What goes on tour…

English: Frauenkirche Dresden Deutsch: Frauenk...

English: Frauenkirche Dresden Deutsch: Frauenkirche Dresden (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And we’re off! This time it’s a whistle stop tour – Hannover tomorrow night, Dresden the night after and Paris next Saturday. After Tuesday’s great performance of Britten’s War Requiem (it wasn’t just me that thinks it was good, check out what the Telegraph has to say) I am really looking forward to performing it again in different venues.

Now, while I have been known to organise the odd event at work, I balk at the logistical challenges of a tour. There are so many things that can go wrong…

One conductor caught the Eurostar by the skin of his teeth, only to discover that in his haste he was travelling on his young daughter’s passport. Cue much hilarity from the choir. Fortunately they let him back in the country.

Last year’s CBSO tour seemed like it was cursed, with striking airlines meaning that members of the orchestra were arriving right up until the advertised concert time. Which was somewhat delayed when the conductor fell ill. I’m told that Simon Halsey was a hero that night, not only entertaining the crowd by chatting to them in German, but also conducting editing highlights of whatever music the orchestra and choir could lay their hands on. Not exactly what was planned, but it’s amazing what you can do in a pinch!

So far, the mighty CBSO team seem to have solved the logistical challenges of a cancelled flight (half of us flew out this morning) and a change of soprano soloist, so fingers crossed those are the only issues we encounter this time.

The tours put on by one of my former choirs, the London Oriana, had a bit of a reputation. It’s a very, ahem, sociable choir. I realised what high standards there were when on the Eurostar out, one of the tenors produced not only all the ingredients to make cocktails, but also crushed ice to serve them with. Crushed ice! That is a level of dedication to tour drinking that I’d never seen before. Then there were the legendary after dinner forfeits on the last night. Really not for the faint hearted.

On the way back on yet another Eurostar (Eurostar passengers beware of touring choirs) unsuspecting travellers were serenaded in the buffet car with a medley of hits. Beethoven 9, Mahler 2, all the classics…

Now you may wonder if we actually fit any proper singing in. We do, honest. I’ve always enjoyed the challenge of taking a piece and creating a performance in a new space, a different acoustic, a different viewpoint. It can be fun, it can be incredibly difficult. I’ve been moved to tears in a rehearsal of remembrance music in a church in the Netherlands, the venue lending atmosphere to the music. In other acoustics, where you can’t hear the parts you usually can, and the orchestra sounds like it’s playing a mile away you can spend your time hanging on the every gesture of your conductor, hoping the sound coalesces into something wonderful for the audience.

I don’t know yet what challenges this tour will bring, musical or otherwise, but you can be sure that we will be trying to create that musical magic that makes the travelling worthwhile.

Oh yes, and there may be some socialising too. Who’s bringing the ice?

 

The CBSO and CBSO Chorus are performing Britten’s War Requiem in Hannover, Dresden, Paris and London.

 

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Requiem

English: Coventry Cathedral Coventry Cathedral...

Coventry Cathedral

A Requiem is a choral singer’s bread and butter. We sing these works all the time, whether by Mozart or Verdi, Faure or Brahms. They are wonderful pieces. The Latin words are as familiar to me now as nursery rhymes once were. And yet, their very familiarity means that often I forget what I am really singing about. And this is one of those weeks where events have made me think I should remember.

Like undoubtedly so many choirs, we are currently rehearsing Britten’s War Requiem. We have been fortunate enough to perform it many times in the last few years, including a wonderful anniversary performance in Coventry Cathedral. This means that when we come back to it again, as we did last night, it’s much more about the fine detail than note-bashing. Although occasionally it is about note-bashing.

When you’re working at that level of detail, you don’t get the sense of the piece. The emotional impact is lost. In the discussion about which vowel sound is more closed in benedictus (yes that was one of the discussions), you forget the meaning of the words (‘blessed’ for those of you who didn’t spend a significant part of their schooling conjugating Latin). You debate whether something is a crotchet or a quaver, and work on getting that chord just a little bit more blended. When it comes together, all this fine detail can create fantastic music, but it is the emotional impact of singing with a group of other people that has always had the most effect on me. You never know which performance it is going to be, but when a mood takes a room the experience is overwhelming.

