When I first experienced Simon Halsey's work with the Berlin Radio Symphony Chorus in the Berlin Philharmonic's extraordinary 2014 production of the St. Matthew Passion, I never imagined that less than two years later, I'd be sitting in a Brooklyn rehearsal studio mere inches from him as he led the Orange strand through two complete run-throughs of the public domain on Friday night. But, far from being an imposing, remote podium presence, Simon - who is director of the London Symphony Orchestra Chorus, the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus, and the Berlin Philharmonic’s Youth Choral Program, among other posts - went overboard to make himself accessible.
"Hi, I'm Simon," he said to us by means of introduction. "I'm the person who will be standing in the middle of the plaza playing traffic policeman. It's lovely to be here in Brooklyn!"
Before long, Simon, who wore shorts and a white polo shirt, was bouncing all around the rehearsal studio like a manic schoolboy. For the most part, he was deeply encouraging, telling us we were his "favorite group": a credit to our strand leader, Maria. Still, it soon became clear that hitting the right notes and following the tempi weren't going to be enough for Simon.
"Now, we can make it more daring. I have a feeling this group is going to be dangerously inventive."
He showed us how to add texture to our phrasing, how to add repeats and extended pauses wherever we felt inspired. ("If it were Mozart, it wouldn't work," he told us, "but in David Lang, it does.")
There were, however, a few moments of tension. At one point, Simon despaired, "We are a very long way from where we need to be." He prodded the individual group leaders to be louder and more clear in their directions. And, after complaining he couldn't hear the male voices (!), Simon made us repeat the same phrase three times until we managed to fill the room.
"Gentlemen," he exhorted, "I'll see you all on the stage of the Met next season!"
After we made it through all of the parts, we did one complete run-through with movement, with Annie-B Parson present to monitor our progress. At times, there seemed to be a breakdown in how the changes were signaled between Simon and the five group leaders - Maria is now my group leader - which they've remedied by assigning "seconds" to relay Simon's changes. It was rocky at times, transcendent at others, which seems to be right where we should be.
Sadly, this was our final Brooklyn rehearsal. The next rehearsal will be on Wednesday with the Red and Yellow strands at a college gymnasium in Manhattan. Then, all that's left is a final dress rehearsal on the plaza the morning of August 13, followed by the world premiere at 5pm. Registration is now closed to new performers, but volunteers are still very much needed to help coordinate things on the day of the performance. Info on how to sign up here.