Tag Archives: Canterbury Cathedral

Sweet singing in the Choir: Chamber Choir at the University Carol Service

There was a special atmosphere in the Cathedral last night, the annual University Carol Service which brings over a thousand members of the university community together each December. A packed and expectant congregation gathered and stood as the Cathedral lights were extinguished, leaving only the dancing flames of the multitude of candles held by everyone ranged around the Nave and aisles, as the Chamber Choir stood at the West End Door to begin the service with a lively rendition of The Holly and the Ivy. Following this, the voice of third-year soprano Sophia Lyons lifted clear and confident into the roof of the Nave in a ringing opening verse to Once in royal David’s city and the service – and Christmas – was underway.

Later in the service, second-year assistant conductor, David Curtiss, led the Choir on the steps behind the altar in a ravishing reading of O magnum mysterium by Morten Lauridsen, a testing choral piece that requires considerable stamina from the performers.

Second-year David Curtiss rehearsing the Choir in the afternoon

The Choir’s third solo carol was a rendition of Sing Lullaby in a flowingly expressive setting by Jonathan Rathbone, delivered with great flexibility and lyricism.

The first time the Choir sings in the Cathedral is during the rehearsal late in the afternoon, and that first moment of launching  a choral sound into such a richly-resonant acoustic is always a special one. The lengthy acoustic means there’s no hiding from your own sound; at the end of a piece, you can hear your chord travelling around the Nave, with no opportunity to disguise the tuning! I’m delighted to say that there was nothing to worry about, as we listened a little anxiously to the ends of verses drifting down the Cathedral…

There’s always a lovely sense of occasion at this point in the year, as the University gathers to celebrate and renew the Christmas message, and this year was no exception; a wonderfully evocative service lit both by candles and by music. Congratulations to all those involved, and to the Chamber Choir on delivering a polished set of carols as part of the service.


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

Sweet singing in the Choir

When you are preoccupied with such issues as getting in place by the end of Once in Royal David’s City, processing without tripping up, juggling a folder of music and a lit candle without setting light to anything, and not letting your candle burn down to your fingers, then you know it can only be the annual University Carol Service.


Minerva Voices waiting to process

WP_20151214_013Last night’s service, always a high-point of Kent’s cultural calendar, saw over a thousand people packing out Canterbury Cathedral, including the members of Minerva Voices, who performed several solo pieces as well as leading some ringing descants in the congregational hymns (which involved some serious planning over dinner betwtixt rehearsal and concert). The choir arrived in the Nave yesterday afternoon, to rehearse its repertoire, as well as to practice processing from the West Door down to the steps before the rood screen, and to get accustomed to singing in such a magnificent venue. Standing at the end of the Nave, you suddenly realise the volume of vaulted space that the Choir needs to fill with sound.

At 7.55pm, the Choir walked down the side aisle to take up position in front of the West Door; the Dean bid everyone welcome, the lights were extinguished, the first reading delivered, and then a sprightly rendition of Past Three A Clock blossomed into life to fill the expectant hush. Assistant conductor, third-year Joe Prescott, led a vivacious performance that set a joyous tone for the service. The congregation then stood, and that magical moment that really unwraps Christmas occurred; the solo opening verse of Once in Royal David’s City, in a ringing performance from second-year Music Scholar, Charlotte Webb, that soared to the Cathedral’s vaulted roof and rang clear around the Nave. The ensemble rose to match it in the second verse, before the third verse drew Choir, congregation and audience together, and we were off.

The mix of carols and readings also saw the Choir performing the Coventry Carol in a rendition that explored the piece’s melancholy and woe in significant detail; the final solo carol was a vigorous reading of the medieval Nowell Sing We Both All And Some, delivered with gusto in rousingly celebratory fashion.

WP_20151214_017The service closes with a candlelit communal performance of Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and as the congregation departed, bearing their lit candles out into the night and into the mist-strewn city streets, you felt the reach of Christmas go with them. It’s a wonderful occasion, with so many of the University community coming together to hear anew the message of the season in words and music, to reflect on the tidings of the moment and to reach out to others. Now that really is the meaning of Christmas.

