why go on foreign choir tours?

I haven’t actually been on many choir tours overseas. I like singing and I like travel, but I don’t necessarily enjoy mixing the two, because on a choir tour one’s free time and opportunity to explore and meet local people is limited. And also my first commitment is to being with my family. But I regularly get enquiries as to whether I am interested in going on such tours.

I know of one choir tour which is already oversubscribed with choir members, over a year ahead. While a few years ago I went on one where fewer than half of the singers had performed with the choir they nominally represented.

So why are some tours more attractive than others? I can only speak for myself, but these are the sorts of questions I consider:

  • How attractive are the location, performance venues and other scheduled parts of the tour? Do they fit in with ‘places I would like to go to’?
  • What about the cost, both absolutely and as value for money? On one tour I went on, the (not very large) choir subsidised six or seven professional musicians who travelled out with us, not including the conductor.
  • And the repertoire to be performed? A piece I dislike is still a piece I dislike, wherever I happen to be singing it.
  • Do I have confidence in the organisers?
  • Who will be rehearsing and directing? Someone I know and respect?
  • Who are the other singers who will be going? Will I get on with them, and will the performances be of a decent standard?
  • How much time will it take, factoring in the time taken to get to and from the tour location from home? Will I miss anything important at home?
  • Will there be rehearsals beforehand, or will they take up a significant amount of time on the tour?
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Breaking Free

I was one of those who were concerned about the ‘dumbing down’ of Radio 3. (My personal pet hate being the long life stories of listeners that are phoned in during the morning drivetime slot. I’m just not interested in them!) However I perked up on finding out that 2017 began with a week of programming themed around the Second Viennese School. It’s all disappearing off the iPlayer now, but I did manage to catch a lot of it either live or retrospectively.

There was no attempt to shy away from the more hardcore material, and indeed some of the more familiar and less daring pieces such as Im Sommerwind and the Seven Early Songs were notable by their absence. I particularly enjoyed the episodes of The Essay, in which five people talked about their relationship to this repertoire; more than one of the accounts of how they discovered it resonated with my own experience.

There were chances to hear 9 of Berg’s 14 works, although it was an unfortunate piece of scheduling broadcasting his Violin Concerto directly after Wozzeck, when you wouldn’t really be able to take it in. The theme of the week even got into the Choral Evensong slot, in the form of Friede auf Erden. But I’d have been more thorough: a Webern cantata for introit (I’ve sung introits longer than anything Webern ever wrote), serial canticles (there are some by Alan Ridout and by Elisabeth Lutyens) and that as yet unwritten Anglican chant based on the tone-row from Lulu.

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why I avoid Spem

2017 began with an unexpected (I was replacing someone who had to work that day) trip to St Cuthbert’s, Wells, to join a choir specially convened to rehearse sing Tallis’ Spem in Alium informally as a birthday celebration. I have sung this piece five times but this was only the second which was strictly one to a part, and as in the other I was the soprano in choir 5. I missed a trick as I should have been less honest about which parts I’d sung before, then I might have got a new part to try!

There is something about this piece, especially when done with small numbers…. it doesn’t bring out the best behaviour in singers. Perhaps it is that everyone becomes a prima donna, wanting to demonstrate that they sing more beautifully and in tune/time than the other 39 (or 36 in this case). And so you get people who are unapologetically late arriving (even though there is no one else to cover their part in rehearsal) or who assume that anyone they don’t know cannot possibly know what they are doing. I don’t exclude myself; I recall one performance where I (and my fellow choir 1 soprano) fumed as we shared our line while another, less competent, soprano struggled to hold hers alone in one of the other choirs. And another where I growled resentfully as I’d been forced down into Alto 6 in a performance which had been transposed up a tone. And another where we doubled-up sopranos waited patiently while solo-lined lower parts were taught their notes.

Perhaps this is why I don’t really seek out performances of Spem; the last one I sang was in 2007. There might be something to be said for doing something I’ve hitherto avoided and joining a come’n’sing type performance with a large number of singers. That way I can experience the soprano line in choirs 2,3,4,6 and 7.

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review of the year – 2016

And what a year it was. I sang in the Three Choirs Festival Chorus. I sang lots of choral masterpieces (and Carmina Burana) for the first time. I made my débuts in several new venues, sang before a member of the Royal Family and discovered the benefits of the colour-coded post-it tab. On a sadder note, I have been saying a rather protracted farewell to a choir I’ve sung with for a long time. I’m going to write the year up as a set of awards, moving towards the less serious ones at the end of the list.

Performance of the Year. It’s not going to be possible to single out just one. For overall memorability and significance, I will nominate two. Firstly, the Berlioz Grande Messe des Morts in the Three Choirs Festival. Someone in the audience tweeted ‘Tonight, perhaps for the first time in my life, I heard utter perfection.’ Even if he was exaggerating, what a thing it is to be part of making someone say that. Secondly, my first performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis in November.

