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Planning for the autumn: Memorial Ground

With the University year now over, it’s back into the planning period, developing ideas for repertoire and programming for next year.

David_Lang_imageOne of the projects I’m currently devising for the University Cecilian Choir is a performance – well, perhaps ‘realisation’ is a more appropriate term – of David Lang’s Memorial Ground, co-commissioned by East Neuk Festival and the 14-18 NOW: WW1 Centenary Art Commissions, to commemorate the Battle of the Somme.

What’s fascinating to me about the piece is the multitudinous ways in which it can be realised. The piece’s great strength is its adaptability, its flexibility which allows ensembles to craft it in a way which will make it unique to their performance. The possibilities of including poetry, spoken word, wordless solos, even instruments, offers plentiful creative opportunities to put together a performance that can reflect, resonate with, or speak to different spaces, different venues, different times. Usually, as a conductor, you’re endeavouring to be as fidelious to the score as possible, paying close attention to realise the piece in a way faithful to the composer’s intentions. With this piece, however, you are given freedom to realise the piece in any manner you wish, using content supplied by the composer but also with the ability to involve additional material beyond that supplied by Lang. Of course, there’s a responsibility to make sure that new material is appropriate to the nature of the piece’s artistic intent, that it fits thematically, emotionally, such that the piece can accommodate it, without the new ideas feeling deliberately grafted or imposed onto the pre-composed material.

Once the new academic year begins in September, the Cecilian Choir will form at the beginning of October, which will give us approximately four rehearsals to put the piece together, and I’m hoping to be able to perform the piece several times during November, the month of Remembrance, in contrasting venues – one of which might be the bomb-crater on the hillside north of the city, on the University campus. The crater dates from the Baedeker Raids between 31 May – 7 June during World War Two, rather than from the First World War, but it remains as tangible evidence of the countryside scarred by armed conflict. A performance of the piece, with the Choir at the bottom of the crater and audience arranged around the slopes, might be particularly effective, as the piece speaks across the years to a site directly connected with the country at war.

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It’s particularly exciting to be preparing the piece to start rehearsals in October, searching for suitable materials to use as text, including poems, and songs from the period, to imagine different ways in which to bring the piece off the page, and to consider suitable venues in which to bring it to life. It would be a fitting way of commemorating the events of the Battle of the Somme, and all those who gave their lives – both then and ever since – in war.

We’ll keep you posted as to how the project unfolds.

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When splendour falls: Minerva Voices at Canterbury Castle

Congratulations to Minerva Voices on a splendid evening concert last night, amidst the historic flint and sandstone walls of Canterbury Castle.

IMG_0378_webAs the sun set, the ancient site rang to the sound of medieval plainchant as the performance opened with a Kyrie by Hildegard von Bingen, the long lines lifting and skirling around the keep and lifting into the blue skies.

IMG_0376_webAs the programme unfolded, you could feel the audience draw closer to the music across the shingle area which separated the singers from the boarded walkway, around which the audience stood or sat. Assistant conductor Joe Prescott drew forth a tight-knit Ave Verum by Mozart and and sprightly O Swallow, Swallow by Holst, amongst other works.

WP_20160524_005_webWP_20160524_004_web The performance came to a dramatic conclusion with a militant Norwegian setting of the Song of Roland, with drummer Cory Adams positioned above the audience in one of the castle towers, stridently beating a decorative accompaniment that recalled the military nature of the castle’s history in vivid, echoing sound.

The Choir will perform next in the Saturday gala, Music for a Summer’s Day, during Summer Music Week on Saturday 11 June, and then as part of the Illuminating the Past day at the ancient pilgrims’ hospital, Eastbridge Hospital, as part of the MEMS Festival on Thursday 16 June. Still time to come together before the sun sets on the academic year for the final time… WP_20160524_013_web WP_20160524_015_web

An in-depth exploration of just four notes next week

Minerva Voices is currently rehearsing four notes. No more, no less. Just four notes.

This chromatically-related pitch-collection forms the basis of Alvin Lucier’s remarkable, other-worldly Unamuno, with the Choir is preparing to sing in the sonorous acoustic of Studio 3 Gallery next Wednesday, in the next in the #EarBox series. You’d think that the ear would become bored quite quickly with only four notes on which to focus; far from it. The notes are presented in a sequence of twenty-four variations, providing twenty-four alternative glimpses, almost, of a particular sonic phenomenon, strangely beautiful in its repetitive simplicity. With each sequence lasting for as long as a natural breath, it feels as though a stately procession of glass planets is slowly turning about you.

