Between Worlds: first rehearsal with the composer

Amongst its many performing commitments this year, the University Chamber Choir is busy preparing a new piece being written especially for the choir and ensemble by Deal-based composer and performer, Anna Phoebe.

Anna’s new piece, Between Worlds, is a distant cousin of the Cellular Dynamics project, a collaboration between the Music department and the School of Biosciences exploring links between music and science. What’s new about Anna’s piece is that it is a direct, original musical response both to scientific research and to the laboratory environment, drawing on hi-resolution spectroscopy, video evidence and even sampled sounds from the laboratory to create a musical reflection, or response, inspired by the material gathered.

The Choir had the opportunity to work with the composer at Tuesday night’s rehearsal, at which Anna also played the violin in two of the movements. One of the sections features a dialogue between solo soprano and violin above a slow-moving choral backdrop, and it was thrilling to hear the solo violin lifting and skirling around the concert hall, weaving highly decorative arabesques around the soaring soprano line. It’s the first time that Anna has written for choir, and it’s apparent that she has an innate grasp of writing for the ensemble, structuring the vertical sonorities to create colours and contrasts.

What is striking about the piece is that it’s an engaging emotional, and highly expressive, response to the scientific environment; Anna’s musical language employs added-note chords and suspensions, the occasional slight portamento effect in the voices, creating a richly-colourful musical landscape. Her vision for the piece is cinematic in scope, and there are some scintillating dissonances, highly-charged moments that require the choir to know exactly where their notes are, and to have courage to sing them confidently to make the dissonant colours ring. Elsewhere, the texture includes field recordings made in the laboratory – the clinking and tapping of day-to-day lab equipment – such that the music sounds as though the lab itself is stirring into life; the fabric of the laboratory environment reaching out from the visual imagery and to become part of the sonic environment, a unique connection between science and sound. Last night’s rehearsal was the first step in building the composition, and putting the choir and solo lines together; there were some wonderfully atmospheric moments (notwithstanding the fact that several members of the choir were away that night) that have the Choir looking excitedly ahead to further movements as the piece unfolds.

The Choir and Anna will perform several movements from Between Worlds in a concert on Friday 8 March at Wye Parish Church, a taster of what’s to come when the piece receives its full premiere in Colyer-Fergusson Hall on Friday 7 June. It promises to be quite an event…

 

The fifth element: Blest are the Pure in Heart by James Webb

As part of its programme of contemporary works this year, the University Chamber Choir has been developing Blest are the Pure in Heart, a strikingly colourful anthem by James Webb published by Chichester Music Press.

The piece reflects the tone of the text (Blest are the pure in heart, for they shall see our God) in revelling in the sparse beauty of the open fifth, first heard at the opening in the sopranos and altos; the tenors and basses reply with the same interval on the dominant, creating an overall chord built now on fourths; the upper voices re-present their initial fifth, prompting the lower voices to respond with another open fifth, now on the mediant, which creates a contrasting combined sonority of a first-inversion major seventh. The simple juggling and combining the same interval at different transpositions creates three different gestures within the first two bars – an evocative start to the piece, which then unfolds in a more melodic fashion, but with the harmonic language still underpinned by the prevalence of the open fifth. It’s as though the music is trying to work out how best to respond to its first chord, exploring options in order to find the most suitable; its dissatisfaction with the first two (wonderfully colourful!) choices becomes the catalyst for the rest of the piece’s gradual unfolding.

Later still, when the opening returns, the music unfolds to include a flattened sixth, a small harmonic moment of great expressive power; the piece concludes with a final presentation of the opening gestures which now resolve into the tonic major, but hovering in second inversion, giving the end a wonderful sense of weightlessness.

A former producer with BBC Radio 3, James Webb also won the inaugural  BBC Young Musician of the Year Composers Award in 1992; his music has been performed by groups including London Voices, the Delta Saxophone Quartet, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

At its dress rehearsal this week in preparation for singing at the University Carol Service in Canterbury Cathedral next month, the Chamber Choir made a recording of the piece:

We are very much looking forward to performing this work in the resonant acoustics of Canterbury Cathedral and elsewhere as part of the Choir’s repertoire during the course of this academic year; it will work especially well in the evocative surroundings of the Cathedral Crypt in May.

Find out more about Chichester Music Press here.

Minerva Voices returns

I’m very pleased to say that our upper-voice chamber choir, Minerva Voices, has risen from the ashes like a phoenix this year, and is currently rehearsing ahead of a concert in March.

Minerva Voices at the University of Kent

Following on from auditions at the start of term, the upper-voice choir comprises undergraduate and post-graduate singers, and this year is working on some wonderfully colourful repertoire, including a new piece by Russell Hepplewhite, which is part of an anthology recently published by OUP, As You Sing. Russell’s piece, Fly away, over the sea, is a gorgeously-flowing setting of a poem by Christina Rossetti, and the choir has already begun working on it as part of its programme for March. The concert will also include the evocative Tundra by Ola Gjeilo, and movements from Vivaldi’s enduringly fresh-faced Gloria, in an arrangement which reflects how the work might originally have been performed at the orphanage in Venice, where Vivaldi was working at the time, for which the choir will be joined by members of the String Sinfonia.

