Tag Archives: carols

Sing, choir of angels! Minerva Voices goes carol-singing for Cancer Research

A bustling Canterbury high street was treated to a festive selection of carols for upper-voices, as Minerva Voices took to the street to sing in support of Cancer Research.

czad3vqxeaagxhzThe idea was suggested by Inger Kviseth, a member of the Choir who works part-time for the charity, and asked if we would help with their fund-raising; the team leapt to respond, and were busy singing yesterday afternoon, aided by Music Society secretary, Robert Loveless, who wielded one of the collection buckets.

czad3vmwgaebaxnThe shoppers responded with enthusiasm to the choir’s bringing Carols for Choirs to life, and a brisk chill in the air was met with a warm response from passers-by.

Thanks to all the ladies – and to Robert! – for giving up their Sunday lunchtime in support of Cancer Research. The Choir will be back in action this Wednesday in a very different guise, singing as The Minervettes with the twelve-piece vintage swing band, General Harding’s Tomfoolery, on the foyer-stage at lunchtime; admission is free, bring your dancing-shoes!

Minerva in festive mood with carols for the Donor reception

Minerva Voices, the upper-voices chamber choir, was in festive mood on Friday night, taking to the foyer-stage to add some seasonal musical lustre to the reception for University donors.

Donor_CarolsThe foyer-stage was strewn with flickering candles (and for the sake of everyone wondering about a predominantly wood-paneled building and flickering flames, I should reassure you that they were electrical candles…) and festive jumpers as members of Minerva filled the foyer with favourites from the fourth edition of Carols for Choirs, an incarnation of the enduringly-popular publication in arrangements for upper voices. There’s something particularly magical about hearing traditional carols in arrangements for sopranos and altos, an extra glimmer of frosted sparkle adorning customary repertoire.

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Our first sprinkling of Christmas music in Colyer-Fergusson added a touch of the festive spirit to the reception, and there was a call for a group photo round the departmental Christmas tree afterwards.

Next up, the Chamber Choir will be singing in the University Carol Service in the Cathedral next week. Thanks to Minerva Voices for getting Christmas underway!

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New term, new Chamber Choir

So, the dust of two days of auditions has settled, and the University Chamber Choir is now two weeks in to its rehearsal schedule.

Chamber Choir 2016 squareStarting with a new choir is always a nerve-wracking experience for a conductor: establishing protocols early on, showing the Choir how they will be expected to learn in rehearsals, working to bring the group together as a unit – all with people whom you don’t necessarily know, or who don’t know one another. You want to make sure that they feel they are achieving quickly, in order that they feel motivated – especially when you want them all to come back the second week!

I’m relieved to say they all returned last night, and am particularly excited by the fact that we have already sung off-piano and in mixed formation (the latter always an ambition but not necessarily articulated in early rehearsals, when singers are ensconced in the safety of singing in voice-parts), in a contemporary carol by Alexander Campkin, Sleep, Holy Babe, the title piece from an exciting new anthology of contemporary seasonal choral works published by Shorter House. The choir has taken to the carol with considerable alacrity, and so it was thrilling to step away from the piano and direct the piece a cappella so early on. The piece has a richly colourful tonal palette that will work well in the Cathedral in December.

Second-year Doug Haycock, this year’s assistant conductor, introduced Hassler’s sprightly Cantate Domino in last night’s session, guiding the choir through the metric change into the dancing triple-metre central section.

 

Still in Christmas mode (a chorister’s Christmas always begins well in advance of anyone else’s, although this year apparently we’ve been outdone by a certain large supermarket chain…), we also started looking at the utterly lovely Lullaby My Jesus, a choral arrangement by Andrew Carter of the slow movement of Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite for strings. This ravishingly beautiful publication from Banks Music immediately appealed to the Choir, and we moved through the first verse slowly, relishing each chord – it’s a piece that also makes you wish you were a tenor, for its arcing, aching line which unfolds part-way through the verse. We ended with an exploration of the darker harmonies of the ‘Agnus Dei’ in Fauré’s Requiem, which we’re preparing for performance in the Cathedral Crypt in early March, marvelling all the while at the dextrous ease with which Fauré induces harmonic motion of such concentrated power, yet so effortlessly done that it’s easy to miss its dramatic impact.

second-week-rehearsal Chamber Choir 2016It’s early days, of course, and we are still finding our feet, experimenting with different formations to find a suitable balance, and gradually working on singing more confidently to bring out the Choir’s particular sound; but it’s an exciting time, being a part of the start of the gradual unfolding of the group into what potentially will be a very exciting ensemble.

All done bar the singing

Minerva Voices had its final rehearsal last night, prior to singing amidst the majestic surroundings of Canterbury Cathedral next Monday night for the University Carol Service.

