Far from the comfort zone

(Readers with no interest in singing, please consider this TL;DR).

Yesterday evening I crossed the floor.

Let me explain.  This is a choir rehearsal.  The choir in question is not a strong one, but has a new conductor who is doing a lot of good things to improve it, and whose reputation drew me to join.  I recently enjoyed singing Rossini with them (as reported here last month), and the eventual standard of performance was a lot better than one would’ve expected from the rehearsals.

This choir’s next fixture is a concert in which only half is choral.  The Fauré Requiem and his Pavane.  The Requiem is something I’ve sung in many times – both First and Second Bass lines – and I really can’t face rehearsing it all over again with a choir that needs to note-bash and such boring things.  So I crossed the floor, and am attempting to sing Second Tenor.

It’s something I’ve occasionally contemplated, and the Fauré is kind-of an ideal trial work: not too long, not too high, and the tenors have most of the best lines!  I know I can do tenor in small doses, but I tend to suffer if I try and sustain it for more than a few minutes.  So it is with trepidation and a great deal of uncertainty that I cross the floor.

And it’s not just the tessitura that’s a challenge.  Reading the music is different: not so much the treble clef (any male singer needs to be .. um .. ambiclefstrous) but the different character of a tenor line.   That’s a minor challenge, but one I’ll enjoy.  And in one rehearsal so far, I don’t hear it around me: there’s scope to be the confident leader, which I managed in places.

Can I hack the tessitura?  I came to a grinding halt on the last page of the Dies Irae section, but was otherwise OK.  Time will tell how that plays out: on a day when I’m tired I’ll be useless, but when I’m on form I shall be working on technique to get through it and pace myself for the sustained high passage that defeated me.

Still Bass in my regular choir and other occasional and one-off activities.  That’s the comfort zone.

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Concerts

Dammit, I should have blogged this a week ago!

I have three concerts coming up.

First, one with Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle, tomorrow evening (Saturday, March 10th) at St Andrews – Plymouth’s main church.  I can do no better than repeat what I wrote here when I last sang in it – with a different choir:

a lovely and startlingly unique piece. Perhaps it takes a septuagenarian Old Master – as Rossini was in 1863 – to have the confidence to write something quite so cheekily uncharacteristic of its time. It certainly shows the complete mastery of a lifetime’s experience, together with a creative imagination undulled by age!

Second, next Sunday, March 18th, with my most regular choir at the Guildhall, Plymouth.  This is a concert of several shorter works from the English repertoire, amongst which Vaughan Williams’ Five Spiritual Songs are the highlight.  Also worth hearing are Rutter’s Gloria, and Stamford’s Songs of the Fleet.  Sadly there’s also some dreary muzak from Karl Jenkins.  This is with the band of the Royal Marines in place of our usual orchestra, and the podium will be shared by both their and our regular conductors.

The third concert is a programme on the theme of the Christian death and resurrection, to be given at Buckfast Abbey on Saturday, March 24th.  The pick of this chamber concert is probably some gorgeous works by Herbert Howells, and the programme also includes Fauré‘s Requiem and shorter anthems.

The Virgin saga continues

Damn, I can’t post a comment here.  Both Firefox and Chromium browsers complain of a bogus certificate somewhere at wordpress, and I haven’t the time to dig into that.  Let’s see if it works as a new post.

Feb. 22nd, 11:32

More this morning. A call from a number apparently associated either with Virgin Media or with a scam impersonating them, but it stopped before I could get to the phone. And a text message threatening cut off.

Investigating the phone number, https://who-called.co.uk/Number/08451112735 is inconclusive as to whether it’s Virgin or a third-party scam, with some comments offering evidence of the latter. There’s also a thread here on Virgin fora at https://community.virginmedia.com/t5/Forum-Archive/Scam-calls-from-Virgin-Media/td-p/3093322 raising precisely that question. It’s nearly two years old, but no reply from the Virgin team. Presumably another facet of the no-communication policy I’m trying to complain about.

I also replied to the text message. Unsurprisingly, my reply was flagged undeliverable.

I’ve also now blogged about this: https://bahumbug.wordpress.com/2018/02/19/customer-service-the-kafka-model/

Customer service – the Kafka model

Time to go public here.  This is one of many matters I’ve been meaning to blog about but wasn’t getting around to.  But this deserves to be on record somewhere public, and I don’t want to rely on Virgin’s forum where I have been posting it.

My broadband service from Virgin has been misbehaving again.  I’m not sure when it started: it was sometime last year I found myself frequently getting very poor VOIP call quality, which in retrospect was probably a symptom.  Other visible symptoms of the boiling frog included timeouts on the web, and from my mailer.

