Tag Archives: Haydn

Tears at breakfast: leaving yourself emotionally susceptible to music

I heard a piece of music on  BBC Radio 3 Breakfast this morning and instantly burst into tears. (And no, I’m not going to tell you what it was.)* It was one of those unexpected moments when music reaches out and gets under your skin, and from nowhere there’s an immediate emotional response for which you’re wholly unprepared. It’s what music does best, one of its greatest powers: to move you when you least expect it.

Image: Jeremy Bishop / Unsplash

It made me reflect on why the music had affected me so much; I’d heard other pieces throughout the morning, but nothing had struck me quite so forcefully until that moment. The piece was a wonderfully intimate song – just voice and piano – small-scale, but operating with an emotional weight far greater than chamber music from two performers might suggest. And I realised it was because, at this moment, I have two huge pieces whirling around in my head – Haydn’s Nelson Mass and Fauré’s Requiem – that we’re preparing for forthcoming concerts here in the Music department, and which I’m in the midst of rehearsing.

Image: Varun Gaba / Unsplash

The way my brain operates is that, as we gradually draw closer to a performance (the Haydn is in three weeks’ time), it starts to bring the repertoire to the surface and keep it moving through my inner ear, often to the point where the relevant pieces are all I can think about during the whole day. It’s a way, I suppose, of my working through to check that I really do know them before stepping out to conduct them; but it’s also a way of really ensuring I’ve understood the emotional landscape of the music, expressed in its harmonic language. Have I really grasped the import of that diminished chord ? Why is the movement in the cellos and basses at that bar so important ? What’s the effect of that interrupted cadence there ? Why are the second violins playing that particular note when the firsts are playing THAT one ? What does it all mean ?

I think it was Britten who observed that musicians have a thinner layer of skin, so that they can experience the emotion of music more readily (or something like that). For me, this is definitely the case the nearer I get to a performance, as the music continues to sound throughout my imagination each day as the concert draws closer. If the music is to have any chance of operating successfully, then you have to have fully explored its emotional ebb and flow throughout the rehearsal process; you have to have opened yourself up to the harmonic implications in the score, to the emotional terrain it is exploring, in order to bring that out during rehearsals. The musicians have to know why that note, that chord, even that beat’s rest, is important; to understand where their contribution fits into the larger whole, and what effect that should have on the listener. And you can only do that if you’ve made yourself readily accessible to the music’s demands, in order to share them with the musicians and then (hopefully) to the listener. It’s about creating space for emotional honesty – for you as the conductor, for the performers, and for the audience – for which the music is asking; making yourself emotionally susceptible, able to be alive to all the harmonic / emotional nuance in the music to be able to draw it from the performers.

Image: David Clode / Unsplash

So it seems that those unexpected tears provoked by the piece on the radio came because of the emotional terrain to which I’m opening my ears at the moment ahead of performing the Haydn and the Fauré – two contrasting pieces rich in emotional expression, particularly the latter – and that means I’m obviously in a heightened state of susceptibility towards other music at this point too. It will become increasingly heightened the nearer we get to the concert (aided in no small way, I am sure, by pre-concert nerves…), but it should hopefully mean that, when we come to the performance, we will be taking the listener through the emotional odyssey the composer has asked us to realise in the white-heat of performance.

I’ll just have to be wary of listening to the radio until then…

* (If you’ve read thus far, then perhaps you deserve to know; it was Mel Tormé and George Shearing in a live performance of It Might As Well Be Spring, alright ?! Thanks, Petroc Trelawny…!)

Nice to see you again: welcoming two University alumni as soloists for the Cathedral Concert in March

For the first time since 2019, the University Chorus and Symphony Orchestra return to the magnificence of Canterbury Cathedral in March, for the annual Colyer-Fergusson Concert.

Named in honour of Sir James Colyer-Fergusson, the yearly event has been sorely missed; the Music department is very excited at the prospect of returning to the heart of the cathedral city once more this March, and to add to the occasion we’re looking forward to welcoming two alumni and former Music Scholars as soloists.

Haydn’s dramatic Nelson Mass, written in the shadow of Napoleon’s advancing army, will feature tenor Andrew Macnair and bass-baritone Piran Legg.

Andrew Macnair in costume in a producttion of the Marriage of Figaro, in severe black and white
Andrew Macnair: Image credit Edmond Choo

Andrew arrived at the University of Kent in 1987 to read Physics, and was a Music SCholars as well as President of Music Society and Chamber Music Society.  Numerous concerts, several operas, eight years and a Ph.D. in Nuclear Magnetic Resonance later, he took up a career in singing after Kent, and has been singing with the Royal Opera Chorus, Covent Garden, since 2006.

Piran Legg. Image credit Clive Barda / ArenaPAL;

Hailing from the seaside town of Whitstable, Piran studied History at Kent; he moved onto the Opera School at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He has since performed extensively in opera
around the UK and abroad, working as a soloist with companies such as Wexford Festival Opera, Garsington Opera, Scottish Opera and the LSO.