The interesting thing about Britten’s setting is the juxtaposition of Wilfred Owen’s poetry with the more traditional text. The words of the war poet add an extra poignancy to the prayers. The heart of the Britten (for me) is not one of the magnificent choral sections. It is the moment during the Libera Me when the baritone sings into the silence, “I am the enemy you killed, my friend. I knew you in this dark.” For really, with all our differences, we are the same. It comes to all of us.

So in my reflections on events I think that, whether you be an eight year old cheering on marathon runners, a controversial former prime minister, an American fertiliser plant worker, or simply one of the millions who have drifted away this week, everyone deserves a requiescant in pace from someone.

The CBSO’s next performance of Britten’s War Requiem, in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall on May 28th, is dedicated to alto Lesley Nickell. And I can think of nothing more fitting than the act of a group of people joining together in glorious harmony (and sometimes discord, it is Britten) to remember a life, particularly one so dedicated to singing.

Future performances of Britten’s War Requiem by the CBSO Chorus are in Dresden, Hannover, Paris and London.

So what’s the point of the bloke waving his arms?

Conductor---COLOR-TRANS-122

Used by permission, http://www.VoiceActing.com

This was a question asked of me over Christmas by my uncle. Admittedly he’s not someone who attends classical music concerts, but he’s not the first person to ask me this. To the uninitiated, the chap (and it is still nearly always a chap) with the pointy stick at the front is a bit of a mystery. What difference do they really make, apart from to keep it all together? Well the devil, as ever, is in the detail.

For the CBSO Chorus, this week’s chap with the pointy stick is Ed Gardner, our principal guest conductor. I’m sure he’d be pleased to know that the general feeling is that he’s one of the best conductors we have the pleasure of working with. He might be less excited to know that the other feeling among the chorus (well the ladies of the chorus anyway) is that he has great hair, but there we go. Yes, we do talk about those sorts of things.

What makes him so good? Well, for starters, his beat is clear. You would think this is a prerequisite for conductors. It really isn’t. Occasionally a conductor appears whose beat is completely mystifying. This is not always a problem. At a pinch, as long as the orchestra and choir are together it will probably be fine, regardless of what’s going on at the front. But this misses the point of what a great conductor can do. It is the ability to shape the direction and sound of the music, and to change the smallest detail that makes the difference.

Anyone observing our Spring Symphony rehearsals this week would have spotted this attention to detail. I mean, the Britten needs it. The text is difficult to enunciate clearly, particularly at lightning speed. The sopranos have been struggling with singing ‘sweet and small’ all week while the children’s chorus are doing their best with ‘chop cherry’. The vibraphone came in for plenty of attention. The lower octave wasn’t sounding loudly enough. Then the upper octave was ringing too much. The snare drum wasn’t exactly in time with the harp. The sopranos needed to be scarier on the word ‘howls’. And the tenors were getting overexcited and rushing ahead of the beat. It takes boundless energy and vision to know what you want a piece of music to sound like and to exhort several hundred performers to achieve it.

A good conductor puts their own stamp on the music. It is entirely possible to perform the same piece of music multiple times, each time with a new interpretation. Sometimes this doesn’t quite work. A university performance of Brahms’ Deutsches Requiem nearly ground to a halt as the (soon to be retiring) conductor got slower and slower throughout the last movement. Sopranos started having to sit down rather than pass out. Never underestimate the physical toll of conducting. On everybody. A last minute change of conductor wreaked havoc with a well rehearsed Mozart Requiem, performed successfully only a few days previously under a different baton. These things happen. But often, it is a new way of looking at a movement, a phrase, a bar, that is what makes working with different conductors exciting.

For a choir, a great conductor doesn’t just make music with the orchestra, they really involve the singers as well. There are some renowned (ahem, Russian) conductors who are less than keen to acknowledge the choir’s existence. In some cases this has involved communicating with the choir via our choral director only. Instead of, you know, talking to us. I’m happy to say this is a rarity. The CBSO’s main conductor, Andris Nelsons, is a joy to watch. And sometimes hilarious. When he gets really excited he star jumps on his podium. If he wants the quietest sound possible, he will crouch down underneath his music stand and look up at you pleading for pianissimo. When it’s going really well during a concert, he has been known to take a little break to lean back and survey the scene. His enthusiasm is infectious.

So, the point of the bloke (and yes, sometimes woman) at the front of the stage? They shape the music. They inspire, they demand and they cajole others to share their musical vision. They can make or break a performance. Oh yes, and they keep the beat too.

Conductor image is owned by www.VoiceActing.com and is used by permission.

