Tag Archives: Barnum

Creating a contemplative space

Second rehearsal last night, and this year’s Choir is taking repertoire on and throwing it back at me as fast as I’m throwing it at them.

Well..nearly everyone!

Barnum’s Dawn, which we performed last year, is a special request for the December Gala concert celebrating the new building from the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, and we began last night by looking at the middle of the piece, exploring the intense colours of ‘doors upon doors’ before moving to explore the rest of the piece. Finzi’s evergreen My Spirit Sang All Day started to come to life as well – this piece moves through a wealth of harmonies, both related and not-so-related (!) keys, at a lively pace; no sooner has the piece opened with an uplifting ascending unison phrase in G major, then you suddenly find yourself in the middle of the next page in G# major…

We’re continuing to explore my piece for the December concert, getting the rhythmic patterns with which the piece starts into place and learning the second section with its dissonances and clashing semitones.

A key moment in February’s concert will come at the end of the first half, when we’ll be singing a setting of ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ by Sir John Tavener, which we looked at for the first time last night. It’s a wonderfully tranquil piece, which consists of one or two phrases which simply repeat, creating a highly evocative and serene moment; we’re hoping to leave the audience in a contemplative state at the end of the first half.

This year’s student conductor, Emma, led the choir through part of You Are The New Day, a piece she’s chosen for the second half of the February concert. As is customary with barbershop-style, close-harmony singing, it’s actually pretty tricky to sing, for all that it sounds very easy, and the group rose to it with aplomb.

We finished by looking at two more of my Forgotten Children’s Songs – it’s the songs that have been ‘forgotten,’ that is, rather than the children – a lively ‘Stick Dance’ with which the suite opens and the more lyrical second movement,  ‘Cradle Song.’ The choir have responded readily to the child-like nature of the pieces, especially the rustic ‘Dance’ from last week, and have embraced the mock nursery-rhyme language and the individual character of each piece with great vigour.

And not only is she conducting the choir; Emma brought along ‘Welsh cake’ to the rehearsal last night, which sets a dangerous precedent for future rehearsals…

Final rehearsals are over

That’s it: the final rehearsals are over. I feel strangely liberated: there’s nothing more to be done now until the day of the concert, Friday; the programmes have been printed, and there’s no more rehearsals until we’re able to stand in the Cathedral Crypt on Friday afternoon.

The group were in good form on Tuesday night, which saw us rehearsing in St Peter’s Church, Canterbury, where we will be giving a lunchtime concert at the end of March. The church very kindly agreed to allow us to rehearse there on Tuesday, which gave us the chance to rehearse Friday’s programme in a lovely, resonant acoustic: and, as you see from the photo, in full performance mode.

The main thing that comes across is how much the Choir is enjoying itself; they are a terrifically communicative bunch with which to work, and when they are enjoying singing (Dawn, for instance, or In stiller Nacht), it is really obvious. They emanate such an infectious enthusiasm, it’s impossible to resist.

There are a few sore throats and colds and coughs going around, so we’re hoping everyone recovers in time for the concert. The next time we meet, it will be to fill the ancient, Norman crypt with a hue of colours in the music for the programme. Morale is high: I think it’s fair to say that the group feels ready for the concert.

Watch this space…

Ready for Friday

Getting into performance mindset and ordering pizza

An intense week of rehearsals last week – the usual Tuesday night session augmented with a Wednesday lunchtime slot – culminated in a Saturday all-day workshop. With a wary eye on the four o’clock rugby kick-off, we gathered in the usual rehearsal room on a frosty-bright Saturday morning at ten, with a full day of working ahead of us.

Chamber Choir: before...

The morning was given over to addressing particular pieces where notes are still not entirely sure;  I’ve found it a useful exercise to help voice-parts approach lines by playing the soprano and bass lines together, followed by the alto and tenor parts. This serves two purposes: when checking notes, the sopranos can relate their melody to the underlying bass notes, and then the alto and tenor parts can see where their harmonies lie; it also means that you don’t leave one voice-part languishing until the other three have worked through theirs, a sure way of losing concentration and focus.

This worked well, and as the morning developed, we began to become more sure-footed. At the mid-morning break, there was a general sense that we’d moved on. At this point, one of the altos rang out for pizza after checking what everyone would like. It’s become a tradition that everyone brings food and drink to share at lunchtime – organised earlier in the week by the choral-rep-cum-nutritional-officer, Matt – however, Lucy had been working so hard during the week (I’m sure that’s what she said, anyway) that there hadn’t been the time to go shopping; so at the break, an order was placed with the local pizza delivery service, and everyone could relax in the second part of the morning.

