the patron saint of my choir tours

On the previous foreign choir tour I went on, to Lisbon, we were proudly informed that St Antony of Padua had come from the city and shown a site associated with him. And the one I have just returned from was based in Padua and includes singing in his basilica, so I have followed him around.

Gloucester Choral Society’s latest excursion began (for me and quite a lot of others) with a railway journey and an overnight stop in Milan. We brought with us a number of carefully rehearsed pieces, mostly unaccompanied.

Our first performance, the day after arrival in Padua, was really one for the bucket list: San Marco, Venice. Usually they host choirs for concerts and services quite often (to judge by the number of people I know who’ve sung there) but we were the first visiting choir since the coronavirus pandemic. We got an early train and bounded this way and that across canals to the Piazza, then were admitted to an open courtyard for a quick run through of the music before singing at the midday Mass, in a block of seating at the front of the south transept.

I have previously performed in other buildings with a comparable degree of prestige (Notre Dame, Chartres Cathedral and of course British ones such as St Paul’s).  I generally feel the sense of occasion before and afterwards, but when actually in performance I become so focused on the music that I don’t give thought to the surroundings, and that was the case this time too.  

After lunch and some free time we reassembled in S. Maria Gloriosa dei Frari (where Monteverdi is buried) and performed the same pieces at an early evening Mass led by an exceptionally friendly priest.

A couple of days later we crossed the road from our hotel and sang for a Mass at the Basilica of St Antony. Here space constrained us into three equal rows, and I had to step forward from the second row (altos) to join the end of the soprano row when we sang something other than plainsong. (It still felt as if the rest of the choir were the other side of Padua.)

Our music included:

Cloister, Basilica of St Antony, Padua.

Cloister, Basilica of St Antony, Padua

Venice:

  • Gibbons Almighty and everlasting God
  • Byrd Ave verum corpus
  • Tallis O Lord, give Thy Holy Spirit
  • Harris Holy is the true light
  • Tavener Hymn to the Mother of God

Padua:

  • Stanford Coelos ascendit hodie
  • Byrd Non vos relinquam orphanos
  • Mozart Ave verum corpus
  • Philips Ascendit Deus

All familiar to me except for the Byrd Non vos relinquam (normally sung by lower voices which explains how I missed it) and the Tavener which I’d only done once before. Another post will describe the rest of this choir tour.

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Vivat! Vivat!

A lot of choirs have programmed Parry’s I was glad in concerts around the time of the Platinum Jubilee, and it’s been natural to include the often-omitted ‘Vivat’s’, as the Erleigh Cantors did this year in their concert at St Peter’s Earley. The anthem does work better with them, as there is otherwise a rather abrupt key change.

This was not the only big sing in the concert, as I renewed my acquaintance with Bruckner’s Ecce Sacerdos Magnus, performed as part of a sequence of his motets. Previously I’d sung it back in my student days – I’ve never done it with the trombones, only organ.

We brought out some pieces from the recent Bristol weekend: the Soler Magnificat, our commission from Andrew Millington and the Nunc from Richard Shephard’s Salisbury service. Another piece came from a Cathedral weekend I missed: John Tavener’s Hymn to the Trinity, which was originally written for a choir I used to sing for, the Cambridge Taverner Choir. I missed being in the premiere by five years or so.

We did some earlier pieces too, including Gibbons’ Hosanna to the Son of David and The King shall Rejoice by Handel (another big sing – I suppose it goes with pieces written for royalty). Not to forget Stanford’s three Latin motets, which will reappear in another post shortly.

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Vaughan Williams’ greatest hits – and Britten

The concert programme for the final Gloucester Choral Society concert of the season marked the Vaughan Williams anniversary with a selection including some of his best-known shorter works. We sang in all of them apart from The Lark Ascending, played by Hannah Roper.

The Mass in G minor is a work I’ve sung parts of many times. But I’d never sung the Creed for an audience, only in a Come and Sing, so there was a first performance for me in this concert.  I’m always glad to have a chance to do this piece and particularly enjoy the parallel fifths at the end of the Gloria.

I sang the Serenade to Music a few years ago with Bristol Choral Society. That time we dispensed with soloists and everyone sang everything, but in this performance we had a solo quartet, and organ (or rather toaster – Gloucester’s organ has just been taken out of action for repairs) accompaniment.

