Tag Archives: madrigals

Changing our approach to Italian madrigals

Conducting, for me, is a physical experience with something akin to playing the piano – if I can’t feel the music under my fingers as we’re working, either the Choir hasn’t quite learned the music yet, or I haven’t. There’s an almost tangible sense of playing the lines, pushing the chords through the air and grasping the fabric of the music to move the textural ebb and flow and to articulate the dynamic contrasts.

Last night was the first time that this has started to emerge, particularly in the challenging Italian pieces.As the Choir grows in confidence, it becomes more responsive to the emotional rise and fall of the music, and more flexible in its pacing. Aspects of this began to emerge as we rehearsed late into the night; filling the car with fuel on the way home, I stood on the garage forecourt in the chill night air and discovered it was after ten o’clock.

Monteverdi: how Russian ?

In a bid to get a more positive reading of the two challenging pieces in the programme, we changed our approach to the two madrigals dramatically. Rather than going for a ‘tip-toe’ approach to singing, influenced perhaps by the historically-informed practices of some other singing that mistakes authenticity for singing with a small sound,  that meant our pieces lacked confidence and commitment, we approached them as though they were Russian Orthodox pieces; the Monteverdi especially, we thought of as something from the Rachmaninov Vespers, with its deep tonic pedal notes and wide choral textures.

The difference was immediate: the sound was confident, the voices entered with more commitment, and sang more positively throughout the weaving textures.There was a more full-blooded sound, revelling in the evocative word-painting; the trick now will be to make sure we don’t indulge in it too much to the extent where we forget all the dynamic contrasts!

We worked as much without the piano as possible, and there is a developing sense that the pieces are starting to lift off the page; yes, there were a few moments where we turned an harmonic corner into a chord  more alarmingly dissonant than a composer might have intended, but we’re starting to find our feet; the more sustained closing passage at the end of the Monteverdi in particular had a lovely sound, and very fine intonation indeed.

Barnum’s Dawn is proving to be something of a showcase for the Choir, as we develop the dynamic range and really bring out the final ‘sunlit’ section with the eight-note aleatoric cluster in the upper voices.The Choir, I think, are aware of this as well: there’s a real sense of accomplishment when we finished the piece, a genuine sense that we’re creating something remarkable, that sees them smiling and nodding afterwards. It’s a shame, in a way, that the piece is the second item in the programme: the Choir’s signal performance, perhaps the nigh point of the concert,  will be right at the start. But you can’t move a piece called ‘Dawn’ to the end of a programme of music exploring the events of a single day, can you…

Coming to terms with – the new term

With the new academic year beginning in just three weeks’ time, it’s been a busy summer putting together programmes for the Chamber and Cecilian choirs for the coming year.

ConductingI always find this period exciting and also rather daunting – the opportunity to explore new repertoire, the search for suitable pieces that can be combined to form a cohesive concert programme, and looking at former favourites and wondering if it’s too soon to unearth them again, is fun and interesting, but then comes having to plan the rehearsal schedule, order the chosen pieces, and then seating myself at the piano to learn the pieces.

I always find that first sitting at the piano, with the pile of new scores in front of me, somewhat daunting – so much music to learn. What has rescued me was remembering a previous post I’d written about how to learn music quickly, by starting at the end and working backwards. This technique means you aren’t faced with the psychologically daunting prospect of a new page when you’ve learned the first and turn over to the next; instead, you learn the last page, then turn back to the page before and play through this and on into the page you’ve just learned.

This is much more empowering – you finish by playing the section you’ve just learned, which boosts your morale, and as you work backwards, you find that sections you’ve already learned are in fact a reprise from earlier in the piece, which means you’ve already learnt it.

I don’t actually know whether this practice actually shortens the amount of time spent learning a piece, but it certainly feels as though it does, which makes the task of moving through the scores seem much quicker.

There’s also the act of planning – with a brand-new choir, you want to rehearse pieces that they will be able to pick up quickly, so they feel early on that they have started to achieve and develop a real belief in their performing and working as an ensemble; however, there’s also the tricky question of when to introduce the harder pieces – too soon and they lose morale, too late and there’s not enough time to learn them properly before the concert. Notwithstanding the question of how soon is too soon to start working on the seasonal repertoire for Christmas ? You don’t want to start it in the late summer evenings in September, but you don’t want to leave it to the last minute either. Decisions, decisions…

This year, I’ll also be sharing conducting with a second-year student, a chance for one of the students to hone their conducting skills and perform with a choir during the year.

I’m about halfway through learning the pieces for the coming term, having prioritised those which will be worked on in early rehearsals. So far, so good. There’s a contemporary carol for the University Carol Service, some Italian madrigals, some twentieth-century British pieces, some French music, and more: I’m not going to give anything away here about the nature of the Crypt Concert in February, but I’m sure it will become clear as we follow the progress of rehearsals here on the blog.

Watch this space…

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….