Tag Archives: James Macmillan

All Wye on the night: Chamber Choir review

First-year student Matt Bamford reviews on-line last Friday’s Chamber Choir concert over on ‘Music Matters,’ as the choir brought the term’s music-making activities to a triumphant conclusion in a performance at Wye Parish Church.

There was great assurance about their performance: terrific craft, subtlely, wit and elegance – like a fine wine, the Choir has continued to mature this term in the period since the Cathedral Crypt Concert, and they delivered a concert full of confidence, polish and character. The madrigals danced with fitting elegance and poise, the Macmillan blossomed off the page, the Skempton revelled in its sonorous yet subtle colours, and the jazz piece demonstrated the close-harmony singing is another of the group’s strengths, aided by some terrific scat improvisation from Steph Richardson.

Thanks to both the Chamber and Cecilian Choirs for all their hard work and commitment across the course of this term, it has resulted in some fine performing and a terrific demonstration of the quality of music-making at the University. There’s more to come next term: watch this space!

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).