Tag Archives: Chamber Choir

Playing with space: workshop day for the Chamber Choir

The Chamber Choir had its termly workshop day on Saturday, a concentrated rehearsal period that offers scope to work for longer than our customary weekly two-hour period, and really drill down into the nitty-gritty aspects of the music we’re singing this year.

This year’s assistant conductor, second-year Doug, roused the Choir into an early Saturday state of wakefulness with a series of technical warm-up exercises, before moving in to rehearse the group in Tavener’s The Lamb. The piece sounds deceptively straightforward, hiding the angularity of the lines that weave around one another in ever-changing intervals and palindromes. We then worked on two Italian madrigals, one of which is Lassus’ The Echo Song which creates the illusion of a choir playing with (and mocking) its own echo, throwing material antiphonally between two choirs and which we’re hoping to exploit spatially to the full in the concert in the Cathedral Crypt in the spring.

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Second-year Doug rehearses the Choir

Perhaps the most rhythmically challenging piece we are performing this year is Augustinas’ Tykus, Tykus, which again pitches two choirs aganist each other in rapturous and cascading sections, driven by a fierce, almost tribal energy. We initially rehearsed in individual choirs (the other choir going for a well-earned tea-break), followed by putting both choirs together. You really have to know exactly where your line enters during this piece, with short phrases often scattered throughout the texture coming in on the half-beat; and the fact that we’re also singing in Lithuanian creates additional, linguistic hurdles for the choir to face.

In contrast, Doug took the choir through Purcell’s solemn Thou Knowest Lord, which has spaces in the music of heightened dramatic tension, as the Choir beseeches God ‘shut not Thy merciful ear unto our prayer.’ The morning ended with Warlock’s Lullaby, My Jesus, arranged by Andrew Carter, full of yearning chromaticism in the inner voices that need to be delivered confidently if we are to deliver the quite astonishing dissonances which Warlock unfurls throughout this highly expressive carol.

Lunch was dominated by the eager anticipation of this year’s home-made quiche made by Matt; last year, Inger had set the bar high and there was some pressure, but I’m pleased to say that Matt’s was every bit as good – at least, if the fact that it apparently disappeared extraordinarily fast is anything to go by.

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Great expectations from Quick Captain Matt and the Choir at lunch

Amongst the repertoire we rehearsed in the afternoon, the hynotic, dancing lullaby (a recurring theme amongst repertoire this year) And by Alec Roth; another two-choir piece, it combines circling ostinati with bell-like cluster-chords in a lulling opening, supported behind by sighs and sussurations in the second choir in a soundscape mimicking the sleeper’s breathing. Doug’s third piece, Hassler’s Cantate Domino, combines lyricism with a sprightly triple-meter middle section, which the choir is starting really to enjoy.

anthologyWe ended by playing with space in a literal sense, arranging the choir around the balcony of the concert-hall to sing Alexander Campkin’s carol, Sleep, Holy Babe. This is all about removing the safety of singing in close proximity, encouraging each singer to sing confidently, committing to their line and developing a rich ensemble sound.

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Panoramic shot of the spaced-out choir…

This took some getting used to, but when the Choir came back together to sing in formation, the effect was immediate; the singers felt more confident standing together, but still sang with the commitment to the voice-parts, and the result was a fuller sound. The Choir will be singing the piece next month in Canterbury Cathedral, so it’s important that they grow accustomed to filling quite a large space…!

It’s customary, on workshop days, to do the latter part of the day in concert-mode, i.e. with the dress-code and performance folders that we will be using on the night; it’s a particularly effective means of focusing the Choir’s attention on the fact that they will soon be performing in public, and to start getting used to standing, holding ourselves as a group. (It also allows everyone to check they have the right clothing in the right colour…). It definitely creates a mock performance condition, as we head towards our first engagement, singing in the Nave of Canterbury Cathedral to over a thousand in the congregation in the University Carol Service next month.

Getting into performance mode

Getting into performance mode

The afternoon ended with the Choir learning a carol, Sleep My Jesu, written by Jamie W Hall as part of a seasonal initiative to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Care under the #choirsagainstcancer hashtag. The choir took the piece up very quickly, and half an hour later we recorded a performance as a means of participating in the nationwide project to raise money for this very worthy cause. Considering that this was only the fourth time we’d sung through the piece, and the second without the piano, the group picked this up very quickly indeed! (Find out more about the initiative or make a donation here).

