Category Archives: All of a piece

Repertoire in focus

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

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…

Sweet singing in the Choir

It’s been the end of a very busy period for the Chamber Choir, with two performances as part of the Gala weekend of concerts celebrating the opening of the new music building, followed hard upon by rehearsing and performing in the Cathedral for the University Carol Service.

All of the hard work and commitment came to fruition on Saturday and Sunday with two terrific performances in the Gala concerts, and the most interesting thing to have emerged from both occasions is the fact that all the comments and feedback that have come my way since, all of them have referred to the fact that the pieces were performed from memory. Everyone has noticed this, and it has obviously made a significant impact.

Rehearsing in the concert-hall

I’m very pleased at this; it’s something that the Choir itself (well, Paris at first, but then everyone!) decided it wanted to achieve, and they have worked extremely hard to get the music off the scores and into their heads. It’s certainly true that, as soon as you’re not looking down at the music but out at the audience, you deliver a piece with greater conviction and heightened levels of communication. And it’s clearly worked.

There was a sense of euphoria, therefore, as we gathered in the Cathedral on Monday afternoon, to start rehearsing for the Carol Service. The first two carols are sung from the West end, behind the congregation; and as we did last year, we sang facing sideways to each of the adjacent pillars (no-one can see us: the lights are switched off, and everyone is facing the other way!) to get a little more resonance, and some return on our sound.

As usual, the most excited confusion came with organising how we would process from this formation down the Nave during ‘Once in Royal’ and end up in the right formation on the choral risers behind the altar. Not overlooking the fact that some of the ladies had long dresses and long hair, troublesome for navigating steps and handling lit candles respectively.

Having retired to an adjacent hostelry for dinner in between rehearsal and performance, we gathered in the north aisle at 7.15pm, where Emma led the Choir in her usual dynamic warm-up exercises beneath the sheltering sounds of the Salvation Army playing pre-service carols to the slowly assembling congregation.

Gathering before the Carol Service

Shortly before 8pm, we processed down to the West doors, and waited whilst the lights in the entire Cathedral were doused and candles were lit; from out of the darkness Emma launched ‘The Sussex Carol’ with sprightly vigour, to which the Choir responded, and the service had begun.

Can I get there by candlelight…

After a short silence, there then rose the wonderful warm tones of Paris, one of the sopranos, in the opening verse of ‘Once in Royal,’ with a lovely relaxed, flexible and confident sound. No matter how many years one has heard this carol at the start of a service, there is nothing quite like hearing it at the start of the Carol Service in Canterbury Cathedral.

The processing went, you will be pleased to hear, without a hitch – none of ladies tripped up as they ascended the stairs, and no-one set light to anyone else – and the rest of the service unfolded in the majestic surroundings of the city’s historic cathedral.

At the end of the service, the order of service bids us take our ‘lit candle out of the Cathedral and into the world.’ As I left the Cathedral, walking across the city centre, in front of me a Chinese family were similarly heading home, and the two small children were doing just that – carrying their candle, still alight, through the city. They turned off ahead of me and disappeared down one of the smaller snickleways, and I watched the candlelight dwindle as it must have done many hundreds of years ago, passing between Tudor-timbered shop-fronts as it faded into the night. This is the real magic of the University Carol Service – the combination of a vibrant, international community coming together in an historic venue, where the current University members renew again the Christmas message in the middle of an ancient city.

Merry Christmas.

Sweet singing in the Choir


All of a piece: A Babe Is Born in rehearsal

A long rehearsal this week: lots of hard work, in a cold church. The term is starting to gather momentum, not just in terms of the number of musical events that are looming but also academically for the students: deadlines are fast approaching, coursework needing to be done. (Testament to this was the fact that one of the choir nearly left behind a coursework reading-list in the pews at the end of the rehearsal…no names…).

However, the Advent concert programme is starting to take shape, and, with just over a week to go, here we bring you a sneak preview of one of the pieces, A Babe Is Born, written by yours truly and sung with great zeal by the choir. Recorded at a cold and frosty rehearsal, it nevertheless gives a glimpse of what lies in store on Friday week, a blend of traditional as well as modern carols. More recordings to follow in due course.

Well done, team: not long to go now!

All of a piece: Martin’s ‘Mass for Double Choir’ on-line

If you’ve not heard Swiss composer Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Choir, then you should have: and now you can hear it on-line, in a live performance being streamed over on Q2 (click on the ‘play’ icon to launch).

The Latvian National Choir gave a performance as part of the Lincoln Centre’s inaugural ‘White Light Festival.’ There are also pieces by Arvo Pärt and the wonderful Veljo Tormis as well.

Frank expression: Martin

A deeply religious composer, Martin kept the manuscript to the Mass hidden for nearly forty years, feeling that the piece represented such a personal expression of belief that it should not be made public. It remained unperformed until 1963; Martin died in 1974.

Click here to visit the Q2 page: you won’t be disappointed.

Masses of colour: Jackson and Skempton

Two pieces lie at the heart of this year’s repertoire, and at the second rehearsal last week we looked at both: the wonderful colour of Gabriel Jackson’s Edinburgh Mass and The Cloths of Heaven by a composer who will come as no surprise to anyone who sang with the Chamber Choir two years ago: Howard Skempton. Skempton arrived onto the scene with almost majestic grandeur when his orchestral piece Lento was premiered at the Barbican in 1991 (repeated at this year’s BBC Proms with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Ilan Volkov), and his choral piece shows the same effect of ‘profundity through simplicity.’ The Chamber Choir has previously sung his motet Beati quorum via, and the Cecilian Choir sang the Ave virgo sanctissima and Locus iste; I’m delighted to be able to continue our exploration of Skempton repertoire this year.  He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven features Skempton’s trademark simplicity of musical language that nevertheless is deeply moving. Fabulous rich harmonies clothe (no pun intended) W.B Yeat’s evocative poem.

Jackson Mass score

Published by OUP: the Edinburgh Mass

Gabriel Jackson’s Edinburgh Mass occupies a similar musical landscape to the Mass in G by Poulenc, and the Gloria begins with a terrifically affirmative gesture before a more contemplative passage for the text ‘et in terra pax hominibus.’ For me, this piece is like a stained-glass window: lit from behind, it glows with fantastic colour. The Gloria, sees rippling descending quavers passing downwards through the voices, like the pealing of bells, creating a wonderful shimmering texture. More about these two wonderfully evocative pieces as we work through them over the course of this term…

For the Advent concert, we started the antiphonal Hymn to the Virgin by Britten, a traditional seasonal favourite, written when Britten was just seventeen: it already shows a mature command of musical gesture, an assured harmonic palette and a quiet authority for such a youthful work.

About to begin on here is ‘Not drowning but waving.’ a regular column looking at aspects of the choral conductor’s art: expect the first article later this week.