The Choir that Went to A Cappella Rehearsals – La Sestina

This French ensemble finds itself through the naked voice and human experience.

What is something you do in rehearsals that surprises new members?

To be honest, I sometimes use images depicting scenes of human intimacy, to invite the choir to sing phrases with greater passion and sensuality, leading up to the climax of a special chord or moment in the score. Oddly, it is very effective!

QUICK FACTS

Choir Name: La Sestina
Location: Nice (France)
Style: Classical
Number of singers: 23
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A turning point in the life of your choir?

When we tried out a cappella rehearsals!  We used to work with a piano player at rehearsals, and when we started incorporating a cappella pieces, it seemed the pianist’s sole job became to “help” the singers catch their notes. But instead of helping them, the piano was just hiding the problems. I couldn’t hear the true sound of the ensemble, and the singers didn’t seem to be listening to each other.

So, going to a cappella rehearsals helped?

Once we shifted to completely a cappella rehearsals, the sound of the choir changed for the better. I also figured that if it can work a cappella, then it can work with a piano! As it is, the inverse is less true.

What were your observations in the shift to a cappella rehearsals?

I could further develop the perception of sound: truly listen to each part, hear and emphasize harmonics in the voice, and adjust the volume and colour between the voices to make one single beautiful sound. Next, by mixing everyone up, each singer could hear the full harmony of the group and not only their “voicemate”. Lastly, rehearsing without piano forced the singers to learn their parts with greater attention and to develop a more precise consciousness of the sound.

What was a very special performance and what made it special?

Our experimental concert with a dance company.We moved all benches so that the choir and the dancers were in the middle of the nave and the audience all around. The performance atmosphere was lit by candlelight and dark blue spotlights. A video-jockey was sending colors effects on the ceiling of the nave and on the singers and dancers whom were dressed in white. The singers had different placements for each piece, 3 dancers were interacting with them and even climbing up along the pillars of the church where ropes were installed before the concert. It was a stunning experience.

An emotional moment you had in a performance?

There have been so many! To name a few: the entrance of the sopranos at the beginning of the Duruflé’s Requiem; the first time we sang at Abbaye du Thoronet, a famous Cistercian abbey known for its incredible reverberation; the choir singing Dominus Vobiscum by Sisask while a whirling dervish was spinning in the middle; and anytime the choir sings a beautiful sound, phrase, or well balanced chord.

What is your audition process?

1. Speaking one on one with the candidate to get to know them better and increase their confidence. We discuss the choir and activities, and the candidate’s experience, music tastes, and the languages they can speak.

2. Assessing the skills of the candidate: voice quality and range, ability to sing in tune and rhythm, ability to reproduce music with attention to dynamics, vowels, and phrasing by ear, and ability to read music (though not as important to this group).

3. Following up if necessary, to further understand the singer’s personality and judge if they’d be a good fit with the group’s culture.

How would you describe the group’s culture?

The choir started as a group of friends 20 years ago and is still friendly even if more than half of the choir has been renewed since then. Very often, someone will bring something to share at the end of a rehearsal: homemade cake or cookies, bottle of wine, chocolates, etc.; every occasion is good one to eat something! One of our members is great at reminding the group of any birthdays since the last rehearsal so we may sing “Happy Birthday” to those members. Also, we sometimes meet in a restaurant after a concert, and at the end of the year we usually have a garden party. But, the best times we share together are during several day tours. It’s not easy to organize because most of the singers are workers, but it’s worth it. Touring really brings the group together and there are a lot of laughs in the rooms at night.

A funny moments in rehearsal?

People know each other well, and a lot of jokes and puns can be heard throughout rehearsals. I also make funny mistakes sometimes, for example when I ask everybody to take out a score, and I start to conduct another score…

An emotional moment in rehearsal?

One day, I had to conduct a dress rehearsal with choir and orchestra. I didn’t realize that rehearsal was taking place on a special date. Like any other rehearsal, I felt the music in my heart, raised my arms and gave the downbeat. The sound of the orchestra was strange, and after 3 beats, I wondered to myself: “What the heck are they doing? Where is that on the score?”. And after 5 beats, the orchestra synchronized, and I recognized Happy Birthday. The choir joined in and I received a most beautiful birthday song!

Vocal ensemble La Sestina in performance attire.

A challenging performance and how you faced it.

Our recent challenging performance involved singing traditional world music where we had to adjust our vocal technique in order to achieve the effects of the original pieces. For the first piece, I asked them to sing with a very nasal voice for Chinese music, they laughed and thought it was just a poor caricature. I had to fight to bring the group out of their comfort zone and to make them listen to recordings of native people singing to help them to reproduce the sounds. They trusted me only after the first concert, when their friends told them it was just incredible.

A favorite inspirational quote

Be serious without taking yourself seriously.

A juicy fact about a composer/arranger you love to tell your choir members

That Ave Maria by Caccini was never written by Caccini but by Vavilov. Also, the Miserere by Allegri, as we know it today, is different from the original due to a series of interpretations and publishers’ mistakes.

A favorite piece of repertoire & why

Lux Aurumque by Eric Whitacre. This kind of music was totally new in the repertoire of the choir 15 years ago and we were the first choir to sing such ethereal music in our area. It fit the sound of the choir perfectly and gave us a new dimension. The choir still loves that piece very much today.

After simultaneous musical and scientific studies, Stephan Nicolay started to work as a software engineer for the space industry, before turning to composition and choir conducting. He has won awards in several European competitions and his music is often described as having an undeniable poetic power. Chapel master of the churches of Cannes, he conducts several choirs on the French Riviera such as the chamber choir La Sestina or Compagnie Madame Croche and is much appreciated as a choral clinician and guest conductor for his musical sense and his human qualities.