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

In review: Matt Cooke on the Sing for Pleasure conducting course

Each year, thanks to the generous support of one of our musical alumnus benefactors, we send the in-coming student assistant conductor of the University Chamber Choir on a course, ahead of facing the choir for the first time in October. This year, second year French and Business Administration student Matt Cooke (pictured, far right) found himself travelling to Keele University for the week-long Foundation Course run by Sing for Pleasure. Here, Matt reflects on how he got on, the real use for mirrors and folk-dancing…


Back in May, having shown an interest in become the new student conductor for the University Chamber Choir, I was asked to audition. Facing a choir with which I have sung and which I’ve respected so much over the past year was probably one of the toughest things I’ve had to do; describing it as walking into Lord Alan Sugar’s boardroom would be an understatement! Regardless, I was pleased with how the audition went and consequently overjoyed to find out that I would be taking on the role. I couldn’t wait to start choosing repertoire and to attend the Conductors course itself.

Two weeks before I was due to attend the Sing for Pleasure summer school, a pack of music arrived at home containing the four pieces of music that I would have to prepare for the week’s course. I’ll be honest, looking at these scores I was a bit confused as to why the pieces were so simple. A musical round of 4 bars hardly seemed a challenge compared to Rachmaninoff’s Bogoroditsye Dyevo, which I’ve chosen to tackle this autumn with the choir. Nevertheless, I recorded the chosen pieces into Garageband and proceeded to ‘study’ them in the lead up to the course.

I had spent a week prior to the course performing up at the Edinburgh Fringe; arriving at Keele University for the start, it was safe to say I was exhausted, but regardless I couldn’t wait to get started. The 7am start was daunting enough, but after the huge buffet breakfast followed by a strong black coffee, everything didn’t seem so bad! After breakfast we had a vocal warm-up, which every participant on each of the different courses attended. Each warm-up session focused on different warm-up techniques to engage different choirs in different situations. This was followed by a one-hour choral session taught by the tutors. We looked at a Mass written by Ariel Ramirez, called Misa Criolla. It was a challenging piece of music in its own right, but not only did we have two days to learn and perform it, it was written in Latin-American Spanish, which surprisingly didn’t come naturally to many of the choir!

Following the Choral session, we had the first technique session, where all of the foundation conductors came together to focus on the basic gestures and patterns. Firstly, we started on the correct hand position. ‘This can’t be too difficult’, was a phrase that was shortly shot out of my head the minute we started! After what seemed like an eternity of extreme concentration and focussed practise, we began our individual workshops where we split into two smaller groups (picture left) and began work on our prepared pieces. As mentioned above, the pieces didn’t seem particularly challenging, but I soon realised that even the simplest of pieces were a challenge when it came to practising the correct hand gestures and techniques learnt from the previous session.

What really made these sessions so helpful and rewarding was supporting our other class mates during their section of conducting. It was particularly useful to identify common errors, and how to fix them. It was soon found to my surprise that I talk and waffle too much and move too dramatically for music that doesn’t need such gestures. Who’d have thought it! Our tutor Ruth showed us a technique to combat this. I had to stand up against the wall whilst conducting. This kept my back and shoulders against the wall, supporting a good posture, meaning that my beat pattern was the focus of the singers, rather than an over-expressive shoulder.

After a freshly prepared lunch, we moved onto what was perhaps the highlight of my week. We were asked to sing for the Intermediate 2 level conductors, where they were conducting a new arrangement of some Barbershop classics. Having never sung Barbershop before it was great to find out how much I enjoyed it. The session flew by, and before dinner we had an hour of personal preparation and practise. The week has shown me that a mirror is not just for spending hours doing one’s hair, but also to repeatedly go over gestures and beat patterns for practise! The evening’s entertainment was folk-dancing. Admittedly folk dancing isn’t my strong point, but after a couple of drinks, and a disregard of my dignity, we all had a great laugh and what a fantastic ice-breaker that was!

Day two was much the same, with a vocal warm-up followed by choral and technique session. We focused on 2,3 and 4-beat patterns and looking at how to start pieces which begin on an upbeat,  on the bounce-anacrusis and single anacrusis, and how to use them in each time-signature. Following another brilliant Barbershop session and practise session in the mirror, we had Monday night’s entertainment, the first of two informal concerts, where anyone could offer to perform something if they wish.

Tuesday, was a repeat of Monday, with the addition of the formal concert. Wednesday, was a particularly good day with the afternoon off to practise and perhaps a little nap. The evening was taken up by the dress-up, sing-along version of the Sound of Music. It was great fun to see the weird and wonderful costumes that people had made, a particular highlight being the group who had dressed up as the mountains…

Thursday bought with it again more choral sessions this time lead by the advanced conductors. They introduced two more pieces, Vivaldi’s Beatus Vir and Emmanuel d’Astorga’s Stabat Mater, which were to be performed on the Saturday evening. Watching the skills and professionalism of the advanced conductors was a great motivation to see what we could be like in years to come. However, back in reality, we had chosen our pieces to perform in our foundation concert, I had chosen My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean but the other songs conducted by the others included the Welsh traditional All Through the Night and American Traditional Strike the Bell. After this we had bigger things to prepare such as the performance of the Barbershop chorus, which with huge over the top reactions and moments of comic singing, went down a treat for the watching audience with laughter throughout.

Friday was The Big Day for the foundation conductors. For the majority of us we’d conduct a choir for the first time in a concert setting (pictured above). Further rehearsals throughout the day, settled our nerves and we were all very excited to get on stage and perform. I’m glad and very proud to say that the whole concert was a huge success followed by a very relieved bow at the end of each piece! To follow a successful day, we had the second informal concert of the week. I performed in two acts, one of which was ‘Without Love’ from the musical Hairspray and myself and three other guys performed in Barbershop quartet of the song Shine on Me which was received with great laughs and applause

Saturday wasn’t as relaxed as we had hoped as we had last minute rehearsals with the advanced conductors and video feedback from our performances yesterday, where we got to watch our conducting and to reflect on what we had learnt during the week. Reflecting on my performance, I hadn’t quite eradicated the dramatic head and shoulder movements, but applied to the right piece I’m sure it could be quite effective, however for the time being I’ll leave Beethoven’s 9th to the professionals. Saturday evening brought a fantastic performance of the advanced conductors and both pieces of music. It was followed by the awards and then the end-of-course party. I won’t talk too much about the party for several reasons but, ordering over £150 worth of pizza goes to show how big the party was…

Overall I can’t praise and recommend Sing for Pleasure enough for the thorough and professional attitude that all the tutors have to the teaching and development of every participant. The tutors are fantastic and incredibly willing to teach and help but also friendly, making this week not one to forget. I can’t wait to book onto the next course. The week has taught me so much that will benefit many people for the years to come. I would even go as far to say, that it has inspired me to pursue a career in conducting and music, if I were to continue my training. A huge ‘thank you’ to everyone who made the week a fantastic week and to those who enabled me to attend this course, I am incredibly grateful!