Tag Archives: Monteverdi

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…

Beginnings, endings: and cake

It’s often said that the only parts of a concert programme an audience remembers are the start and the finish, and for a great concert, only the first and last pieces need to be good – anything that comes in the middle is forgotten. If this is true, then on the strength of last night’s rehearsal of pieces to open and close the programme, our concert in six weeks’ time is going to be brilliant.

LemonWith the Advent antiphons having worked so well in the concert last term, the February programme will open with a piece of plainchant for Matins and finish with one for Compline. Rehearsals resumed last night with the first of these, which will lead into the unfurling, evocative  colours of Barnum’s Dawn; the latter piece is really beginning to find its feet, and the aleatoric concluding section with the sopranos and altos each dwelling on a single, separate note evoking the hue of sunrise, is developing nicely. The plainchant takes some getting used to – reading off four staves rather than the latter tradition of five and working out where the Latin inflection leads certainly focuses the mind…

The main focus of last night was the two Italian Giants of the programme, Lassus’ O Sonno and Monteverdi’s Ecco mormorar l’onde. Two contrasting Renaissance pieces here, each challenging in their own way. Our main intent with the Monteverdi is to revel in the rich polyphonic writing – the piece has the lines weaving and tumbling over one another in its depiction of the murmuring waves, rustling foliage and gentle breezes – until the closing, homophonic section, which should then come as a relief.

Two English pieces followed, a piece new to the group in Dowland’s Awake, Sweet Love, and a revisiting of Vaughan Williams’ Rest. The key to the latter is maintaining a firm grasp of the dynamic range, and ensuring the full range of contrasting contrasts is explored.

Moving between standard and mixed formation, we concluded with the final work, our surprise encore, about which I can’t reveal too much here, except to say it’s an arrangement I’ve written of a pop tune that has the explore indulging its jazzier, do-wop style, in total contrast to everything else we’ll be singing. Persuading the group to adopt a more American swing-style approach proved no problem at all, and there was some swaying, finger-clicking and sugary harmonies with which to finish the concert.

The secret of all good rehearsals is planning, focus, and cake, it seems. During the half-way break, Emma brought forth a box of lemon cakes she had prepared for everyone – I’m not sure if there’s an accredited baking module as part of her degree, but she’s studying Drama, so you never know – which proved extremely popular. No wonder the second half of the rehearsal went so well, everyone’s blood-sugar levels were probably re-stocked. What’s for next week, then ?

Crossing borders: a cosmopolitan rehearsal

Last night’s rehearsal had a distinctly cosmopolitan flavour, as the Choir looked at English, Scottish, American, German and Italian repertoire: we’re nothing if not international in our programme outlook!

Brahms’ In Stiller Nacht has really found its feet, and we’ve been developing the really pernickety aspects of the texture; the detached crotchets in phrases had us, as one, tip-toeing through the chords with a terrific sense of fragility.

We’ve been looking for landmarks in Monteverdi’s Ecco mormorar l’onde, for specific moments of coming together, cadence points, beginnings of phrases, to give the piece a geographical sense; with long, meandering lines, the danger is that the piece simply becomes a collection of voices singing through lines without any sense of direction. (Anyone who has sung one of Byrd’s four- or five-part Mass settings will have found this before). The trick is making sense of the lines, using the starts of phrases and the commencement of new ideas (both harmonically as well as in terms of the text) to give the piece some three-dimensionality – guiding the listener through the piece by highlighting particular moments.

Bennett’s O Sleep, fond fancy occupies a similar landscape to the same composer’s Weep, O Mine Eyes, and needs similar moulding to the Monteverdi. In contrast, Sir John Stephenson’s arrangement of the Scottish air, Oft in the stilly night, is a simpler, homophonic piece that came together very quickly.

Most of the rehearsal was taken up with defining the chordal progressions in Whitacre’s Sleep, particular the opulent third section where the harmonic language opens out, the texture broadens as the sopranos soar upwards; key to this is actually the bass-part, making sure the root of each chord has a solid foundation. We’re still experimenting with mixed-formation singing, and this piece will really test the integrity of the individual voices; in order for the colours to blossom, each singer needs to have confidence in their line, to enjoy the dissonances and added-note sonorities and commit to the colours of each chord.

We concluded with one of the carols for next week’s Cathedral Carol Service, the evocative opening verses of Once in Royal, which this year features soprano Marina Ivanova conjuring up the magic of Christmas in the solo opening verse, before the rich harmonies unfold in the a cappella second verse as the Choir enters. It promises to be a magical moment in the Cathedral…

And, as if there isn’t enough to be excited about, this morning I’ve raided our sheet-music archive for copies of Lauridsen’s deftly lyrical En une seule fleur for the Cecilian Choir’s rehearsal tomorrow. Can’t wait…

(Preview track via LastFM).

Mighty madrigals to intimate Saint-Saens

Extremes of contrasting repertoire this week veered from Monteverdi’s epic five-part Ecco mormorar l’onde, rich in textural contrasts, to the understated homophony of Saint-Saëns’ Calme des Nuits, by way of Vaughan Williams’ Rest, a revisit of Barnum’s Dawn, and our first footfall in repertoire for the festive season.

The Monteverdi is a mighty piece, a meditation on the approaching dawn, with the rustle of leaves, birds singing, and the colours of the sea and sky beginning to appear. Monteverdi uses the piece to demonstrate his consummate skill in textural writing, with imitation, stretto, echo, homophony and antiphonal passages breaking out all over the place; there’s never time to relax into one style, as a few bars later, you’re into a different one. The two soprano lines vie for supremacy as they duck and weave over and around each other, whilst the inner voices ripple with imitative runs or move in similar motion with one or other voice-part. And on top of all that, there’s the Italian pronunciation to get right as well.

Steve Martland

Steve Martland: image credit Schott International

Our first piece for the Christmas season this year is Make We Joy Now by the contemporary British composer, Steve Martland. Martland’s music can be brash, bold, and full of rhythmic verve, and this carol is no exception. Its terrific rhythmic impetus sees the melody in the verses bobbing and weaving, wrong-footing the regularity of the pulse with sudden accents or crotchets where you’d expect a quaver; this is interspersed with a chorus that moves into triple metre, and builds dynamically in a truly exciting fashion as the same phrase is repeated – ‘make we joy now.’ We’ve worked slowly through the first verse and chorus, and it’s starting to develop, although the unpredictability of the metre is proving something of a challenge.

Steph returned to The Long Day Closes‘and had the choir exploring the dynamic contrasts with different sounds – humming for piano passages, ‘eeh‘ for crescendi / diminuendi and ‘ah’ for forte passages, which revealed the dynamic contours to good effect. A very useful exercise: I might have to nick that one…!

The rich sonorities of Vaughan Williams’ gently flowing Rest were followed by the intimacy of Saint-Saëns’ Calme des Nuits, a marvellously understated piece which, apart from the central eight bars, never really gets above pianissimo: the challenge with this work will be to bring off singing very quietly with good ensemble and intonation. Oh: and the French pronunciation, of course…

We ended by returning to Eric Barnum’s Dawn, in particular the last page, which uses an aleatoric passage for upper voices: the sopranos and altos each take a single note from a collection of eight, which they then sing over and over again, breathing where necessary, but in a way that should not coincide with anyone else: the score talks about creating the effect of ‘golden light.’ This was definitely new territory for the group (that’s modern music for you), but they took to it well, and eventually it started to work. We talked about creating the effect of a shaft of light falling through a prism and breaking into rainbow hues, and this seemed to help them make sense of what they were trying to achieve. In the Cathedral Crypt, it could be an amazing moment…