Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Day 5 & 6 - Cologne

Cologne, Germany

Day 5 - January 11th, 2016

I arrived in Cologne around 13:20 after a layover in Hamburg and lots of snow in Stockholm. While flying over the city, I spotted the Cologne Cathedral immediately standing tall in all its Gothic structure glory.

After getting my luggage at the airport, I was on my own to get to Central Station and then to Klettenbergpark, where I was meeting my friend of 11 years, Jake. He was friendly enough to offer his flat to me while I was staying there to save some money. We met at his flat and he took me to dinner at an authentic Cologne restaurant. We ordered Kolsch beer, which is a traditional beer in Cologne, and I had my first Weinerschnitzel, which was absolutely delicious! The restaurant was very German designed and it was a great first night in Germany. But it was the next day that I was anticipating more than anything.

Day 6 - January 12th, 2016

I woke up incredibly early with much anticipation for the amazing day ahead. I left earlier than planned so that I didn't risk the chance of being late. After arriving to the city center by train, I was so happy to see the Cologne Cathedral in all its glory. Walking next to a church that took 632 years to build and nearly 7 family generations to complete. I walked to one of the main shopping squares and got myself a pastry and one of the main bakeries. I will confess, I ordered a donut with a filling, but what I didn't know was that it was filled with some sort of alcoholic jelly. So I was having an alcoholic donut before 10:00 in the morning. I realized then why I was getting stared at in the bakery by the other customers. But you only learn by making those mistakes, and I will admit, it was quite delicious haha!

I headed over to the WDR Radio building and checked into the security and they already had my name on a list. It was amazing to know I was going to be amidst some of the most amazing musicians in Cologne and also in Germany. I waited in the waiting room and finally was able to meet Stefan in person. His signature accessory is his hats and I now understand why. He was very warm with his welcome and considered me his "honored guest". We went into the rehearsal room which is all made of wood with a standard acoustic that's set up intentionally for when they do recordings for their albums. I walked into the rehearsal space and he had a seat set up for me with a folder of all their music they would be working on for the next couple months. I took a seat with my journal ready to take thorough notes about the rehearsal. I was also excited to see how much I would be able to understand with the entire rehearsal being spoken in German.

The dynamic and atmosphere was the same of any choir I've ever been in. Everyone is conversing in their respective sections, people are cracking jokes, and everyone seems to be very happy to be there. But the moment the rehearsal started, everyone was in their seats ready to work. Stefan does not waste rehearsal time on warmups. Since all singers are paid for this job, they are required to come in warmed up and ready to sing. 

They immediately jump into the repertoire that they had been working on the day before. This only being the second time they had seen the music, I was shocked at their musicianship and that the text was near perfection, and their dynamics and use of expression was already fully intact. I was immediately impressed on an intellectual level.  And then I listened to the surrounding singers and heard a rich, thick, and full tone that to me, sounded like molasses, and really encompassed the German tradition of choral singing. 

I was in heaven sitting next to the tenor section for this half of the rehearsal. They had a tone that was unlike any other tenor section I had heard before. And when they sang their higher notes, it literally made my ears ring. It was almost a shadowed dark tone with just a hint a glimmer in their vibrato. And the vibrato is almost unnoticeable because it's only used to create a little bit of color. But when they are singing with the whole group it sounds like a very full straight tone sound.

They were working on an English piece called Four Songs of Love by Sandstrom and their English was very good. Their vowels are so dark and pure that it brings a nice color to the language that you don't hear in the states quite as often.  The women's parts are very strong and have a dark quality that contrasts the Swedes use of women in choir. The sopranos have impeccable control in their higher range and I even witnessed them singing an "ooh" on a G6 at a pianississimo. And they never lost any of their tone while doing that. I was truly in awe, especially being a soprano myself.

Other pieces they worked on in this rehearsal were the
-  Tre compositions coralli, No.1 - Cade la Sera by Ildebrando Pizzetti
Pseudo Yoik by Jaakko Mantyjarvi (Finnish)
2 Composizione Corali - I. Il giardino di Afrodite by Ildebrando Pizzetti
Awake, O North Wind by Sandstrom
- Trois Chansons by Claude Debussy
Ant han dansa med mej by Lars Edlund (Nordic)

As you can see from this list, they were singing in 5 different languages just in this rehearsal, and they adapted to the different dialects quite quickly. English, Italian, French, Finnish, and Nordic. All encompassed the same dark, rich tone quality, but all dialects had slightly different moments of diction and use of consonants. They would sing on "Lo" and "La" for the first part of learning the song, then Stefan would speak the language, and after the first try,  the entire choir was singing the correct pronunciation of that language. I was absolutely shocked to see that capability of adaptation to language and dialect at such a quick speed. That would be an amazing development for me to see happen in the states. I I feel we take advantage of English being a universal language,  and I think it would be so substantial if singers spent more time adapting to different dialects and ways to pronounce consonants and vowels to really showcase our flexibility as singers to respect other languages, cultures, and traditions of other countries. 

