Tag Archives: Gabriel Jackson

That was a week, that was…

Nearly all the altos...

A long and hard-worked choral week, last week. With less than two weeks to go until the Chamber Choir’s Crypt Concert, we had a longer than usual rehearsal on Tuesday night, and the choir also had their second workshop day on Saturday. The Cecilian Choir suffered a blight of illnesses and looming course deadlines to be rather decimated at their Thursday session, which meant the planned rehearsal of looking at new repertoire had to be shelved: with so many members missing, it’s not worth looking at new pieces, better to wait until the group is near to capacity.

Saturday was a very long day, but an extremely useful one. Looking at the more difficult pieces in greater detail makes for long and tiring rehearsal periods, so the more challenging pieces were alternated with less difficult works, in order to provide some respite from part-by-part note-bashing and building pieces in sections. Credit to the choir: we covered eight pieces in the entire day, which is a very good work-rate indeed. And that doesn’t even include the warm-up piece, a brief arrangement I’ve made of Rusted Root’s Send Me On My Way, familiar these days as part of the soundtrack to the animated film, Ice Age.

The state of the tenor

With the concert date so close, I am playing even less closed-score accompaniments to the pieces, to get the choir used to singing without the support of the piano beneath them; throwing in the odd bar to check intonation or highlight an important part is really all I want to be doing at this stage. Some of the more difficult pieces needed more than this, but we all felt we’d achieved greater confidence with some of the works, especially the Tippett Gwenllian which offers no vertical logic at all; the voice-parts only really come together in the final three bars.

Bass desires...

We took several of the pieces out of the rehearsal room and into the foyer of the building itself; the lecture theatre in which we rehearse offers little supportive resonance, and I wanted the group to be able to sing in an acoustic with a little more reverberation; the foyer, whilst no church nave, is still a marked improvement over the lecture room. Suddenly, you could hear a little bloom around the colours of the Macmillan; as one of the basses remarked, “Gosh, it’s nice to hear the other voices for a change!” Rehearsing in tiered rows is great for visibility, but makes it difficult for the singers to hear other voice-parts.

The Sopranos...

So, a long week. Work still to do, but things are starting to come off the page really well; the English madrigals are virtually leaping out of the score, and the rich harmonies of the Jackson Edinburgh Mass are starting to become more secure. The clock is ticking…

North of the wall: weaving Macmillan and counting in Jackson’s Edinburgh Mass

It was going to be a challenging rehearsal, I thought: two pieces by Scottish composer James Macmillan, the canonic Gallant Weaver and heart-rending A Child’s Prayer, and the ‘Gloria’ from Gabriel Jackson’s Edinburgh Mass. These are difficult pieces – hard enough to realise at the piano when there’s no closed-score piano reduction to aid rehearsing! – with complicated rhythmic interplay, angular lines that aren’t necessarily leading where you might expect them to go, and modern harmonies rich in added-note chords and eight-part vertical sonorities. I expected it to be something of a difficult rehearsal.

It just shows how wrong one can be.

Having kicked off in lively fashion with Perspice Christicola, better known as Sumer is icumen in but with a sacred Latin text, to get everyone warmed up, we sojourned north of Hadrian’s Wall with Macmillan’s A Child’s Prayer. This has been a favourite piece of mine for a while – it’s one of those pieces that, at first hearing, reaches straight into your soul. We built the three main chords from the basses upwards to get them balanced and in tune, and practiced moving from one chord to the next to make sure the singers knew where they were going. And then – we sang them as written. It’s one thing to know and love a piece that you’ve listened to many times, but to be in the midst of the sound the first time it comes off the page and into the air is a thrilling moment. We then added the two (patient!) solo sopranos, and set off through the whole piece. In the rich and resonant acoustic of the Cathedral Crypt, it will be overwhelming…

Macmillan’s Gallant Weaver is a richly polyphonic treatment of a Scottish folk-song, with a three-part canon in the sopranos – no closed-score, what a challenge to play! – literally weaving the melody amongst the divided upper voices; the lower three voices provide gently lulling sustained chords beneath, before the whole choir burst out into individual part-writing for a sumptuous second verse. It’s certainly difficult, the sopranos having to have the confidence to sustain their own lines against not only the same melody in canon but the colourful harmonies beneath. And it worked very well.