Building of the Year. Step forward Gloucester Cathedral. The setting for all the Three Choirs concerts, but I wasn’t finished with it after that – I returned in the autumn for a weekend with the Erleigh Cantors and then for the Missa Solemnis. At one point I couldn’t close my eyes without seeing the cloisters floating around, but there are worse things to see that way.

The Best New Venue Award. This is a tie between the Lord Mayor’s Chapel (one day I’ll get to dep in the choir there – I’ve been on the list as long as John Marsh has been organist!) and the Bath Assembly Rooms – a short walk from my home, but rarely performed in by amateurs. Other new venues include the Anvil Basingstoke, and St John’s Church Keynsham.

The ‘Poulenc Gloria’ Award. For the new (to me) piece which came round in unconnected performances in quick succession. Walton’s Coronation Te Deum, which I sang in the 3 Choirs Festival (and with Bristol Choral Society), and 3 months later with the Erleigh Cantors. A special bonus for the fact that the 3 Choirs and Erleigh Cantors performances were in the same place, which isn’t one of my most frequent performance venues.

The ‘Meet the Composer’ Award. This goes to Alexander L’Estrange, whose music I sang twice in as many weeks, with him being present with his band on both occasions.

The Best Rehearsal Moment Award. When rehearsing a notoriously hard piece of choral writing, we were asked to stand up, and then sit down if we realised we’d made a mistake, as a visual demonstration of where problems were occurring. After rehearsing one particular passage, an entire section of the choir was found to be seated. (I myself was still standing, but would have been sitting if we’d tried the same exercise in other parts of the rehearsal!)

The Obstructive Fellow Singer Award. There were several who inadvertently tried to prevent me from giving a good performance, including:

  • the woman whose beehive hairdo was held in place by vast quantities of hairspray. Singing next to her I felt as if I was glue-sniffing
  • the fellow singer who could not sing in 5/4 without beating time, but not in the same time as the conductor
  • the singer in front of me who was usually on the back row of their choir, and who swayed around so much that I had to peer on first one side then the other in order to watch the conductor. This was relayed round the building on the big screens, to the entertainment of some in the audience

All the performing meant I didn’t actually attend as many performances as usual, but I did get to ENO’s staging of Lulu, the Proms performance of the Royal Opera Boris with Bryn Terfel, and a very local Das Lied von der Erde.

As for ambitions for 2017? There’s nothing very dramatic planned, but you never know what’s going to come up during the year. Maybe I’ll get to do a solo with a choir I’ve been singing with for a quarter of a century. I know there are several in it who would like to hear me do so and have told me it’s long overdue! At any rate I’m going to renew my acquaintance with the Peterborough Chamber Choir (Salisbury in February), go back to St David’s in July, and finally bring the Cathedral Chamber Choir to Wells in June.

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A Cathedral Christmas

I don’t think I’ve ever spent Christmas within easy reach of a Cathedral before. But this year I managed it by staying just outside St David’s, with a 10-minute stroll through some lanes to the Cathedral. I went to three services, sometimes accompanied by others in the family.

I enjoyed the standard of singing, particularly from the trebles, but perhaps what was most striking musically were the organ improvisations at Midnight Mass – it’s a long time since I’ve heard any that extravagant. There were other incidental pleasures such as the apparently rather stylish Welsh translation of O little town of Bethlehem, which preserves the internal rhymes in the third and seventh lines of each verse. George Malcolm’s Missa ad presepe, which I introduced to Priory Voices. And a chance to go to Matins on the morning of Christmas Day.

I’d make a couple of pleas:
a) check that only the microphones that are needed are switched on. At the 9 Lessons, it was only after lesson 6 that I found out what the choir sounded like. Until a stray microphone was switched off at that point, all I could hear from where I was (right up at the east end) was the amplified voice of one of the tenor lay-clerks.

b) one of your vergers on duty at Midnight Mass must be among the tallest men in St Davids. If he’d swapped places with the verger next to him and sat in the end of a row, he would not have blocked anyone’s view!

This was also a useful opportunity to case the joint for the Ereigh Cantors’ weekend in St David’s next July.

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a lot of carol singing

I got through quite a lot of carols and Christmas hymns this year. We had the usual Advent and Christmas carols services at church, and the Christmas one brought some new pieces: Philip Stopford’s setting of the Coventry Carol and somehow I’d managed to miss singing The little road to Bethlehem. The arrangement of the latter for unaccompanied choir still betrays its origins as a solo song.

I went to the school carol service in Bath Abbey. I always approach this occasion with wariness, as I’m now very bad at being in congregations and often I’m surrounded by people who chat throughout, not even listening to their own children performing for them. This year was a bit different; I had a neighbour who was clearly familiar with all the hymns (not all of them very well known), but who unfortunately had a rollercoaster-like portamento, both up and down. He covered his ear so he couldn’t hear anyone singing any differently from him. I wonder if he plagues a church congregation somewhere?

