Tag Archives: Cathedral

Hark, the glad sound: Chamber Choir at the Cathedral

For the University Chamber Choir, December means but one thing: the candlelit magic of the annual University Carol Service in Canterbury Cathedral.

This year, the Choir performed three pieces; second-year Doug Haycock led the Choir at the West end to begin proceedings with Tavener’s The Lamb, and from the steps to the Quire, Deputy Director of Music Dan Harding conducted the richly expressive Sleep, Holy Babe by Alexander Campkin, and Andrew Carter’s arrangement of the slow movement of Peter Warlock’s ‘Capriol Suite’ into the beautiful Lullaby, My Jesus.


The Chamber Choir in rehearsal at the West end of Canterbury Cathedral

The opportunity to perform in the majestic acoustic of the Cathedral Nave is one to relish; that first point in the afternoon rehearsal, when we sing our first phrase and hear it travelling the length of the Nave, is a remarkable moment each year. After all the hard work in rehearsals from when the Choir first forms in mid-October, it’s a chance to really spread your wings, to open out the ensemble sound into that mighty reverberation and listen as it recedes amongst the pillars.


The University community comes together each year at this time, to celebrate the Christmas season and being together, with carols sung in different languages to reflect its international identity; it’s always an event towards which the singers look forward with great anticipation, that moment when the Cathedral is plunged into darkness as the lights are turned out, and the Choir’s first notes rise to the dark recesses of the vaulted roof above a sea of candlelight.

loveless_crew_carol_service2Congratulations to the Choir, and to second-year Alice Scott (pictured above, fourth from the right) whose opening solo to Once In Royal David’s City lifted clear and bright above the heads of the congregational candles to begin the service. Christmas is here.

Make it new: rehearsing Vivaldi’s ‘Gloria’

Minerva Voices and Consort came together for the first time last night, to rehearse Vivaldi’s enduringly popular Gloria ahead of Friday’s performance in Canterbury Cathedral’s evocative Crypt.

The overriding intent behind the performance is to ‘make it new,’ to make the piece sound as modern as possible. Now, before all you historically-informed authenticity-types run shrieking from the room, I should perhaps qualify that statement: the idea is to present the piece in such as way as to make the audience feel as though it is new. The Gloria is so well known, our idea is to make the listener hear it afresh – they might not have heard the upper-voices version, which may well have been familiar to  audiences during Vivaldi’s lifetime, or they might have forgotten just how shockingly dissonant the second movement is, or how Vivaldi tries to trip you up  rhythmically at various points; there’s the tension between the solo alto and the chorus in the Domine Deus, Agnus Dei which creates moments of high drama, or the sudden weightlessness as the alto enters poised on the brink of nothingness; or the dynamic drive of the Domine Fili unigenite and the light-footed, darting rhythms in the Qui sedes. We want the listener to discover new aspects to the piece, or remember its fiercely inventive qualities, that may have paled over the years of familiarity with it.

Minerva_Ensemble_rehearsalLast night was spent, therefore, making the piece sound as vital, as alive and challenging as possible. From the brilliant opening cry of the chorus, through the pastoral intimacy of the central Domine Deus to the fervent finale, we built a revitalised reading of Vivaldi’s masterpiece, which we will unleash in the Crypt this coming Friday. Combined with the exploratory first half – choral pieces across the centuries, from Hildegard von Bingen to Veljo Tormis – the concert promises to be something quite special.

The next time the Choir sings, it will be in the historic, mystical surroundings of the Crypt; we’re very excited at the prospect. See you there…

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.


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.


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…

Carol Service at the Cathedral

As I drove a few of the Chamber Choir back to campus last night, after the Chamber Choir had sung in the annual University Carol Service in Canterbury Cathedral, we were all reflecting on how fortunate we are to be involved with such an astonishing space. The University holds its annual degree ceremonies for its Canterbury students there, and as well as the carol service, we also hold the yearly Colyer-Fergusson concert each spring in the vast Cathedral Nave; the Chamber Choir also performs each spring in the Cathedral Crypt.


Waiting at the West Doors to start the service

Last night’s Carol Service was the traditional celebration of the season, with carols, readings and reflections on the message of togetherness and reconciliation. As the Cathedral lights slowly went out at the start of the service, we were gathered at the West Doors clutching our lit candles; a moment, and then Matt began the service with Ord’s Adam Lay Y-Bounden, launched briskly into the vaulted heights. The congregation then stood, and soprano Emma’s clear soprano rang out over the assembly with the opening solo verse of Once in Royal, and we were underway.

The most challenging aspect of the rehearsal earlier in the afternoon had not been the musical content of the service, but how we should arrange ourselves in formation and process down the Nave in order to arrive on the altar-steps by the end of Once in Royal. Plus the consideration of in which hand to hold the candle, how fast we should leg it (er, I mean, process in dignified fashion!) during the carol in order to be in place by the last verse, and how not set light to our copies or the hair of the person in front. (”I’ve doused my hair in vast amounts of hairspray,” wailed Livy in the altos – ”I knew it was a mistake!”) Thankfully, there were no conflagrations, although we did make it into place on the altar steps with scant lines to spare…

On the altar-steps

On the altar-steps

As the service unfolded in words and music, there was the customary minefield that is singing Silent Night in a multitude of languages, a celebration of the University’s international community; Marek, one of the tenors, is Polish and was able to deliver the Polish verse with aplomb; alto Charley had diligently been working on the Japanese verse with one of her flat-mates; the rest of us grappled heroically with trying to fit the syllables of other languages to the well-known tune with mixed results. We stood to sing the evocative Gabriel’s Message and, later, a rousing account of Deck The Hall. At the end, all the congregation candles were re-lit for the final prayers, proclamations and hymn – the Nave became a sea of small flames dancing intimately to O Come, All Ye Faithful, before they were carried out of the Cathedral into the Close and beyond, out into the city.

Warming up in the North aisle before the service

Warming up in the North aisle before the service

A wonderful occasion to which everyone looks forward from the moment we meet for our first rehearsal each October; an opportunity to sing in one of the world’s greatest cathedrals, and to celebrate the season with music, with friends and with the University community.

Merry Christmas.

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