There’s a particularly wonderful homogeneity to a choir of women’s voices, and the concert will reflect the different colours which various composers distil from the ensemble. You can come and hear the results for yourself on Weds 13 March, 2019, when Minerva Voices takes to the stage in the concert-hall for what promises to be a ravishing programme of choral music…

New year, new Chamber Choir

With two days of auditions over, this year’s University Chamber Choir is underway and preparing for a particularly busy calendar of performing commitments throughout the course of this academic year.

Comprising both undergraduate and postgraduate students from across the University community, this year’s ensemble consists of eighteen singers, who will be working towards the usual events in the choir’s annual choral calendar, as well as some exciting new events (about which more anon…). Our first public engagement will be the University Carol Service at Canterbury Cathedral in December, always a magical opportunity for the Choir to take flight publically for the first time.

Later in the year, we’ll also be singing Choral Evensong at the Cathedral, and giving our annual concert in the Cathedral Crypt; also in the diary are a return to St Michael’s Church, in Hernhill, for a meditative sequence of music and silence by candlelight in Breathing Space, a performance at Wye Church, and the performance of a new piece for choir, strings and electronics, for which rehearsals will start in November.

This year, the Assistant Conductor is second-year Hannah Ost, who also MDs with the Musical Theatre Society, and recently completed a busy summer working at the French Woods School of Performing Arts in New York.

It’s a relief for us to be finally up and running – we’re looking forward to the year ahead. See you along the way…

A visit to a Kentish village in May

The University Chamber Choir (pictured) and members of the String Sinfonia travelled to the picturesque village of Hernhill, in Kent, last Friday to perform The Agony and The Ecstasy to a packed audience in the twelfth-century church on the village green.

Set amidst the rolling orchards and fields of rural Kent, the countryside was filled, on a perfect summer day, with choral music ranging across the centuries, from Tudor polyphony to a modern Lenten motet by composer Sarah Rimkus, with at its heart the dramatic Stabat Mater by a youthful Pergolesi, completed shortly before the composer’s tragically early death. Assistant conductor, second-year Matt Cooke (pictured in rehearsal), also led the Choir in music by Rachmaninov and Passereau.

The audience at St Michael’s church responded with enthusiasm and rousing applause at the conclusion of the performance, and we’re delighted that the retiring collection, in support of the church’s much-needed renovation funds, raised close to £500.

Thanks to all the performers and to everyone involved; the Chamber Choir is back on Tuesday 29 May, when it will sing Choral Evensong at Canterbury Cathedral, and the String Sinfonia will perform next on Thursday 7 June as part of the annual Summer Music Week festival at the University; more details here.

Where science meets art: the Cecilian Choir and Cellular Dynamics

The University Cecilian Choir recently performed Ola Gjeilo’s colourful Sunrise Mass as part of the continuing Cellular Dynamics project, an initiative between the Music department and the School of Biosciences bringing together live music and cutting-edge research images.

Gjeilo’s orchestral mass setting is a perfect foil for the array of images and media culled from the School of Bioscience’s research portfolio, which unfolded live on the screen over the heads of the performers, managed by Reader in Pharmacology and Deputy Head of School, Dr Dan Lloyd.

Amidst a hushed darkness, the music and projections combined to create a marvellously meditative atmosphere, which held the audience enthralled throughout the performance.

The Cecilian Choir comprises staff, students and alumni at the University, and the performance, together with the String Sinfonia, was conducted by Deputy Director of Music, Dan Harding. The Choir and Sinfonia will perform the Sunrise Mass again on Friday 8 June at St Mary of Charity, Faversham, as part of Summer Music Week.

Images © Matt Wilson / University of Kent

Between two worlds: O Vos Omnes by Sarah Rimkus

The University Chamber Choir is forever tackling contemporary works as it develops its repertoire for the annual Crypt Concert, and this year includes the haunting O Vos Omnes by the American composer, Sarah Rimkus, in its programme.

The motet is a setting of a text for Holy Saturday in Lent,

O all you who walk by on the road, pay attention and see if there be any sorrow like my sorrow. Pay attention, [all people] and look at my sorrow, if there be any sorrow like my sorrow.

and treads a wonderfully ethereal line between medieval plainchant and a sparse yet colourful modern musical language, rich in open fifths. The harmonic language unfolds in a slow procession of colours, as though the listener is passing a series of stained-glass windows, that is highly expressive, yet wonderfully understated; the recurrent motif, first heard right at the opening, is built from the melodic line, broken up across voice-parts and with notes extended such that a four-note cluster chord arises as a vertical incarnation of the linear melody. It creates a wonderfully ambiguous tonal landscape, as the listener is moved across harmonic planes without ever quite knowing how they were taken there; it’s only with the return of the melody, hummed gently above a tonic pedal, at the conclusion of the piece that our feet touch the ground once more.  In places the music unfurls in steps of an open fifth to build very stark sonorities, answered by lines that rise and fall like plainsong above a pedal-point, creating tension between motion and stasis. There’s a yearning quality to the shape of the melodic line, which, for all its motion, cannot escape the tyranny of its starting note.