It’s slightly reminiscent of my previous troubles with Virgin , a nightmare that bears re-reading.  In some ways not as bad: I haven’t had extended complete cut-offs.  But in other ways worse: it was bad enough running the gamut of menus and adverts trying to phone them before, but this time that’s been replaced with an “on hold” noise that’s some yob screaming extremely aggressively: the kind of thing you’d beat a hasty retreat from if you heard it coming from a nearby street.  I didn’t catch any words, but the sound was a most emphatic “F*** OFF”.

Anyway, visiting the website, I find there’s no way to file a support ticket, only supposedly-interactive ways to call them, and a community forum.  The interactive ways don’t work, as will become clear below.

The Forum – once I’ve signed up (groan) – does work, and gets me some helpful replies.  But these aren’t from Virgin, they’re just members of the public.  My thread “Contacting Virgin” there tells the story.  This morning, one post was removed from there.  Not an important post, but if they can remove that then I reckon it’s time to copy the important contents, and not just to the saved page I already have.  So here goes.  My posts verbatim; replies omitted in case any other poster might be bothered by copyright on their words.

Jan. 30th: 15:53

I have a problem with virgin broadband: it’s very slow (less than 1% of the theoretical speed[1]) and so intermittent that many things are simply timing out, and phone (VOIP) has become unusable.

So I tried to contact Virgin. First online, where it tells me their support team are unavailable (yes, this is within the opening hours advertised – most recently today about 15:20). Then by (mobile) ‘phone, where after 4 minutes of menus it puts me indefinitely on hold. Then today I went in person into a Virgin shop, where the staff could (or would) do absolutely nothing, and wouldn’t even let me try to ‘phone customer support from there.

How the **** do I contact them?

I have just now taken the precaution of cancelling my direct debit. Maybe that’ll prompt them to contact me?

[1] e.g. http://www.speedtest.net/result/6991612663 , http://www.speedtest.net/result/7004521118

[first reply tells me I have contacted them by posting, but it’ll take “about a week”, and advises me to post some info from my router]

Jan 30th: 17:06 (as I was about to head out):

Thanks Tony. Yes, I’m at my desk, working wired (I use wireless too, but not for things like speedtest). Both are equally affected.

Sadly this editor won’t accept cut&paste from my router’s status pages. Well, actually it looks fine when I paste it in and in preview, but then rejects it when I try to post. I may try again later, but not now.

I could add my earlier experience of Virgin failing here, especially https://bahumbug.wordpress.com/2014/07/24/cut-off-again/

Feb 8th: 08:32

Well, my broadband appears to be back. In fact, it’s faster than it’s ever been before, or than I ever asked for: http://www.speedtest.net/result/7040027720 . In fact I seem to recollect that when the man from Virgin came to install my kit for a 30 Mb/s connection, he mentioned explicitly throttling something back for that.

That (still) doesn’t resolve the issue of contacting Virgin. If it’s pure coincidence that they fixed it after my attempts to contact them. that leaves me in limbo again next time something fails. Alternatively, if something I did (like my session with their menus from the mobile phone, or my posting here) prompted them to fix it silently, that’s an extremely unsatisfactory way to treat clients.

Either way, there needs to be a way to contact Virgin and get either a fix or at least an acknowledgement that a fault has been logged and will be checked out, rather than leave a customer in limbo! Not to mention an acknowledgement of known faults on Virgin’s status pages (this fault may have been unknown to Virgin until my attempts to contact them, but the one that led to my blog post referenced above was certainly known to them).

Tony, do you act for Virgin here, or am I still completely un-acknowledged by the company?

[another helpful reply telling me – among other things – this forum is the best way to contact virgin and suggesting 7-10 days for a reply from staff]

Feb. 16th, 22:44 (after nasty email from their billing)

No contact here after two and a half weeks. Perhaps I have to go to ofcom?

(Ofcom website tells me there’s an ombudsman, but I have to wait 8 weeks before trying them).

Feb 16th, 23:05 (after an attempt to reply to billing unsurprisingly bounced).

Seems I can’t reply to their email, either. So for the record, here’s what I just tried to send. There’s a “contact us” link in their email, but that just brings me straight back here!

On Fri, 16 Feb 2018 14:50:08 +0000
“Virgin Media” <Letters@virginmediacollections.co.uk> wrote:

> Important information about your Virgin Media Account
>
> Account Number: ********
> Overdue Balance: £33.23

I have no idea if this address reaches a real human, but
I shall reply in the hope that it does.

I need to be able to contact Virgin Media concerning my
service. I have tried in various ways, without success.
Please see my thread at
http://community.virginmedia.com/t5/QuickStart-set-up-and/Contacting-Virgin/td-p/3638012

At the time of the original problem, or probably even of
that post, I’d have accepted being able to get through to
a call centre droid. I think now it’s gone beyond that,
and I’d be looking to speak to a real person, and to
get at least an apology for the lack of service.