Bringing together musicians amongst the University community of staff and students, as well as members of the local community and alumni, the concert in March will be something to remember, as we pass through the doors of the Cathedral for the first time in three years to fill the space with Haydn’s epic mass setting, coupled with the youthful vigour of Mendelssohn’s first symphony.

Tickets and details online here.

Haydn’s Creation: reflections of an American violinist

Masters student and violinist Jon-Mark Grussenmeyer reviews the  recent Cathedral concert.


On the fiddle: Jon-Mark Grussenmeyer

After rehearsing with Sue into the late hours of countless Thursdays, performance day was finally upon us.  It promised to be a busy day, not least because my family had flown in from New Jersey to watch the concert.

My father kindly offered to drive me from my flat to the pre-concert rehearsal, at which we were supposed to arrive by 10:45.  He promptly made a wrong turn at one of the roundabouts, though thankfully he was, at least, still driving on the wrong—I mean left—side of the road.  By the time we pulled into town, I was nearly late.  Knowing the English fondness for punctuality, and fearing being skewed by Sue’s angry baton, I sprinted into the Cathedral only to find that half of the orchestra had yet to arrive!

As a postgraduate student of Mediaeval Studies, I am often in the Cathedral, usually examining tombs and other objects related to long-dead people, but filling such a building with beautiful music was completely new to me.  To sit and play in the vast nave, the gothic vaulting soaring far above our heads, sunlight piercing the leaded windows in dusty golden shafts, was, for me, an unforgettable experience.

After practicing for a while, we were allowed a brief respite, during which my stand partner and I rushed to purchase the coffee and muffins that would keep us alive for the rest of the afternoon.  Of course, as we ate, poor Miriam was then subjected to a mini-lecture on the finer points of the Great Cloister’s architecture, which was only halted when we heard the rest of the orchestra tuning inside.

The second half of the rehearsal went quite well for the orchestra.  Several times, the combination of such beautiful harmonies and stunning setting was so powerful that it brought tears to my eyes.  Then, the beautiful shafts of sunlight began to shift until they shone directly in my face whenever I attempted to look up at Sue, so teary eyes necessarily remained an integral part of the rehearsal.

Rehearsal at an end, I ate a late lunch and wandered around town with my family.  As evening wore on, we repaired back to my parents’ room in the Falstaff Hotel, where I changed into my dinner jacket and then walked back to the Cathedral, violin in hand.  The only mishap en route was a ‘gentleman’ who attempted to lay hands on my dinner jacket whilst babbling something unintelligible, though I rid myself of him with a fierce look and a few well-chosen words.

We set up our instruments in the shadowy Cathedral Crypt, one of my favourite places in all of Canterbury, and waited for the concert to begin.  As 7:30 rolled around, the chorus marched out to take their places on the enormous risers that seemed to reach as high as the quire’s rood screen, and we took our seats and tuned our instruments.  I was stunned by the number of people filling the Nave, including the Lord Mayor, who was sitting across from me in the front row with his impressive chain of office.  We certainly ought to have chains of office in the States.  Finally, Sue, Jeremy, and the soloists emerged to thunderous applause, and the concert took off in the whirlwind of Haydn’s interpretation of Chaos.  I am glad that I had time to appreciate my surroundings whilst playing during the rehearsal, for I had little time to notice anything but the notes, the baton, and Jeremy’s bow as I shifted into my intense concert mode.  As I am on the front edge of the orchestra, I found it amply necessary to concentrate; in the complete view of the audience, I have to at least appear to know what I’m doing.

As with any performance I have ever completed, orchestral or theatrical, the concert seemed to fly by at breakneck speed, and suddenly, after weeks and weeks of tiring rehearsals, the orchestra and chorus were belting out the last magnificent strains of the Creation.  As the echoes of our final chord lingered among the high-flung columns and the audience filled the nave with applause, I gazed up at that splendid Cathedral and at my fellow musicians, trying to etch the moment into my memory.  Though I shall take many amazing memories back with me to New Jersey when my time here is over, the memory of this concert numbers among the very best.

Let there be Light…

The whole of the Creation process, from the gradual emergence out of Chaos through first Light to Man and Woman, will take place in Canterbury Cathedral tomorrow in considerably less time than the original Seven Days the Lord took.

The University Chorus, Orchestra and soloists will render the whole series of events for you at one sitting (well, two, if you count the Interval) on Saturday at 7.30pm in the Nave.

Tickets and details here: think of us all early tomorrow morning, as the logistical process gets underway at 9am as we move instruments and stands down into Canterbury in preparation for the morning rehearsal…

On a Haydn to nothing with the cellos ?

As the cellists know, it’s green-light for this weekend’s all-day rehearsal on Haydn’s The Creation  with the Choir and Orchestra ahead of the Cathedral Concert a week on Saturday.

No strings attached

Sunday will see the combined forces gather in Eliot Hall to rehearse together for the first time, in preparation for the concert; next week sees a particularly busy time for the University’s musicians, with rehearsals on Monday, Thursday and Friday; not to mention the rehearsal in the Cathedral itself on the morning of the day.

Details of the concert on our online diary here. It should prove to be a memorable occasion…