Born in Washington in 1990, Sarah has previously studied with Morten Lauridsen, and is now based in Aberdeen, where she is currently studying with Paul Mealor (whose Ave Maria will also feature in the programme). Her music has won numerous awards, and is performed around the world, including at the Cheltenham Festival and Buckingham Palace. Her evocative setting of O Vos Omnes, hovering between the old world and the new,  will be a luminous gem when the Chamber Choir performs in the Crypt of Canterbury Cathedral in a few weeks’ time.

http://www.sarahrimkus.com

O that we were there…

Congratulations to the University Chamber Choir, which sang as part of last night’s University Carol Service.

Image: Matt Wilson / University of Kent

Amidst a Cathedral plunged into darkness, lit only by the dancing flames of over a thousand candles clutched by the congregation, the Chamber Choir opened the service with the energetic rhythms of Verbum Patris Umanatur by Ronald Corp; after the assembled congregation then rose, the voice of second-year soprano Fleur Sumption (pictured above, front row, second from left) lifted clear into the vaulted arches in the opening of Once in Royal David’s City – and Christmas was well and truly here.

Later in the service, second-year Matthew Cooke (right) made a fine conducting debut, leading the Choir in In Dulci Jubilo; the Choir’s final solo carol was the enchanting Star of the East by Russell Hepplewhite. The Choir also lent its voice to several descants in the congregational carols too; even the basses…

Image: Matt Wilson / University of Kent

The annual University Carol Service is a wonderful occasion, each year bringing members of the University community together in words and music, closing with the people filing out of the Cathedral’s great West Door to take their candles out into the wintry night. Thanks to all the singers for their commitment to last night’s service; it all resumes next month as the Choir focuses on Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater and a mix of contemporary works as part of a colourful programme for its Crypt concert in March.

From all the Choir: a merry Christmas!

Image: Matt Wilson / University of Kent

Working with the composer: Russell Hepplewhite

The Chamber Choir was delighted to welcome composer Russell Hepplewhite to its regular rehearsal this week, to work on Russell’s carol, Star of the East, ahead of its performance in Canterbury Cathedral next month. The Choir will sing it at the University Carol Service in front of an audience of over a thousand on December 11, and Russell came down from London especially to be a part of the rehearsal process.

It’s a real treat to be able to work with the person who has created the music – daunting, too, to have to perform it when they are present and scrutinising every nuance – but it affords insights direct from the mind that wielded the pen. Part of the thrill of contemporary music is the opportunity it offers to connect directly with the composer – never mind the fact that they know the piece inside-out and you’re hoping they approve of the manner in which you’ve realised it!

Russell’s carol is a beautifully-crafted piece that moves from broad strokes to a wonderfully intimate second verse, before opening the doors to a richly vibrant final verse; part of the rehearsal was spent exploring the full range of contrasts; Russell also shared the inspiration behind the work and its creation, and different ways in which it can be realised.

Huge thanks to Russell for coming down to work with the Choir; armed with Composer Approval, we’re looking forward to launching the piece into the soaring Nave of the Cathedral as part of the University’s annual Carol Service in two weeks’ time.

Cecilian Choir prepares for Christmas

This year, the University Cecilian Choir is back and bigger than ever as it prepares for its Christmas concert, a mouth-watering selection of music and seasonal readings to launch the festive season.

The Cecilian Choir and Pops Orchestra

The choir, a by-invitation ensemble comprising undergraduate and postgraduate students, staff and alumni made its first public appearance last week (pictured above), with a smaller incarnation performing John Williams’ moving Hymn to the Fallen as part of a short remembrance event in Colyer-Fergusson Hall, accompanied by the new University Pops Orchestra. So far this term, the Choir has been preparing Ola Gjeilo’s richly-colourful Sunrise Mass for a special performing in March (about which more later…); currently, however, it’s full-on seasonal music as we prepare for A Christmas Cornucopia on the 1 December.

Will Wollen

The concert brings together carols and music by Handel, JS Bach and seasonal instrumental gems by Vivaldi, Tchaikovsky and Corelli, combined with a sequence of readings ranging from Thomas Hardy and William Barnes to (of course) Dickens’ well-loved A Christmas Carol. The readings will be brought to vigorous life by Will Wollen, Senior Lecturer in Drama and Theatre Studies, and the instrumentalists of the String Sinfonia.

Prepare for crisp wintry scenes in Vivaldi’s Winter, meditative carols by Peter Warlock and Holst, joyous movements from Handel’s Messiah and words from George Eliot, Italo Calvino, Nancy Mitford and more as  A Christmas Cornucopia bubbles with festive cheer next month; find out more here