Category Archives: music

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!

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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.

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.

The Great B Minor

This Sunday, May 21st, we’re performing Bach’s B Minor Mass at the Guildhall, Plymouth.  This work needs no introduction, and I have no hesitation recommending it for readers who enjoy music and are within evening-out distance of Plymouth.

Tickets are cheaper in advance than on the door, so you might want to visit your favourite regular ticket vendor or google for online sales.

Minor curiosity: the edition we’re using was edited by Arthur Sullivan.  Yes, he of G&S, and an entirely different era and genre of music!   It’s also the Novello edition used in most performances in Britain.

Summer Concert

We have a summer concert coming up next Sunday (July 3rd) at the Guildhall, Plymouth.

This is a predominantly lightweight programme of modern music: some short pieces and two medium-length works.  As we started rehearsing, I thought that a set of madrigals, or even Beatles arrangements, would fit the programme nicely, though neither is included.

The two more substantial works are Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna and Rutter’s Feel the Spirit.  I can recommend both these works as well worth coming to hear.

Lauridsen is new to me.  My first reaction to the score of Lux Aeterna was, nice to do once, but nothing to write home about.  If theme and variations is a classical form, this could be kind-of described as chord and variations.  Since then it’s been growing on me: this is an interesting work (and I hope it’ll be wonderful to listen to), and some of what I first thought weaknesses actually do work and make sense as effects.  The text is Latin and religious, the orchestration sparing, the setting contemplative, and it comes as no surprise to find Lauridsen is contemporary with Tavener and Pärt.  The music also hints at older choral traditions, from plainchant to (possibly) eastern orthodox, though I’m not really competent to judge such things.

The Rutter is a set of seven well-known negro spirituals.  Like Tippett’s settings, these are for classical forces.  But compared to Tippett this is lighter, more playful.  Glorious tunes and lots of fun, and full of characteristic Rutter syncopations and cheeky modulations.  You’ll be whistling those tunes as you go home, but they’ll catch you out!

War Requiem

This weekend I’m in Exeter for the last of three weekends rehearsing Britten’s War Requiem, to be performed in Exeter Cathedral on Saturday, April 23rd.  A fantastic work, and I anticipate an exciting concert.  Strongly recommended to music lovers.

This is my third concert with the EMG symphony orchestra and chorus.  The previous two, Mahler’s 8th symphony and Vaughan Williams’s Sea Symphony, have been amongst the most exciting in my life, due both to the music and to the group and inspirational director.  She is alas leaving after this concert, having got a new job in Germany, so we just have to hope the group can find a worthy successor.

In the past I have found Britten to be much easier (to sing) than it sounds[1].  That’s based on shorter to middling-scale works such as the Hymn to St Cecilia, Rejoice in the Lamb, and St Nicholas.  The War Requiem is different: it is genuinely as challenging as it sounds to perform.  It’s intensely rewarding: studying the work reveals much more than just listening to it of the (pacifist) composer’s horror of war.  And it shows a work whose stupendous imagination could make it a lot more than any performance or recording I’ve heard, including the composer’s own.

[1] There’s a whole thesis to be written on what is easy or hard in music, vs what you’d think just by listening.  For example, Bach is hard, and much of Beethoven is fiendish.  On the other hand, Verdi’s spectacular requiem must be one of the easiest big works in the repertoire.

Passiontide

Our next concert in Plymouth is Bach’s St John’s Passion.  That’s at the Guildhall on Sunday, March 20th, and I have no hesitation recommending this wonderful work to readers in the area.

Having said that, there is one thing wrong.  We’re to perform in English using the new Novello edition.  It’s a new translation, and in a couple of places the words are a very poor fit to the music.  It comes with some bullshit about aiming to sound like the original German, so for example we’d have similar vowel sounds and hence vocal colour on important notes.  That’s pure nonsense: it does no such thing.  Furthermore, it’s not really a new translation: in places it’s identical to the old, and in others it’s much closer to the old translation than either is to the German text.  I can only conclude that the sole reason for the “new” translation is to assert copyright on a score that would otherwise soon be out of it.  Which begs the question: who are the bigger cultural vandals: ISIS or Novello?

Also on the subject of seasonal music, I sang in another easter concert yesterday.  I didn’t blog about it because I was recruited for it at the last moment, and wasn’t clear on the details in advance.  The easter music included Stainer’s Crucifixion and Vaughan Williams’s five mystical songs.  A nice little event in a nice village church.

Concert

Our next concert is Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah, which we’re performing at the Guildhall, Plymouth on Sunday, December 6th.

This work tells the biblical story of the prophet Elijah, a tale of extreme violence, opening with a genocide and featuring a classic massacre in the middle, as well as a euphemistically-violent ending.  Elijah himself is surely the greatest of all role models for, among others, the bloodiest of modern Islamic terrorists  (indeed, everything we know about Bin Laden echoes Elijah’s story).  For added cognitive dissonance, the bloody tales are interlaced with gentle and serene proclamations of God’s goodness and boundless mercy: war was peace long before Orwell and Newspeak!

As for the music, Mendelssohn was of course one of the master tunesmiths of all time.  There’s a lot that’s lovely, scenes that are quite exciting, and a fair few tunes that listeners will find familiar.  Set for soloists, a substantial chorus and middling-sized orchestra.  I think I can recommend it to readers within evening-out distance of Plymouth.

Concert

Our next concert is next Sunday (July 5th), when we’re performing Händel’s Israel in Egypt at the Guildhall, Plymouth.

This is a mature, full-length oratorio on a biblical theme. In parts it is similar to the more famous Messiah (and a few numbers are musically very similar between the two works). In other respects it’s different, and one fundamental difference is that this work uses full antiphonal double chorus. We’ll be split across right/left sides of the stage to deliver the effect.

The subject matter is truly biblical. None of the cuddly, merciful God of Constantine (let alone the modern Church of England), but a vindictive warmonger to make the Islamic State look like a holiday camp. This God doesn’t just indulge in holocaust-scale genocide, he glories in it. Much of the music is correspondingly dark, though there are also some gorgeous interludes.

Also of musical/historic interest, this is a very old edition we’re using. In fact the editor was no less than Felix Mendelssohn. Though better-known as a great composer in his own right, Mendelssohn was right in the vanguard of the revival of the Baroque, so this score is living history!

If you like oratorio, you’ll enjoy this concert.