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The atrium of the Museum of Natural History was full of noises.
All five levels of balcony teemed with performers in yellow T-shirts. The atrium echoed as singers reviewed music, string players tuned, brass instruments warming up, ukuleles were distributed and logistical discussions hummed, all under the watchful gaze of an extinct manatee that hung from the ceiling.
Conductor David Chase, who wore a velvet frock coat over his yellow T-shirt, stepped into the atrium floor.
“Can I have your attention, please?” he asked. “We’re going to begin on Page 68. The chorus is going to be on the third level, just up above the shark’s tail,” he said, gesturing to the fifty-foot megalodon, whose toothy maw greets museum guests entering the on the second level. “The string quartet is down here, intact, at this point. The brass and flute are all the way up at the top. Does that make sense?”
“David,” came a voice from somewhere overhead, “are you planning to conduct from back there? Because we’re going to have trouble seeing you over the shark.”
“Just do your best,” he said. “Let’s do the oratorio.”
The factions migrated to their places, the chorus donned powdered wigs of varying degrees of authenticity, a pitch sounded and the first dress rehearsal for the premiere of “Haydn in Plain Sight” began.
Rick Burkhardt, Obie-winning playwright, composer and architect of the unfolding scene, grinned as the tour guides began speak-singing his text to an imagined section of audience. Soon the bewigged chorus was peering over the balcony, gasping, murmuring and applauding in unison at a fictional section of an oratorio by Haydn, which would not be present for the actual performance.
I asked visiting choral composer Alice Parker, who was watching the rehearsal with interest, what she thought of Burkhardt and Chase’s collaboration.
“David always has such big ideas,” she said.
This big idea began with a bee in David Chase’s bonnet, specifically, the desire to show a wider audience that community choirs can perform more diverse repertoire than masses and motets.
Chase, who has led the volunteer-singer La Jolla Symphony Chorus at UC San Diego for over three decades, wanted to bring UCSD’s tradition of contemporary and experimental music to a new audience and found enthusiastic allies at the Museum of Natural History.
Once Chase had a location, all he needed was a composer.
Chase immediately thought of Rick Burkhardt, who was commissioned to write a piece for the La Jolla Symphony Chorus in 2001, while he was working on his Ph.D. in composition. The piece, “The Rattler’s Narrative,” was written for chorus, speaking percussionist, instruments and lawn mower.
When Chase found that Burkhardt had collaborated on a music-theater piece based on “Winterreise,” one of Franz Schubert’s great song cycles, he knew he’d found his man.
The result is “Haydn in Plain Sight,” which Chase describes as a non-choral event or installation, during which an audience is enticed into the Natural History Museum by small choirs wandering around Balboa Park, encouraged to sing and eventually led by one of the tour guides through a half-hour exploration of music inspired by Haydn’s great oratorio “The Seasons,” which is also used as a metaphor for Haydn’s life.
The complexity of the piece, logistically, musically, textually and conceptually, is impressive.
In addition to luring unsuspecting visitors into the performance, the chorus members race from balcony to balcony between sections while changing costumes, and the tour guides must rely on a separate conductor in order to stay no more than one sentence of text apart from one another. But what’s particularly interesting are the various ways the spectators are part of the piece.
The tour guides lead the audience’s experience by speak-singing the text that ties all the musical and theatrical moments together. In addition to guiding the audience through Haydn’s life, they also offer perspective on his music, “personal” anecdotes (appropriately enough, in Exhibit I) and ask audience members questions. The libretto even encourages physical contact.
This sort of unusual audience participation is something that interests Burkhardt, whose prior work has also called attention to the artificial separation of performer and viewer.
I’m up there pretending to be someone that I’m not, and the audience goes along with that. But it’s a game and we’re all playing it together. And sometimes by altering the rules of the game, or breaking them, or going outside of those rules, one can discover quite a lot about who oneself is, as well as who the person is that you’re imitating.
But despite having read the libretto and knowing what was coming, when a tour guide began to sing directly at me, I was all too aware of my own awkwardness and concern over what my reaction should be. The experience brought to mind a tweet from James Herbert, the U-T’s theater critic:
I have to cringe at the thought of being pulled onstage like this, but Brantley handles it well nyti.ms/121BwEM
— James Hebert (@JimHebert) February 7, 2013
And yet, as the performance continued, I began to pay less attention to what the tour guide expected and paid more attention to the text, music and the inseparability of space and performance. It made me think. It made me laugh. It made me Google Haydn mid-rehearsal to answer a question posed by the libretto.
Even during the first dress rehearsal, where more time was spent figuring out who goes where, when than discussing themes or the composer’s intentions, I knew I was witnessing something unique.
It wasn’t just the ukuleles or the water balloon called for by the score. It wasn’t just the choral singing that Alice Parker praised as “gorgeous.” It was all of those things combined with a the palpable, genuine desire from everybody involved in the piece to share something wonderfully weird and special with the world.
The La Jolla Symphony Chorus performs Haydn in Plain Sight March 2-3 at the Museum of Natural History in Balboa Park.