The Jackson Gloria represents the greatest rhythmic difficulty in the entire programme; leaping between 5/8, 3/8 and 2/4 or ¾ bars is taxing; added to which are the tumbling lines in the sopranos and altos like bells pealing, and the fact that the tenors and basses move at different times to both soprano and alto lines. We’re two-thirds of the way through the movement; there’s still work to do, but the effort will be worth it if we can capture the luminous colour and brightly-lit harmonies of the piece as it comes off the page.

Some hard work last night, and some excellent results; quicker than I thought possible. Here’s hoping it continues over the coming weeks; with only five rehearsals left before the concert, we can’t afford to waste a single moment.

(Preview clip via LastFM).

The agony and the ecstasy; madrigals, Tippett and Jackson

Two ends of the spectrum at last night’s rehearsal: a selection of English madrigals celebrating the joys of singing and the agonies and the ecstasies of love, a thirteenth-century Welsh folk-song re-invented in the mid twentieth-century by Tippett, and music by Gabriel Jackson from the twenty-first century.

The flowering of madrigal composition in England yielded a rich variety of works, and our selection includes Sing We and Chant It by Morley, Bennett’s profound misery in Weep, O Mine Eyes and Weelkes’ Hark, All Ye Lovely Saint Above. The Bennett piece is often performed at a slow two-in-a-bar pace – there’s no tempo marking, the score simply says ‘Sadly’ – but we’re working on a slow four-in-a-bar feel that will really elongate the chromatic dissonances and tonal clashes between the voices; hopefully it will be a much more anguish-ridden meditation at a slower tempo. To balance this, and make sure neither choir nor audience are riddled with abject misery, the other two pieces are lively, with a dance-feel that we’re working hard to capture – the rhythmic lilt and dip often going over the bar-line.

Hark, All Ye Lovely Saints Above
(a rather brisk performance by Cantabile!)

Tippett’s treatment of the Welsh folk-song ‘Gwenllian’ is, at first meeting, rather alien; seemingly atonal fragments of line are scattered between the voice-parts, as though deliberately working to hide the actually rather tonal stretches of folk-melody that occur. Once the different parts realised that, at a particular point, they had the melody – and once they’d sung through that fragment of melody on their own – things became rather more secure, although there’s still some way to go. The tenors have a recurring splinter of a theme that rises E – C – F and occurs sporadically; it’s a challenge to pitch the first note and then get the intonation exact over the rising phrase.

I’ve remarked before on the value of learning new repertoire backwards; the psychology of already having seen the ending of a piece means it doesn’t seem so mammoth at first rehearsal, and we adopted this tactic with the Tippett. Because the final section is a recurrent one that appears throughout, working in two-page sections from the end backwards balanced the difficulty of the music with the sense that there was a part of it that was (comparatively) familiar.

We finished by returning to the Jackson piece we had started looking at last term; lovely, colourful sonorities but fiendish to be able to hold your own line and establish rich cluster-chords.

We’re also going to be getting slightly creative with some of the repertoire in the concert: there’s going to be some unusual and unexpected realisations of a few of the pieces, details of which we can’t reveal here as that would ruin the surprise. You’ll just have to hear it for yourself on the night….

No time to rest: Vaughan Williams and Jackson to finish the term

No time for the choir to rest on the laurels of their successful concert last week: as I said to them, the hard work starts here! Notwithstanding we’ve performed thrice already and have the University Carol Service on Friday, last night was the last rehearsal of the term, and a chance to return to the challenging repertoire for February’s Crypt concert.

I’ve written a setting of the folk-song Mother, Make My Bed, for the choir to sing in February – the text concerns messengers rushing to tell a lord that his wife is dying, and by the time he reaches her, she is dead – he dies the following day. Not exactly cheerful stuff… The piece starts with a lively dance-like rhythm in the lower voices, but as the narrative darkens, the altos introduce a pedal-chord that becomes progressively more dissonant. The harmonies then start to slow down, until a six-part chord in the lower three voices becomes the tolling of funeral bells. The choir picked it up quickly, and it promises to work well in the evocative surroundings of the Cathedral Crypt.

Gabriel Jackson

Gabriel Jackson (photo credit Malcolm Crowther)

Thence back to the two Shakespeare settings by Vaughan Williams, and the first two movements of the Jackson Edinburgh Mass; a hard slog here, with much note-learning required for the individual voice-parts. ‘Full fathom five’ splits at one point in to an eleven-note chord, which needs absolute accuracy to work. The inner-voice parts of the Jackson are also rather tricky, and needed much part-by-part learning. Having worked on the Advent antiphons for last week’s concert, though, the opening plainchant of the ‘Kyrie’ came much easier than last time, and had a fluidity about it that it needs.