Another helpful reply commenting on the difficulty contacting them, and concluding with a paragraph that really, really deserves reproducing here:

A cynic might conclude they do not want to make it easy and do not want you to have any record of their statements, but surely that is just being paranoid?

Note, the three replies mentioned above are all from different posters.  What they have in common is forum labels describing them respectively as “Superuser”, “Super Solver” and “Knows their stuff”.  I presume those labels are based on their track records in Virgin’s fora.

Getting up to date, here’s Feb. 19th, 10:31:

Unbelievable!

They’ve just ticked another box in a diabolical blame game.

That is to say, half an hour ago, I got a call to my mobile ‘phone, showing the caller as Virgin Media. When I answered, it wasn’t a human, but a robotic voice asking questions to answer on the keypad.

Question 1: am I me? Press 1 for yes. OK so far.
Question 2: enter some password. Erm, WTF? Even if I had a clue what password they’re talking about, how likely is it I’d have it to hand at the moment they call me?

So now they’ve ticked a box. Call the customer, check. Customer confirms identity, check. But customer hangs up. How many customers could hope to explain that to any kind of adjudicator without appearing now to be firmly in the wrong?

Well, if anyone’s still reading, thank you.  I hope you’re duly amused.  I shall aim to update here as and when things happen, but no promises.  I do still have a 4G device, which is a faff to use but means at least I’m not completely reliant on Kafka’s castle at Liberty Global.

Clearing the air

It’s been a long time since I’ve blogged any good rant about matters in the news here.  It’s not that I don’t sometimes have things I could say, nor even that my words would be superfluous because the Chattering Classes in the mainstream media are already saying them.  Rather it’s a lack of round tuits, and perhaps because I might sometimes post a rant elsewhere instead (for example, El Reg on predominantly techie matters).

So how better to try and restart than by blogging a positive story.  One of those rare occasions where out government appears possibly to be doing the Right Thing about one of today’s most serious problems.  I can’t find it on the BBC website (where I looked after hearing it on the radio), but Google finds it at the FT.

The story is rather different between the BBC and the FT, but the gist of it is that Michael Gove and/or the Department of the Environment (of which he is minister in charge) is at last considering proposals to clean up our air, by restricting or banning domestic wood and coal fires.  These fires have become a huge problem in recent years.  I believe they have standards about keeping their own house unpolluted, but for anyone who happens to live downwind[1] of such fires, it can fill the house with smoke for extended periods: many hours a day, many months a year.  We’re talking levels of smoke comparable to not one or two but a great many smokers in the house, and this is seriously nasty smoke that hasn’t gone through the considerable cleanup that’s been forced onto the tobacco industry in recent decades.

In summary, for people affected by this, it’s an order of magnitude worse than regular exposure to passive smoking, or to those diesel emissions that have created such a fuss in recent times.

Governments have occasionally been known to do the right thing on pollution.  In the 1950s we had clean air legislation to clear up a reportedly-serious smog problem.  In my lifetime we’ve rid ourselves of most of the blight of tobacco smoke (including legislation that has been very successful despite my reservations at the time).  Let’s hope we can see the spirit of that 1950s legislation revived and give us back our air!

[1] The prevailing wind here is approximately west-south-west, and a very common winter weather pattern includes mild damp weather and very light westerly winds.  So the greatest killer is to be between east and northeast of a woodburner.

Monteverdi Vespers

Our next concert is the Monteverdi Vespers, on Nov. 26th at the Guildhall, Plymouth.  This work, untypical of its own time as well as our own, makes an interesting change from our usual repertoire.  Simple individual lines and harmonies rooted firmly in renaissance polyphony, yet with complex (and sometimes fiendish to hold) interweaving textures, and a level of both vocal and orchestral flourishes and ornamentation that makes it arguably the first major work of the Baroque era.

I’m glad to be singing it, and I think it’ll be a good evening out for those in or near Plymouth.  Hope to see some of my readers there!

Exeter Cityscapes

In my negligence, I failed to blog about yesterday’s concert ahead of time.  Well, except in my comment on the personnel.  I much enjoyed it, both the orchestral first half, and singing in the second half.

Of particular note was the premier of a newly-commissioned work: Alfie Pugh’s symphonic suite Exeter Cityscapes, the second (and more substantial) work in the orchestral half of the concert.  I had no idea what to expect, and I have to say I was very impressed.  This is a work worthy of a place in the regular repertoire.