At some points, you feel as though you are in the midst of a Kubrickian film soundtrack, or the opening to the Alien movie; films often exploit Bartok, Ligeti and the like for their sense of otherness, imparted by dissonance. But the dissonances in Unamuno aren’t fierce or unsettling; rather, they unfold gently, almost reverently, beguiling the ear through over six minutes of intensely concentrated music.

Alvin Lucier

Alvin Lucier

The event next Wednesday in Studio 3 Gallery is a short, twenty-minute performance, the heart of which is this strange, hauntingly beautiful meditation on chromaticism, in which the singers will be spaced around the gallery, immersing the audience in the middle of the sound. The programme will also include music from Norway, and a medieval Kyrie.

Find out more online here; the performance is on Wednesday 18 May at 1.10pm, and admission is free. Come and be transported to another world…

Radio days: Cecilian Choir to feature on BBC Radio 3

Fresh from its appearance on Heart Kent Radio recently, the Cecilian Choir will once again take to the air-waves when it features on BBC Radio 3’s My Choir this Sunday.

radio 3 logoThe weekly programme celebrating choral singing will feature the Choir as part of its ‘Meet My Choir’ slot, in which it highlights choirs from around the country. Needless to say, the student and staff members of the Cecilian Choir are very excited at the prospect.

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Image: Matt Wilson

You can listen to the programme this Sunday at 4pm here; thank you to English lecturer and member of the bass section, Dr Michael Hughes, for coming up with the idea! The audio extract will also feature the University String Sinfonia.

And if you want to hear the Choir and Sinfonia live in performance, they will be celebrating Easter with two of Vivaldi’s dramatic choral works, the Credo and Magnificat, alongside a trio sonata and Mozart’s Ave Verum at St Peter’s Methodist Church in Canterbury on Thursday 31 March at 1.10pm; details here.

England’s Gateway to the World: rehearsing the Anthem for Kent

If you’ve been following the Cecilian Choir recently, you might have noticed a small flurry of excitement around the Choir’s involvement in the Anthem for Kent, which was presented on HeartKent Radio a few weeks ago. Presenters James and Becky created a stirring piece celebrating the glories of the county, from its White Cliffs to its Roman roads, its plentiful castles and the glory of the Canterbury ring-road.

Conductor Dan Harding responded to the piece, entitled ‘England’s Gateway To The World,’ by writing a full, mixed-choir arrangement, about which both the Choir and the radio team are very excited, and today, for the first time, the Cecilian Choir has rehearsed the piece, filling the Colyer-Fergusson concert-hall with an Elgarian anthem to the county’s attractions.

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The Choir has responded to this – if I may say, ever so slightly bonkers – project with vigorous enthusiasm, delivering the piece with all the grandeur called for by its text. We hope to do more with this piece – keep an eye out on Twitter, let’s see how far this can go…

Make it new: rehearsing Vivaldi’s ‘Gloria’

Minerva Voices and Consort came together for the first time last night, to rehearse Vivaldi’s enduringly popular Gloria ahead of Friday’s performance in Canterbury Cathedral’s evocative Crypt.

The overriding intent behind the performance is to ‘make it new,’ to make the piece sound as modern as possible. Now, before all you historically-informed authenticity-types run shrieking from the room, I should perhaps qualify that statement: the idea is to present the piece in such as way as to make the audience feel as though it is new. The Gloria is so well known, our idea is to make the listener hear it afresh – they might not have heard the upper-voices version, which may well have been familiar to  audiences during Vivaldi’s lifetime, or they might have forgotten just how shockingly dissonant the second movement is, or how Vivaldi tries to trip you up  rhythmically at various points; there’s the tension between the solo alto and the chorus in the Domine Deus, Agnus Dei which creates moments of high drama, or the sudden weightlessness as the alto enters poised on the brink of nothingness; or the dynamic drive of the Domine Fili unigenite and the light-footed, darting rhythms in the Qui sedes. We want the listener to discover new aspects to the piece, or remember its fiercely inventive qualities, that may have paled over the years of familiarity with it.

Minerva_Ensemble_rehearsalLast night was spent, therefore, making the piece sound as vital, as alive and challenging as possible. From the brilliant opening cry of the chorus, through the pastoral intimacy of the central Domine Deus to the fervent finale, we built a revitalised reading of Vivaldi’s masterpiece, which we will unleash in the Crypt this coming Friday. Combined with the exploratory first half – choral pieces across the centuries, from Hildegard von Bingen to Veljo Tormis – the concert promises to be something quite special.