As is customary, we had our last pre-performance rehearsal in full concert mode: concert-dress, performance folders, subdued lighting to mimic the candle-lit ambience on the night, and standing in mixed formation. It’s a really useful exercise to focus the mind and really draw attention to the proximity of public performance.

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Stand and deliver: Minerva Voices

We worked on all the various carols and solo verses that we’ll be singing next week, with the main priority, as I said to the singers, being to look confident. Even before you’ve sung a note, the manner in which you walk on and stand in front of the listener wins or loses their trust in you; the manner in which you present yourself as an ensemble sets up expectations in the listener’s mind as to the level of performance you are about to deliver. Winning them over is most of the battle; if you’ve reassured them that you know what you are doing and are about to present a polished performance, then what comes next will be informed by this expectation.

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Assistant conductor Joe Prescott rehearses the choir

The next time we meet as a choir will be in the Cathedral Nave next Monday afternoon, ready to go through the pieces in advance of the performance in front of over a thousand assembled congregation on Monday night. It’s a daunting prospect, particularly for anyone new to the choir who hasn’t sung in the Cathedral before; but it’s always a fantastic occasion; there’s some nerves, but eager expectation and excitement for Monday. Not long to go now…

Troll the ancient Christmas carol

And so, the Chamber Choir’s first public concert has suddenly come and gone. After all the preparation, the eager anticipation and excitement, the Advent sequence evaporated in a whiff of Christmas spice.

With the first unfolding of the Advent antiphon into the church of St Damian and St Cosmus at Blean, we well and truly ushered in the season of Advent. Carols, readings, poems, ancient plainsong – all combined to bring about a time to contemplate different aspects of this period of the year. Because, after all, that’s what concerts do; they create a defined moment out of the humdrum of normal routine, away from the daily concerns of life, and offer a chance to experience time-out-of-time. For a brief moment, time is governed not by the remorseless ticking of the clock or by timetables, schedules and commitments; instead, time is dictated by the crotchet pulse of a carol, or the lithe agility of a piece of plainchant, or in the measured metre of a piece of poetry.

After the concert, there was a definite sense of achievement, of pride in what we’d achieved; it’s a big step between all the rehearsal preparation to delivery in performance, and nothing can quite prepare an ensemble for that crucible of performing in public. Our next commitment is in Canterbury Cathedral on Monday, for the University Carol Service, towards which we are all looking forward.

Advent is here.

Pictures by Matt Wilson:© University of Kent

Some carols and some lessons

There was an eager sense of anticipation at last night’s rehearsal, as we gathered in the church of St Damian & St Cosmus, in Blean, for our last evening rehearsal ahead of Friday’s Advent concert. At last, we were taking the repertoire for the concert and running it in its entirety, including all the readings, in the space in which we’ll be actually be performing.

The church itself glowed with a gentle light as we all drove down the country lane towards it in the darkness. Spilling out into the crisp, chill November night, you could sense the excitement growing, coupled with a real sense of the Advent season’s imminent arrival. Gathering in the church to lay out the chairs took some time, as we gave crucial consideration to key ideas – could we stand throughout the whole concert ? If we sat and stood again, could we do so without looking ragged ? And why is the Carols for Choir compendium so darn heavy ?

It’s become apparent that Deck The Hall is something of a showpiece for this year’s Choir, the best we deliver best, so this was the first piece we sang, in order to set a benchmark for our standard of performance; then we launched into the first Advent antiphon, and we were off.

Matt rehearsing the Chamber Choir

Matt rehearsing the Chamber Choir

As Matt took his turns to conduct each of the carols he is directing in the concert, I took the opportunity to stand at the back of the church and listen. I learned immediately that all those hours spent working on ensemble, on clarity of diction, on getting the consonants in the right place and on the right beat, had paid off: the ensemble was terrific. When a group is performing as one, the effect is electrifying. Moving between music and poems, the magic of the combination of music and spoken word began to blossom, and one could see a dawning sense on some of the singers’ faces that the programme was coming together.

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Mid-rehearsal break

At the end of the run-through we took an interval, and Matt and I took stock; he was equally as excited as I was that things were really starting to come off the page. There had been a few moments where the antiphons hadn’t quite gone in the right direction or had seemed to drag, and we used the second half of the rehearsal to try to limber up the plainchant, instilling a greater sense of freedom to capture the ebb and flow of the phrases. Some of the intonation in a few carols needed checking, and Matt went over how some of his pieces will begin – beats given, note pitched – in order to get them to start with greater commitment. The most challenging part of the entire evening occurred next, when we practiced lining up in pairs and processing on, and how to sit and stand. As one of the sopranos pointed out, one needs to sit attentively during the readings; the Choir is still on view behind the reader, and needs to look engaged rather than shuffling through their music to find the next piece, or gazing off in some private reverie.

