Tag Archives: Whitacre

Commitment, commitment, commitment…

With only two weeks until our opening concert of this term, last night’s rehearsal was all about developing an ensemble sound. As I said to the Choir, we need to start sounding less like eighteen singers standing around the edge of a wall, each putting our own individual sound forward, and more like a unified singing entity.

The key to unlocking this is, and always has been about, listening; listening to one another, to other voice-parts, to the harmonic landscape of a work. The voices need to be aware not only of others singing the same part (standing in mixed-formation really makes this essential), but also of how their line relates to other lines around them – moving in similar motion, working against, responding to or picking up from a line already in progress, and understanding how their line relates to everything else.

lux_coverThe moment of epiphany came during Whitacre’s ravishing Lux Aurumque; flying now without piano support, we launched into those colourful opening chords; it was fine, but wasn’t really working properly; the notes were in place, but the colours weren’t coming. ‘Listen,’ I said – ‘now really listen to one another – watch someone who comes in when you do – listen to another part and work your dissonance against theirs. Be aware of everyone around you, and commit to the sound.’

Commitment is the other crucial factor, particularly in those contemporary works we’re performing that rely on a firm embracing of a tangential tonal language, rich in dissonance, often without resolution. Those added-notes and chromatic relationships really need to beat against one another – you have to really stand your ground and commit to your note, and if everyone else does the same, the colours can really start to scintillate.

So we stopped, and began again. And the effect was immediate. There was a fullness to the sound, and the harmonic landscape was transformed; suddenly, those cluster-chords were working. As we sang on, you could see some real astonishment lighting up the faces of those who were ‘getting it’ – this is what it’s meant to sound like.

And the knock-on effect was such that the same core commitment to the sound emerged in the desolate yearnings of the Brahms songs as well. You need to learn your notes and watch the conductor, it’s true; but being prepared to commit fully to your line, to listen to others and understand how what you’re singing relates to what they are doing, means the music can really start to lift off the page and come to life.

We’re getting there…


In-Choir Within: Matthew Norman

Meeting some of the singers with the University Chamber Choir. This week, bass Matthew Norman.

Pipped to the post ?

Pipped to the post ?

How did you get into choral singing? At the age of eight, after a much acclaimed performance as Mr. Tomato in the play Mr. Tomato, it was suggested that I join my local choir.

What’s your favourite piece? I am very fond of Eric Whitacre’s work, especially Sleep. Its haunting dissonance is beautiful and never fails to move the audience and myself.

What is your best and worst memory of singing in a choir? I do not have one standout memory of my choral experiences. Instead, I enjoy the togetherness and friendship you earn through long hours of rehearsal. I relish that one intangible moment where the choir’s sound clicks, leaving all involved speechless.

In stark comparison, my worst memory is arriving at a rehearsal vaguely inebriated, after birthday celebrations, and struggling to count!

What do you find the most inspirational aspect of choral singing? Its intrinsic ability to transcend life’s trials and tribulations. No matter how stressed or anxious you may be, choral singing has a somewhat cathartic ability to relax you and put your worries into perspective.

In-Choir Within: Matt Bamford

Meeting some of the singers with the University Chamber Choir. This week, bass and student-conductor, Matt Bamford.

How did you get into choral singing ? I started singing as a member of the Lichfield Operatic Society whilst taking part in their musicals. I properly made the transition to choral singing when I joined the University Chorus at the beginning of my first year.

Fine conduct: Matt Bamford

Fine conduct: Matt Bamford

What’s your favourite piece ? It’s difficult to name one piece in particular as my favorite. I’m a big fan of Eric Whitacre though, in particular his Alleluia.

What’s your best/worst memory about singing in a choir ? I’ve had many funny moments whilst singing in choirs. The highlight is probably singing in the naive of Canterbury Cathedral. One of the most awkward moments was during school when our conductor fell almost a bar out of time with the Organ during the Carol Service. It was a very interesting rendition of the Shepherd’s Pipe Carol!

What do you find the most inspirational aspect of choral singing ? Choral Singing is great fun and is a really good way to get away from the stresses of university life. The feeling when you end a piece that has gone really well is a feeling that you don’t really get anywhere else. I’m really looking forward to both singing and conducting in the acoustics of the Crypt of Canterbury Cathedral in a few months’ time.


