and the solists have been put on timeout by the maestro.

Benched, the choir tends to slip into a catatonic drool mode. At Page 80, after the aforementioned 15-page vacation, the choir realizes it's their turn to sing again, so members leap to their feet, several nearly arresting, and belt out "Di-es i-rae, Di-es, i-rae."

It's like flying a plane. You're on autopilot, the flight is smooth, and suddenly you realize you have to land the damn thing and four hours of couch time turns into 45 seconds of terror.

***

After 12 weeks of rehearsal, it was concert day. Saturday, after a dinner of pork tenderloin topped with mushrooms and a brown sauce and a giant artichoke on its own plate, I put on my tuxedo. I could barely button the top button of the ruffled shirt. My turkey neck had blossomed into ostrich neck. If that button snapped during "Oh Lord God," it could fly 40 feet and blind the maestro in his right eye.

I gave up on the cuff links because you had to be one of those Hindu gods with four arms waving in different directions in order to fasten them.

I was unable to tighten the tux pants so I retreated to the bathroom at the Rabobank to see if I could figure out how to activate the clasps on the sides of the pants.

After a brief struggle, I asked a fellow choir member to help. Let's see -- two guys in tuxedos in a bathroom, one helping the other with his pants. Thank goodness we were consenting choir members.

Without cinching the waist, I was in danger of having my pants tumble to the floor in the middle of a legato.

Pants snug, I fell in line and we took our places on the risers. It was hot under the lights. I might as well be wearing black burlap with a rope belt.

My favorite part was when the basses and tenors thundered "Rex Tremenda ma-jes-ta-tis," which means King of Glories, bright and glowing."

I don't know about God but "Tremenda" pretty much describes the bass section.

After the concert, I said goodbye to maestro Farrer. John is a cool guy, but when I heard people refer to him as maestro, it made me think of Kramer, Jackie Chiles and a "Seinfeld" episode.

The concert went too fast, even with all those parts we didn't need when the choir was back-benched.

That was fun. Audition (basses, tenors and baritones are a hot commodity). The people in the choir are wonderful. They'll even help you put on your pants.

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