no visiting choirs here!

I wrote to a Cathedral recently proposing that one of my choirs came and sang a weekend of services, and was rather startled to receive a reply that they are not accepting visiting choirs there ‘for the forseeable future’. (Despite the fact that there is a page for them, with a downloadable information leaflet, on the Cathedral website.)

I’ve never had this happen before and presumably there is some problem with visiting choirs in the past that lies behind this policy. I don’t know who imposed it, when it happened or what reason if any was given, let alone the underlying reason if that is different. Maybe there was no announcement, leaving the congregation wondering why there were more said services out of term time than there used to be. I have heard that (not surprisingly) some at the Cathedral are unhappy with this situation and would like to start welcoming visiting choirs again. Trying to stand back and be objective, surely the benefits of having choral services year-round, which include retaining more of the congregation, must outweigh the drawback of administrative workload.

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when only a spiritual will do

A couple of times recently I’ve sung arrangements of spirituals in church. Firstly, we sang Tippett’s setting of ‘Go down, Moses’ at Matins in Winchester Cathedral. I normally feel that the spirituals from A Child of Our Time (in the modified form in which he arranged them for unaccompanied choir) don’t really work in church services; but at this service our first reading was Moses before Pharoah, so we had a rare chance to replicate a piece of Old Testament narrative in our choice of anthem.

A few days later I sang at a funeral of a member of our church congregation. We used a piece from our choir’s repertoire, an arrangement of ‘Down in the River’, splitting our rather limited forces a variety of different ways in order to cover all the parts. The origins of this spiritual are definitely obscure, and it’s not clear that the author of it was black. It’s been suggested that the words encode instructions to help slaves escape on the ‘Underground Railroad’. I am normally a bit sceptical of this sort of theory, wondering whether it is put forward by people who have difficulties with any expression of religious fervour, but this looks like one of the more plausible cases. The ‘starry crown’ isn’t a biblical image, unless you’re the woman in Revelation.

Both times the spiritual said what we wanted to say, and it’s not clear what could have met the need better.

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1 out of 37

There was lots of music that was new to me in the Cathedral Chamber Choir’s sojourn at Winchester Cathedral.  One piece that wasn’t was Tallis’ Latin Magnificat, which I’ve sung with a couple of other visiting choirs.  So I was rather surprised that none of the other 36 singers in the choir, many of whom had years of Cathedral experience as choristers and/or with visiting choirs, knew it.  Possibly this is because there wasn’t a performing edition until quite recently.   Or because it’s very long (most performances of it last about 10 minutes).  It was paired with Josquin’s Nunc Dimittis, also quite long, which brings back the opening words of the canticle at the end in a way I associate with Stanford (more in a moment) but doesn’t set half of the Gloria.  And our anthem was Guerrero’s Simile est regnum cælorum, which sets the beginning of the parable of the labourers in the vineyard. I’d never sung either of these last two before.

On Saturday we had one new piece that had been on my wishlist a long time, All Wisdom Cometh from the Lord by Philip Moore. I’ve heard this so many times on broadcasts and was very glad of a chance to sing it. It’s another piece that pushes 10 minutes in length and is rhythmically quite tricky. Our canticles were Stanford’s early set in E flat. These contain hints of his mature works, as well as sounding Schubertian in places, although Stanford tends to resort to getting the choir to sing in unison when he can’t think of anything else for them to do. Much is sung by a solo verse group.

On Sunday we sang Mozart’s Orgelsolomesse K259, in which I did the solos in the Gloria and Agnus Dei (our other movements were the Sanctus and – unabridged – Benedictus). I have worked my way through a fair few of the Mozart Missa Brevis settings but not done this one. Earlier at Matins we had Gibbons’s ‘Short’ Te Deum which I hadn’t sung for a long time. The final novelty was Whitlock’s Mag and Nunc in G at Evensong, in a rather more serious style than the lighter works I associate him with. I don’t think I’d even heard of these, and while I am not in a great hurry to sing them again, I don’t really see why they shouldn’t be as well known as, say, Murrill in E.

I did a bit of casing the joint for the Erleigh Cantors’ visit in October. We were well looked after by the vergers, even though they’d been very busy with tidying up after building work at the east end (the ceiling is now sparkling white there). The south transept is currently closed for more restoration work, and we rehearsed in the Undercroft, which is now locked with a key, not a code (I remember a previous visit during which choir members repeated the code under their breaths like a mantra) and has a nice new kitchen on the first floor. The plan to build a new choir room on part of Dean Garnier’s garden appears to have been dropped – under pressure from whoever placed a large plaque there in 2016?

