Tag Archives: Vaughan Williams

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…


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 ?

Rehearsals continue: Vaughan Williams, de Rore and a secret

With last Friday’s concert still ringing in our ears, there’s no respite in rehearsals: with the University Carol Service in the Cathedral looming, time to look at the carols for the service and also to visit the repertoire for February’s concert, some of which has languished neglected whilst we worked on the Advent programme.

The Carol Service opens with that bastion of the season’s choral music, Once in Royal David’s City, requiring a solo soprano soaring effortlessly through the opening verse; second-year Economics student Marina is in fine voice. We’ll be singing the second verse unaccompanied; two challenges here, to pitch our opening chord from Marina’s last note, and to maintain pitch throughout our verse, such that the organ and congregation don’t come crashing in for verse three in a different key.

Two pieces by Vaughan Williams, the Elizabethan partsong-style Sweet Day, and the wonderful Rest followed; the key to unlocking both works is managing the dynamics, with Rest in particular demanding a tight control across a range of dynamic contrasts. Sweet Day similarly sees some ebb and flow in dynamic shading, and we need to resist the temptation to crescendo in the first line of the last verse, to make sure we keep the pianissimo until the second line crescendo. The last chord is marked pppp; that’s a challenge in itself!

The main focus of the rehearsal was on a piece I can’t write about here, as it’s a surprise for the February concert; suffice to say, it’s an arrangement I’ve written of a jazz piece for the encore (should one be required!) which requires the choir to rid themselves of their polished control, and develop a barbershop-style of singing, with swung rhythm and some colourful close-harmony sonorities, complete with do-wop vowels.  A tentative first try at the piece, but by the end it was starting to develop some style; tricky, after cultivating a fine level of control in the Vaughan Williams.

A return also to de Rore’s O Sonno, for which we’re exploring the changing rhythmic feel throughout the piece, combined with an atmosphere of profound serenity.

One of the sopranos turned up with a batch of home-made raspberry-and-white-chocolate cakes, which saw the tenors scrabbling for the tupperware and could perhaps set a demanding precedent for future rehearsals ?

Singing spirits: Finzi, Skempton and Vaughan Williams

You’d have thought persuading the gentlemen of the choir to sing in a lusty and bawdy fashion would be no problem. The opening of the setting of Mother, Make My Bed which I’ve written for the concert starts with a rambunctious repeated pattern for the tenors and basses, which needs to be delivered in not quite a thigh-slapping manner, but not far off. And yet…they were terribly polite and mannered about it; it was far too refined. More loose living before next week, chaps, maybe ?!

Finzi finesse

It was back to England this week, after last week’s rehearsal of Scottish pieces, and a chance to dance with Finzi’s My Spirit Sang All Day. This piece is a complete joy, full of life and bursting with sheer delight in its harmonic revelry. It’s also the last new piece to prepare for the end of the month (apart from the encore, should we need one, which is a popular favourite that we can learn at the drop of a hat nearer the time); from now on, it’s all consolidation, which makes me feel an awful lot better!

Whenever I start to become nervous about the concert – it’s a big programme, with challenging works, in an awe-inspiring venue – I should just get the choir to sing the Skempton Cloths of Heaven, and all shall be well. We looked at if for the third time last night (that spreadsheet I wrote about keeping earlier is really starting to pay dividends – I can see which pieces we’ve neglected in a trice!), concentrating now on balancing the chords and making sure all the lovely semitone clashes between the inner voices are brought out, or making the sure the basses’ sustained pedal notes can be heard. The basses are, at several points, the driving force behind the emotional impact of the piece; they either underpin the gently breathing harmonies with a solid pedal-note, or at crucial points rise up over an octave to really push the texture upwards.

Although I’m endeavouring now to try and provide as little support on the piano as possible, to get the choir accustomed to singing without any accompaniment, there’s a danger that the pitch can drop and you can end up a good semi-tone lower at the finish, something we’ll have to work on improving.

We revisited the Vaughan Williams songs to finish the rehearsal, endeavouring to impart a sense of rhythmic vitality into the sprightly ‘Over hill, over dale,’ whilst contrastingly making sure the bell-like effects of ‘Full fathom five’ were working. The chords struck in the four-part divisi sopranos throughout the opening section need to begin percussively with a crisp ‘d’ on the words ‘ding’ and ‘dong.’ The altos really showed themselves to be solid masters of the beat, holding the straight crotchet beats against the triplet rhythms in the other voices: I’m beating with one hand in six and with the other in four, so it’s certainly a piece to keep everyone on their toes, including me…

(Preview tracks via LastFM).

No time to rest: Vaughan Williams and Jackson to finish the term

No time for the choir to rest on the laurels of their successful concert last week: as I said to them, the hard work starts here! Notwithstanding we’ve performed thrice already and have the University Carol Service on Friday, last night was the last rehearsal of the term, and a chance to return to the challenging repertoire for February’s Crypt concert.

I’ve written a setting of the folk-song Mother, Make My Bed, for the choir to sing in February – the text concerns messengers rushing to tell a lord that his wife is dying, and by the time he reaches her, she is dead – he dies the following day. Not exactly cheerful stuff… The piece starts with a lively dance-like rhythm in the lower voices, but as the narrative darkens, the altos introduce a pedal-chord that becomes progressively more dissonant. The harmonies then start to slow down, until a six-part chord in the lower three voices becomes the tolling of funeral bells. The choir picked it up quickly, and it promises to work well in the evocative surroundings of the Cathedral Crypt.

Gabriel Jackson

Gabriel Jackson (photo credit Malcolm Crowther)

Thence back to the two Shakespeare settings by Vaughan Williams, and the first two movements of the Jackson Edinburgh Mass; a hard slog here, with much note-learning required for the individual voice-parts. ‘Full fathom five’ splits at one point in to an eleven-note chord, which needs absolute accuracy to work. The inner-voice parts of the Jackson are also rather tricky, and needed much part-by-part learning. Having worked on the Advent antiphons for last week’s concert, though, the opening plainchant of the ‘Kyrie’ came much easier than last time, and had a fluidity about it that it needs.

The rhythmic vitality of the ‘Laudamus Te’ section of the ‘Gloria’ also presented a challenge – there was much head-scratching amongst the basses, although in fairness there’s no constant pulse, and the tied notes across the bar-lines in bars changing between 5/8 and 3/8 beats do make life rather interesting…

It’s difficult, particularly after the euphoria of a recent concert, to get back to note-bashing and maintain the momentum; but the choir set to; there’s more to come in early rehearsals next term if we’re to do justice to these pieces, as I’m sure we will.

(And a happy birthday to Paris in the sopranos, to whom the whole choir sang a resonant ‘Happy Birthday’ at half-time: you don’t get the University Chamber Choir singing to you on your birthday that often, do you ?!)

Our last commitment is Friday’s Carol Service: stand by for feedback on it afterwards.

(Listening extracts via emusic.com; you can hear sections of the whole Mass here.)

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.