The rhythmic vitality of the ‘Laudamus Te’ section of the ‘Gloria’ also presented a challenge – there was much head-scratching amongst the basses, although in fairness there’s no constant pulse, and the tied notes across the bar-lines in bars changing between 5/8 and 3/8 beats do make life rather interesting…

It’s difficult, particularly after the euphoria of a recent concert, to get back to note-bashing and maintain the momentum; but the choir set to; there’s more to come in early rehearsals next term if we’re to do justice to these pieces, as I’m sure we will.

(And a happy birthday to Paris in the sopranos, to whom the whole choir sang a resonant ‘Happy Birthday’ at half-time: you don’t get the University Chamber Choir singing to you on your birthday that often, do you ?!)

Our last commitment is Friday’s Carol Service: stand by for feedback on it afterwards.

(Listening extracts via emusic.com; you can hear sections of the whole Mass here.)

Sweet singing in the choir: carols in rehearsal five

Ah, the carols for Christmas. Comfortingly familiar, and yet so familiar that everyone sings what they know, which occasionally isn’t necessarily what’s on the page!

Carol singersThe anthologies having arrived, this week was the chance to get in a festive mood by working on the carols for the Advent service looming around the corner. To start, Ding, dong merrily on high! and the opportunity to work on sustaining the long phrases on ‘Gloria,’ and to get the bell-sounds pinging off the page – as with the Vaughan Williams ‘Full fathom five,’ there needs to be a really percussive ‘d’ to the ‘ding’ and bright vowel-shapes to get the notes crisp and vibrant, rather than heavy and dragging.

The Angel Gabriel from heaven came needs real shape and direction in the long, legato wordless chords in the lower three voices; in order that the phrases have some meaning and don’t lose momentum, we worked on pointing them towards particular chords. The carol is full of lovely accented passing-notes and dissonances resolving as the parts keep moving, with florid lines in the alto and tenor voices in particular.

The Holly and the Ivy offered a multitude of land-mines: there are crisp dotted rhythms in some bars that need to be quite different to the gentle triplets sung in other voices at the same time. There are some terrific flowing lines in the lower voices, although sometimes the basses weren’t always quite sure where the lines were going – there were some moments where they weren’t quite as confident as they were elsewhere, and sometimes one heard ‘Oh, the ner ner hmm hmm da di  SUN! And the hmm pom some-thing da di DEER!’ which caused some hilarity. However, by the time we’d finished working on it, the carol was in great shape, in particular the delicate coda that extends ‘sweet singing in the choir’ with some lovely harmonies.

Thence to a first look at one of the Crypt concert pieces: Gabriel Jackson’s To Music.  This is a marvellous piece, full of rhythm and dance and joy; it moves at a terrifying pace as well! But this was our first encounter, so we started halfway through (reasons for this in a forthcoming post in the ‘Not drowning but waving’ column) and looked at the ‘Fall down’ section rather slowly. The divisi soprano parts peal like bells over one another throughout, with tolling chords in split tenors and basses and altos chiming their descending phrases in the middle – a terrific passage, that came together very quickly at rehearsal tempo. We then took a cautious dip into the opening 5/8 section to get a sense of what is to come.

The last two carols, I saw three ships and O Come, o come Emmanuel having been sung as well, we’ve now covered all the music for the Advent concert. We ended the rehearsal by singing through Ding, dong merrily… again – it’s always good to end with something the choir can sing well, to end on a positive note – and, with heads now out of the copies and the choir looking up and singing out, the transformation was immense. It will be the last piece in the concert, and promises to be a vibrant finish.

Hopefully, the rehearsal either next week or the week following will be at the church itself, St. Mildred’s, which will give us the chance to explore the acoustic properties of the performance space and get accustomed to the sound in the church before the concert; exciting times…

Let’s dance: rhythm in rehearsal three

Our third rehearsal, and, without any conscious planning, it became apparent that rhythm was the key element to this week’s session. Each of the pieces the choir was rehearsing this week featured prominent dance rhythms or flexible time-signatures.

