Tag Archives: Finzi

Workshop, cake and acoustics

The Saturday Chamber Choir workshop soon comes around in the Autumn term, and it seems only yesterday that we all met for the first time; in fact, that was three weeks ago, and so today’s all-day session appears to have rocketed into being.

For an ensemble accustomed to rehearsing from seven o’clock in the evening, meeting at 10am felt really very wrong; it was far too light outside for us to be meeting, surely… But there we were, soon engaged in some motivational warm-up exercises led by Emma that soon shook a few of the members into a state of wakefulness.

We began by returning to Handel’s Hear Thou My Weeping, which we last sang at the very first rehearsal. With the notes coming relatively quickly, the main task was to develop the range of dynamics operating across the piece, in particular the central section with its shift to minor keys and more chromatic motion. By really bringing the dynamics into sharp contrast, the return of the opening section which follows felt much more intimate in comparison; writing the drama of the middle section in broad strokes allows the contrasting outer sections to feel much more effective.

Dawn was in need of some careful tuning, and we rehearsed sections out of time, working through them chord by chord to make sure the intonation was accurate in order to bring the full spectrum of colours in the piece to life.

20121020-195121.jpgThe last piece before the mid-morning break was yours truly’s For the Music, in which we grappled with learning the last section, the only remaining part of the piece that was new to us; imparting a driving rhythmic verve, particularly in the opening section, will be crucial to getting the piece into motion, such that it doesn’t fall flat.

After a break (and much-needed coffee), Emma then led the choir through a first look at Vaughan Williams’ setting of the folk-tune, Just as the tide was flowing; this piece turns out to be deceptively difficult, with lines ducking and diving all over the place; you certainly have to keep your wits about you in this one. This was followed by re-examining Finzi’s My Spirit Sang All Day, in order to establish the tuning in lots of places and makes sure we are moving through the changing harmonies with confidence; the second page represents something of a challenge here, but we have a few weeks in order to address this further.

Lunch ensued, complete with cake as today was alto Olivia’s birthday (happy birthday!), after which we resumed in gentle fashion with Lauridsen’s O nata lux; as I said to the group, this piece is rather like a piece of sacred barbershop music: the text dwells on a religious theme, but the voices are all working hard in close harmony, and it’s jolly difficult to sing with accuracy.

A revisiting of You Are The New Day allowed Emma to take the choir through the final section of the piece yet to learn, and to explore the range of dynamics throughout the work. After this came Tavener’s The Lord’s Prayer which came with ease in this, its second reading; the tranquility with which it unfolds, and its lulling harmonic repetition, means it will be wondrously effective in the Crypt concert in February; I can’t wait to try it…

The last session of the day was unexpected; discovering at lunch-time that the richly resonant hall in Eliot College was free (the move into the new music building is imminent, but sadly didn’t occur in time for us to hold the workshop in the hall), we de-camped from the unforgiving lack of acoustic in our customary rehearsal room and went to sing in Eliot’s lavish, sonorous hall. With no piano, this was our first chance to try Dawn and My spirit sang all day without a safety-net, in a more supportive acoustic – and the difference showed. By the time we’d turned the first page of Dawn, some of the group had started to grin with the sheer pleasure of singing in such a resonant echo, with all the work we’d put into capturing the range of colours and the final aleatoric page where the sopranos shimmer on an eight-note cluster-chord. The Finzi has some, shall we say, rather more hairy moments, but is getting there, and we concluded with a romp through my four Forgotten Children’s Songs , by the end of which we were singing in a circle, pretending we were back in the playground and getting positively tribal in our ensemble.

A long day, hard work, but productive; the opportunity to have sung without the support of the piano, in a kinder acoustic, will have done us good; now all that’s left, as Paris exhorted us from the soprano section, is to get the three pieces for the December concert learned by heart, so we can sing from memory unhindered by having copies. I hear the sound of a gauntlet being thrown down…


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…

Singing spirits: Finzi, Skempton and Vaughan Williams

You’d have thought persuading the gentlemen of the choir to sing in a lusty and bawdy fashion would be no problem. The opening of the setting of Mother, Make My Bed which I’ve written for the concert starts with a rambunctious repeated pattern for the tenors and basses, which needs to be delivered in not quite a thigh-slapping manner, but not far off. And yet…they were terribly polite and mannered about it; it was far too refined. More loose living before next week, chaps, maybe ?!

Finzi finesse

It was back to England this week, after last week’s rehearsal of Scottish pieces, and a chance to dance with Finzi’s My Spirit Sang All Day. This piece is a complete joy, full of life and bursting with sheer delight in its harmonic revelry. It’s also the last new piece to prepare for the end of the month (apart from the encore, should we need one, which is a popular favourite that we can learn at the drop of a hat nearer the time); from now on, it’s all consolidation, which makes me feel an awful lot better!

Whenever I start to become nervous about the concert – it’s a big programme, with challenging works, in an awe-inspiring venue – I should just get the choir to sing the Skempton Cloths of Heaven, and all shall be well. We looked at if for the third time last night (that spreadsheet I wrote about keeping earlier is really starting to pay dividends – I can see which pieces we’ve neglected in a trice!), concentrating now on balancing the chords and making sure all the lovely semitone clashes between the inner voices are brought out, or making the sure the basses’ sustained pedal notes can be heard. The basses are, at several points, the driving force behind the emotional impact of the piece; they either underpin the gently breathing harmonies with a solid pedal-note, or at crucial points rise up over an octave to really push the texture upwards.

Although I’m endeavouring now to try and provide as little support on the piano as possible, to get the choir accustomed to singing without any accompaniment, there’s a danger that the pitch can drop and you can end up a good semi-tone lower at the finish, something we’ll have to work on improving.

We revisited the Vaughan Williams songs to finish the rehearsal, endeavouring to impart a sense of rhythmic vitality into the sprightly ‘Over hill, over dale,’ whilst contrastingly making sure the bell-like effects of ‘Full fathom five’ were working. The chords struck in the four-part divisi sopranos throughout the opening section need to begin percussively with a crisp ‘d’ on the words ‘ding’ and ‘dong.’ The altos really showed themselves to be solid masters of the beat, holding the straight crotchet beats against the triplet rhythms in the other voices: I’m beating with one hand in six and with the other in four, so it’s certainly a piece to keep everyone on their toes, including me…

(Preview tracks via LastFM).