Tag Archives: Tavener

#EarBox: lunchtime concert at Studio 3 Gallery this Friday

The University Chamber Choir is busy preparing for its annual concert in the Crypt of Canterbury Cathedral on Friday 3 March, and as a curtain-raiser the choir will perform in the sonorous acoustic of Studio 3 Gallery this Friday lunchtime, 24 February.

Continuing the #EarBox series exploring the dialogue between  music and visual art, this Friday’s event will see the choir perform amidst the gallery’s latest exhibition, Soft Formalities. An exploration of line, form and colour in painting, tapestry and ceramics, the gallery will host an equally exploratory programme of choral music, ranging from the stark, haunting beauty of Tavener’s setting of William Blake’s The Lamb to an almost-minimalist dream awakening by Alec Roth; there’s also a tour de force Lithuanian folk-song for double choir by Vaclovas Augustinas, madrigals by Lassus, richly colourful pieces by Peter Warlock and Alexander Campkin, and more.

The concert is free to attend and starts at 1.10pm in the gallery in the Jarman Building; if you can’t make it in person, the concert will be live-streamed here.

Join the Chamber Choir either live or online, as it presents a concert exploring dreams, sleep, desire, dance and lullabies in the echoing space of Studio 3 Gallery this Friday. More details here.

Brave new world

The Cecilian Choir has always been something of a playground for experimenting with contemporary choral music, and this term we’ve been finding our feet with a selection of modern pieces that really challenges us.

Ubi caritas, in a setting by Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo, is full of exotic harmonies, still retaining something of its original plainchant ancestry at the start before blossoming into luminous colours as the piece begins to unfold;


Alongside this, the Choir is drawing out the rich dissonances in Latvian composer Arturs Maskat’s Lugums Naktij (Prayer to the Night); additionally, we’ve recently begun working on Indian Prayer at Evening, the third of ‘Three Native American Songs’ by the young British composer, Toby Nelms, with swinging, prairie-filled open-fifths and a suitably dusky tonal palette. We started our contemporary odyssey with the Hymn to the Dormition of the Mother of God by the late Sir John Tavener back in October, which will add an element of tribute to the choir’s concert in April.

This choir excels at picking up new music, and for next term I’ve lined up some pieces by Howard Skempton as well. The backbone of the programme is something rather less modern – movements from Hassler’s Missa super Dixit Maria, written somewhat earlier in 1599, and a piece I’ve wanted to do for a long while; the intention is to weave the contemporary pieces amongst the movements of the mass.

Before then, the Choir will be performing a clutch of carols at next Wednesday’s end of term, festive ‘Watch This Space’ event on the foyer-stage. But it’s in the contemporary music that the choir is particularly strong; next term’s concert will be a treat.

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Kick-starting the choral year

And finally, after all the preparations, amassing the repertoire and two days’ worth of auditions, both the University Chamber Choir and Cecilian Choir each had their first rehearsal this week.

On song: Chamber Choir meets for the first time

On song: Chamber Choir meets for the first time

There’s no gentle easing in for the Chamber Choir; the first commitment, ‘Music for Advent’ looms in about eight weeks’ time, and the Crypt concert in March, and we have to go from zero to full performance assuredness in no time. Ergo, the first few rehearsals represent a whirlwind tour of the full range of repertoire, in order that the singers can get a feel for the geography of the programmes and see what kind of pieces they will be expected to perform. (The other reason for whirling rapidly through pieces is that, if there’s a piece someone doesn’t like, at least they know we won’t be dwelling on it for hours at a time in these early rehearsals).

I’m pleased to say that everyone seems to be taken with Whitacre’s colourful Lux Aurumque with which we ended the rehearsal – the student conductor, Matt, opened with Byrd’s serene masterpiece, Ave Verum Corpus, and I followed with two movements from  Brahms’ Sieben Lieder op.62. After the break, Matt led the first steps into Rutter’s Dashing Away With The Smoothing Iron, which is deceptively simple and offers some real challenges as it builds.

And yesterday, the Cecilian Choir reconvened, this time in mixed-voice formation; sister-choir to the Chamber Choir, it looks as though it might number close to thirty singers, which is particularly exciting! A whistle-stop tour of some of the repertoire for this particular Choir took in the ‘Kyrie’ from Hassler’s Missa super Dixit Maria, the middle section of Maskat’s evocative Prayer to the Night, the first few pages of Rheinberger’s purple-hued Abendlied, and the second section of Sir John Tavener’s Hymn for the Dormition of the Mother of God, which had the sopranos and altos gliding in medieval-esque parallel fourths whilst the basses were slightly confounded by their line which, on paper, reads simply but actually works against the upper voices to provide those typically Tavener dissonances.After all the preparation and learning over the summer months, it’s a relief finally to be getting to grips with the music, meeting the singers, and getting the Choirs off the ground. Ice-breakers and warm-up exercises served to get people introduced to each other and to singing together in a rudimentary fashion – these first few rehearsals, I always find, are somewhat hesitant as people grow accustomed to singing with strangers and finding their feet with new repertoire in a brand-new choir.