My thanks to all the singers for their hard work on Saturday, and for giving up a large part of their weekend to rehearse; we all came away afterwards with the sense that we are really starting to find our feet as an ensemble. There’s still some way to go, but we are heading in the right direction…

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.

Good conduct: second-year Doug reflects on the ABCD Young Conductors Course last month

Each year, the University Chamber Choir auditions for the post of student conductor, mentored by Your Loyal Correspondent, to work on several pieces with the choir during its performing year. This year, the task falls to second-year Law student and bass, Doug Haycock, who, in preparation for the role, attended the Young Conductors Course as part of the Association of British Choral Directors Convention last month. Here, Doug reflects on his experience.


On the 26th-28th August I was lucky enough to take part in the Association of British Choral Directors annual convention. The University of Kent Music Department sent me on the course due to my being awarded the position of student conductor, where I shall deputy under Dan Harding conducting the University Chamber Choir.

Doug Haycock (left)

Doug Haycock (left)

Over the span of the course I was taught several beginner tactics and tricks that every conductor should know. I was taught how to conduct most simple time signatures, both simple and compound. It was also demonstrated to us how to to easily teach melody lines by simple aural methods, and, leading from that, a round.

As well as the Young Conductors course, I was able to meet John Rutter as well as other British composers. I also attended several repertoire sessions that took me through new editions and compositions that had been released in the last year. I also attended vocal training sessions where we were taught how to try and obtain the best sound out of your choir.

Doug Haycock (back left) at the convention.

Doug Haycock (back left) at the convention.

The whole weekend was amazing for what it taught me in conducting, vocal training, and repertoire.

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Doug (second from left); spot last year’s student conductor and recent alumni, Joe Prescott too…

With thanks to Amy Bebbington for the photos.

A contemporary Christmas: new anthology from Shorter House

It always feels like Christmas when new music lands on my desk, and doubly so this morning with the latest anthology from Shorter HouseSleep, Holy Babe.

Planning choral repertoire for the Christmas season, for me, begins in the summer, looking for repertoire for the University Carol Service in Canterbury Cathedral each December, and this year the Chamber Choir will be working from this collection of contemporary works, a rich anthology containing seasonal lullabies, carols, settings of the Magnificat, and Advent antiphons. The collection includes new setting of favourite seasonal texts, including Lullay my Liking and the Coventry Carol, and features both a cappella and accompanied pieces from a range of contemporary composers. There’s a great versatility to the set, which also includes pieces for upper-voice choir, which makes it particularly appealing – whilst you develop a clear programme for the choral year, it’s always useful to have scope for flexibility in case, as happened this year, the audition choir turns out to be upper-voices rather than SATB.

IMG_0120There’s also some really beautiful music contained in the collection, which I’m hoping will surprise anyone who tends to think that New Music means aggressive dissonance, irrational time-signatures, metric uncertainty and angular lines. These pieces are all singable – care has been taken by the composers to make the music easily performable – without compromising on an arresting musical language or sonorous colours.

Sleep, Holy Babe will be thrust into the hands of the newly-auditioned Chamber Choir in the autumn, and I’m very much looking forward to exploring these new landscapes in time for December. We’ll let you know how we get on…

A rehearsal of two halves: removing the variables

With the annual Crypt Concert looming this Friday, last night’s rehearsal was a full performance-mode run-through of the entire programme in concert-dress.

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There are several reasons for doing this: it focuses the performers, makes them step up and deliver the programme in full, and gives them an idea of the emotional geography of the running order, as well as of the stamina required to deliver it. It makes sure everyone has the right dress, has their performance folders organised, and practices the levels of concentration required to deliver each half of the concert. Granted, it’s not the same as delivering the programme in the white-heat of a public concert in front of an attentive audience, when the adrenalin is flowing and you’re alive to every nuance of the occasion – the length of the acoustics, the emotional temperature to which you respond dynamically, and so forth – but it does throw into sharp relief the commitment required in bringing the music off the page.

The first half of the rehearsal, the first half of the programme, came to a conclusion. We took a ten-minute break, reconvened, and then ran through the second half of the programme; and there was a remarkable difference between the two halves. The first had been somewhat hesitant, functional but not emotional; the second really came alive, had an emotional energy and was much more successful. Why was that, we asked ourselves ?

