Category Archives: music
It’s time to blog our forthcoming choral/orchestral concert of Handel, Schubert and Vivaldi. It’s at the Guildhall, Plymouth, this Sunday June 30th.
The Vivaldi is that Gloria we all know. The Schubert is his Mass in G, a simple and beautiful work showing the composer’s sunny and tuneful side in all the usual elements of a classical mass.
Handel’s Dixit Dominus is the most substantial of the three, and also the most unusual. The text is biblical in the un-Bowdlerised tradition, full of (Latin) words like “Thou shalt shatter their heads throughout the world”. The music is rather more the formal Baroque than the familiar tunefulness of the Messiah and much of Handel’s work. It’s a little more demanding to sing, and perhaps also to listen to.
Should be a decent concert if you’re in the area.
 Or should that be un-Constantine-ised, in that it was Constantine who started romanticising the bible story and introducing the kind of fairytale elements celebrated at Christmas.
Our next concert is overdue a mention here. Sunday March 17th at the Guildhall, Plymouth. Programme is one of french romantic music: Fauré’s Requiem and Gounod’s Messe Solennelle de Sainte Cécile.
The Fauré is of course very familiar: it’s a regular in any choral singer’s repertoire, and on the radio and in concert programmes for those who just listen. The Gounod is less familiar (it’s new to me) but a lovely piece. It’s also very, very simple, and really only calls for a single rehearsal to prepare it. Should be a good concert for readers within evening-out distance of Plymouth.
A tale of fail
There is a longer tale behind this concert, which I’ve been meaning to blog about for a long time. A bizarre and rather sorry tale that has evolved even since I first should have blogged. So here goes ….
The Gounod is a last-minute substitution. We should have been performing a newly-commissioned work alongside the Fauré. Indeed, I assume the choice of such a familiar work was not least to give us plenty of rehearsal time for something new and perhaps challenging.
It started about two years ago, when a competition for the commission was announced. This caught my interest: I’ve composed a few trivial little pieces, and writing something substantial has been a pipe-dream since my teens. So I spent a good chunk of the summer of 2011 planning a masterwork, selecting poems as text, and composing an entry for the competition. In addition to the creative process, that involved organisation and due diligence: for example, checking copyright on the poems I planned to set (and dropping one of them), and checking the orchestral requirements for the Fauré to minimise the additional resources my work would demand.
The submission date was early autumn of 2011. I submitted my entry, including three completed movements (13 minutes music) of eleven planned. I did it for my own pleasure, with no expectation of actually winning the commission – which had been widely advertised in mainstream music fora nationally and internationally. I’d have been surprised and delighted to get it, but also very happy to find myself singing someone else’s work. May the best man or woman win!
Instead I was surprised and disappointed by what happened. Not only was I unsuccessful, so was everyone else. The goalposts moved, and instead of awarding the commission to one of the 54 entries, they instead commissioned an up-and-coming composer on the basis of his having won prestigious national awards. That was late autumn of 2011, with nearly a year from then to complete the work (as per the original timetable), and it was on hearing the competition result that I had originally intended to go public in this blog.
Fast-forward to November last year and the work duly arrives. Followed by another change of plan and another disappointment: the powers that be consider this work unsuitable, and we’re not going to perform it. Nor even see it, so I can’t offer any comment on whether I’d like it and/or consider it suitable.
Hence the Gounod, a substitution dictated by practical considerations like availability of scores at short notice more than for musical reasons. A lovely piece, but what a disappointment – twice!
Our next concert is on Sunday, December 2nd at the Guildhall, Plymouth. The programme comprises Elgar’s The Music Makers, Poulenc’s Gloria, and Parry’s Blest Pair of Sirens.
The Elgar is new to me. As with a number of Elgar’s works, he has selected a weak text, but woven rich, complex, ever-changing music around it. It benefits from our conductor’s relentless attention to detail, and I’ve much enjoyed rehearsing it.
The two shorter works are not totally new, though it’s also the first time I’ve performed in the Poulenc. This mid-20th-century setting of the Gloria ranges from starkly beautiful to cheerfully playful and (in contrast to the subtlety of the Elgar) is always full of bright colours. It too has been a pleasure to rehearse!
The characteristically-bombastic Parry is of course a lesser work than the others, but will nevertheless appeal to anyone who likes this kind of last-night-of-the-proms thing.