But it promises to be a very exciting year for both choirs – and on Monday, the upper-voice incarnation will meet for the first time to explore some medieval pieces. Watch this space…

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…

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…


Creating a contemplative space

Second rehearsal last night, and this year’s Choir is taking repertoire on and throwing it back at me as fast as I’m throwing it at them.

Well..nearly everyone!

Barnum’s Dawn, which we performed last year, is a special request for the December Gala concert celebrating the new building from the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, and we began last night by looking at the middle of the piece, exploring the intense colours of ‘doors upon doors’ before moving to explore the rest of the piece. Finzi’s evergreen My Spirit Sang All Day started to come to life as well – this piece moves through a wealth of harmonies, both related and not-so-related (!) keys, at a lively pace; no sooner has the piece opened with an uplifting ascending unison phrase in G major, then you suddenly find yourself in the middle of the next page in G# major…

We’re continuing to explore my piece for the December concert, getting the rhythmic patterns with which the piece starts into place and learning the second section with its dissonances and clashing semitones.

A key moment in February’s concert will come at the end of the first half, when we’ll be singing a setting of ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ by Sir John Tavener, which we looked at for the first time last night. It’s a wonderfully tranquil piece, which consists of one or two phrases which simply repeat, creating a highly evocative and serene moment; we’re hoping to leave the audience in a contemplative state at the end of the first half.

This year’s student conductor, Emma, led the choir through part of You Are The New Day, a piece she’s chosen for the second half of the February concert. As is customary with barbershop-style, close-harmony singing, it’s actually pretty tricky to sing, for all that it sounds very easy, and the group rose to it with aplomb.

We finished by looking at two more of my Forgotten Children’s Songs – it’s the songs that have been ‘forgotten,’ that is, rather than the children – a lively ‘Stick Dance’ with which the suite opens and the more lyrical second movement,  ‘Cradle Song.’ The choir have responded readily to the child-like nature of the pieces, especially the rustic ‘Dance’ from last week, and have embraced the mock nursery-rhyme language and the individual character of each piece with great vigour.

And not only is she conducting the choir; Emma brought along ‘Welsh cake’ to the rehearsal last night, which sets a dangerous precedent for future rehearsals…

A medieval summer, Bethlehem Down and dancing with Shakespeare

Credit to the choir for this latest rehearsal: we worked through a lot of repertoire in a very short time.

Time to re-visit the Advent antiphons, and to capture some of that floating effortlessness that sounds so easy, but is hard to achieve; you can’t really conduct them too much lest you destroy the sense of freedom that they seem to occupy, so the choir have to trust one another to come in after the pauses and have confidence in the phrases; in other words, they have to know the music really well!

History on the page: Sumer is icumen in

From a wind-swept and rainy late October, we moved through the seasons to the approach of summer with Sumer is icumen in, with its lusty dance-rhythms and its rustic celebration of the turning of the season to herald the beginning of summer. We’re working on a medieaval English style of pronunciation – ‘Sumer is icumen in, lhude sing cucu; growth sed and bloweth med and spring be wude nu.’ I firmly believe in performing ancient and modern music side by side, a terrific way of glimpsing the sounds of the past and sometimes showing that some modern music sounds as ancient as medieval manuscripts, whilst some ancient music can sound as modern as contemporary pieces. We’re working on creating a vibrant, lively sound – no ‘received pronunciation’ here! – to bring it to life. There are also sacred words to the song, ‘Perspice christicola,’ which we’ll perform later in the same February programme with a wholly different and more appropriate sensibility.

Thence to the last of the Vaughan Williams Shakespeare Songs, ‘Over hill, over dale,’ which in its 6/8 rhythm dances along over bush and briar; we worked at it slowly, and then sang it through at a rough mid-tempo pace – it’s nearly there, another rehearsal will have it dancing off the page. We also returned to the first half of ‘Full Fathom Five,’ and really worked to make the bell-peal imitations ‘ping’ off the page with a percussive start to each ‘ding.’ We also explored the rich chords clothing the word ‘strange,’ and immersed ourselves in the chords by prolonging them, to get used to the sound of the flattened sixths and added seconds and the way the notes beat against one another.

After the break, we entered the almost mystical landscape of Warlock’s Bethlehem Down, and it was here that the choir started to come together for the first time that evening. Something obviously clicked – several of the choir have sung the piece before, admittedly – but somehow the atmosphere created by the text and the harmonies Warlock spins around the words came straight off the page. We explored dynamic contrasts between verses, as well as between lines in the verses; the greatest challenge was to get rid of the bar-lines, and sustain the long phrases across the bars without breaking the line and losing the impetus.

A brief recap of the opening sections of the ‘Gloria’ from the Jackson Edinburgh Mass; difficult music, rhythmically challenging and harmonically, lots of cluster chords to get right.

We ended by singing Today The Virgin and A Babe is Born; lots of rhythmic drive needed for the Tavener, and a richer sound required, whilst A Babe is Born needs plenty of bounce and energy to help it dance along.

Some really good work here, particularly the Warlock: with all its meandering lines and harmonic twists, it came alive almost immediately and was a joy to work up. Next week ? Hopefully the carol books will have arrived, so we can prepare the more traditional carols for the Advent concert.

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.