The collective consciousness of choirs

Wimbledon Choral Society

Wimbledon Choral Society (Photo: BBC)

After last night’s final choral rehearsal of Britten’s Spring Symphony I have been contemplating the idea of the collective consciousness. When it works, it is magnificent. The choir seems as if it is one being, breathing and singing together to produce a glorious sound that transports the audience. It is one of the aims of a good choir and the feeling it brings when it is done right is one of the amazing aspects of singing with a group of people.

When it goes wrong, it can be heart-thumpingly scary. My former choir, Wimbledon Choral Society, have been lucky enough to sing at the Royal British Legion’s Festival of Remembrance for a number of years. It really is a privilege to sing to a capacity Royal Albert Hall and take part in the service to remember those who have served in the armed forces. Then there is the additional thrill of trying to spot yourself on TV behind one of Katherine Jenkins’ frocks. From a musical point of view the repertoire is not usually challenging, with straightforward hymns plus oohing and ahhing in the background to support the soloists.

On one particular occasion, the soloist was Hayley Westenra. For whatever reason, we ran out of time to rehearse one of her pieces on the day. Trying to fit in a full dress rehearsal plus both performances was clearly stretching the BBC’s schedule to the limit, and it was decided that it would be fine to just perform it. Now, most choral directors would like to think that their choir was capable of rising to the challenge of sight-singing a relatively simple piece during a performance. However, there were a few things working against us:
1. We had neither seen nor heard the piece before (it was a new arrangement)
2. The music we were given contained only our own parts (ie the sopranos had only the soprano part) without any cues from the soloist or band or other choral parts
3. The piece was written in 4 and, unbeknownst to us, was being conducted in 2
4. The music did not follow the usual pattern of these pieces where we happily oohed and aahed behind the soloist (and therefore could get away with a multitude of sins). As it turned out, the structure was Hayley sings, choir sings, Hayley sings, choir sings…

You could feel the collective confusion as Hayley began singing and we all started wondering where on earth we were in relation to the music we had in front of us. Normally, counting bars is not an issue, but it turns out to be a major problem when the conductor is beating in a different time signature to the one that you think you are in. Consequently, we were thoroughly lost when Hayley finished her verse and turned expectantly to the 200-strong choir behind her… Collective panic. Immediately followed by collective stiff upper lip, collective putting on a brave face and collective singing something in the chord. Never have I been so glad to get to the end of a piece. Collectively, we just couldn’t get it right (although the plus side of this type of piece is that no one knows what you should have been singing anyway).

Back to the present day and the Britten requires a certain amount of collective consciousness, particularly with regards to pitching the first note of new movements. For those of us without the gift of perfect pitch, being told to find your note from a fourth above the tuba or from an orchestral chord that sounds like the composer’s cat wandered over the manuscript is definitely a leap of faith. Next week’s heart thumping moments will be in the seconds before we sing, as we hope our collective consciousness carries us to choral greatness … and the correct notes.

The CBSO Chorus will be performing Britten’s Spring Symphony with the CBSO conducted by Ed Gardner at Symphony Hall, Birmingham on 17 and 19 September.

It’s all about Britten

Happy new year, and welcome to my musings about all things choral.

As a composer with an anniversary this year, concerts featuring the works of Benjamin Britten are being performed up and down the land (see the Britten Pears Foundation’s website for a comprehensive list). The CBSO Chorus’s schedule is no different, beginning with three performances of the Spring Symphony, two with the CBSO in Birmingham, and one with the Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall. All of these will be conducted by Ed Gardner, the CBSO’s principal guest conductor, who is a Chorus favourite.

I am working on liking this piece. The lack of warmth towards it may be due to the fragmented rehearsal schedule – the Chorus has sung Mahler, Beethoven, Harvey and Christmas concerts since beginning rehearsals for the Britten – or it may be the kind of piece that will sound much better with the addition of soloists and orchestra. The main issue at the moment is my (and fellow sop 2 members) inability to sing about snails and their ‘shellies’ with anything approaching a straight face.

In more things Britten, I’m looking forward to the War Requiem, for which we seem to be going for some sort of world record for number of performances. Coming up this year are concerts in Birmingham, London (St Paul’s Cathedral), Hannover, Dresden and Paris. It never fails to amaze me the opportunities that joining a choir (albeit in this case a very good one) can give you! One of our best Requiem performances to date was in my local venue, Coventry cathedral. If you missed it, there’s always the DVD