A moment of frisson with Whitacre

There was a magical moment at the all-day Chamber Choir workshop on Saturday when, in a moment of ‘I can’t wait to try this’ recklessness, we ran the last two pages of Whitacre’s Lux Aurumque without the piano. We had literally just looked at the final section for the first time, exploring those chocolate-hued chords and sudden moment of harmonic brilliance in the change from minor to glorious major, resonant and rich chords of C#; and it was a moment of ‘Ok, let’s just see how we get on…’

And we tried it. And it worked. There was a moment’s awe-struck hush after the final chord had died away, and then a real sense of excitement hung in the air – this will be the moment which will end the first half of the Crypt concert in March, and what a poised moment on which to finish it. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one bearing an irrepresible grin across my face at that moment, either…

Matt B leads the Chamber Choir in music by William Byrd

Matt B leads the Chamber Choir in music by William Byrd

As is customary, we hold an all-day rehearsal early in the first term, in order to get to grips with a large amount of repertoire, build the momentum from the first rehearsal, and get the Choir to bond socially during the day during the breaks and over lunch. The student conductor, Matt, and I had carefully planned how we would use the day, and by the end of it – apart from two movements of the Brahms op.62 lieder – we aimed to have sung through everything in the Crypt programme, over these first two weeks.

There’s a real sense of achievement at the end of the day, that I always forget, and which is very pleasing; from now on, we’re revisiting pieces, rather than having new ones thrown at us (well, rather than my throwing new pieces at them). The psychological effect of this is to make you feel that you are really starting to make progress, rather than starting from scratch each week with something new.

Throghout the day, the Choir took every piece we threw at them, ranging from William Byrd through Brahms to Whitacre. (There were one or two exciting moments in Chilcott’s Steal Away where the basses were singing in parallel octaves rather than parallel minor sevenths, but that will come…) Matt had the Choir in high spirits as he led them through Rutter’s Dashing Away With The Smoothing Iron, which is trickier than it looks – whilst one voice has the tune, the other voices are often punctuating with rhythmic chords and off-beat interjections, which takes some getting used to – and we ended with my setting of Gershwin’s Our Love Is Here To Stay, which will show the Choir in jazzy, barbershop form – lots of added-note chords and jazz-infused sonorities to perfect and to tune.

Luncheon of the Singing Party

Luncheon of the Singing Party

All in all, though, a very good day, and one in which we all felt we’d made great strides, particularly in singing some pieces (the final section of the Whitacre and Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus) without support from the piano, at this early stage, showing the signs of good things to come.

So, back rehearsing again tomorrow night: and it’s time to get festive with a look at the great Advent antiphons and some carols in preparation for the Advent concert at the end of November. It never stops…

Getting into performance mindset and ordering pizza

An intense week of rehearsals last week – the usual Tuesday night session augmented with a Wednesday lunchtime slot – culminated in a Saturday all-day workshop. With a wary eye on the four o’clock rugby kick-off, we gathered in the usual rehearsal room on a frosty-bright Saturday morning at ten, with a full day of working ahead of us.

Chamber Choir: before...

The morning was given over to addressing particular pieces where notes are still not entirely sure;  I’ve found it a useful exercise to help voice-parts approach lines by playing the soprano and bass lines together, followed by the alto and tenor parts. This serves two purposes: when checking notes, the sopranos can relate their melody to the underlying bass notes, and then the alto and tenor parts can see where their harmonies lie; it also means that you don’t leave one voice-part languishing until the other three have worked through theirs, a sure way of losing concentration and focus.

This worked well, and as the morning developed, we began to become more sure-footed. At the mid-morning break, there was a general sense that we’d moved on. At this point, one of the altos rang out for pizza after checking what everyone would like. It’s become a tradition that everyone brings food and drink to share at lunchtime – organised earlier in the week by the choral-rep-cum-nutritional-officer, Matt – however, Lucy had been working so hard during the week (I’m sure that’s what she said, anyway) that there hadn’t been the time to go shopping; so at the break, an order was placed with the local pizza delivery service, and everyone could relax in the second part of the morning.

