Tag Archives: Handel

In-Choir Within: Alice Baker

Continuing our series introducing choral singers at Kent; this week, first-year soprano with Minerva Voices, Cecilian Choir and Chorus, reading Wildlife Conservation, Alice Baker.

How did you get into choral singing ?
When I was younger my parents took me to our local church (St. Matthew’s, Redhill) and I can remember always staring at the choir as they paraded through the church at the beginning of every service. By the time I was nine, I was already involved in choirs my primary school organised and was certain that I would be good enough for the church one! Thankfully, the Choir Master and Vicar agreed and in 2006 I joined their SATB choir as their youngest ever member. Very soon after this I went to my Secondary School and instantly joined their Yr.7 choir and progressed up the school, joining choirs wherever I could. Eventually I joined the school’s Senior Choir where I had some of my best singing experiences.

What’s your favourite piece ?
Alice_BakerThis is such a difficult question to answer! I have sung so many pieces in a variety of styles, both in choirs and as a solo performer, that choosing one is no easy task… I think my favourite choral piece has got to be ‘And The Glory Of The Lord’ from Handel’s Messiah because it is so much fun to listen to as well as sing, although it’s no easy task!
That being said, I do also love How Beautiful Upon The Mountains by John Stainer. This was a real favourite at my church and I love the joyful yet haunting qualities of it, created by the harmonies between all four voice parts and the delicate accompaniment.

What’s your best/worst memory about singing in a choir ?
My best memory is a bit of a tie… When I was presented with my Dean’s Bronze Award medal I had the honour of singing at St Paul’s Cathedral in London. It is an iconic building and singing in there was really special. My other best memory is being told that I had been chosen to sing the Once In Royal David’s City first verse solo for our church’s Nine Lessons and Carols service. This is one of the most popular services of the year and when I heard my voice ring out through the knave I think it was the first time I thought to myself: ‘Wow… That actually sounds pretty good’!
I’d like to think that I don’t have a worst memory but after some thought, a pretty nightmare-ish one came to mind. Our choir had organised a concert to raise money for a new set of robes and the day before the performance, I lost my voice. Every singers’ worst fear! (I think I am already gaining a reputation in Minerva Voices for losing the ability to talk every time I get even the slightest cold!) So I spent the day before the concert not making a sound, didn’t sing during the final rehearsal, and only practiced my solo once. When the performance arrived my silence had, thankfully, paid off and I was able to sing every piece to a decent standard. But I can honestly say I have never been so nervous for a solo before and probably won’t be again!

What do you find the most inspirational aspect of choral singing ?
I think the music itself is the key component to capturing and inspiring an audience. And I feel the only way to do this is if the music has  already captured and inspired the choir who will be performing it. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether the people watching came in liking that style of music, if the choir show they enjoy it and performed it well, then the audience should walk away with a new-found respect for whatever was presented. I think this inspires anyone watching and listening to keep an open mind, and it will help them seize opportunities to try new musical experiences in the future. This to me is a choir’s purpose, to bring music to the masses and show them something new and exciting.

Follow Alice on Twitter @AlViBa18

Getting a Handel on Christmas: the Cecilian Choir back once more

Back in action again this year, the University Cecilian Choir has begun rehearsals ahead of its Christmas concert, which will launch December’s music-making in Colyer-Fergusson.


A by-invitation choir formed from students, staff and alumni, the Cecilian Choir has sprung back to life over the past two weeks working on Part One of Handel’s Messiah for a Baroque Christmas concert that will also include instrumental works by Vivaldi. We’ve already been grappling with the tricky contrapuntal ideas so loved by Handel, as well as the bold homophony and harmonic landscape which gives the music such an invigorating quality. There’s still plenty of work to do, of course, but the Choir has made such a positive start – and it’s obvious that it takes the rehearsal process very seriously indeed…


Find out more about A Baroque Christmas on Friday 4 December in Colyer-Fergusson Hall here. The journey towards Christmas has already begun…

Challenging the boundaries between sound and silence

Last night’s rehearsal involved singing quietly. A lot of quiet singing. In fact, most of the session was spent exploring just how quietly we could sing some of the pieces in next week’s concert programme.

From the opening of Handel’s Hear Thou My Weeping, through to various passages of contrasting light and shade in Lauridsen’s O nata lux, and the entirety of Tavener’s setting of the Lord’s Prayer, last night was an exercise in seeing just how intimate a sound we could make.

