It's a tough balancing act. You can't ignore the warhorses like the Mozart Requiem and the Beethoven Ninth, but you can't just program the warhorses if you want to keep singers from getting bored. You have to give your singers some challenging works to keep them growing, and program some modern works to attract concertgoers who may also be tired of the warhorses.
Of all these pieces, some of them were tough and some of them relatively easy, but three stand out in my memory as the hardest I've had to work to prepare my part.
- Rhythmically, the most challenging was Sir William Walton's Belshazzar's Feast (1931). This is the story of the Writing on the Wall, mene mene tekel upharsin: you have been weighed in the balance and found wanting. It reminded me of some jazz pieces by Thelonious Monk or Dave Brubeck. Highly dramatic, punchy notes in odd places, surrounded by treacherous rests. The most dangerous piece I've sung in terms of opportunities for an accidental solo.
- In terms of being able to find pitches, the hardest piece to hear was When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd by Paul Hindemith (1946). This deeply moving piece was a setting of the Walt Whitman poem commemorating the death of Abraham Lincoln. It was commissioned by Robert Shaw to commemorate the passing of Franklin Roosevelt: the mood was similar, the passing of a great national leader who had just gotten us through a long and bloody war. Learning the piece was a bloody war, too. In many sections I had to mark every single interval in my line. I use lowercase Roman numerals for minor intervals and uppercase Roman numerals for major intervals. Long sections have marks like “ii III iii IV ii II ii ii” so I could hear each interval. Very 20th century. By the time the concert rolled around, all this chopped salad somehow jelled into quite emotionally intense music.
- The most physically challenging piece was clearly the Missa Solemnis of Beethoven (1824). In the engineering field we have a saying: “Faster, better, cheaper: Pick any two”. For this piece, the rule is easier: Faster, higher, louder, longer, pick any four. An hour of singing, much of it at high volume, much of it in a very high tessitura, with lyrics that go by like a bullet train.
- The piece the NMSC just sang in January 2012, the oratorio King David (1925) by Arthur Honegger, was notable for both rhythmic and chromatic difficulty. Lots of pitches you have to pull out of thin air, lots of rapid-fire words that sound terrible unless every single singer is extremely careful about diction.
- In 2004, the New Mexico Tech Chamber Chorus performed Giancarlo Menotti's The unicorn, the gorgon, and the manticore. Another piece both rhythmically and chromatically non-Euclidean. It took us three semesters to get this piece working, along with the accompanists (one flute and one bassoon). We took it on the road and performed it in St. Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe. After I got my first look at the score, and swallowed hard, I asked Roger Melone if he knew the piece. “Oh, yes,” he replied, “It's very difficult.” But the NMT Chamber Chorus did a credible job, thanks to the tireless and inspiring work of our conductor Dr. Doug Dunston.