Minerva Voices is back in action next term when rehearsals begin anew on Vivaldi’s Gloria and an eclectic mix of repertoire for the Crypt concert in February. Meanwhile, season’s greetings to everyone!

Turning a corner: in rehearsal

Last night’s rehearsal with Minerva Voices was one of those that felt the ensemble turn a corner. You just can’t predict when these turning-point moments are going to occur – you can’t schedule them in to your carefully-planned rehearsal organisation and rely on their happening when you want them to – and all you can do is plan and hope that the work will pay off.

In recent rehearsals, we’ve started to sing in mixed-formation, breaking out of singing in voice-parts to stand with different voices either side; we’ve started to work at singing sections of pieces looking at the scores as little as possible; we’ve begun to sing without using the piano; and, let’s face it, I’ve been nagging the choir each week to lift their heads, breathe properly, take control of the line, sing out and generally get themselves in gear. The choir has responded each week, it’s true, tentatively learning to take a more positive approach, not to be afraid of making mistakes, having confidence in themselves; but it takes time for all these elements to come together on an instinctive level, where you sing with all these factors taken into account because they’ve been instilled in you during the formative, learning process. So you just have to keep working, and wait for it all to start to come together – and pray that it will happen before the performance itself…

P1110049 - CopyAnd all the weeks of nagging – by both myself and this year’s assistant conductor, Joe – finally began to yield results last night. The ensemble sound was more confident, the choir was beginning to find its feet and start to perform, rather than simply singing through the repertoire.

P1110035_webThe other aspect to last night’s rehearsal was a first try-out of the choir’s concert outfits, to see if the colour and co-ordinating will work. This year, we’ve gone for the simple but stark contrast of black and cream, and last night we sang for most of the session in concert-dress; and it does make a difference. Not only do you need to sound like a choir, you need to feel like one; to stand and deliver in a manner that tells the audience that you know what you are doing, and that wins the listener’s trust even before you have sung a note. Standing like a choir last night also helped them sing like one too.


Assistant conductor, Joe Prescott, in action

So, when it comes to singing in Canterbury Cathedral at the University Carol Service on December 14th, we will know how it feels to stand and sing in the outfits we’ll be wearing on the night; another variable removed. Of course, what we won’t know is how it’ll feel on the night with over a thousand people waiting expectantly by candlelight for the first notes of Past Three O’Clock to be lifted into the cathedral’s vaulted roofing; but that will add an extra frisson of excitement to the moment of performance. We hope, anyway…

It’s that time of year again

In the choral calendar, you always know that Christmas is looming when you crack open that perennial workhorse of the songster’s year,  Carols for Choirs. For the Chamber Choir, Christmas began earlier this week, when we wheeled out the copies in order to start rehearsing for the University Carol Service in December.

Hark the Herald Angels sing…

The Carol Service, which takes place in Canterbury Cathedral, occupies a very special place in the choral calendar; the occasion, the venue, the sense of community – plus the usual concerns as to how the ladies in the choir will process up the stairs in long skirts without tripping, how to hold candles and folders of music, and how not to set fire to the hair of the person standing in front of you. With such hallowed issues are carol services concerned – the singing almost comes second…

As usual, we’ll be preparing three carols to sing during the service, plus harmonised verses to ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ and others. There’s usually the challenge (for Kent is the UK’s European University, is it not) of singing one of the carols in a variety of excitingly bewildering languages as well.

And, of course, we’re still in full flight towards the Gala concerts to open the new music building in the two days before the service. We’re starting to leave the piano behind more and more in rehearsal, although this has occasionally resulted in our leaving our intonation behind as well… then again, that’s what rehearsals are all about!

Meanwhile, the Cecilian Choir is branching out from the Britten ‘Ceremony of Carols’ by looking at pieces by Mendelssohn and Debussy – well, we have native German and French speakers in the choir, so it makes sense to use their advice on pronunciation!