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being outed as a singer

Our recent summer holiday included a couple of occasions where I revealed myself to be a singer or at least someone knowledgeable about music. We were in SW France near the border with Spain, and in fact both occasions were over the border. Or sort of, in the first instance. Llívia is an enclave and exclave surrounded by French territory, which goes some way to explaining what happened when I went to Mass in the church there – in Catalan with a bit of congregational singing, not done with much enthusiasm. I couldn’t really sing or say the words as there weren’t Mass books and I don’t know the language. Until that is we got to the Alleluia at the Gospel. I recognised the tune as being from O Filii et Filiæ and joined in. After the last Alleluia the rather chatty priest looked in my direction and said Merci, clearly taking me for a stray Frenchwoman who’d infiltrated his service.


Choral columns

Later on we went to Barcelona for the day and I booked on to an English-language tour of the Palau de la Música Catalana. This magnificant Art Nouveau building was designed very much with the needs of the choir it was built for in mind – there is a lift to take them up to the stage and a terrace with columns adorned with flowers and foliage, to give a restful sight to singers who spent their days in factories or offices. Would that more concert halls were so choir-centred in their design! At the end of the tour there was a short recital on the organ – a nice little earner for local organists. We were asked to guess how many pipes in the organ. My guess was much the largest, and although still some way short of the true value, the closest to the correct answer. I felt obliged to admit that I do hang out with organists.

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the asbestos symphony

The texts of Mahler’s 8th Symphony can be problematic. How do the two parts fit together? And can one take Part II at all seriously in an age when gender differences are played down?

A further potential problem with Mahler’s 8th, as with Haydn’s Creation, is relentless positivity. Where can there be a bit of darkness to introduce contrast? Mahler achieves this at various points: the jagged vocal lines at the prayer to dispel enemies in Part I, the scene-setting opening of Part II amid bleak rocky cliffs (I am writing this in sight of similar landscapes in SW France), and a later passage where angels describe the effort required to carry Faust ‘Uns bleibt ein Erdenrest’. This last uses a minor-key version of the opening theme (also heard in Part I), and took a lot of rehearsing, mainly in order to ensure correct balancing of the many different vocal parts; but I think the words are a clue to how the two parts fit together.

If I understand this passage rightly, it explains how hard it is to separate what is spiritual in Faust from what is earthly, something that can only be done by everlasting love. It’s couched in the scientific language Goethe sometimes turns to – there can’t be many works in the classical canon that mention asbestos. So one could see message of Part II as ‘free the spirit’, which leads us straight back to Part I’s Pentecost message.

I don’t claim to understand Goethe‘s Faust part 2, or (as I’ve said before) Mahler, but this seems to join the two parts together nicely, and the more I sing this work, the more musical links I find between the part too (it all seems ultimately to be built out of fourths).

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taking part in Prom 11

I’ve often been told of great occasions Bristol Choral Society members have taken part in before I joined, such as a Prom performance of the Gothic Symphony. Without a doubt joining the BBC National Chorus of Wales (and the BBC Symphony Chorus and London Symphony Chorus) for Mahler’s Eighth will join them in the choir’s collective memory. There can be few experiences other than performances of this symphony where so many people stand so close together, collectively creating something beautiful and uplifting.

It marked the final concert of Thomas Søndergård as principal conductor of the BBC NOW. My favourite among the soloists was Marianne Beate Kielland, who was a late stand-in; but I could only hear them obliquely. This isn’t the largest performance of the work I’ve sung in (the first ever one I did, in Green Park Station in 2000, had a choir of 600) but the BBC NOW was appropriately enlarged with suitably grand percussion – a real church-style bell rather than the tubular bell you usually get for example.

I was put in choir 2, but when given the choice of part, I opted for soprano 1; in fact there is little splitting, but you get a shot at a top C at the end of the first movement, and it was particularly satisfying to see someone on Twitter single this moment out for praise. In fact the chorus were complimented in a lot of the reviews.

It may seem a familiar work now (I’ve now sung it 3 times in the last 4 years), but there were 5 notes I’d never sung: ‘Er will uns lernen’. When I previously was in Choir II they were given to the young people’s chorus. No performance ever follows Mahler’s instructions to the letter – they just get too complicated about sorting out lighter voices and putting people in the front row. And the usual bar-counting and working out leads, although as I get to know the work better this is a little less perplexing. We choir 2 sopranos had one particularly nippy stand just before ‘Du schwebst’.

Lots of reviews as you might expect. The general consensus seems to be that it was a four-star performance. I’ll put some thoughts about the symphony itself in another post.

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when does a Willis not sound like a Willis?

Having a free morning before my own Proms performance, I got wind of the Sunday organ recital by the Latvian organist Iveta Apkalna and took the opportunity to go along. I would not normally be around in London on a Sunday morning, and I heard someone pointing out at the box office that it was at the worst possible time for active organists, many of whom would be playing for a church service at the time.

