I did a bit of moonlighting at a couple of churches I used to sing in. First came a service for All Souls’ Day in Bathwick. We were in the side aisle, but this time for the good reason that new underfloor heating is going in the nave. The choir contained some of those who used to sing at the church with others from the other church in the benefice. Our conductor had an admirably gung-ho attitude when people appeared not to be watching during the rehearsal – pulling around the tempo to see who followed him and who didn’t!
At the weekend I was over in Cambridge and sang for the first time in a few years for an ordinary Mass (i.e. not a Requiem) at Little St Mary’s. In fact it was the Feast of Dedication, which meant an overlap with one of the hymns we had at our wedding in this church. The choir is quite a lot larger than it used to be (it helps that there is no longer an annual turnover of choirmasters, as there was when I lived in Cambridge) and has junior choristers in alternate weeks. Another difference is that the singing of plainchant is more nuanced; rather than singing the same psalm tones in the same way to the proper texts each week, there is some of the plainchant appropriate to that day in the liturgy, with expression marks of various kinds. As I’m not a plainchant expert, I let others take the lead in this.
I finished my weekend in Cambridge by going to King’s College Chapel for Sunday evensong, where I heard the eponymous canticles by Howells and Let all the world by Vaughan Williams.
Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music has been another piece on my wishlist. A while back there was a proposal to perform it in Bath with me and 15 other singers, but it didn’t happen. It can be done also with a choir and four soloists, but Bristol Choral Society did it in Bristol Cathedral in the fully choral version; there’s no change in the score, so one minute you are doing a rather undemanding part for massed voices and the next you are pretending to be Eva Turner or Isobel Baillie. We used a reduced orchestration for strings and piano. I shall understand this piece better next time I hear it in a concert.
The other Vaughan Williams in the concert was Dona Nobis Pacem, written slightly earlier, which is getting a lot of performances in the WWI centenary period, including the one I sang at 3 Choirs a couple of years ago. This too was given in an arrangement for strings and piano, so you had to imagine the brass in the second movement. On the other hand this performance had more expressive flexibility with regard to tempo. I suspect this piece will withdraw from concert programmes again once the centenary is past, but perhaps it might be time to look at RVW’s other cantatas, Sancta Civitas and Hodie – both are just names to me.
Our programme was completed with Howells’ Elegy and Farewell to Arms by Finzi. This last is not exactly a song cycle, just two thematically related poems set for tenor and strings. I thought I knew Finzi’s music quite well, but I was unaware of it. It was an inspired complement to the other pieces.
It was a quick return to Winchester, this time with the Erleigh Cantors. Slightly worryingly, the place where we rehearsed in the summer was off-limits because of dodgy electrics, so we were displaced to Pilgrims’ Hall, an impressively old but rather chilly wood-framed hall now used as a school theatre. We were relieved that this autumn was mild and we did not get as cold there as we were in Ely a few years ago.
On Saturday we did a setting which was on my personal wishlist, Weelkes ‘for trebles’. There’s a reason why I’ve had to wait so long for this one: the first treble/soprano line in the full sections is relentlessly high. It is in fact a reconstruction by Peter Le Huray (once known to me slightly and rather better known to my husband), based on the organ part; were he alive today I’d take him up on whether it was seriously meant to be like that! Although the Gloria of the Nunc draws on his anthem Alleluia, I heard a voice, or is it the other way round? Either way I suspect the music got re-used because he got back from the pub and realised that he hadn’t finished composing a piece that was needed imminently.
We had further demanding singing ahead on the Sunday. Vaughan Williams’ Te Deum in G is familiar to me; I seem to be doing a lot of his music at the moment (see the next article). Our Communion setting was the Mass Congratulamini mihi by Guerrero (whose music I sang last time I was in Winchester); it is expansive and not easy to sing across the wide space between the two halves of the choir in the Cathedral crossing.
In the afternoon our canticles were another set I’d heard but never performed; the Hereford service by Richard Lloyd, written in 1982. They require quite a bit of agility and have some unexpected key changes, with more than a nod to Howells. I hadn’t realised till I looked at his Wikipedia page how prolific a composer Richard Lloyd is; positively in the Darius Milhaud league, though I suppose most of his works are short. Our anthem was Let all the world by Leighton, to use up any voice we had left. For the record, we also performed Leighton’s Responses, Sing joyfully by Byrd, They that go down by Sumsion and Justorum animae by Lassus.
It’s some years since I sang alto in earnest in a performance (other than filling the odd verse of a hymn for variety, or being asked to sing a phrase or two of the alto part to balance parts). Although I have the range for all but the very low notes, I have two problems: my voice doesn’t carry very far at the lower end, and I find it harder to pitch low notes because I don’t have as much pitch memory.
I was joining the Senior Choir of Elstree School (now near Newbury, the result of wartime evacuation that became permanent) for an evensong at Bath Abbey. The ‘Footprint Project’ is in full swing and the eastern end of the Abbey is a hard hat area behind a wooden barrier. We were in temporary choir stalls in front of it. Another part of the project is the creation of larger rehearsal facilities, so a visiting choir won’t have to occupy the same space as the Abbey girls’ choir, as we did this time.