At lunchtime, I’d noticed that Eliot College Hall was free – usually in use by student societies or alive with drama rehearsals, Eliot Hall lay unusually quiet. As anyone who has been in the Choir before will recall, the usual rehearsal venue is small and has no acoustics whatsoever, and the opportunity to sing in a more resonant space was too good to miss. After lunch (pizzas successfully delivered, and with some very fine chocolate brownies from the kitchen of Choir Cakes and Confectionery Officer Emma), we therefore decamped to Eliot for the afternoon rehearsal, and here is where the day began to gather momentum.

This year, we’ve decided to adopt a more formal mode of concert dress: the ladies have chosen floor-length, formal black to match the all-black suits of the chaps, whilst everyone will be wearing purple scarves or ties. This stems from a sense that, the more formal and organised the group appears, the more the audience will trust it. Look the part, and even before you’ve sung a note, you’ve won the audience over. With this in mind, all the ladies elected to bring in their dresses and try them on, to check the uniformity. It struck me that this would be an excellent opportunity for the chaps to do the same (with suits, not dresses…) and we could run the entire programme in concert-mode.  I’ve noticed before that as soon as you dress for a performance, you stand and sing very differently. The afternoon therefore represented an opportunity to run the concert in the mindset of full performance: dressed, standing, and singing in higher gear – and, thanks to the hall being empty, a chance to do so in an acoustic more similar to that of the Cathedral Crypt.

We’re running the first two items in the programme without a break – plainchant for Matins into Barnum’s Dawn. As soon as the plainchant died away in the hall, and the first colours of dawn began to emerge, the effect was immediate. A change came over the group – we were in full performance gear, and the new acoustics meant we could really feel the music taking flight. A new vigour came over the group, a real sense of relishing the sound we were making.

Over lunch, Paris, one of the sopranos had suggested members of the choir should take turns individually in coming out of the group to stand in the middle of the hall, to hear the sound. (As Dan in the tenors wryly observed, ”that’ll be everyone out for Sleep, then!”). As they did so across the afternoon, most of them commented afterwards that they had noticed the sound was blending superbly; singing amongst the group, you could hear individual voices more easily, but halfway down the hall, the group sounded like a single entity. With Steph leading a finely-crafted run-through of the Sullivan, it was a highly useful opportunity for us all to really adopt the mindset of delivering a performance.

We finished dead on four o’clock – over at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, the whistle was blowing for the match to start, but also to signal the end for us of a very productive day. Driving home in the late winter afternoon towards the setting sun, I felt as though a minor landmark had been achieved. Well done, team: it all bodes well for the concert at the end of next week.

And after...

A new Dawn, a new day: the new Chamber Choir

And rising, phoenix-like, from the ashes of last year’s Chamber Choir is the new ensemble, which met tonight for the first time.

First meetings are always tentative, with new members suddenly thrown into the fray alongside returning singers from the previous year. It’s difficult to sing confidently amongst strangers, especially when grappling with new pieces to sight-read and sometimes different languages in which to sing, in an unfamiliar venue on a campus at which you might only have arrived a few weeks previously.

And the group rose to the occasion splendidly.

After some tricksy warm-ups from Steph Richardson, this year’s student conductor, it was straight to work, looking at four pieces for the Crypt Concert in February of next year. First up, Dawn by the American composer Eric Barnum, a Whitacre-esque meditation on the rising day. We followed this with Vaughan Williams’ Sweet Day, a mock-Elisabethan part-song.

A sojourn in Italy next, with Lassus’ Tutto lo di, a deft villanelle which trips through various metric values, full of life and vigour. Some might consider not introducing the challenge of singing in a foreign language at a first rehearsal – all those tricky vowel-shapes and the minefield of pronunciation – but the group rose to the challenge with spirit.

We finished by looking at some genuine Whitacre,  Sleep, his profound and beautiful piece to a poem by Charles Anthony Silvestri. Some astonishing chords here, with consonant sonorities supporting semitone clashes that give a real piquancy to the music, some rich colours and breath-taking sonorities – we’ve begun building certain passages chord-by-chord, and the choir have taken to it straight away.

All in all, a terrific first rehearsal: well done to all the choir for their work, to Steph for leading the group through the warm-up exercises: more next week. It’s time to start getting excited about the year ahead…