I recently had the pleasure of being conducted by Andrew Parrott. He is a man that embodies the good things of english culture; learnedness, politeness and a certain enterprising impatience - well hidden by manners. He is also a brilliant scholar and conductor, who interspersed his instructions with amusing, though relevant anecdotes. But it is not they I have come here to share. What I want to convey to you are some of the musical lessons he taught us during those early rehearsals - lessons that are meant to be universal to classical and, I presume, romantic music. There are seven lessons in all, and here they come:
1: The start makes the phrase. As listeners of western music we have certain expectations of how the music will flow. If the start is good, the audience will fill in the occasional blank. The start also gives the timing, which is important in choral works where precision can make or break a performance. When the chorus is singing with an orchestra, a precise (and perhaps a millisecond early) start to the phrase can help the audience follow the voices in a crowded soundscape.
He illustrated this with the wonderful example of an old tenor mimicking his way to a high note. Parrott said, and I'm paraphrasing: "You could hear the notes, but they were definitely not there!"
2. Piano and forte has a different colour (timbre). Piano should be softer, and, perhaps a forte more penetrating. Later I found my ppp's to be marked "breathy" in a few occasions.
3. Chromatic progressions should have a its own colour. I believe this is because you wish to draw attention to these, or maybe it is because they function to add some emotional content to the music that should be indicated.
4. Language determines the stress and rhythm of words and phrases. If you learn the music by heart the natural pronunciation of the words will guide the musical expression.
5. Crescendos rise from the bases. Tenors and so on should be delayed. I couldn't tell you the reasons why, except that it sounds good. Also, a crescendo lasts the whole phrase; don't start too early!
6. In pieces where the voices are doubled by the orchestra, start the phrase a millisecond before the beat, and relax on long notes. You can even let up a little before the the end, as long as you come back for the consonant.
7. In a good performance every musician must be aware of their role in the whole performance, and to identify the places where it is their turn to shine. Good form is to identify your soloistic parts, and when you don't have them - pull back to give space to others.