I’m happy to recommend this concert to readers within evening-out distance of Plymouth. If you intend to come, note that tickets are cheaper in advance than on the door!
The next concert I’m singing in is Mahler’s 8th symphony – the Symphony of a Thousand. It’s Sunday Week (September 16th) at 5pm, in the Great Hall of Exeter University.
For obvious logistical reasons, this symphony isn’t often performed, so when the chance came my way I grabbed it! The group and the venue are new to me, being a bit too far away to travel for a regular evening out. Rehearsals have been a series of weekend workshops, of which this weekend will be the last before that of the concert. I’ve enjoyed it so far, and I confidently expect to enjoy the final weekend and concert. For readers in or not too far from Exeter, it should be well worth coming to see, too!
I’m becoming quite a laggard in my blogging. Must do better.
I spent the last weekend in Exeter, in the first of three weekend workshops, to prepare for a performance in September of Mahler’s 8th symphony, the “symphony of a thousand“. As a choral singer, this is one of those works one really must perform at least once in a lifetime, but one where the logistics of mounting a performance present such a challenge that opportunity doesn’t often arise. Hence when I heard that the EMG Symphony Orchestra were organising a performance and recruiting singers from further afield than Exeter, I was happy to enroll.
This first weekend for the chorus was dedicated to the first movement, setting the latin hymn Veni Creator Spiritus. For this work I seem to have ended up on the bottom bass line of Choir 1, based on identifying where there seemed to be the fewest others on the line (of any line compatible with my voice).
I think I’m going to enjoy this. But having stayed Saturday night at the Holiday Inn (the nearest hotel to the rehearsal venue), I shall definitely be looking for an alternative next time. I’d probably get a more comfortable stay in student halls if I book them for the next workshop in July. Or I might upgrade to the Premier Inn, though that’s a longer walk to the venue.
Our next concert is next Sunday, March 25th, at the Guildhall, Plymouth.
I usually recommend our concerts with a degree of enthusiasm to match the programme. I’m sorry to say that in this case I can only recommend half of the concert. One lovely work that’s well worth coming for, another that … isn’t.
The work I can enthusiastically recommend is Andrew Carter’s Benedicite. This is my first encounter with Carter’s music, and it’s been a delight! The work sets childishly simple religious words and has a certain aura of the nursery. But musically speaking it’s the deceptive simplicity of Peter and the Wolf or the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, with a directness built on foundations that are sometimes far from simple. Indeed, the complexity of the rhythms make this rather challenging to sing, most notably where different performers’ rhythms cut across each other. But to hear it you’d think it was all very simple and effortless, even when that little “waltz” tune is really in 5/4! And it’s easy to overlook the naffness of the words when the music is so evocative as, for example, the brittle coldness of “snow and ice”.
Unfortunately the other work is the longer, and frankly makes the Victorian hymns we used to suffer in school assembly sound positively inspiring by contrast. Karl Jenkins is surely the archetypal product of a music “industry” that decided it wanted a genre to call “classical” by virtue of using classical forces, but over which it could exercise intellectual property rights. Jenkins’s muzak (a requiem) is so dreary as to make an hour in B&Q seem preferable: at least there one might be inspired to buy something to improve ones home. Where there is a flicker of interest it’s utterly derivative: the first movement is the most interesting, but that’s because it’s drawn from the Fauré – echos of which recur later. Elsewhere Jenkins even manages to dumb down Lloyd Webber’s Pie Jesu.
Given two such contrasting works, I leave it to those readers within evening-out distance of Plymouth to decide whether to read this as a recommendation.
Our next concert is Bach’s WeihnachtsOratorium, to be performed next Sunday, November 27th at the Guildhall, Plymouth.
This work will need no introduction to Bach fans. For others, this exciting music shows Bach at his most joyous and exuberant. It is the very music that claimed the crown of all the best tunes for the Lutherans after two centuries dominated by the Great Enemy. If you’re within evening-out distance of Plymouth, this’ll be a good evening out!
For the benefit of one of my readers who tells me he doesn’t know it, here’s a taster from amongst those available on youtube. Different performers venue and occasion of course, but same music.
Who first remarked on the Devil having all the best tunes?
I’ve heard it attributed to Martin Luther. A bit of thought suggests it could be more likely to have been his followers a generation on. Someone brought up in a world bitterly divided into us and them, for whom us were upright Lutherans and them were corrupt Papists. And a world where the Papists really did have all the best music, as was absolutely the case from the time of the counter-reformation through to the wider adoption of fine music in the baroque era.