The next time the Choir sings, it will be in the historic, mystical surroundings of the Crypt; we’re very excited at the prospect. See you there…

Invitation to the Dance: Cecilian Choir perform music by Lully

Thanks to Matt Wilson for these splendid images of the Cecilian Choir in concert earlier this week, in a concert celebrating the music of Jean-Baptiste Lully. The Choir performed a selection of sacred and secular pieces in a programme that combined words, music, image and costume to offer a glimpse of the bygone age of the Sun King.

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The Choir is in action once again in a dramatic programme for Easter at St Peter’s Methodist Church, Canterbury, when it will perform Vivaldi’s Credo and Magnificat on Thursday 31 March at 1.10pm.

Final rehearsal before Studio 3 concert this Friday

There was an increased sense of expectancy about last night’s rehearsal, as it was the final one before Minerva Voices performs in the rich acoustic of Studio 3 Gallery on Friday.

We always undertake our final pre-performance rehearsal in concert-mode, and last night was no exception; performance folders deployed, running orders given out and music organised, and the singers all wore their performance scarves to add to the sense of formal delivery. The chairs were removed, as was the piano normally used in rehearsals, and concert-lighting was set; it creates a mind-set that puts the singers on the spot as though performing, and focuses concentration.

WP_20160209_001 webHaving spent the first half of the rehearsal working on Vivaldi’s Gloria for the Crypt concert in two weeks, the tone of the rehearsal rose in the second half with our practice run-through. What it taught us was that the level of sustained concentration is very demanding, even in a mock situation. And working through the pieces in order allowed us, afterwards, to reflect on the pacing of the programme as a whole, and how we might improve it. Assistant conductor Joe moved the pace of Holst’s O Swallow, Swallow on slightly, and produced a much freer interpretation; the same also for Tartini’s setting of the Stabat Mater, which needs to avoid luxurious wallowing if the piece isn’t to feel too unwieldy. Of course, you always pace a performance according to the nature of the acoustic in which you are singing, and Studio 3 Gallery has a rich, resonant acoustic that could lure us into really dwelling on chords and the ends of phrases, so we will have to be alert to any tendancy to dawdle!

WP_20160209_002 webSo, the next time Minerva Voices meets, it’ll be in the gallery, warming up for the performance on Friday lunchtime (details here). Come and experience both the music and the exhibition at 1.10pm, admission is free – and let us know if we got the pacing right…

In-Choir Within: Alice Baker

Continuing our series introducing choral singers at Kent; this week, first-year soprano with Minerva Voices, Cecilian Choir and Chorus, reading Wildlife Conservation, Alice Baker.


How did you get into choral singing ?
When I was younger my parents took me to our local church (St. Matthew’s, Redhill) and I can remember always staring at the choir as they paraded through the church at the beginning of every service. By the time I was nine, I was already involved in choirs my primary school organised and was certain that I would be good enough for the church one! Thankfully, the Choir Master and Vicar agreed and in 2006 I joined their SATB choir as their youngest ever member. Very soon after this I went to my Secondary School and instantly joined their Yr.7 choir and progressed up the school, joining choirs wherever I could. Eventually I joined the school’s Senior Choir where I had some of my best singing experiences.

What’s your favourite piece ?
Alice_BakerThis is such a difficult question to answer! I have sung so many pieces in a variety of styles, both in choirs and as a solo performer, that choosing one is no easy task… I think my favourite choral piece has got to be ‘And The Glory Of The Lord’ from Handel’s Messiah because it is so much fun to listen to as well as sing, although it’s no easy task!
That being said, I do also love How Beautiful Upon The Mountains by John Stainer. This was a real favourite at my church and I love the joyful yet haunting qualities of it, created by the harmonies between all four voice parts and the delicate accompaniment.

What’s your best/worst memory about singing in a choir ?
My best memory is a bit of a tie… When I was presented with my Dean’s Bronze Award medal I had the honour of singing at St Paul’s Cathedral in London. It is an iconic building and singing in there was really special. My other best memory is being told that I had been chosen to sing the Once In Royal David’s City first verse solo for our church’s Nine Lessons and Carols service. This is one of the most popular services of the year and when I heard my voice ring out through the knave I think it was the first time I thought to myself: ‘Wow… That actually sounds pretty good’!
I’d like to think that I don’t have a worst memory but after some thought, a pretty nightmare-ish one came to mind. Our choir had organised a concert to raise money for a new set of robes and the day before the performance, I lost my voice. Every singers’ worst fear! (I think I am already gaining a reputation in Minerva Voices for losing the ability to talk every time I get even the slightest cold!) So I spent the day before the concert not making a sound, didn’t sing during the final rehearsal, and only practiced my solo once. When the performance arrived my silence had, thankfully, paid off and I was able to sing every piece to a decent standard. But I can honestly say I have never been so nervous for a solo before and probably won’t be again!

