Tag Archives: Brahms

Commitment, commitment, commitment…

With only two weeks until our opening concert of this term, last night’s rehearsal was all about developing an ensemble sound. As I said to the Choir, we need to start sounding less like eighteen singers standing around the edge of a wall, each putting our own individual sound forward, and more like a unified singing entity.

The key to unlocking this is, and always has been about, listening; listening to one another, to other voice-parts, to the harmonic landscape of a work. The voices need to be aware not only of others singing the same part (standing in mixed-formation really makes this essential), but also of how their line relates to other lines around them – moving in similar motion, working against, responding to or picking up from a line already in progress, and understanding how their line relates to everything else.

lux_coverThe moment of epiphany came during Whitacre’s ravishing Lux Aurumque; flying now without piano support, we launched into those colourful opening chords; it was fine, but wasn’t really working properly; the notes were in place, but the colours weren’t coming. ‘Listen,’ I said – ‘now really listen to one another – watch someone who comes in when you do – listen to another part and work your dissonance against theirs. Be aware of everyone around you, and commit to the sound.’

Commitment is the other crucial factor, particularly in those contemporary works we’re performing that rely on a firm embracing of a tangential tonal language, rich in dissonance, often without resolution. Those added-notes and chromatic relationships really need to beat against one another – you have to really stand your ground and commit to your note, and if everyone else does the same, the colours can really start to scintillate.

So we stopped, and began again. And the effect was immediate. There was a fullness to the sound, and the harmonic landscape was transformed; suddenly, those cluster-chords were working. As we sang on, you could see some real astonishment lighting up the faces of those who were ‘getting it’ – this is what it’s meant to sound like.

And the knock-on effect was such that the same core commitment to the sound emerged in the desolate yearnings of the Brahms songs as well. You need to learn your notes and watch the conductor, it’s true; but being prepared to commit fully to your line, to listen to others and understand how what you’re singing relates to what they are doing, means the music can really start to lift off the page and come to life.

We’re getting there…


Finding our (choral) feet

This week, the second week of rehearsals with the Chamber and Cecilian Choirs, has seen a real development since last week’s tentative feet-finding first sessions.

Chamber Choir is still ploughing through its repertoire for the Crypt concert in March – we’ve a weekend workshop this Saturday as well, at the end of which we’ll pretty much have sung through nearly all the pieces in the programme. I’m expecting us all to feel slightly more relaxed after Saturday – a few movements from the Brahms’ Sieben Lieder aside, we will now start returning to repertoire we’ve already seen, which will (I hope) start to make the pieces feel more familiar – instead of being confronted each week by new pieces.

And the Cecilian Choir is really starting to develop a terrific sound; we revisited the Hassler ‘Kyrie’ and moved then into the ‘Gloria,’ before departing Germanic Renaissance for the contemporary shores of Ola Gjeilo’s Ubi Caritas and then back to Germany for Rheinberger’s richly-sonorous Abendlied. As the Choir revisits passages we have previously seen, it starts to grow in confidence, and there’s the potential for a lovely ensemble sound to emerge as we become more confident in singing. As we work to develop the three-dimsensionality of the pieces by bringing out the dynamic contrasts and, in the Hassler, the individual subjects as they enter, the choral sound is really beginning to blossom.

Whilst at the start of the week, the upper-voice incarnation of the Cecilian Choir (we’re still working on a name…) met for the first time to explore music by Hildegard of Bingen and send some medieval monophony soaring around the concert-hall. We’ll be experimenting with performing it with and without a drone accompaniment, and establish the wonderful flexibility of the lines as we become more familiar with Hildegard’s colourful melismatic writing.

Exciting to be here as it starts to unfold…


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

Crossing borders: a cosmopolitan rehearsal

Last night’s rehearsal had a distinctly cosmopolitan flavour, as the Choir looked at English, Scottish, American, German and Italian repertoire: we’re nothing if not international in our programme outlook!

Brahms’ In Stiller Nacht has really found its feet, and we’ve been developing the really pernickety aspects of the texture; the detached crotchets in phrases had us, as one, tip-toeing through the chords with a terrific sense of fragility.

We’ve been looking for landmarks in Monteverdi’s Ecco mormorar l’onde, for specific moments of coming together, cadence points, beginnings of phrases, to give the piece a geographical sense; with long, meandering lines, the danger is that the piece simply becomes a collection of voices singing through lines without any sense of direction. (Anyone who has sung one of Byrd’s four- or five-part Mass settings will have found this before). The trick is making sense of the lines, using the starts of phrases and the commencement of new ideas (both harmonically as well as in terms of the text) to give the piece some three-dimensionality – guiding the listener through the piece by highlighting particular moments.