Like one or two other new works I’ve encountered in recent years, this work is unashamedly in the English pastoral tradition of a century or so ago.  It followed Bax’s atmospheric tone poem Tintagel, and in terms of sound-and-feel[1] one could describe it as more of the same.  Gorgeously lush orchestral textures and lovely melodic fragments, with a harmonic context that is tonal and easy on the ear, but far from bland!

A more modernistic touch compared to the English Pastoral tradition was a lively and brilliantly-conceived use of percussion.  I understand Pugh himself is a percussionist, and although he wasn’t playing this concert, the mastery shows through.  Though more prominent than in earlier repertoire, this is far from the aggressive in-your-face percussion of some 20th-century music.  It blends seamlessly with the rest of the orchestra, producing a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.  I struggle to think of any good comparison.

The one moment I felt slightly let down was when, after a slow second movement, the third movement turned out also to be slow.  I guess that says something about how close it (otherwise) felt to listening to a regular classical symphony.  The fourth movement started with a bang, and made a proper symphonic finale!

Congratulations to the composer, and to all concerned.

[1] Look-and-feel in the context of music 😀

A new MD

Today I have been rehearsing with the EMG, the Exeter-based symphony orchestra that performs with chorus every couple of years.  This is the group with which I have sung in, and much enjoyed, some of the biggest and most exciting works in the repertoire: Mahler’s 8th Symphony, Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony, and Britten’s War Requiem.

A major reason I loved those concerts so much was their inspirational conductor, Marion Wood.  She has now moved elsewhere, so today was my first sight of her successor Leo Geyer.  How would he measure up?  First impression: he’s not inspirational in the sense Marion was, but he does have a good deal to offer, and I expect to go on enjoying EMG events.

This is a lesser programme for chorus than the others: we’re only in half the programme.  The main choral work is Geyer’s own version of Elgar’s Enigma Variations, drawing on text from The Music Makers  – a work which also shares some musical material with the Enigma.

Having spent time on this piece, I was curious to find out more about Geyer’s track record, so I googled.  He seems to be a musician of some distinction: his conducting includes Covent Garden as well as his own ballet company, and he’s won a serious-looking composition prize.  This is a young man making quite a name for himself!

What about his composition?  I watched his prize work on youtube (here) and found myself much enjoying it.  Though I doubt I’d have liked it so much if it had been just the music without the visual aspect, which presents a circus-style ringmaster and clowns.  The Darmstadt tradition of squeak-bang “modern” music (as exemplified by Stockhausen and Boulez) is strong in there, but at the same time it’s playful and exciting, and ever-lively.  Among established works, Weir’s Night at the Chinese Opera might be a comparison.  And youtube’s recommendation of Pierrot Lunaire as a followup suggests a century’s worth of tradition behind it.

Caveat: after a day with EMG I’m on a bit of a high, and my critical judgement may be mildly impaired.

Cyrillic WordPress

Three years back, a bizarre glitch in WordPress turned the operation of this blog Turkish.  That felt rather Kafkaesque until it resolved itself, as I’d’ve had to navigate through a lot of Turkish to fix my settings back to English!

Now in a faint echo of that, it’s sent me email in a cyrillic language.  The email template looks like a regular notification that someone is following my blog.  Comparing it to the last such notification (from earlier this week) and pasting the subject line[1] into google translate both confirm it.  Indeed, I tried google with several Cyrillic languages: Russian, Belarusian, Bulgarian, Ukrainian, and it appears to say much the same in all of them.

And the punchline: the person who just subscribed is in Ankara, Turkey!  Which is what first reminded me of the Turkish incident, but no more cyrillic than English!

This is not in the same league as the Turkish WordPress: when I log in, things are still in English.  Nevertheless, bizarre.

[1] Subject line truncated to preserve privacy of the latest subscriber.

Русский православный

I’ve spent today in a workshop rehearsing Rachmaninov’s Vespers.  Perhaps the most celebrated major work of Russian orthodox music to enter our conscience – let alone repertoire – in Blighty, and perhaps the West more generally.  We will be performing it in concert on Tuesday evening, at the main church in Tavistock, as part of the Exon singers’ festival.

While the music is of moderate complexity and not unduly challenging[1], what has made the day really hard work is singing in Russian.  That set me thinking.  It’s easy to sing a language I speak, but also a language I don’t speak but with which I have a workable level of familiarity, like Latin or French.  Russian is in a whole different league, not just due to the cyrillic alphabet (we have a broadly-phonetic transcription in the score), but more the near-complete unfamiliarity.  The crux of it is, it takes a lot more of my concentration than a more-familiar language, making it harder to look up at the conductor!

If my time were unlimited, I’d love to learn Russian.

[1] Not even the bass range.  We have a surprising number of low basses, so I’m singing the upper and (where applicable) middle bass lines, not the legendary Russian bottom range.