Otherwise: I revisited the Five Mystical Songs after a few months, with James Geidt as soloist this time. This performance and the one last autumn confirmed my view that no two people conduct the end of Let all the World the same way.

We sang the Te Deum in G, rather faster than I’ve done it in previous performances, and the concert concluded with O Clap Your Hands.

We had a very complimentary review: Seen and Heard International.

A week later I was back in action with the Bath Abbey Chamber Choir, singing a Sunday evensong.  As (I think) the only soprano familiar with Britten’s Festal Te Deum in E, I was volunteered for the solo part, which I’d never done before.  Our canticles were Wood in F for double choir.

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a workshop on The Eighth

Four years on from Berlioz, the South Cotswold Big Sing Group is reconvening, this time to perform Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. Sadly, the advance workshop in Gloucester was all I’m going to get of this, as I’m not free to sing in the performance. But I came along anyway, having missed singing with large groups.

I think I’ve alternated between Choir 1 and Choir 2 when I’ve sung this, and it was Choir 1’s turn. In the morning we rehearsed on our own, and then were joined by the other lot, and at some point all the notes got sung.

Afterwards I dashed out to my local bookshop to get my hands on a copy of The Eighth by Stephen Johnson. Our conductor has made dire predictions that health and safety will make performing the work impossible in future, but I hope that won’t be the case.

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Requiem (3): a new one

The third Requiem of the spring was a premiere performance of a work by Richard Gabe, a member of the choir at church and connected by marriage to a late friend of mine. Like the Rutter it mixed some words from the Requiem Mass with other liturgical and biblical texts; each movement was written in memory of a friend or family member of the composer. The choir was assembled for the occasion on the day (with prior rehearsal and music circulated beforehand), but quickly gelled into a unified sound, and we had a large audience to perform to for the mid-afternoon concert.

It was a busy weekend for me as there were two Palm Sunday services at Bath Abbey. Highlights included movements from Palestrina’s Missa Aeterna Christi Munera, which I don’t think I’ve sung since I was a student, two settings of Christus factus est (Bruckner and the less familiar Anerio) and Daniel Purcell’s canticles in E minor, as sung by me in Portsmouth Cathedral last year. I’m told there’s been a live donkey at the Palm Sunday Eucharist there in past years, but we didn’t have one this time.

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Requiem (2): Fauré

A week on: another Requiem and another setting of Psalm 23. This was Gloucester Choral Society’s double-bill of Fauré and Stanford in Gloucester Cathedral.

I would have liked to have illustrated this post with another in the sequence of windows from the cloister, showing the Ascension. But there isn’t one! The sequence drawn from the Gospels/Acts jumps from the women at the tomb, to Paul on the road to Damascus. There are plain windows in between, as if they had intended to fill the gap, or some mishap befell the windows with Ascension, Pentecost etc.

This would have been to illustrate Caelos ascendit hodie, the central one of the Three Motets, which we performed in a sequence with some transposition to smooth awkward jumps of tonality between them. The text is an obscure one – an internet search just turned up references to Stanford – doubtless chosen for Trinity College because of the line Laudetur Sancta Trinitas.

Other Stanford pieces were that war-horse, the Te Deum in B flat, the aforementioned Psalm 23 setting and ending with the double-choir Magnificat in B flat. When I worked in Cambridge I would sometimes go to evensong at King’s at the end of the week, and because Friday was unaccompanied, as often as not this would be the setting. I’d sit there staring at the stained glass wondering just how much more of the piece there was! Our interpretation was rather livelier, certainly more so than any other I’ve given of this work (I may have been the only soprano at least who had performed it before).

The Fauré was accompanied by the organ, the last I’ll hear of it for a while as it’s being taken out of action for major work. I’ll get to sing it again in the autumn with Bristol Choral Society.

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Requiem (1): Rutter

Somehow I found myself singing three concerts with a Requiem in, within four weeks. The first was the return of CanZona (I sang in their last concert in December 2019) to perform Stainer’s Crucifixion and Rutter’s Requiem.

I sang the Crucifixion as a student and don’t think I’ve performed the whole piece since then! Not that I have a particular aversion to it, but I haven’t taken advantage of chances to do it and it had faded from the memory a bit. It used to be sung every year on Good Friday at another church in Bath, but that tradition appears to have died out. Of course it never goes away entirely, thanks to God so loved the world and a couple of hymn tunes (about which I hope to write more in another post).