Bennett’s O Sleep, fond fancy occupies a similar landscape to the same composer’s Weep, O Mine Eyes, and needs similar moulding to the Monteverdi. In contrast, Sir John Stephenson’s arrangement of the Scottish air, Oft in the stilly night, is a simpler, homophonic piece that came together very quickly.

Most of the rehearsal was taken up with defining the chordal progressions in Whitacre’s Sleep, particular the opulent third section where the harmonic language opens out, the texture broadens as the sopranos soar upwards; key to this is actually the bass-part, making sure the root of each chord has a solid foundation. We’re still experimenting with mixed-formation singing, and this piece will really test the integrity of the individual voices; in order for the colours to blossom, each singer needs to have confidence in their line, to enjoy the dissonances and added-note sonorities and commit to the colours of each chord.

We concluded with one of the carols for next week’s Cathedral Carol Service, the evocative opening verses of Once in Royal, which this year features soprano Marina Ivanova conjuring up the magic of Christmas in the solo opening verse, before the rich harmonies unfold in the a cappella second verse as the Choir enters. It promises to be a magical moment in the Cathedral…

And, as if there isn’t enough to be excited about, this morning I’ve raided our sheet-music archive for copies of Lauridsen’s deftly lyrical En une seule fleur for the Cecilian Choir’s rehearsal tomorrow. Can’t wait…

(Preview track via LastFM).

Travels on the Continent: : Saint-Saens, Victoria and Brahms

Ave verum corpus is best-known in a setting by Mozart, but the Cecilian Choir began their spring rehearsals with a version by Saint-Saens, that I confess was a recent discovery for me. It’s a wonderfully simple setting in Eb major, which in the more colourful second section, at the words ‘Cujus latus perforatum,’ moves to chords of Db and Gb major, climaxing in the relative minor before subsiding to a gentle ending.

(Unfortunately, there’s a phrase in the middle that is identical to the opening phrase in ‘Tale As Old As Time’ from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1′ 43” in the video above), but we’re hoping listeners don’t notice…).

We renewed our acquaintance with the Victoria Ave Maria we’d begun last term, with its terrific rhythmic flexibility; the phrase ‘Sancta Maria, mater Dei’ is set in triple-metre instead of the compound metre up until that point, which imparts a lovely dance-feel.

Circle-time ensued: we moved away from the piano and gathered in a circle in the middle of the hall to sing it through – it really means you have to get used to not relying on a supporting instrument playing your line, and start listening to the other voices around you. It worked, too: some lovely chords echoed round the hall, and the tuning was spot-on.

Finally, a return to the drama of Brahms’ Ach, arme Welt, with its sudden crescendi and unstable harmonies.

All bodes well for the concert, which is currently being finalised: more details coming soon!

The Austro-German Connection: Brahms and Bruckner

This week, the Cecilian Choir arrived at the Austro-German part of their programme; pieces by Brahms and Bruckner. Bruckner’s Locus iste is a hardy perennial, and gave the choir a chance to work on their vowel-shapes and sustained phrases. The third section is wonderfully chromatic and harmonically uncertain, ‘irreprehensibilis ist,’ and we strove to capture some of that hesitancy in both the dynamics as well as in the unfolding chromatic lines: there’s a tendency to want to crescendo too soon, but holding back and only reaching mezzo-forte before subsiding back to piano for the reprise keeps the excitement of the passage.

The foggiest notion: Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer, Friedrich

The Wanderer: Caspar David Friedrich

From Latin text to German: Ach, arme Welt by Brahms, and a chance to develop the linguistic skills of the choir by getting to grips with German. This chorale has some great colours to enhance the text – ‘’Du falsches Welt, du bist nicht wahr (You false world, you are not real) and ‘’Mit Weh und grossem Leiden (with pain and bitter anguish);’’ wonderful lines to sing in German. The most striking aspect of the piece is that, full of impassioned power and dynamics and crescendi, at the last phrase ‘hilf mir, Herr, zum Frieden (help me, Lord, to peace)’’ the piece ends with a diminuendo and ends piano on the final chord. After all the Sturm und Drang of the rest of the piece, it’s a great trick and creates a rapt ending.

We left German Romanticism behind and ended by returning to French neo-Classicism to revisit the first part of the Poulenc that we’d looked at last week. It’s still a terrific piece: I’m delighted we’re learning it.