I have heard so much live organ music, usually as closing voluntaries, and I recognise many pieces without knowing what they are called, or even who wrote them. In other cases, going to a recital allows me to discover how they continue after the opening section during which the choir processes out; Franck’s Pièce héroïque and Bach’s Fantasia BWV72, played in this recital, fall into this category. Other familiar pieces included Widor’s Toccata from his Fifth Symphony, and Apkalna’s own arrangement of Fauré’s Pavane. Unknown to me were Thierry Escaich’s Deux Évocations and George Thalben-Ball’s Variations on the standard theme by Paganini. The latter were mostly for pedals with a bit of what I think of as Victorian chapel soupiness thrown into the middle for some light relief. I was taken with the encore, Aivars Kälejs’ Toccata on the Chorale ‘Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr’.

I don’t feel very competent to pronounce on the performances but they were expressive and at times virtuosic, my only reservation being that I felt there was some rhythmic slackness in the Bach. But perhaps that cannot be avoided on an instrument that size. Also that there were some minor issues with the tuning – inevitable in a hot summer? As I left I overheard a veteran of these recitals remarking that it was the first one he’d heard where it didn’t sound like a Willis.


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the Big Sing

I joined the South Cotswold Big Sing Group for Berlioz’ Grande Messe des Morts in Gloucester Cathedral, conducted by Adrian Partington. So a revisit of Bristol & Gloucester Choral Societies’ combined performance a few years ago, with quite a few of the same people involved. The orchestra was the British Sinfonietta, which seems not to be a single outfit, but a body of musicians from which ensembles can be drawn, as it was playing in three different places that night! There were certainly plenty of them in Gloucester.

Earlier in the year I watched a lot of the ice skating in the Winter Olympics, and it occurred to me that the final section of the Lacrymosa (beginning the reappearance of the initial theme) would make a good accompaniment to a routine, with its contrasting gentler second subject and dramatic climaxes – a double axel on the tam-tam clash? I do not regard it as a criticism of a piece of sacred music that it could also be skated to.

Our tenor soloist, Nick Pritchard, was just the sort of voice I want for this piece, floating over the strings and flute in the Sanctus. I’ve just transferred a couple of LP recordings to CD – both were by EMI and Robert Tear must have been their house tenor as he sings in both. André Previn’s is rather ponderous, but Louis Frémaux has the measure of the French military brass sound, doubtless helped by a couple of stints he did in the French Foreign Legion.

I dedicated my performance to the memories of my husband’s aunt Angela, who died last year and who loved Berlioz (see my last post) and my cousin Joan, a music teacher, who died earlier this year.

I’d be interested in joining the South Cotswold Big Sing Group again depending on the repertoire and conductor – it meets every two years or so.

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another collection of LPs

Some years ago I transferred our LP collection to CD. I am now embarking on digitising a second collection of LPs, formerly belonging to my husband’s late aunt and dating from the late 1950s to the 1980s. It would seem that the only CD player she ever owned was in her car; a combination of early hearing loss, marriage to someone who wasn’t a music lover and a resistance to new technology meant that she never made the transition to buying CDs.

The collection reveals that she had some very particular tastes; for example Mozart but not Haydn, and a preference for chamber music and Czech composers, especially Dvořák. There are a few operas, including L’Incoronazione di Poppea and La Clemenza di Tito; did she have a thing about operas set in Ancient Rome?

A group of recordings of orchestral works by Berlioz stands out, as there are few other French works. She must have had a particular liking for this composer, which I share, so it’s a shame that I never realised it and talked to her about it. I know there are further discoveries to be made as I work my way through the collection.

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a first visit to Prior Park

I went to hear a joint concert given by the Paragon Singers and Divertimento (the latter from Leamingon Spa) in the chapel of Prior Park College.

I’d heard a lot about the chapel but never been in it. It is an impressive building, with a coffered ceiling and Corinthian columns, dedicated (not very appropriately for Bath) to Our Lady of the Snows. The concert was in aid of restoration of the building, with a collection at the end, followed by the chance to buy wine and strawberries and admire the very impressive view of the city from the steps of the main school building. It was well attended with a lot of people I knew from the Bath choral scene present.

The programme was loosely themed around birds and flowers, with a number of pieces I didn’t know. Each choir chose repertoire they were comfortable with, which avoided the problem of joint recitals – one party showing up the other.

There were some pieces I would be interested in singing – such as Britten’s Flower Songs, two of which was performed (I’ve sung most of the rest of his music for choir). And a fun arrangement of the calypso Yellow Bird, a melody which I heard played again the following day at a Windrush-themed church service, and which I dimly remember singing at primary school. There were two arrangements by Holst that were new to me (There was a tree and I love my love) and, rather less successfully, Vaughan Williams’ of Greensleeves, the rather unvocal lines suggesting this was a by-product of his Fantasia on the same tune.

It was all nicely performed and the choirs were good advocates of the music they’d chosen. But listening to this, I realised that I don’t much regret leaving chamber choir music for the symphony chorus repertoire. I wouldn’t be terribly sorry never to do those pieces which I’d never sung.

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