I was assumed to know John Rutter’s Requiem, but in fact I’m unfamiliar with his larger works for choir and orchestra. It includes other biblical and liturgical texts, and draws on a mix of styles, including the French Requiem tradition and spirituals. The setting of Psalm 23 was composed some years earlier, and I’d already encountered it as he recycled it for Psalmfest too. We had lost a couple of altos to Covid, so I filled in alto leads as and when I could.

Our concert made headlines in the Bath Chronicle for non-musical reasons which I won’t go into here.

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the sounding of thy bowels

The phrase in the title used sometimes to be replaced by other words in performances of O Lord look down from heaven by Battishill, but not when I heard Merton College choir sing it at evensong in Bath Abbey earlier this month (nor in a recent evensong broadcast). It was, however, omitted from the text printed in the service sheet.

Merton joined forces with the girls and men of Bath Abbey choir for this service. There were some 60 singers in the combined group, which suited Battishill’s and Stanford in B flat rather more than Tomkins respones and Tallis. The sound was certainly powerful! There was a good-sized congregation and my only quibble was that we didn’t get a hymn to sing, unlike the weekday evensong which inaugurated the Abbey’s Chamber Choir last autumn.

Merton does something unique, I think, in Oxbridge and offers entrance choral scholarships to students at other Colleges. (I suspect Cambridge, with its competitive choral rivalry between Colleges, would not tolerate this.) So the choir, which admittedly always did have a significant proportion of non-Mertonians, is increasingly a University choir which happens to be based at Merton.

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no raffle at Onegin

Almost the last musical event I attended in before lockdown was a Bath Opera performance, and two years on it was time for another, Eugene Onegin.

I’ve been to three performances of this – one a few years ago at the ROH I wrote about here and the first was Glyndebourne Touring Opera in Oxford in December 2002, so a few months before I started this blog. The main thing I remember about that particular performance was the odd contortions adopted during the dance at the beginning of Act 3, in an otherwise realistic production. Every so often the dancers would freeze into some improbable pose, highlighted by the lighting, for a few seconds.

Bath Opera adopted a more naturalistic approach throughout, with a small dancing troupe among the carefully directed chorus. There’s a cast list here. As at the ROH, I found myself wanting to hear more of Lensky (here sung by Daniel Gray Bell). The (mostly) young principals were all convincing and vocally secure; the small orchestra settled as the evening progressed (this was the first night).

I don’t know whether it was something about me, but the people on either side of me all left during the first act. Perhaps they didn’t care for the work being sung in English, or maybe they’d just had enough of things Russian that day (February 24th); both reasons might have applied especially to the Polish couple on my right.

I missed one standard aspect of Bath Opera productions: the raffle of bottles and the like, donated by the cast. I’ve rarely left a performance empty-handed. Probably a Covid casualty, although I think it could have been managed in a responsibly distanced way.

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m=approx 365(1-exp(-N/365))+1

It was my birthday earlier this week and in the evening I went to choir. Every few weeks on average this particular choir sings ‘Happy Birthday’ to one of its members, and I wondered whether this happened for any choir member who went to a rehearsal on their birthday, or just for those who are on the committee or help out in some other way.

The formula above, supplied by a mathematician friend, tells you how many different birthdays you might expect in a group of N people. For 100 people it’s about 88. Another mathematician friend ran a numerical simulation which agreed with this. (I know it was that time of year, but let’s ignore February 29th for this calculation.)

As there are about 100 people in the room at a typical choir practice (such as yesterday’s), and as far as I know no sets of twins in the choir, the formula above gives a chance of just under 1 in 4 that it is the birthday of at least one of them. Of course if it is in fact your birthday, you are more likely to give choir a miss that week and spend the evening with your family or down the pub. That suggests that ‘Happy Birthday’ might get sung about one week in six, which seems about right – and implies that all choir members are entitled to be serenaded with it on the appropriate day.

What actually happened was that we were invited to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ – to an alto who shares my birthday. I quickly piped up that it was mine too, so both our names were included. Although as a relative newcomer most people either didn’t know mine at all (it wasn’t I think announced) or thought they did, but in fact didn’t.

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