I know a music teacher at the school and so was called on to reinforce the alto line, even more necessary when the other adult alto sustained an accident in Bath and wasn’t able to sing. We sang a few psalm verses, Brewer in D, ‘Look at the World’ by John Rutter and a hymn. I had to remember not to get too enthusiastic about the high E in the unison verse of the hymn and give myself away. I finished with more respect for the effort altos have to make to sing often unmemorable lines in a restricted range.
I’ve been spending rather more time down my local recently. Part of the reason is that post-rehearsal church choir drinks now happen there, the former favoured watering hole having closed. I now feel more inclined to join in as I don’t have a long walk back.
I happened to be free recently for one of the monthly ‘Pub Choir’ nights which happen in an upper room. The organiser/conductor runs several pub choirs which meet with varying degrees of regularity in different parts of Bath. The night I went the choir consisted of me and six men (what’s not to like?) and we learnt 3-part harmony arrangements of three songs. I didn’t have the music this time (another time I might download it in advance) so I was learning by ear. This is a skill I don’t practice very much although I suppose I do it passively when I ‘pick up’ a piece through rehearsing and listening to it.
The choir meets on the same night of the week as one of my other choirs, but I will look out for other months when I happen to be free. It’s publicised in the area and some of my neighbours have been along in the past, so maybe a group excursion is called for.
Another plug for the recital series put on by the Bath Recital Artists’ Trust. These events with young professional performers go some way to filling in the chamber music/song recital withdrawal symptoms here between Festivals.
My husband went to the most recent recital, featuring that slightly unusual medium, the string trio, in this case the Carnevale String Trio. As at the last one he’d been to, there was a substitute violist. The predominant player was the rather animated Polish violinist, who certainly contrasted with the deadpan Swiss cellist. The programme began with an arrangement some of the Goldberg Variations. The next two pieces had a slightly folky feel: Dohnanyi’s Serenade and a trio by Gideon Klein, both showing the influence of Czech composers such as Janáček. The concert ended with Beethoven’s Op. 9 no. 3 trio.
There are plenty of string trios, but apart from Beethoven no major composer seems to have written more than two. They appear to have gone out of fashion after Beethoven and Schubert, then enjoyed some popularity with composers in the mid-twentieth century and continue to be written today.
A course for choral conductors from France, Italy, the UK and Poland is happening in Bath 24-28th October and good choral singers are needed to form an adult chamber choir for them to work with. Details are here.
There is a preparation evening rehearsal on 22 October, evening rehearsals 24-26th October and rehearsal and performances afternoon/early evening 27th/28th October. I’d have been interested, but I’m singing in a concert on the Saturday. I wouldn’t have benefited from being told earlier, because that concert is a priority and has been in my diary for months, but I hope they can find people who are free on parts of 6 days out of 7 at under 2 weeks’ notice! I wonder whether a choir had been booked, and then dropped out?
The stage is set for the Hindu wedding ceremony
We went on a very short trip to the USA to attend a family wedding in Lexington, Kentucky. This was conducted according to Indian tradition, with a two-hour Hindu ceremony one morning and a secular reception the following day. Much of the ceremony was chanted in Sanskrit by the priest; I admired his stamina as just one of the prayers lasted over 20 minutes and there were many others. There was also another singer who performed some hymns to the accompaniment of a backing track.
Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, Lexington
We were free on the Sunday morning so I found an Episcopal church, the Good Shepherd. This must be one of the oldest buildings in Lexington. Their morning service was comfortably familiar, allowing for the differences of the Episcopalian liturgy. They have an RSCM-affiliated choir which has recently done a residency at St Alban’s Cathedral, and which sang a psalm to Anglican chant and two short anthems during the service; they are currently advertising for a new director of music. Many English Cathedrals have American church choirs to visit in the summer, and this was a chance to see the sort of church where these choirs come from. Their organ was new (with some flashy en chamade
pipes) and afterwards I chatted to some of the congregation about the practicalities of replacing or upgrading an organ. Given the location, I was amused to hear a reference to bridles in one of the lessons and to sing a hymn to a tune called Bourbon
Time was when this was always Beethoven 9. This year it was Handel’s Theodora with Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo, and as I was in London that day I decided to go.
Theodora is an odd one out among Handel’s oratorios. Rather than a juicy bit of Old Testament smiting, or the assorted scriptures of Messiah, it’s a bit of early Church martyrology. There are hints of sex and violence to spice things up (though modern scholarship is sceptical about sacred prostitution in the Roman world), but the problem is that the Christians are all faultlessly virtuous and the others very villainous. The exception being Septimius, a pagan who puts in a plea in vain for religious tolerance, pointing out that Christians can be good citizens without venerating the Emperor. Unfortunately in this performance part of his role was cut, so he was demoted to a relatively minor character.
But perhaps it was a good thing that there were cuts, as it was quite punishing standing in the Arena through two halves (there was only one interval) each of well over an hour. I was impressed by the singing and in particular it was good to hear Iestyn Davies for the first time; the chorus also excelled in their various roles. I was near enough to the performers for the acoustic of the Hall not to interfere. But I think I’m never going to warm much to this particular work.