At another short carol service the hymns received a gloopy accompaniment with added ‘strings’, like a rather less tasteful version of the scoring of Jesus’ words in the St Matthew Passion. (The accompanist was clearly an enthusiast for ‘worship songs’ and performed for us one she’d written herself.) By the third carol, O come all ye Faithful, some of us decided to subvert this and we startled her by launching into the descant. This seems to be quite generally known (if mis-remembered in one or two places) as you quite often hear it sung informally, for example at the ‘Carols in the Circus’ which I went to the first half-hour of.

I revived local carol singing and recruited a few others via church and the Streetlife website, to go round Sion Hill. This was generally well received, although there is only a short window of time where you catch everyone; too early, and people have not returned from work, too late and some will refuse to answer the door.

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Messiah back on the book

The annual Bristol Choral Society Messiah came round again. The choir started singing the piece from memory while Adrian Partington was musical director, building it up with a few more choruses each year. With a change of conductor and an influx of new singers into the choir, it was decided to revert to using copies this year, but as little as possible. We also did slightly different choruses, including dropping Lift up your heads (the second part of which is a piggy to memorise if you want to get it exactly right) and Let us break their bonds (a particularly nerve-racking one to sing from memory).

We had a different orchestra this time too – the Corelli Orchestra – but were still at baroque pitch. The earlier ‘Mini Messiah’ highlights for children attracted an audience of about 1500 and seem to be a firm part of Christmas for many Bristolians.

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Aaaaaah …. Neptune

I thought I had sung in enough major orchestral works for the first time for one year, but another came up at short notice; the wordless chorus in the final movement of Holst’s Planets suite. This was put on by the Keynsham Orchestra, conducted by Mark Gateshill, in St. John’s, Keynsham, a handsome church which I’ve seen many times without ever having entered. It boasts a impressive brass candelabrum which would not disgrace any cathedral, elaborate monuments, and lots of needlepoint kneelers. The concert was well attended with large slabs of home-made cake on sale in the interval.

Holst asks for the choir to be in a separate room, but the most practical solution was for us to be tucked behind a pillar, with a view of the conductor. The chorus part is not totally simple (for one thing, it isn’t in the same key signature as the rest). The second soprano part, which I was doing, is a lot less strenuous than the first. Singers came from Bristol Choral Society and the Chew Valley Choral Society.

Earlier we’d heard Berlioz’ arrangement of the Rákóczi March (I’m not particularly keen on national music in general, but this piece makes me wish I were Hungarian or failing that French) and Seren Nickson and Erin Cacace were the young and accomplished soloists in Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante.

Meanwhile, my husband went to hear the Piatti Quartet in the old Theatre Royal and was impressed; the Bath Recital Artists’ Trust get some good performers. The programme ended with Schubert’s string quintet, which he believes he hadn’t heard live before, because he didn’t know how the cello parts were distributed. It also included music by Haydn, Frank Bridge and John Hawkins.

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another calendrical plea

I made this request at the end of 2005 and here it comes again.

Every year I buy a calendar with photographs of British Cathedrals. The format has varied – perhaps they haven’t all been produced by the same publisher – but it’s often been called ‘Cathedrals and Greater Churches of Britain’. Our 2016 calendar was produced by Judge Sampson. I like to buy it when singing in a Cathedral with a visiting choir, along with Christmas cards depicting the Cathedral, so I can support it.

This year I drew a blank. Gloucester were selling one of their own with 12 views of Gloucester Cathedral. Wells likewise had a Wells-specific one. Southwark Cathedral shop, which I visited in November, had cleared calendars off their shelves ‘because the manager wants the space for Christmas stock’. (Evidently it hasn’t occurred to them that some people give calendars as Christmas presents, or indeed that they are most likely to sell them at the end of the year. I wonder how many unsold 2017 calendars they will have left over?) Other Cathedral shops I’ve tried, such as Lichfield, Bristol and St David’s, weren’t selling them. You can’t order from Judge Sampson direct online, or even find out what their range is.

So if anyone has seen such a calendar on sale, especially if there are still copies on sale now, I’d be interested to know!

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what’s top of the bucket list now?

Like many singers I have a ‘bucket list’ of the works I would like to sing and have never done. For as far back as I can remember until 2008, the work at the top of it was Bach’s B minor Mass. From then till very recently, it has been Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. In November, the top slot was probably occupied by Belshazzar’s Feast, for all of one week. And now it should be…. er…. um….?

I’m now a bit stuck for an answer to this one. There are a lot of candidates: The Bells, The Seasons, the Christmas Oratorio, The Apostles, Mass settings by Bruckner, Poulenc and Haydn, among others. But nothing really stands out. If I have to pick something it would not be a full-length work, but the chorus in Mahler 2. I did get offered a chance to sing it a couple of years ago, but 8 hours or so of rehearsal before the day of the concert seemed excessive. Now there is a projected Mahler 2 in the near future – watch this space!

I have another bucket list of service music rather than concert pieces. The top piece here is the Mag and Nunc from William Byrd’s Great Service, but here I’m in the position of being able to organise a performance myself if I’m keen enough.

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