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Hark, the glad sound: Chamber Choir at the Cathedral

For the University Chamber Choir, December means but one thing: the candlelit magic of the annual University Carol Service in Canterbury Cathedral.

This year, the Choir performed three pieces; second-year Doug Haycock led the Choir at the West end to begin proceedings with Tavener’s The Lamb, and from the steps to the Quire, Deputy Director of Music Dan Harding conducted the richly expressive Sleep, Holy Babe by Alexander Campkin, and Andrew Carter’s arrangement of the slow movement of Peter Warlock’s ‘Capriol Suite’ into the beautiful Lullaby, My Jesus.

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The Chamber Choir in rehearsal at the West end of Canterbury Cathedral

The opportunity to perform in the majestic acoustic of the Cathedral Nave is one to relish; that first point in the afternoon rehearsal, when we sing our first phrase and hear it travelling the length of the Nave, is a remarkable moment each year. After all the hard work in rehearsals from when the Choir first forms in mid-October, it’s a chance to really spread your wings, to open out the ensemble sound into that mighty reverberation and listen as it recedes amongst the pillars.

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The University community comes together each year at this time, to celebrate the Christmas season and being together, with carols sung in different languages to reflect its international identity; it’s always an event towards which the singers look forward with great anticipation, that moment when the Cathedral is plunged into darkness as the lights are turned out, and the Choir’s first notes rise to the dark recesses of the vaulted roof above a sea of candlelight.

loveless_crew_carol_service2Congratulations to the Choir, and to second-year Alice Scott (pictured above, fourth from the right) whose opening solo to Once In Royal David’s City lifted clear and bright above the heads of the congregational candles to begin the service. Christmas is here.

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Sing, choir of angels! Minerva Voices goes carol-singing for Cancer Research

A bustling Canterbury high street was treated to a festive selection of carols for upper-voices, as Minerva Voices took to the street to sing in support of Cancer Research.

czad3vqxeaagxhzThe idea was suggested by Inger Kviseth, a member of the Choir who works part-time for the charity, and asked if we would help with their fund-raising; the team leapt to respond, and were busy singing yesterday afternoon, aided by Music Society secretary, Robert Loveless, who wielded one of the collection buckets.

czad3vmwgaebaxnThe shoppers responded with enthusiasm to the choir’s bringing Carols for Choirs to life, and a brisk chill in the air was met with a warm response from passers-by.

Thanks to all the ladies – and to Robert! – for giving up their Sunday lunchtime in support of Cancer Research. The Choir will be back in action this Wednesday in a very different guise, singing as The Minervettes with the twelve-piece vintage swing band, General Harding’s Tomfoolery, on the foyer-stage at lunchtime; admission is free, bring your dancing-shoes!

Minerva in festive mood with carols for the Donor reception

Minerva Voices, the upper-voices chamber choir, was in festive mood on Friday night, taking to the foyer-stage to add some seasonal musical lustre to the reception for University donors.

Donor_CarolsThe foyer-stage was strewn with flickering candles (and for the sake of everyone wondering about a predominantly wood-paneled building and flickering flames, I should reassure you that they were electrical candles…) and festive jumpers as members of Minerva filled the foyer with favourites from the fourth edition of Carols for Choirs, an incarnation of the enduringly-popular publication in arrangements for upper voices. There’s something particularly magical about hearing traditional carols in arrangements for sopranos and altos, an extra glimmer of frosted sparkle adorning customary repertoire.

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Our first sprinkling of Christmas music in Colyer-Fergusson added a touch of the festive spirit to the reception, and there was a call for a group photo round the departmental Christmas tree afterwards.

Next up, the Chamber Choir will be singing in the University Carol Service in the Cathedral next week. Thanks to Minerva Voices for getting Christmas underway!

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Circle time: in rehearsal

At last night’s rehearsal, we spent a large part of the time with our backs to one another, not looking at each other, not watching the conductor.

Before you ask, no, we hadn’t had a row; we were working on singing as an ensemble, listening to one another, keeping an internal pulse so that we all moved together, and not waiting for others. That shared, indrawn breath that anticpates the start of a phrase; that sense of not waiting for your neighbour to sing, but taking the lead; last night was largely about developing an ensemble instinct.

When you’re all facing outwards, standing in a circle, there’s no eye-contact, no conductor to watch, no ability to wait for someone else; you have to take charge of your own line, count strictly, enter with confidence; there’s also a need, at pauses or at the end of a verse, to breathe together. Listening becomes crucial: there’s no other way to establish contact with anyone else, and the need for everyone to count rather than rely on a conductor to lead the beats of the bar is critical to keeping the music flowing.

img_0960There were moments where this worked very well; there were also moments when words ended at slightly different times amongst the voices, consonants tripped early and peppered the sound, and some entries were rather hesitant. The more we do of this, though, the better we will be as an ensemble.

