Work has begun in earnest on the project which will be occupying me for much of the spring: Marta, the second opera by the Austrian composer Wolfgang Mitterer. The piece is scored for five principal singers, an ensemble of eight solo voices, an eleven-piece orchestra and multi-channel electronics. For the première performances in Lille and Reims, the vocal ensemble will be Les Cris de Paris, who met this week for five days of preliminary music rehearsals with our artistic director, Geoffroy Jourdain, at the Fondation Singer-Polignac in Paris. The Fondation has a distinguished history as the home and salon of the Princesse de Polignac, patron of Fauré, Ravel, Stravinsky, Satie, Poulenc and many more of the greatest figures in late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century French music. It continues to support the performing arts by promoting concerts and offering rehearsal space for ensembles such as Les Cris, whom the Fondation numbers among its Associated Artists. It's an inspiring setting for the creation of new work, even if the neo-baroque elegance of the building seemed on this occasion to be somewhat at odds with the more brutally direct elements of Mitterer's vocal writing.
This week has been our chance to master the opera's vocal ensemble sections in isolation, and to come as close as possible to memorising them, before we travel to Lille to incorporate these into the staging with the other performers. Our music is mostly homophonic (structured in block chords which move together), and not overly complex by the standards of some contemporary compositions, but the frequent metrical changes and dense tonal language of the piece as a whole do pose significant challenges. The first obstacle is simply to learn to navigate the score, identifying reference points in the solo and orchestra parts that might help us to conjure up, say, a perfectly tuned G minor chord seemingly out of nowhere. For these purposes it's essential for us to be using the full orchestral score, but this has the disadvantage of condensing everything (including vitally important indications of tempo, metre and dynamics) into tiny print. So a large part of this initial navigation, at least for me, consists of systematically marking up the printed score to highlight the most important information. Personally, I find that this is an important part of the process by which I come to feel at home with a new piece and make it my own; and while it may seem perverse to lavish so much care over a printed score which I will soon have to abandon in order to perform on stage, I suspect it helps me to memorise the details of the music if I've physically engaged with them with pencil, pen and ink. It's partly for this reason that, for all the manifest advantages of digitised scores, I suspect I'll never make the transition to making exclusive use of them at the expense of the printed artefact. And I admit that I also enjoy what feels a bit like a grown-up form of colouring in.
One of the pleasures of doing this kind of preliminary work on a contemporary score is that there's a very tangible sense of progress from initial perplexity to the gradual achievement of competence. Most professional vocal ensembles are likely to be able to give a passable rendering of a baroque, classical or romantic work on first reading, and the subsequent rehearsal process is one of refinement and interpretation, which of course brings its own satisfactions; but these initial rehearsals for Marta have very much been a problem-solving exercise, in which we gradually figured out how to sing it confidently and accurately. On the other hand, given the sheer density of the orchestral textures, and the copious use of electronic samples which we haven't yet heard, we won't gain an overall sense of how the piece will sound, and how we fit into it, until we're in Lille.