It became apparent that there had been a lot of nervousness when the rehearsal began with the programme’s opening piece – people had genuinely felt they were performing. That sense of needing to step up to the mark and deliver, so often talked about in rehearsal, was suddenly being asked of them; and they’d felt nervous. Attired in concert-dress, standing beneath dimmed lighting, folders at the ready, had really brought home the need to perform, rather than simply rehearse.

Once the first half was over, though, people began to feel confident in what they were doing, and re-grouping after the break, the singers were much more relaxed, and hence could perform the second half confidently, with a greater sense of musicality.

Rehearsal and practice are, of course, in part about removing uncertainties, about limiting the variables, cutting down on the unknown quantities such that you reach a level of technical and musical proficiency that allows you to concentrate instead on the nuance of in-the-moment performance. After last night’s rehearsal, we’ve removed another few. There will still be nerves on the night, but on one level we can have a new confidence in that fact that we’ve now delivered the programme; not publically, but we’ve mapped the levels of commitment, concentration and stamina required.

Here’s to Friday…

New term, new faces – new projects

 

The start of the academic year is always something of a whirlwind, and this year’s been no exception, such that it’s only now, three weeks before term ends, that I’m finally able to catch up with writing about choral exploits so far. So apologies, loyal readers (both of you), for taking so long to find the time to reflect on what’s happened – but there’s lots to tell…

Chamber_Choir_2014webThe Chamber Choir, phoenix-like, has risen anew once more – over half the Choir is new this year – and has been busy exploring a range of repertoire for the annual concert in the Cathedral Crypt in March. Before that, though looms the University Carol Service – always a high point in the Choir’s performing calendar – and we’re currently busy learning a fistful of pieces; this year, one of the carols is the radiantly-colourful Hymn to the Virgin written by Edinburgh-based Steven Griffin, which was originally written for the Kings’ Singers and won the Classic FM ‘Carol for Christmas’ competition in 2012. It’s nice to be exploring a different setting to the customary one by Britten, and the work’s purple-hued harmonic language is really starting to blossom as the Choir grows in confidence. This year’s student conductor, fourth-year Emma Murton, is also working on Ravenscroft’s meditative Remember, O Thou Man, for the Big Church in a couple of weeks’ time.

Cecilian_Choir_2014The Cecilian Choir has also burst into life, and is currently rehearsing Monteverdi’s Beatus Vir and Hassler’s Alleluja, two vibrant pieces which explore textural variation within the ensemble to dramatic effect; and the Monteverdi is certainly keeping us on our toes…

Both Choirs will come together at the end of term in two festive performances – the first at Beach Creative arts centre in Herne Bay on Tues 16 December, and then on Weds 17 December with a final choral flourish on the foyer-stage.

Click to view

Click to view

The Lost Consort has also been working hard in preparation for a seasonal performance of Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, which we’re giving in the ancient undercroft of the old Pilgrims’ Hospital, Eastbridge, in Canterbury on Friday 5 December; the candle-lit performance starts at 5pm and is free to attend, and promises to be an evocative way to herald the festive season.

The University Chorus is about to take flight as well on Saturday 13 December in Mozart’s Vespers; plenty to look forward to over the coming weeks; choral life at Kent is as busy, and as exciting, as ever. Stay tuned…

Best of times, worst of times: change and continuity

I absolutely love this term. And I hate it too. This is the term when we are really flying as an ensemble, on the back of the concerts we delivered last term; we’re confident, assured, we know the repertoire inside-out and are really enjoying singing it. We’re also experimenting again – you know me, never happy to do something exactly the same way more than once – in changing formation around with each piece we rehearse, looking for different ensemble sounds, looking to hear new things, find new corners to the music. It’s a terrific time.

And yet it’s also the saddest too; this term is very short, and in a few weeks’ time the Choirs will evaporate and be gone. Our last concerts for both the Chamber and Cecilian Choirs are on Friday 13 June and then a final farewell with the Chamber Choir on Sunday 15 June as part of Summer Music Week, and then that’s it; many of the singers will either be graduating or away on placements next year. It’s hard to realise that, in scant weeks, these two ensembles won’t exist any more. It’s a measure of the amount of time each of us has invested in our commitment to singing; regular rehearsals, the white-heat of public performance; from first steps to final flight, ensemble music-making is all about commitment to one another and to a shared endeavour.

leavingThis is my fifth year of working at the University, and you’d have thought that I’d have grown accustomed to this situation by now. But it doesn’t get any easier; there’s so much fun to be had amidst the hard work, and so much satisfaction accrued from delivering a polished performance, that bidding farewell to the ensembles, and the singers of whom they are comprised, is difficult. There will, of course, be new faces next year, new singers and new members as the Choirs re-form and begin anew their musical exploration together – always an exciting start to the academic year. But I will miss the incarnation of each Choir; it’s been a large part of my working year, in which my expectations for them have been matched by their whole-hearted commitment.