Measured in years, the era of Catholic domination of music lasted a long time. It was firmly established by Palestrina in the mid-16th century. Come the 17th century and it’s preeminence is so well-entrenched that the church can jealously guard its proprietary treasures, leading to the famous story of Allegri’s Miserere remaining exclusive to the Vatican for 130 years before the young Mozart smuggled out a pirated copy for the rest of the (by then very different) world!
Last night’s concert by the Exon Singers presented a great work from that catholic tradition. Victoria’s Vespers is apparently a reconstruction, and (having hitherto encountered Victoria only in smaller-scale settings of individual liturgical texts) I had been expecting something sub-Palestrina. But there was no “sub” about it. This is a glorious work in its own right: that Italian tradition evidently extended to the Spanish Victoria. The Papists really did have the best tunes!
The event also benefited from the setting: sung by candlelight in a fine church. But that evoked memories of my years in Italy, and I couldn’t help feeling that the true setting for this music should’ve been the colourful opulence of one of their churches – as exemplified by Michelangelo’s ceiling – rather than an English church whose colours are limited to the stained glass. But maybe that’s just by association with places where I’ve sung: glorious Palestrina in Italian churches, vs the much drearier English early music in English ones.
Another thought that this concert provoked was, what has happened to the great polyphonic choral tradition? By the time of the Baroque, mainstream choral music had acquired an orchestra, and while the formal polyphony of Palestrina and Victoria is still evident in the time of Monteverdi, it’s clearly evolving into something more free-form. A capella religious traditions live on in miniature forms as diverse as Bruckner motets and Negro spirituals. But for anything larger scale, I think we have to look east to the Russian Orthodox church and works like Rachmaninov’s vespers.
Oh, and why does this music travel so little? Why do we Brits get so much more English music of the era, despite the overwhelming superiority of so much Continential music? Could it be that because Britain’s own first top-rate composer was Purcell, we subconsciously don’t want to admit anything from earlier than his time into the mainstream?
A world premiere and a 150-year-old masterpiece, this Sunday (June 26th) at the Guildhall, Plymouth.
There’s nothing quite like Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle, a lovely and startlingly unique piece, and the main work in our forthcoming concert. 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 an creative imagination undulled by age!
Also on the programme is a world premiere of Clive Jenkins’s Gaudeamus in Coro. This is a prelude and fugue with a difference: complex jazz-inspired rhythms make for another unique piece – and a challenging sing!
Anyone within evening-out distance of Plymouth may wish to note that tickets are cheaper in advance than on the door. Details at the choir website.
I wasn’t familiar with Jonathan Dove before today. But I’m in Brighton for a long weekend, and today I was privileged to see his major work There Was a Child at the dome. This was the second event I’ve been to in this year’s Brighton Festival, and the first that was worth my time. It was coupled with Elgar’s Cello Concerto, but you don’t need me to tell you anything about that. Details here.
There Was a Child is a huge-scale choral-orchestral work, in the tradition of pieces like the Dream of Gerontius or the Sea Symphony. I’m not sure I’ve seen a new work on quite this scale in my life before today: composers in our time tend to be acutely aware of the practicalities of huge forces, and the barriers they put in the way of performance. But Dove, having got the commission for this work (to commemorate the life of a young man who died in an accident aged 19), evidently spared no expense in writing for the Very Big League.
So let me put in my little bit of gushing enthusiasm. Dove is indeed a master of big forces, up there with the best! I loved seeing this work, and if the chance to perform in it comes my way I won’t hesitate. Indeed, of the comparisons I suggested, I like it better than Gerontius. I hope it succeeds in entering the occasional repertoire of those choirs, orchestras and venues big enough to take it on.
Having said that, I should perhaps also add a critical note. Whilst this is fantastic music to listen to, it’s not pushing any boundaries. Easy on the ear, and while stimulating, it certainly wasn’t challenging on the mind. It could almost come from Vaughan Williams’s own pen (or some of his continental contemporaries) in the middle of last century, and you wouldn’t think Britten and Tippett came between. I sense that modern music revisiting the first half of the last century may be something of a Zeitgeist to which this belongs. This is a very fine work, but I’d've liked to witness something more distinctive to call it unreservedly great.
Do listen to it if you get a chance. You won’t be disappointed!