Ligeti in Winter

Much in the same way you might stop and get to know your neighbors during a snowstorm, a difficult piece can draw singers together in solidarity amdist the flurry of notes.

If you have been in New York City after a heavy snowstorm, then you might have a feel for what it is like to be in the San Francisco Symphony Chorus rehearsing Ligeti's Requiem.

Any other time of year, out-and-about New Yorkers seem determined to get to their destinations quickly and with limited human encounters. Tightly packed subways intensify this desire for anonymity. Come winter, fuhggeddabouddit! The frigid air can be so bracing, the gale-force wind tunnels so precarious, that it's every man for himself. The body is wrapped head-to-toe ready for embalming, rendering verbal communication impossible, including—I imagine these days—the use of cell phones, god forbid!

Something happens to New Yorkers, though, when it snows. I'm not talking about sentimental dustings, but rather those relentless storms that drape blankets of marzipan over tar and concrete: so deep it stops traffic, so dense it masks stench.

Hearing Each Other

The City itself, paved as it is with Trumpscrapers, becomes at once a vacuum and an echo chamber. All the usual sounds of chaos are sucked away by an arctic wind: taxi horns, jackhammers, construction cranes. Gone! The void is so triumphant, that it is possible to hear a snowflake hit the ground. That's also when New Yorkers begin to hear each other.

The caricature of New Yorkers as insensitive lugs is exposed as a myth if you happen to visit Manhattan when it is impossible to drive there. Strangers suddenly become misery companions: Can you believe this snow! I had to walk 10 blocks to get a bagel. Nameless neighbors become friends indeed: Let me help you dig your sidewalk out. In the middle of winter, they rally together, recognizing that they are connected after all.

February, in my memory, was the month of the worst Nor'easters, bringing snows four feet deep drifting to 15. (My cousin's log cabin once became an igloo overnight!) This February, the San Francisco Symphony Chorus is rallying as the result of a different sort of perfect storm: Ligeti's Requiem. The 20-part, 20-minute piece, known best for its use in 2001, A Space Odyssey, ranks as one of the most difficult the Chorus has prepared. With its chaotic cadences—triplets over quintuplets over sixteenths—the Requiem brings the Chorus together in ways Bach, Brahms, and Mozart might have imagined but dared not put on paper. During its echo-chamber pauses, if you listen hard, you can hear a chorister drop.

A Four-Rehearsal Snowplow

Each rehearsal is a test of our endurance, and those who have stuck it out are experiencing new levels of choral fellowship. Can you believe these rhythms! I sang 10 bars before I realized everyone else was at bar 20! Let me help you dig out of your pitch dyslexia. At last night's rehearsal—our sixth—chorus director Ragnar Bohlin continued to delve into the diciest phrases, section by section, and every triumph was met with cheers and applause by onlookers. Sopranos and their virtuous high E-flats. Tenors and their heroic interval nailing. These are the moments that will become the next decade's remember-whens.

This level of enlightenment may not have been attained without the expert assistance of assistant chorus directors Peter Grunberg, Jay Moorhead, and David Xiques, each assigned one of five sections to coach and coddle. Master Ragnar juggled two other sections on his own. Next week, we're faced with a four-rehearsal snowplow—Mon, Tue, Wed, Sat—plus a final rehearsal on March 4, providing plenty of rescue for the performances on March 5, 6, 7.

Audiences must be tuned in to our growing excitement; the shows are sold out. Okay, another reason could be that Martha Argerich appears in the second half performing Ravel's Piano Concerto in G, Michael Tilson Thomas conducting. And opening the program is Gabrieli's In ecclesiis with surround-sound chorus, plus choral soloists Lisa Scarborough, Tom Busse, Joel Baluyot, and Steven Rogino. But the Ligeti is what we fully expect audiences to be talking afterward: Can you believe that Chorus! I'd walk 10 miles to hear that again!