Last piano rehearsal with chorus

In preparing a major work like Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony, the last chorus rehearsal before beginning rehearsals with the orchestra is a pivotal moment.  This is the last chance for the singers to really find their full security as an ensemble – they will never again be able to hear themselves as a whole choir with quite the same clarity when the full orchestra is in front of them.

All the notes have long been learned (though there are always a few “spots” that continue to require attention).  But now is the time to go deeper inside the overall sweep and pacing of the music – to feel what it is like to sing a whole movement without stopping, allowing the music to catch hold of its own momentum.

It is also a time for our pianist Beth Manus to shine as she goes from playing just the choral parts with cues in between to playing the piano reduction of the whole orchestration. As you’ll hear in these excerpts from last Tuesday night’s rehearsal, we think she does an incredible job!

A piano rehearsal with our soloists


It’s always exciting to introduce music you love to people who have never encountered it before.  With the Vaughan Williams Sea Symphony, that will include not only most listeners in our audience and all but two of our performers (one of our altos, and our harpist!), but our two young soloists as well.  Soprano Kelly Ann Bixby and baritone Jarrett Ott are at the beginning of very promising careers, and these two meaty solo parts suit their voices perfectly. I first met them when I shared a Lyric Fest recital program with them a couple seasons back.

A first piano rehearsal with the soloists is a time to begin to “feel things out” between conductor and singers.  As you’ll hear in this brief snippet from that rehearsal, they are already well along their way toward getting inside these soaring roles.

A video walk-through of “A Sea Symphony” – 1st movement

While the music for A Sea Symphony is quite accessible on its own, it is the nature of truly inspired music that the better we get to know a piece the greater the rewards.  This is especially true when we have the opportunity to hear a live performance of a new work like A Sea Symphony, which, while frequently performed in Great Britain is rarely heard on “our side of the pond.”

There are some excellent recordings available through iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, and elsewhere.  The Adrian Boult recording is considered the classic version of the older recordings, the Bernard Haitink recording carried the tradition forward and can be found on YouTube with either the vocal score here or sea paintings here! The Robert Spano recording with the Atlanta Symphony won the American Grammy Award for best classical album a few years ago.

For the purposes of this “walk-through” of the symphony, I’ll be referring to the YouTube video of a BBC rebroadcast of a 2013 performance at opening night of the London Proms Concerts in the Royal Albert Hall (see for background on this tradition), both because it is a wonderful performance and because it gives you an idea of the grandeur of the British choral tradition out of which this work was born (and forged new dimensions of a less purely patriotic nature!)

Timing references below are for the BBC broadcast of Sakari Oramo conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra on opening night of last year’s Proms Concerts.

The first movement sets the stage with a bold opening fanfare for the brass and then the unaccompanied chorus, singing “Behold, the sea itself!”  [beginning at 0:38 in the video] The juxtaposition of these two opening harmonies (the first is a solemn Bb minor chord for the word “behold” followed by the bright D major chord for “Sea”)  will recur throughout the symphony.

The music then wastes no time throwing itself full-force into the tumult of the ocean, building on a melodic fragment that will also be heard throughout the work, heard hear with the words “And on its limitless, heaving breast, the ships….”

The roar and tumult of the sea eventually calm down, and we hear the solo horn play the opening melody one last time [at 3:38] before a new, more spritely them begins [at 3:54].  We soon meet the baritone soloist, who describes the ships and their routines in a jaunty narration.

But it is only in the final section of the first movement, with the trumpets announcing the first entrance of the soprano soloist [“Flaunt out, O Sea,” beginning at 8:44] where we begin to sense the full dimension of the search to come.  In the climactic final section of the movement [beginning at 14:41] Vaughan Williams highlight’s Whitman’s lines suggestion that the flags “flaunted out” high on the mast should include one for “the soul of man, one flag above all the rest, a spiritual woven signal for all nations, emblem of man elate above death.”  The composer has crossed from external observation to internal probing as the daunting power of the sea prompts us to ask what our place might be in this “vast” universe.

This grand first movement closes with a serene subdued, and simply gorgeous restatement of the opening line “Behold, the sea itself….” [at 18:00].

A video walk-through of “A Sea Symphony” – 2nd movement

Timing references below are for the BBC broadcast of Sakari Oramo conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra on opening night of last year’s Proms Concerts.

The second movement [beginning at 20:12] is a slow movement, following traditional symphonic form. It is as dark, subdued and contemplative as the first movement was brash and audacious.  Notice the juxtaposition of a minor chord followed by a major chord at the very opening, similar to the first movement.

A brooding sense of personal isolation at the beginning of the movement is transformed gradually into a new awareness of the interconnectedness of all things.  Composer and poet highlight the feminine image of an “old mother” swaying her child “to and fro singing her husky song” and pronouncing the “clef” (key, or underlying basis) of the universe.  In a new section, this “clef” is revealed: “A vast similitude interlocks all” [beginning at 24:04].

A video walk-through of “A Sea Symphony” – 3rd movement

Timing references below are for the BBC broadcast of Sakari Oramo conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra on opening night of last year’s Proms Concerts.

The brilliant third movement “Scherzo” [beginning at 32:10] is a perfect foil for the profound depths of the final movement.  There is no explicit mention here of Whitman’s “soul”, but instead a virtuosic display by chorus and orchestra of the tumultuous “whistling winds” and “whirling current” of the sea as it forges ahead, “stately and rapid,” toward the farther shores we will then visit in the last movement. This movement is pure fun and brilliance!