Category Archives: In rehearsal

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…

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

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

It’s oh so quiet…

The Chamber Choir resumed rehearsals earlier this week, having had a break over Easter; the choir is preparing for two performances in June as part of Summer Music Week, the Music department’s annual festival which bids a musical farewell to the academic year. It’s a busy time for the singers, with revision and examinations and dissertations all exerting pressure – and with only five rehearsals left, rehearsal time is at a premium.

The first concert is a revisiting of the programme the Choir performed in the Cathedral Crypt back in March, which includes Fauré’s richly-hued Requiem and several tricky contemporary pieces. With so little rehearsal time this term, and members missing rehearsals as they prepare for exams, it’s an opportunity to rehearse and to perform without having the additional stress of trying to learn new repertoire. But – and this is where the magic begins – returning to pieces that you’ve already learned and delivered in the glare of the public eye is a fascinating experience; you know the pieces really well, and are confident in them because you’ve already aired them in public, and so the level of performance improves from the previous concert. There’s a new-found freedom in revisiting them, a surety that comes from trusting that you can deliver them, which leads to increased confidence, which leads to greater freedom – and so it continues. At this point in the academic year, the choir is really flying; a rich, assured ensemble sound, a tremendous pleasure in knowing the pieces will come off the page successfully.

And yet…there’s always something new, some new direction the choir takes, some undiscovered aspect to its performing that emerges. And this week was no exception; as we picked started our first piece, the dynamic level reached new depths of piano and pianissimo that were entirely unpremeditated; we hadn’t elected to explore singing much more quietly than before, but there was an empathetic, collective response that found us singing much more intimately than we ever had before; and it worked. As the rehearsal unfolded, this contrast appeared in other pieces, and was particularly exciting. Where had it come from ? As the conductor, I certainly hadn’t asked for it; instead, it emerged as a result of the choir’s renewed confidence and trust in one another and in the music; the singers know the pieces extremely well, and can afford to take more risks, broaden the dynamic scope, push with greater energy, bolstered by their confidence in the unity of ensemble sound. The effect of reaching a much quieter sound served also to heighten the contrast with forte passages, which felt much louder (and more exciting) without our having to exaggerate them.

That’s the best and worst thing about this point in the year; having worked so hard together since those first early steps in October, the choir has become a fully integrated musical unit, and is at its apex; in a few weeks’ time, the group will disintegrate as members graduate or go on a year abroad, and that will be that. I’m reminded of that line from Blade Runner: ‘The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long.’ This choir is burning very brightly now – we have only a few short weeks left in which to enjoy it, but enjoy it we shall; next month’s revitalised programme will be quite something.

The Chamber Choir performs at St Peter’s Methodist Church, Canterbury on Friday 9 June and in Colyer-Fergusson Hall on Saturday 10 June; details here.

Images: Molly Hollman

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…

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…

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.