Tag Archives: Crypt Concert

Between two worlds: O Vos Omnes by Sarah Rimkus

The University Chamber Choir is forever tackling contemporary works as it develops its repertoire for the annual Crypt Concert, and this year includes the haunting O Vos Omnes by the American composer, Sarah Rimkus, in its programme.

The motet is a setting of a text for Holy Saturday in Lent,

O all you who walk by on the road, pay attention and see if there be any sorrow like my sorrow. Pay attention, [all people] and look at my sorrow, if there be any sorrow like my sorrow.

and treads a wonderfully ethereal line between medieval plainchant and a sparse yet colourful modern musical language, rich in open fifths. The harmonic language unfolds in a slow procession of colours, as though the listener is passing a series of stained-glass windows, that is highly expressive, yet wonderfully understated; the recurrent motif, first heard right at the opening, is built from the melodic line, broken up across voice-parts and with notes extended such that a four-note cluster chord arises as a vertical incarnation of the linear melody. It creates a wonderfully ambiguous tonal landscape, as the listener is moved across harmonic planes without ever quite knowing how they were taken there; it’s only with the return of the melody, hummed gently above a tonic pedal, at the conclusion of the piece that our feet touch the ground once more.  In places the music unfurls in steps of an open fifth to build very stark sonorities, answered by lines that rise and fall like plainsong above a pedal-point, creating tension between motion and stasis. There’s a yearning quality to the shape of the melodic line, which, for all its motion, cannot escape the tyranny of its starting note.

Born in Washington in 1990, Sarah has previously studied with Morten Lauridsen, and is now based in Aberdeen, where she is currently studying with Paul Mealor (whose Ave Maria will also feature in the programme). Her music has won numerous awards, and is performed around the world, including at the Cheltenham Festival and Buckingham Palace. Her evocative setting of O Vos Omnes, hovering between the old world and the new,  will be a luminous gem when the Chamber Choir performs in the Crypt of Canterbury Cathedral in a few weeks’ time.


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.

Music divine: the Crypt Concert

And so, after all the hard work, the Crypt Concert came on Friday in a myriad shimmering sounds and colours.

Gathering for the rehearsal in the Crypt in the afternoon, we started by singing not the first piece in the programme, but the mesmerising opening phrases of Lauridsen’s O nata lux; I’d been promising the Choir that singing in the richly resonant acoustics of the Cathedral’s Norman crypt would be worth the wait, and I wanted the group’s first musical steps in the crypt to be memorable.


Purple patch

As soon as we’d released the first eight chords into the space, there was infectious grinning blossoming all around the singers; this was what we’d come for. The slow unfurling of the piece’s rich harmonic colour was an especial treat in the surroundings of the crypt, and we could allow time aplenty for the colours of the chords to breathe in the space before moving onto the next phrase.

All that afternoon, we tested the acoustics to the limit with the repertoire for the evening, working out just how quietly we could sing, how diligent we had to be in articulating the consonants, how to close the vowels and resonate on ‘m’s and ‘n’s in order to hear that final hum work its way around the space. There was a palpable air of excitement building throughout the afternoon – we were absolutely ready, and looking forward to the concert. Experimenting with singing Dawn at the back of the crypt, the choice was made actually to sing it in situ rather than gathering behind the audience, as the acoustics worked better.


Percussionist Carina Evans rehearsing the ‘Forgotten Children’s Songs’

The evening concert went like a dream – from the vibrant opening of Pitoni’s Cantate Domino, through the evocative textures of the two solo marimba pieces from percussionist Carina Evans, through the lithe works conducted by second-year student Emma Murton, culminating in the final ‘Hai!’ of the robust final Dance from the Forgotten Children’s Songs, the musicians were on top form, and gave of their very best.


In fine form


The ladies of the alto section

So my deepest thanks to all the performers, who have worked tirelessly over the past few months; it was a truly memorable concert, and you rose to the occasion magnificently.

Now on to the new repertoire…

The day’s last sigh: final rehearsal before the concert

Next time the Chamber Choir meets to rehearse for Friday night’s concert in the Cathedral Crypt, we’ll be in – the Cathedral Crypt.

Last night was our final rehearsal before Friday, and I have to say, it went like a dream. We sang through the entire programme, and Carina also performed the two pieces for solo marimba which she will be playing as part of the concert, to get a grasp of the geography and scale of the programme, to get a feel for the flow of the pieces and how they stand in relation to one another.

The Choir was in top form; intonation spot-on, pitch reliable and constant; there’s a wonderful unity to the ensemble now (as I said, the Choir is working like an accordion, breathing and relaxing together throughout the pieces) that means we are really feeling the works as a combined group. There’s lots of scope for us to be flexible according to the atmosphere on the night in the Crypt, to be able to respond to the richly-resonant acoustics, to dwell on particular chords, to push through individual phrases, and to linger as the final notes recede.


In final rehearsal

The new mixed-formation ensemble line-up has really taken hold, with the overall sound much richer (and blending better) as a result – a bold decision taken two weeks ago has really paid dividends, and yielded a much more sonorous and mature sound. As a few of the members observed, we’ve started to enjoy ourselves to the point where the ppp passages aren’t perhaps quite so ppp as they were before – a sign of how much we’ve relaxed into singing, but something to make sure we’re mindful of when we perform on the night.