What do you find the most inspirational aspect of choral singing ?
I think the music itself is the key component to capturing and inspiring an audience. And I feel the only way to do this is if the music has  already captured and inspired the choir who will be performing it. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether the people watching came in liking that style of music, if the choir show they enjoy it and performed it well, then the audience should walk away with a new-found respect for whatever was presented. I think this inspires anyone watching and listening to keep an open mind, and it will help them seize opportunities to try new musical experiences in the future. This to me is a choir’s purpose, to bring music to the masses and show them something new and exciting.

Follow Alice on Twitter @AlViBa18

Colour, art and cake

You can tell that we have performances looming; our rehearsals are coming thick and fast, none more so than Saturday’s all-day session. These lengthier rehearsals are infinitely more useful than our customary two-and-a-half-hour weekly meetings, as they allow for more concentrated, more sustained working. You have time to develop the whole process –  looking at notes through balancing chords, to shaping, dynamics, placing consonants, making sure vowel shapes are correct, unity of ensemble sound, time really to get beneath the skin of the music far more in longer rehearsal sessions; and over more pieces, too.

Twitter9853554Saturday therefore allowed us to immerse ourselves in the repertoire for our looming performances, and showed us aspects of the programme that hadn’t been apparent before. A long look at Tartini’s Stabat Mater, for instance, ended with the Choir singing the whole piece through for the first time, and we discovered the piece has an emotional scale and drama far outweighing the scope of its slight appearance on the page. Moving between radiant, three-voice colours and the stark simplicity of plainsong in its setting of the agonising text reflecting on Christ’s Mother weeping at the foot of the Cross, and a yearning to share in Christ’s passion, the music demands sustained concentration in order to bring out the tone of the text as it unfolds.

We also pieced together, for the first time in its entirety, Veljo Tormis’ Spring Sketches, a beautiful set of short songs evoking various nature-scenes – the ebb and flow of the sea, apple-blossom, the colours of the evening sky, the warmth of late spring and the echoing cuckoo-call. There are some ravishing chords at various places in the suite, which need careful balancing if the colours are to come forth. Assistant conductor, third-year Joe Prescott, also took the Choir through pieces by Mozart, Brahms and Cornysh’s Ah, Robin.WP_20160130_008

WP_20160130_012Mid-way through the afternoon, we decamped to Studio 3 Gallery, the venue for our first concert on Friday 12 February, in which the Choir will perform amidst the backdrop to the gallery’s new exhibition, After the Break, which exams the work of two artists, Grete Marks and Kurt Schwitters, who both fled Nazi Germany and came to settle in England. There’s something highly atmospheric about performing amidst visual art – the rapport between the two media means you experience the music differently in the context of the artwork, and your response to the artwork is different in the context of music.

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The Choir rehearsing in Studio 3 Gallery

We arranged ourselves in the corner of the gallery, and started to sing what will be the first piece in the programme, a Kyrie by Hildegard von Bingen. We reached the end of the first phrase – and stopped. The rich acoustic of the gallery had blossomed as that first phrase unravelled, lifting and filling the space, and there was a sense immediately that time had turned, travelling back over a thousand years.

WP_20160130_022It was a remarkable moment.

You could see on the faces of the singers that something had just occurred, something unexpected, something quire powerful. There was a pause, and then an excited buzz went around the room; this gig is Going To Work!

We spent the remainder of the afternoon running through the entire programme, from that skirling Kyrie and ending with the dancing Song of the Stars by Bob Chilcott. Clothed in the sonorous acoustic of Studio 3, the ensemble had a much more vivid, unified sound; and in fact we discovered that we need to tailor the louder sections somewhat, in order not to overwhelm the listener! But we can also go very much quieter in the softer passages, really draw the audience to us and make them listen.

WP_20160130_019All in all, then, a good day’s work. And first-year Alice S’s cake-making skills were in evidence yet again – there was some pressure to live up to the excellence of her contribution to lunch after the success of her effort last term, and it seems she didn’t disappoint this time around either. We pick up again tomorrow night, in a steady build-up into both concerts this month, and at last the pieces are starting to bloom. Come and here them for yourselves…