Change and continuity.

Tonight, tonight…

How soon the Crypt concert comes around; it hardly seems a year since we were preparing for last year’s performance, and yet the wheel has turned once more, and here we are looking ahead to tonight’s concert.

I’m particularly excited about tonight, as a British composer Paul Patterson will be present in the audience, to hear the Chamber Choir sing his wonderfully serene Salvum Fac Populum Tuum Domine. It’s always nerve-wracking when the composer arrives to hear you perform his piece, but it’s a great privilege for us to have such a colossal figure on the British musical landscape coming to hear the Choir. I hope he approves of what we are doing with his music…

scoresThis morning’s critical pre-performance tasks have already been achieved: see offspring off to school, iron concert-shirt, polish shoes, leap around on Twitter to promote tonight’s concert; now I can sit with the music and work through the scores, until heading towards the crypt for this afternoon’s rehearsal. The first moment we sing in the Crypt on the Friday afternoon is always a memorable moment, particularly for those members of the Choir who haven’t sung there before; the rich, sonorous acoustics take your sound and echo it around for several seconds. We’re very excited at the prospect of launching the opening of Eric Whitacre’s Lux Aurumque into that historic space.

Of course, the most challenging part of the rehearsal will be organising formation and processing in and out with sufficient dignity, bowing all at the same time, deciding in which hand we hold the folders (and sometimes, which way up; no detail left unobserved…). The music has been learnt; the logistics of operating in the venue, however, we’ll be picking up this afternoon.

Right, enough procrastination; the scores are waiting in a highly accusatory manner. See you after the concert.

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…

 

Dashing Away with a cluckity-cluck

This year’s student conductor, Matt Bamford, reflects on recent rehearsals.

With only eight more weeks until our annual concert in the Crypt of Canterbury Cathedral, our programme is really beginning to come together and the ensemble sound develop.

Reflecting on our first two rehearsals after the Christmas break fills me with great excitement. It was really difficult to predict how the first rehearsal back would go, with the choir not having sung together as a full group since the University Carol Service at the beginning of December. On top of this, much of the Crypt repertoire had not been rehearsed since late November and so returning to it could have been like starting from scratch again.

Matt finish...

Matt finish…

The first piece that we looked at was Chilcott’s arrangement of Steal Away; a very colourful piece that is driven by supported breathing and the motion of the sustained pedal notes in the male parts. To this end, we began the warm-up by lying on the floor and doing some very long breathing exercises. The idea of lying down to do this is that it encourages you to breathe from your diaphragm and directly from there rather than your chest. The sound of the ensemble had stuck from before our long break, and the colourful chords really pierce the great acoustics of the Colyer-Fergusson hall where we rehearse.In complete contrast to the tranquil Steal Away we have also spent time rehearsing Rutter’s arrangement of Dashing Away with the Smoothing Iron and Lassus’s playful Rooster-Fight Chi Chi Li Chi. Dashing Away is deceptively difficult in terms of rhythm, and we spent much of last night pulling the first three verses apart making sure that each part had the confidence to attack each rhythmic phrase. After debate over whether to sing “Dash-ing” or “Da- shing” and making sure we don’t sing on the beat during syncopated sections, we began to bring the piece up to performance pace, which filled me with lots of excitement. It is such a playful piece!

We made more progress with Chi Chi Li Chi which can only be described as a piece like no other that I have performed before. Telling the story of a Rooster-Fight through singing and other vocal noises (come along to the Crypt and you will understand more…) is great fun, but also very challenging. There are constant meter changes and the opening section has a rather lethargic feel to it.

As we are now beginning to rely on the piano much less, we can begin to pull pieces apart and the choir are really growing in confidence. We have an all day workshop ahead of us, which will be another opportunity to bond as a choir and to develop the unique sound that we are already producing.

Eight weeks, and counting!

Matt Bamford