Assistant conductor Doug worked with the Choir on establishing consistent vowel-shapes in works by Hassler and Purcell, on using the right sounds and avoiding diphthongs.

img_0962It’s four weeks until we sing in the glorious Nave of Canterbury Cathedral for the University Carol Service, and so last night we drew out that seasonal favourite, ‘Carols for Choirs,’ to look at the second verse of, you’ve guessed it, ‘Once in Royal David’s City.’ The Carol Service is such a fantastic occasion, I’m definitely not taking that night off…

The singing will never be done: Cecilian Choir perform Memorial Ground

Thank you to all the members of the University Cecilian Choir and other performers, who took part in Memorial Ground by David Lang earlier today.

Combining music with poetry by Siegfried Sassoon, and a new poem by Nancy Gaffield, ‘The Turtle Dove,’ a member of the School of English, with archive image projection from the Special Collections and Archives, curated by Joanna Baines, David Lang’s haunting commemoration of the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme filled the resonant acoustic of Studio 3 Gallery, with percussion played by postgraduate Cory Adams. The sombre mood of the event was set by third-year trumpeter, Alex Reid, who prefaced the performance with ‘The Last Post.’ The readings were by James Cavalier, Masters student in Creative Writing.

Vintage photographThe arriving audience was greeted by the evocative sound of an original period portable phonograph playing records from the time, generously loaned for the occasion by Andrew Briggs, member of staff and also a member of the Choir.

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Playing with space: workshop day for the Chamber Choir

The Chamber Choir had its termly workshop day on Saturday, a concentrated rehearsal period that offers scope to work for longer than our customary weekly two-hour period, and really drill down into the nitty-gritty aspects of the music we’re singing this year.

This year’s assistant conductor, second-year Doug, roused the Choir into an early Saturday state of wakefulness with a series of technical warm-up exercises, before moving in to rehearse the group in Tavener’s The Lamb. The piece sounds deceptively straightforward, hiding the angularity of the lines that weave around one another in ever-changing intervals and palindromes. We then worked on two Italian madrigals, one of which is Lassus’ The Echo Song which creates the illusion of a choir playing with (and mocking) its own echo, throwing material antiphonally between two choirs and which we’re hoping to exploit spatially to the full in the concert in the Cathedral Crypt in the spring.

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Second-year Doug rehearses the Choir

Perhaps the most rhythmically challenging piece we are performing this year is Augustinas’ Tykus, Tykus, which again pitches two choirs aganist each other in rapturous and cascading sections, driven by a fierce, almost tribal energy. We initially rehearsed in individual choirs (the other choir going for a well-earned tea-break), followed by putting both choirs together. You really have to know exactly where your line enters during this piece, with short phrases often scattered throughout the texture coming in on the half-beat; and the fact that we’re also singing in Lithuanian creates additional, linguistic hurdles for the choir to face.

In contrast, Doug took the choir through Purcell’s solemn Thou Knowest Lord, which has spaces in the music of heightened dramatic tension, as the Choir beseeches God ‘shut not Thy merciful ear unto our prayer.’ The morning ended with Warlock’s Lullaby, My Jesus, arranged by Andrew Carter, full of yearning chromaticism in the inner voices that need to be delivered confidently if we are to deliver the quite astonishing dissonances which Warlock unfurls throughout this highly expressive carol.

Lunch was dominated by the eager anticipation of this year’s home-made quiche made by Matt; last year, Inger had set the bar high and there was some pressure, but I’m pleased to say that Matt’s was every bit as good – at least, if the fact that it apparently disappeared extraordinarily fast is anything to go by.

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Great expectations from Quick Captain Matt and the Choir at lunch

Amongst the repertoire we rehearsed in the afternoon, the hynotic, dancing lullaby (a recurring theme amongst repertoire this year) And by Alec Roth; another two-choir piece, it combines circling ostinati with bell-like cluster-chords in a lulling opening, supported behind by sighs and sussurations in the second choir in a soundscape mimicking the sleeper’s breathing. Doug’s third piece, Hassler’s Cantate Domino, combines lyricism with a sprightly triple-meter middle section, which the choir is starting really to enjoy.

anthologyWe ended by playing with space in a literal sense, arranging the choir around the balcony of the concert-hall to sing Alexander Campkin’s carol, Sleep, Holy Babe. This is all about removing the safety of singing in close proximity, encouraging each singer to sing confidently, committing to their line and developing a rich ensemble sound.