In the second part of the rehearsal I sat in the soprano section and was able to nearly feel their control and support in their higher range. In a lot of the contemporary pieces they are performing, there are a lot of moving lines and chromaticism in the soprano section. When singing with the rich tone they have, it can be very difficult to sing quick, chromatic lines in tune. It makes them very vulnerable to sinking in pitch during those parts of the song. And for the first few times it would. But what impressed me about the soprano section is that without even being told, they would pin point what specific note they were descending to that would bring their pitch flat and fix it immediately. The next time they sang through it, the problem had been fixed and it is because of their advanced knowledge in musicality and technique that they are able to overcome these struggles in such a short mount of time. This made me see why they can rehearse for 2 days and perform a concert of very high quality. Which is what they were preparing for. 

Something that I also found interesting was their adaptation to rhythm. Since I was able to both sit in the tenor section and the soprano section, I was able to feel how rhythm was worked out in both genders. If you have sung in American choirs,  you probably know that the men tend to drag in rhythm more so than the women. But one thing I noticed here was that in rhythmically complex pieces with multiple sections of syncopation, the women tend to drag more in time. Stefan would always direct the rhythm with a little more force when the women were presented with a sequence of syncopation. That was very interesting to witness and I am still trying to work out why it was that way. It wasn't all the time, just only in complicated songs and it may have also been because they'd only looked at the music a couple of times and weren't referring to the conductor for tempo as often as they would after knowing the piece for a longer period of time. 

Stefan's conducting was smooth as butter but yet also rhythm at the same time. It was a style of conducting that I could truly adapt to and read quite easily. He is very passionate with his facial expressions and his movements in his body are more vertical. When getting softer, he dips low to the ground behind the music stand and brings his hand into his chest.  When moving a section to be faster, the circles become smoother and larger swaying away from the torso. In the rhythmically complex pieces his head would be used a lot to keep the rhythm strict and forceful and he always kept his conducting with the time signature. He never acknowledged the syncopation in his conducting, which truly showcases the independent musical intellect of the choir members. It was very easy for the choir to read his musicality in his conducting and I could have watched him conduct all day. 

Sitting in on this rehearsal was a dream come true and I really felt quite honored and blessed to be sitting in a choir that I feel is one of the top choirs not only in Germany, but in Europe as a whole. The sopranos became very interested in my journey throughout Europe and discovering other choirs and conductors and at one point I had a circle of sopranos listening in to my story and what I hope to gain and accomplish throughout this journey. It was humbling to see people that I idolize look up to me and express their envy for my opportunities and experiences. Most of them thought I was here on a scholarship, but after explaining that I planned this all on my own, they seemed to be even more in shock that I was able to make the connections that I had. They also really appreciated my attempts to try and speak German and throughout the rehearsal, I understood about 75% of what Stefan was explaining to the choir. Thank goodness those 3 years of German in high school have finally paid off!

 It made this trip even more liberating after seeing their reactions and their support for me. It makes wanting to pursue my dreams as a musician in Europe more of a reality and their support has really boosted my confidence to think that maybe this is a possibility for me. 

After the rehearsal was over, I walked over to the Cologne Cathedral to finally see the inside. I walked through the main doors and my breath was literally taken away. My heart was full and I was overcome with emotion. Fighting back tears I progressed to the sides with the small praying sections and soaked up the stain glass and the art. The ceilings were 142.5 feet in height and your head literally leaned all the way back.  The pipes for the organ were located in different sections throughout the church so that it would fill all sections. It made sense why this church took 632 years to build (1248-1880). You could also see the changes in stone throughout the process of building based on the color and even the stain glass window design was different in some places, showcasing a change in generation for the families working to complete the church.

I spent a good amount of time in there soaking up every ounce and every emotion before heading out to the Roman-Germanisch museum to learn about Rome's influence on Cologne during the days of the Roman Empire. I learned in that museum that Handel's opera, Aggrippina was based on a female political leader controlling Cologne during the early AD period. I will definitely be wanting to see that opera now after being in Cologne and learning about the Roman influences of the city.

All in all, it was an amazing day filled with music, spirit, architecture, and history. The perfect day for me in my eyes. I couldn't wait to soak up one more amazing day in Cologne before heading to Berlin. 

Until next time virtual European travelers!


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