We’re ready to go: see you on Friday…

Changing shape in formation (and vowels)

As I stood in the Crypt of Canterbury Cathedral during a meeting on Monday, ahead of the two concerts the University is holding at the Cathedral this term, it dawned on me just how close the Chamber Choir concert is – just over three weeks away.


Rehearsals have taken on a new intensity this term, as we really start to make sure all the pieces are as good as those that we performed back in the gala concert in December. We’ve been pacing slowly through the rich and strange harmonic territory of Lauridsen’s evocative O nata lux, in which tuning is all-important – get in wrong, and the chords turn from lush to awkward. We are working hard, too, to get an increased flexibility in the plainchant sections of Hassler’s Ave maris stella, and have also been taking apart the vowel sounds in his madrigal, Tanzen und Springen. (With two native German speakers in the choir this year, it’s even more important that we get the pronunciation exactly right!) I’m assured by them both that there’s no echt Deutsch way of singing ‘Fa la la,’ but we have been tidying this up by replacing broad ‘ah’ vowels with ‘uh’ and singing more on the ‘l’ than the vowel itself – this seems to have worked, and creates a much tidier (and less Lady Grantham-esque!) shape to the sound.

We’ve also started to work in a slightly deeper horse-shoe formation, mimicking the space in which we’ll be singing, inside the pillars of the Cathedral’s Norman Crypt.

The Cecilian Choir is also preparing for its concert celebrating Britten in his centenary year, and this afternoon we’ll be putting the Ceremony of Carols together with the harp for the first time. Find out how we get on later…

Creating a contemplative space

Second rehearsal last night, and this year’s Choir is taking repertoire on and throwing it back at me as fast as I’m throwing it at them.

Well..nearly everyone!

Barnum’s Dawn, which we performed last year, is a special request for the December Gala concert celebrating the new building from the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, and we began last night by looking at the middle of the piece, exploring the intense colours of ‘doors upon doors’ before moving to explore the rest of the piece. Finzi’s evergreen My Spirit Sang All Day started to come to life as well – this piece moves through a wealth of harmonies, both related and not-so-related (!) keys, at a lively pace; no sooner has the piece opened with an uplifting ascending unison phrase in G major, then you suddenly find yourself in the middle of the next page in G# major…

We’re continuing to explore my piece for the December concert, getting the rhythmic patterns with which the piece starts into place and learning the second section with its dissonances and clashing semitones.

A key moment in February’s concert will come at the end of the first half, when we’ll be singing a setting of ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ by Sir John Tavener, which we looked at for the first time last night. It’s a wonderfully tranquil piece, which consists of one or two phrases which simply repeat, creating a highly evocative and serene moment; we’re hoping to leave the audience in a contemplative state at the end of the first half.

This year’s student conductor, Emma, led the choir through part of You Are The New Day, a piece she’s chosen for the second half of the February concert. As is customary with barbershop-style, close-harmony singing, it’s actually pretty tricky to sing, for all that it sounds very easy, and the group rose to it with aplomb.

We finished by looking at two more of my Forgotten Children’s Songs – it’s the songs that have been ‘forgotten,’ that is, rather than the children – a lively ‘Stick Dance’ with which the suite opens and the more lyrical second movement,  ‘Cradle Song.’ The choir have responded readily to the child-like nature of the pieces, especially the rustic ‘Dance’ from last week, and have embraced the mock nursery-rhyme language and the individual character of each piece with great vigour.

And not only is she conducting the choir; Emma brought along ‘Welsh cake’ to the rehearsal last night, which sets a dangerous precedent for future rehearsals…


And so this year’s Chamber Choir has met for the first time; after weeks of preparation and two days’s worth of auditions, finally comes the time actually to get to grips with the repertoire, not to mention getting to know the group.

Camille Saint-Saens: 1835-1921

For a group finding its feet for the first time, our first rehearsal was somedeal astonishing; having chosen the first few pieces with which to begin, we ended up rehearsing five works in total, rather than just the three I’d selected (so much for breaking the group in gently!). Our first musical steps were into Handel’s Hear Thou My Weeping, in an arrangement for four-part choir by Desmond Ratcliffe, a setting of the Ave Verum Corpus by Saint-Saëns (rather than its more famous incarnation from Mozart), and a look at two sections of the piece written by Yours Truly for the December concert.

The Handel in particular came off the page rather well, and the choir readily picked up the mood of the piece. The piece is a four-part setting of the aria ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ from Rinaldo, usually sung as a solo, but realised here for SATB in a manner sympathetic to the original, and the group got the hang of it well. There’s already a sense amongst some of the group that it may become the choir’s calling-card piece this year…

And not content with those, we also looked at one of a series of four Forgotten Children’s Songs, which I’ve written for choir and percussion for the February Crypt concert, and a setting of Cantate Domino by Pitoni, a lively piece which will open the same concert in an uplifting and a decisive fashion.

This year’s student conductor, Emma, led the group in some lively physical and vocal warm-up exercises to get the rehearsal underway; she will be leading the choir in rehearsing one of her chosen pieces next time.

There’s a good feeling amongst the members already, for all that it’s very early days; some of the members are returning from last year, whilst roughly half of the group is new. The speed with which the choir picked up the pieces bodes well; we are up against it this year, with a major concert in December, together with the fact that the Crypt concert falls a week earlier than it did last year, so we will lose valuable rehearsal time. But it feels like it could be a very good year…