At lunchtime, I’d noticed that Eliot College Hall was free – usually in use by student societies or alive with drama rehearsals, Eliot Hall lay unusually quiet. As anyone who has been in the Choir before will recall, the usual rehearsal venue is small and has no acoustics whatsoever, and the opportunity to sing in a more resonant space was too good to miss. After lunch (pizzas successfully delivered, and with some very fine chocolate brownies from the kitchen of Choir Cakes and Confectionery Officer Emma), we therefore decamped to Eliot for the afternoon rehearsal, and here is where the day began to gather momentum.

This year, we’ve decided to adopt a more formal mode of concert dress: the ladies have chosen floor-length, formal black to match the all-black suits of the chaps, whilst everyone will be wearing purple scarves or ties. This stems from a sense that, the more formal and organised the group appears, the more the audience will trust it. Look the part, and even before you’ve sung a note, you’ve won the audience over. With this in mind, all the ladies elected to bring in their dresses and try them on, to check the uniformity. It struck me that this would be an excellent opportunity for the chaps to do the same (with suits, not dresses…) and we could run the entire programme in concert-mode.  I’ve noticed before that as soon as you dress for a performance, you stand and sing very differently. The afternoon therefore represented an opportunity to run the concert in the mindset of full performance: dressed, standing, and singing in higher gear – and, thanks to the hall being empty, a chance to do so in an acoustic more similar to that of the Cathedral Crypt.

We’re running the first two items in the programme without a break – plainchant for Matins into Barnum’s Dawn. As soon as the plainchant died away in the hall, and the first colours of dawn began to emerge, the effect was immediate. A change came over the group – we were in full performance gear, and the new acoustics meant we could really feel the music taking flight. A new vigour came over the group, a real sense of relishing the sound we were making.

Over lunch, Paris, one of the sopranos had suggested members of the choir should take turns individually in coming out of the group to stand in the middle of the hall, to hear the sound. (As Dan in the tenors wryly observed, ”that’ll be everyone out for Sleep, then!”). As they did so across the afternoon, most of them commented afterwards that they had noticed the sound was blending superbly; singing amongst the group, you could hear individual voices more easily, but halfway down the hall, the group sounded like a single entity. With Steph leading a finely-crafted run-through of the Sullivan, it was a highly useful opportunity for us all to really adopt the mindset of delivering a performance.

We finished dead on four o’clock – over at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, the whistle was blowing for the match to start, but also to signal the end for us of a very productive day. Driving home in the late winter afternoon towards the setting sun, I felt as though a minor landmark had been achieved. Well done, team: it all bodes well for the concert at the end of next week.

And after...

Changing our approach to Italian madrigals

Conducting, for me, is a physical experience with something akin to playing the piano – if I can’t feel the music under my fingers as we’re working, either the Choir hasn’t quite learned the music yet, or I haven’t. There’s an almost tangible sense of playing the lines, pushing the chords through the air and grasping the fabric of the music to move the textural ebb and flow and to articulate the dynamic contrasts.

Last night was the first time that this has started to emerge, particularly in the challenging Italian pieces.As the Choir grows in confidence, it becomes more responsive to the emotional rise and fall of the music, and more flexible in its pacing. Aspects of this began to emerge as we rehearsed late into the night; filling the car with fuel on the way home, I stood on the garage forecourt in the chill night air and discovered it was after ten o’clock.

Monteverdi: how Russian ?

In a bid to get a more positive reading of the two challenging pieces in the programme, we changed our approach to the two madrigals dramatically. Rather than going for a ‘tip-toe’ approach to singing, influenced perhaps by the historically-informed practices of some other singing that mistakes authenticity for singing with a small sound,  that meant our pieces lacked confidence and commitment, we approached them as though they were Russian Orthodox pieces; the Monteverdi especially, we thought of as something from the Rachmaninov Vespers, with its deep tonic pedal notes and wide choral textures.

The difference was immediate: the sound was confident, the voices entered with more commitment, and sang more positively throughout the weaving textures.There was a more full-blooded sound, revelling in the evocative word-painting; the trick now will be to make sure we don’t indulge in it too much to the extent where we forget all the dynamic contrasts!

We worked as much without the piano as possible, and there is a developing sense that the pieces are starting to lift off the page; yes, there were a few moments where we turned an harmonic corner into a chord  more alarmingly dissonant than a composer might have intended, but we’re starting to find our feet; the more sustained closing passage at the end of the Monteverdi in particular had a lovely sound, and very fine intonation indeed.