We began feeling our way through the ‘rich and strange’ sonorities of Vaughan Williams’ setting of Shakespeare’s Full Fathom Five, the first of his ‘Three Shakespeare Songs.’ We started by putting together the wonderful eleven-part chords on the word ‘strange’ at roughly the mid-point of the piece; not only is it my favourite moment, but it’s a way of showing the group what the key moment of the piece is that we’re heading for. The rhythmic feel to the piece is entirely flexible, moving in different fashion in each part at the same time: the altos are steadily tolling the crotchets, the sopranos moving in triplets across the half-bar, and the basses moving in triplets on every other beat. This creates a wonderfully loose sense of movement, not wholly dissimilar to the ebb and flow of the sea – the key element of the poem – and you really have to keep your head in order to make sure your part is moving correctly in time with everyone else.

Changing time-signatures also feature in the ‘Kyrie’ of Gabriel Jackson’s Edinburgh Mass, which we looked at next. It opens with a section that, although notated in different time-values, is endeavouring to capture the ebb and flow (again) of plainchant, the timelessness (in both senses) of monodic chant that seeks to escape the tyranny of the bar-line and a regular beat. The middle section, ‘Christe eleison,’ moves in contemplative homophony in the lower voices, before a sprightly closing section that again features different time-signatures before gradually subsiding back to the plainchant style of the opening. Some gloriously colourful chords in this movement: something of a challenge to the choir, especially the final section.

For the first time, we revisited repertoire we’d already looked at: I’ve felt it’s been important to give the choir a sense of the repertoire for the entire concert in February by moving through as much of it as possible in these early rehearsals, but it’s also time to start working in greater detail on music for the Advent concert at the start of December. We returned to my carol, A Babe is Born, in which dance rhythm is key; a lively 6/8 feel that changes from 1-2-3 / 4-5-6 to 1-2-3 / 1-2 / 1-2 / 1-2 / 1-2-3 in miniature hemiolas to keep the momentum and give life to the sense of expectation and excitement at the birth of the Christ-child.

Finally, we looked again at the Tavener Today the Virgin, in which dance rhythm is again the key element; the unison melody that moves between the voice-parts moves between duple and triple-feel rhythms, so the line really does dance. There was a sense that this piece is starting to lift off of the page ever so slightly: the choir are really starting to feel this piece and grasp its rhythmic vitality and tremendous energy, which bodes well for a fantastic performance…

In order to give the choir a sense of the collective sound they were making, we arranged ourselves in a horseshoe shape; normally arranged in rows, it’s difficult for the back rows to hear the front, and get a sense of how their line fits rhythmically and harmonically with everything else going on. We convened in the horseshoe shape for each of the last two pieces, and boy did it make a difference. Getting the choir to move around is an important part of rehearsals: a subject for a future post.

Masses of colour: Jackson and Skempton

Two pieces lie at the heart of this year’s repertoire, and at the second rehearsal last week we looked at both: the wonderful colour of Gabriel Jackson’s Edinburgh Mass and The Cloths of Heaven by a composer who will come as no surprise to anyone who sang with the Chamber Choir two years ago: Howard Skempton. Skempton arrived onto the scene with almost majestic grandeur when his orchestral piece Lento was premiered at the Barbican in 1991 (repeated at this year’s BBC Proms with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Ilan Volkov), and his choral piece shows the same effect of ‘profundity through simplicity.’ The Chamber Choir has previously sung his motet Beati quorum via, and the Cecilian Choir sang the Ave virgo sanctissima and Locus iste; I’m delighted to be able to continue our exploration of Skempton repertoire this year.  He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven features Skempton’s trademark simplicity of musical language that nevertheless is deeply moving. Fabulous rich harmonies clothe (no pun intended) W.B Yeat’s evocative poem.

Jackson Mass score

Published by OUP: the Edinburgh Mass

Gabriel Jackson’s Edinburgh Mass occupies a similar musical landscape to the Mass in G by Poulenc, and the Gloria begins with a terrifically affirmative gesture before a more contemplative passage for the text ‘et in terra pax hominibus.’ For me, this piece is like a stained-glass window: lit from behind, it glows with fantastic colour. The Gloria, sees rippling descending quavers passing downwards through the voices, like the pealing of bells, creating a wonderful shimmering texture. More about these two wonderfully evocative pieces as we work through them over the course of this term…

For the Advent concert, we started the antiphonal Hymn to the Virgin by Britten, a traditional seasonal favourite, written when Britten was just seventeen: it already shows a mature command of musical gesture, an assured harmonic palette and a quiet authority for such a youthful work.

About to begin on here is ‘Not drowning but waving.’ a regular column looking at aspects of the choral conductor’s art: expect the first article later this week.