Choral life continues…

Tidings of comfort and joy

The annual University Carol Service in Canterbury Cathedral is one of the high points of the cultural year, a moment when the University community comes together to celebrate not just the Christmas message, but also its own diversity; with readers, musicians and participants from across the range of denominations and countries, a rich, international pot pourri that gives Kent, the European university, a unique identity in the UK.

The Chamber Choir, itself a microcosm of the range of countries, cultures and beliefs that find a footing at the University, spent the afternoon rehearsing in the Cathedral before the service, exploring some novel ways of standing (this has become something of an idée fixe with the group this year: when a choir is this good, the possibilities for sonic experimentation begin to widen in an exciting fashion).

Eyes left...and right...

One of the problems we found with singing our first two carols at the great West End of the Cathedral is that, in facing directly down the Nave, there is no support for the sound at all; no reflective surfaces giving back a measure of reverberation. After some experiments, we eventually settled on the way of standing (pictured), which allowed some of the sound to be given back from the ancient stone pillars of the Cathedral; such is the Choir’s confidence in itself that it didn’t need to be directed – in listening to one another (standing, as is now customary, in mixed-group formation), the group could hear something of itself given back from the stonework. As bass singer Matt remarked afterwards, “Having sung in mixed formation this year, I don’t ever want to go back.’’

The greatest challenge to the group wasn’t actually singing; rather, it was in organising its processing, in order to be able to move down the Nave to Once in Royal and end up in the correct formation on the steps in front of the rood screen at the other end. This led to some serious rehearsing of things such as standing and walking. But, once we’d worked out who moved when and in which order, and practiced walking with stately tread down the Nave (but still quick enough to get to into place before the carol finished – now that would have been embarrassing…), we rehearsed Remember, O Thou Man and our sections of the congregational carols standing on the steps.

Warming up

After a decidedly indulgent dinner at an adjacent hostelry, we returned to the Cathedral, and had a half-hour warm-up in a tiny ante-chapel near to the East end, well away from the congregation arriving early and with our rehearsing covered up by the robust playing of the Salvation Army’s pre-service carols. This turned out to be a lively and entertaining session, in which Steph led the group through some of the customary warm-ups and tongue-twisters (which were as nothing, it turned out, compared to the linguistic minefield of singing Silent Night in a variety of unfamiliar languages; as a way of celebrating its international identity, the carol service includes each year this piece with verses in several different languages). We then explored different dynamics, singing in a circle facing outwards, singing crouched or standing, and generally, well, having a great time (yet productive too!).

We then lined up – in our by-now well-rehearsed processional ranks – and filed down to the West end; our candles were lit, the congregation were welcomed, the lights of the Cathedral were extinguished, and then Steph led the group in Carol of the Bells. As the echoes died away deep in the East of the building, the congregation stood, and second-year soprano Marina lifted her voice to the great roof in the soaring opening of Once in Royal David’s City, before the Choir clothed the second verse in the rich harmonies of the tutti section.

Listening back to some of the rehearsal recording I’ve taken over the course of this term, it struck me that there is a great deal of singing, a lot of hard work, and an equal measure of laughter and mirth. I take this as a good sign; the group are, after all, there to have fun as much as they are to work and develop as an ensemble. There’s a genuine sense of trust and confidence in one another that has developed over the term, and they have become not just a group of students getting together to sing once a week, but a committed group of friends, with whom it’s been an unmitigated pleasure and a privilege to work this term.

As the candles filed out of the Cathedral after the service and into the night, the words of Steve in the tenors came to mind: ‘’I’m starting to feel really Christmassy now!’’ Just for a moment, at the very start when the Cathedral was hushed and the Choir began to sing, the orange glow of the dancing candles lit up not a group of singers, but a window into a deeper community, a miniature reflection of what life at the University is all about: different peoples coming together, joining in a communal enterprise, and becoming fast friends in the process.

Merry Christmas.