Barnum’s Dawn is proving to be something of a showcase for the Choir, as we develop the dynamic range and really bring out the final ‘sunlit’ section with the eight-note aleatoric cluster in the upper voices.The Choir, I think, are aware of this as well: there’s a real sense of accomplishment when we finished the piece, a genuine sense that we’re creating something remarkable, that sees them smiling and nodding afterwards. It’s a shame, in a way, that the piece is the second item in the programme: the Choir’s signal performance, perhaps the nigh point of the concert,  will be right at the start. But you can’t move a piece called ‘Dawn’ to the end of a programme of music exploring the events of a single day, can you…

Mighty madrigals to intimate Saint-Saens

Extremes of contrasting repertoire this week veered from Monteverdi’s epic five-part Ecco mormorar l’onde, rich in textural contrasts, to the understated homophony of Saint-Saëns’ Calme des Nuits, by way of Vaughan Williams’ Rest, a revisit of Barnum’s Dawn, and our first footfall in repertoire for the festive season.

The Monteverdi is a mighty piece, a meditation on the approaching dawn, with the rustle of leaves, birds singing, and the colours of the sea and sky beginning to appear. Monteverdi uses the piece to demonstrate his consummate skill in textural writing, with imitation, stretto, echo, homophony and antiphonal passages breaking out all over the place; there’s never time to relax into one style, as a few bars later, you’re into a different one. The two soprano lines vie for supremacy as they duck and weave over and around each other, whilst the inner voices ripple with imitative runs or move in similar motion with one or other voice-part. And on top of all that, there’s the Italian pronunciation to get right as well.

Steve Martland

Steve Martland: image credit Schott International

Our first piece for the Christmas season this year is Make We Joy Now by the contemporary British composer, Steve Martland. Martland’s music can be brash, bold, and full of rhythmic verve, and this carol is no exception. Its terrific rhythmic impetus sees the melody in the verses bobbing and weaving, wrong-footing the regularity of the pulse with sudden accents or crotchets where you’d expect a quaver; this is interspersed with a chorus that moves into triple metre, and builds dynamically in a truly exciting fashion as the same phrase is repeated – ‘make we joy now.’ We’ve worked slowly through the first verse and chorus, and it’s starting to develop, although the unpredictability of the metre is proving something of a challenge.

Steph returned to The Long Day Closes‘and had the choir exploring the dynamic contrasts with different sounds – humming for piano passages, ‘eeh‘ for crescendi / diminuendi and ‘ah’ for forte passages, which revealed the dynamic contours to good effect. A very useful exercise: I might have to nick that one…!

The rich sonorities of Vaughan Williams’ gently flowing Rest were followed by the intimacy of Saint-Saëns’ Calme des Nuits, a marvellously understated piece which, apart from the central eight bars, never really gets above pianissimo: the challenge with this work will be to bring off singing very quietly with good ensemble and intonation. Oh: and the French pronunciation, of course…

We ended by returning to Eric Barnum’s Dawn, in particular the last page, which uses an aleatoric passage for upper voices: the sopranos and altos each take a single note from a collection of eight, which they then sing over and over again, breathing where necessary, but in a way that should not coincide with anyone else: the score talks about creating the effect of ‘golden light.’ This was definitely new territory for the group (that’s modern music for you), but they took to it well, and eventually it started to work. We talked about creating the effect of a shaft of light falling through a prism and breaking into rainbow hues, and this seemed to help them make sense of what they were trying to achieve. In the Cathedral Crypt, it could be an amazing moment…

A new Dawn, a new day: the new Chamber Choir

And rising, phoenix-like, from the ashes of last year’s Chamber Choir is the new ensemble, which met tonight for the first time.

First meetings are always tentative, with new members suddenly thrown into the fray alongside returning singers from the previous year. It’s difficult to sing confidently amongst strangers, especially when grappling with new pieces to sight-read and sometimes different languages in which to sing, in an unfamiliar venue on a campus at which you might only have arrived a few weeks previously.

And the group rose to the occasion splendidly.

After some tricksy warm-ups from Steph Richardson, this year’s student conductor, it was straight to work, looking at four pieces for the Crypt Concert in February of next year. First up, Dawn by the American composer Eric Barnum, a Whitacre-esque meditation on the rising day. We followed this with Vaughan Williams’ Sweet Day, a mock-Elisabethan part-song.

A sojourn in Italy next, with Lassus’ Tutto lo di, a deft villanelle which trips through various metric values, full of life and vigour. Some might consider not introducing the challenge of singing in a foreign language at a first rehearsal – all those tricky vowel-shapes and the minefield of pronunciation – but the group rose to the challenge with spirit.

We finished by looking at some genuine Whitacre,  Sleep, his profound and beautiful piece to a poem by Charles Anthony Silvestri. Some astonishing chords here, with consonant sonorities supporting semitone clashes that give a real piquancy to the music, some rich colours and breath-taking sonorities – we’ve begun building certain passages chord-by-chord, and the choir have taken to it straight away.

All in all, a terrific first rehearsal: well done to all the choir for their work, to Steph for leading the group through the warm-up exercises: more next week. It’s time to start getting excited about the year ahead…