Ten minutes after the rehearsal finished, everyone had collected their belongings scattered amongst the pews and left. At ten o’clock on a November night, I found myself standing outside the darkened church beneath the stars – there is no street-lighting in this part of Blean, and the darkness descends swiftly, rendering the night-sky clear – reflecting on the previous three hours. We’d taken a good step forward, now starting to get caught up in the momentum of the programme and following its various narratives through music and readings; the key will be to maintain this through until the concert on Friday evening.

Advent is nigh.

In the Mix: singing in mixed-voice formation

With just over a week to go until our first concert commitment, a bold decision taken at the latest rehearsal seems to have paid off.

Each year, the underlying aspiration (not necessarily voiced to the Choir in the first months of rehearsal), is that we will sing in mixed-formation, in which each singer stands next to someone singing another voice-part. This serves a number of purposes – singers can’t rely on being surrounded by their own section and need to take responsibility for delivering their own line; the overall ensemble balance is better with voice-parts distributed throughout the texture, rather than being grouped in once place; and (most importantly) the nature of the ensemble sound is transformed, becoming richer and more unified. Usually, I wait for this suggestion to emerge from the Choir – members from previous years know we aim for this, and often suggest it – but thus far, it hadn’t come. Taking the carols with which we are the most confident, I asked the Choir to try something different, as a means of testing how well we really knew the pieces – and juggle formation.

Mixing it up a little

Mixing it up a little

After some feverish activity – “Wait, I can’t stand there – I’m near another soprano!” – the Choir settled into mixed-voice line-up, and we sang again. The effect was immediate: a more positive, confident, richer sound. When there’s no-one next to you, singing the same line. on whom you can rely (for which read ‘follow’), each singer has to take charge of their own line. In addition, they can now suddenly hear other voices, other harmonies, and other lines which they haven’t heard previously, and discover with which voices they are moving in parallel, or imitating, and other colours in the chords.

We’re keeping this formation for the concert (assuming everyone can remember where they stood!), and now the ensemble sound particular to this year’s Choir can really start to develop. There’s not much time before the Advent concert – but it will worth the effort.

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

 

Lift-off at last

We’ve been talking in the Choir about That One Rehearsal, where it all comes together. It happened last year, a decisive moment when things turned a corner and the choir never looked back, and we’ve been feeling that a similar moment hasn’t yet happened this year; and we’ve been wanting it to. When will it come ? How can we make it occur ?

Last night’s rehearsal started with the three carols we will be singing in the Cathedral for the University Carol Service; some serious note-bashing of individual parts, building the verses section by section, following the lines and thinking about the text. We sang them through – ok, progress had been made, we were starting to get a feel for the carols, but nothing particularly exciting was happening with the music, with the ensemble sound.

In a spontaneous and completely un-premeditated moment, I now asked the Choir to stand to sing through the last of the carols, and said ”Right, let’s try it a little differently; sopranos, can you stand over there (pointing to where the tenors normally stand), basses, can you go there (where the altos usually are), altos, can you stand on the end on the left, and tenors, over where the basses usually sing.” We’ve customarily sung in a line, sopranos on the left, moving through the alto and tenor sections towards the right and ending with the basses on the right-hand end; but in order to try to make something happen here, we were now to stand in a new formation.

There was some shuffling around, we arranged ourselves in the new line-up, and sang through Vaughan Williams’ arrangement of ‘The Truth from Above.” The last chord died away, and there was something of an extended silence; we could, I think, all feel that something significant had just happened. The ensemble sound had changed completely. The balance was better; with the sopranos (who are normally the more dominant of the voices) now standing in the middle, the sound was no longer left-hand-heavy; the altos and tenors, now standing on either end, could now be heard more clearly, and because the basses were now also in the middle, everyone could now hear the bottom of the chords and tune to them better.

After a moment, I said ”Ok – how do you fancy singing through the three pieces for the Gala concert in the same formation, to see what happens ?” There was an excited nodding of heads, copies for the three relevant pieces were gathered, and we launched into them.

The effect was astounding. The ensemble sound was more confident, the intonation was improved, and (very importantly) the pitch didn’t drop throughout the entire set of pieces. We reached the climactic phrase at the end of ‘For the Music,’ and there was a moment’s hush followed by sponteneous clapping and whooping from the Choir. (I may even have done a whirl of sheer delight as well.) We had done it; we’d found Our Ensemble Sound, found a way of arranging the Choir in formation that produced the best result.

The rest of the rehearsal seemed to pass in a whirl, as we sailed through the remaining pieces I’d planned. Handel. BAM! Tavener. BAM! Hassler. (Well, ok, some more note-bashing was required for that one). But the prevailing mood was buoyant throughout the rest of the evening; the moment we’d been waiting for had finally happened, and all through an unplanned decision to mix things up there and then.

It just goes to show – the key is to keep changing, keep trying things out, and be experimental, flexible, until that moment comes when you draw a sound from the group unlike one you’ve heard from it before, and which everyone realises is what we’re striving for.

We have lift-off…

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.