Image: subrealism.blogspot

Image: subrealism.blogspot

The idea, particularly with the Tavener, which never moves away from pp throughout the whole piece, is to draw the audience to us, to make an intimate performance space into which the listener has to lean, in order to be involved. There are moments in the Lauridsen where the dynamics change quickly, and briefly – as I said to the Choir, it’s as though you are standing in a church on a cloud-darkened day, and suddenly, for a brief moment, the sun appears from behind a cloud and comes streaming through a stained-glass window, filling the space with colour. These transient moments of contrast, where radiant colour suddenly blossoms in a passage that crescendos and then diminuendos swiftly, are what give the Lauridsen piece its life.

Sustained pp singing is the cornerstone of Tavener’s The Lord’s Prayer, too; the dynamic remains unchanged through the piece, a quiet meditation on the prayer that, in its contemplative serenity, actually does what music can often do – transcend time, for a while, and take the listener into a very different realm. We hope to blur the distinction between the music and the silence surrounding it, creating a hiatus where it will be unclear whether the piece has actually finished, drawing out the moment of listening. It will be a lovely, intimate way in which to close the first half of the concert.

So, listen hard a week on Friday, if you’re coming to the concert; you might just hear the Choir singing very quietly indeed…

Lift-off at last

We’ve been talking in the Choir about That One Rehearsal, where it all comes together. It happened last year, a decisive moment when things turned a corner and the choir never looked back, and we’ve been feeling that a similar moment hasn’t yet happened this year; and we’ve been wanting it to. When will it come ? How can we make it occur ?

Last night’s rehearsal started with the three carols we will be singing in the Cathedral for the University Carol Service; some serious note-bashing of individual parts, building the verses section by section, following the lines and thinking about the text. We sang them through – ok, progress had been made, we were starting to get a feel for the carols, but nothing particularly exciting was happening with the music, with the ensemble sound.

In a spontaneous and completely un-premeditated moment, I now asked the Choir to stand to sing through the last of the carols, and said ”Right, let’s try it a little differently; sopranos, can you stand over there (pointing to where the tenors normally stand), basses, can you go there (where the altos usually are), altos, can you stand on the end on the left, and tenors, over where the basses usually sing.” We’ve customarily sung in a line, sopranos on the left, moving through the alto and tenor sections towards the right and ending with the basses on the right-hand end; but in order to try to make something happen here, we were now to stand in a new formation.

There was some shuffling around, we arranged ourselves in the new line-up, and sang through Vaughan Williams’ arrangement of ‘The Truth from Above.” The last chord died away, and there was something of an extended silence; we could, I think, all feel that something significant had just happened. The ensemble sound had changed completely. The balance was better; with the sopranos (who are normally the more dominant of the voices) now standing in the middle, the sound was no longer left-hand-heavy; the altos and tenors, now standing on either end, could now be heard more clearly, and because the basses were now also in the middle, everyone could now hear the bottom of the chords and tune to them better.

After a moment, I said ”Ok – how do you fancy singing through the three pieces for the Gala concert in the same formation, to see what happens ?” There was an excited nodding of heads, copies for the three relevant pieces were gathered, and we launched into them.

The effect was astounding. The ensemble sound was more confident, the intonation was improved, and (very importantly) the pitch didn’t drop throughout the entire set of pieces. We reached the climactic phrase at the end of ‘For the Music,’ and there was a moment’s hush followed by sponteneous clapping and whooping from the Choir. (I may even have done a whirl of sheer delight as well.) We had done it; we’d found Our Ensemble Sound, found a way of arranging the Choir in formation that produced the best result.

The rest of the rehearsal seemed to pass in a whirl, as we sailed through the remaining pieces I’d planned. Handel. BAM! Tavener. BAM! Hassler. (Well, ok, some more note-bashing was required for that one). But the prevailing mood was buoyant throughout the rest of the evening; the moment we’d been waiting for had finally happened, and all through an unplanned decision to mix things up there and then.

It just goes to show – the key is to keep changing, keep trying things out, and be experimental, flexible, until that moment comes when you draw a sound from the group unlike one you’ve heard from it before, and which everyone realises is what we’re striving for.

We have lift-off…

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…



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…