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Panoramic shot of the spaced-out choir…

This took some getting used to, but when the Choir came back together to sing in formation, the effect was immediate; the singers felt more confident standing together, but still sang with the commitment to the voice-parts, and the result was a fuller sound. The Choir will be singing the piece next month in Canterbury Cathedral, so it’s important that they grow accustomed to filling quite a large space…!

It’s customary, on workshop days, to do the latter part of the day in concert-mode, i.e. with the dress-code and performance folders that we will be using on the night; it’s a particularly effective means of focusing the Choir’s attention on the fact that they will soon be performing in public, and to start getting used to standing, holding ourselves as a group. (It also allows everyone to check they have the right clothing in the right colour…). It definitely creates a mock performance condition, as we head towards our first engagement, singing in the Nave of Canterbury Cathedral to over a thousand in the congregation in the University Carol Service next month.

Getting into performance mode

Getting into performance mode

The afternoon ended with the Choir learning a carol, Sleep My Jesu, written by Jamie W Hall as part of a seasonal initiative to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Care under the #choirsagainstcancer hashtag. The choir took the piece up very quickly, and half an hour later we recorded a performance as a means of participating in the nationwide project to raise money for this very worthy cause. Considering that this was only the fourth time we’d sung through the piece, and the second without the piano, the group picked this up very quickly indeed! (Find out more about the initiative or make a donation here).

My thanks to all the singers for their hard work on Saturday, and for giving up a large part of their weekend to rehearse; we all came away afterwards with the sense that we are really starting to find our feet as an ensemble. There’s still some way to go, but we are heading in the right direction…

A premiere for Minerva Voices

Shiny new copies of a brand-new piece hot from the the presses of Banks Music arrived on the desk yesterday, a setting of In Paradisum by Russell Hepplewhite for upper-voices, which I’m delighted to say Minerva Voices will be premiering in March.

paradisumrussell_hepplewhiteRussell’s chamber operas for younger audiences commissioned by English Touring Opera have been garnering acclaim, including his Laika the Space Dog, which won the Armel Opera Festival in 2013, and more recently Shackleton’s CatIn Paradisum is part of an exciting new series of choral publications from Banks Music, and Minerva Voices is delighted to be premiering this sublimely ethereal setting in their March concert.

We’ll keep you posted…

In rehearsal: Memorial Ground

The University Cecilian Choir spent this afternoon rehearsing Memorial Ground over in Studio 3 Gallery, ahead of performance next Thursday.

The event brings together a new choral piece by the American composer David Lang, together with poetry by Siegfried Sassoon, and also period images drawn from the University’s Special Collections and Archives. Here, the ‘hymn’ of the piece is interspersed with a new poem, The Turtle Dove, by Nancy Gaffield, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing in the School of English.

img_0886img_0883The performance on Thursday 10 November at 1.10pm in Studio 3 Gallery, which will be prefaced by a performance of The Last Post, is free, and is one of three events taking place across two days as we commemorate the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme; more details here.

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Summoned by bells: rehearsing ‘Memorial Ground’

So far this term, the University Cecilian Choir has been at work rehearsing Memorial Ground, a commission by the 14-18NOW project from composer David Lang to commemorate the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. This fragmentary, hesitant choral piece is full of energy-charged moments of stillness, and the Choir’s performance next month will combine the work with poems by Siegfried Sassoon as well as a new poem by poet Nancy Gaffield, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing in the School of English and the author of Tokaido Road and Continental Drift.

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The University Cecilian Choir

In rehearsal this afternoon, words and music came together in dialogue, with phrases from various poems answered by musical responses from the Choir creating moments of real tension. Underlining both words and music, the intoned notes of the tubular bells hung in the air (reminiscent on occasion of the opening of Britten’s War Requiem), evoking a sombre tone that enhances the commemorative atmosphere that Memorial Ground conjures forth so effectively. Even though we were rehearsing in the wood-panelled concert-hall rather than the intimate, resonant surroundings of Studio 3 Gallery (where the performance on Thurs 10 November will take place), there was still a theatricality to the session as we ran through the whole piece, complete with poetry readings. Particular phrases took on a highly charged dimension – the Choir’s truncated ‘Those who…’ creating an air of expectancy; the sudden tension as Sassoon’s line ‘Soldiers are sworn to action: they must win’ is answered by the Choir’s haunting ‘Those who have fallen…’

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Rehearsing ‘Memorial Ground’

The event on Thursday 10 November will also include a series of image projections drawn from the University’s Special Collections archive, curated by Joanna Baines, relating to materials of the time. The combination of words, music, bells, images and silence promises to create a profound, moving and evocative moment of remembrance.


Admission to the performance on 10 November is free: more details here. The event will also be live-streamed: details to follow.