Some stuff you sing with piano. Other stuff you sing with piano in hopes of singing it with orchestra someday. Singing with orchestra is like graduation, a gold star, and a winning lotto ticket rolled into one because it is so cool. There’s a moment of stillness as everyone prepares for the beat. You can feel the energy as everyone comes together for this one piece of music. Singing with all this behind you is quite amazing, like surfing on a wave of glorious sound.
“And Open to All” concert with MusicaNova Orchestra, conducted by Maestro Warren Cohen. Phoenix, 2013. Photo courtesy of MusicaNova Orchestra.
While I’ve been lucky enough to have a few opportunities to sing with orchestra, some smaller and some larger, I’m still getting used to it. This past week was a particularly intense learning period as I was singing in two separate concerts with two different orchestras: “And Open to All” with MusicaNova Orchestra and “Shakespeare in the Desert” with Arizona Pro Arte. The actual concerts were fun and thrilling, but I’ll admit I was nervous during the rehearsals.
As is the case with most singers still in school, almost all of my singing has been with piano. I love the process of collaborating and performing with a pianist. It’s intimate and immediate. It’s possible to respond to each other musically on the turn of a dime because it’s just the two of you. With an orchestra, it’s you, the conductor, and x number of musicians.
With x more variables in the equation, the dynamics of collaboration feel different even though the principle — to sing beautifully and with intention — is the same. I know I should focus on my legato, I know I should keep a sense of forward motion in the line and just sing how I’ve been practicing … but I’m trying to watch the conductor’s hands out of the corner of my eye, and I’m wondering, Am I with the orchestra? and Can you hear me with all this noise going on? (I’m pretty sure that second thought is what was going through my head in the picture further down.)
Which brings me to another issue: As a lighter soprano, orchestras pose an additional challenge because singing over x instruments is more difficult than singing over one piano. I’ve been working hard to accept my lighter voice, but nothing makes me wish for a bigger voice more quickly than having to sing over an orchestra and wondering if I can be heard.
Photo courtesy of MusicaNova Orchestra
Still, I felt the music carry me away during the performance. The rise and fall of the harmonies, which were so familiar from running through the pieces with a pianist, took on new colors and textures. To give your ears a chance to experience the difference: here is a version of Allerseelen performed by Irmgard Seefried with orchestra and conducted by Charles Munch, and here is the version with piano which I’ve posted before. Both are beautiful. Singing this song with orchestra was incredible, but that’s not to say I don’t love it with piano as well.
Pianos are capable of so many articulations and effects, but one thing they can’t do is crescendo on a single sustained note. A pianist can increase the volume by playing more piano keys at the same time (creating a more dense chord) or by re-hitting a key with more force, but there’s no way for a piano’s sound to swell the way an orchestra can.
PS. One of my teachers who attended the MusicaNova concert said he heard me despite the thick orchestration of the Strauss –success!