Category Archives: music
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. 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.
 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.
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.
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.
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.
A week today – Sunday March 22nd – we’re performing the Verdi Requiem at the Guildhall, Plymouth.
This is of course a big work, often described as operatic. It is deservedly one of the most popular in the choral-orchestral repertoire, and ideally suited to a big orchestra and chorus such as the Plymouth Philharmonic. Even the non-musical will surely have encountered highlights of it, notably the Dies Irae which is an archetype for terrifying music. Yet despite all that it’s an easy sing, and – not least – we basses get more than our usual share of the best lines!
This is one of those concerts that is going to be tremendously exciting for performers and audience alike, and I have no hesitation recommending it to readers within evening-out distance of Plymouth.
Now that I’m back to normal after ApacheCon, I need to catch up on backlogs including blogging. I’ve got lots more to say about AC and Budapest when I get a round tuit.
Meanwhile, a quickie note here just to mention our forthcoming concert. We’re performing Haydn’s Seasons at the Guildhall, Plymouth, this Sunday Nov.30th.
The Seasons is Haydn’s “other” big oratorio, along with the more famous Creation. Having sung the Creation many times (it’s core repertoire in the choral-orchestral space), I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the Seasons. Although the works are from the same stable, this is not at all just more of the same. There really is a lot more to it, with much that’s not just lovely music but also tremendous fun. It’s been a delight to rehearse! I can recommend it as a great evening out to anyone in the area next weekend.
Next weekend is a real highlight of the musical calendar. I’m due to sing in not one but two concerts, and can thoroughly recommend both of them to anyone in the area.
The first is on Saturday April 5th, where Vaughan Williams’s Sea Symphony is the major work in a concert by the EMG Symphony Orchestra at Exeter Cathedral. This is the same group and same inspirational director with whom I sang in Mahler’s 8th symphony a year and a half ago, now returning to another only slightly less huge but perhaps even more glorious choral symphony from the same era. Don’t miss it!
The second is on Sunday April 6th with my regular choir the Plymouth Philharmonic, who are performing Dvořák’s Stabat Mater at the Guildhall, Plymouth. This is my first time in this unjustly-neglected work. In complete contrast to the glorious exuberance of the sea symphony, this is a contemplative poem on the most tragic story in the Christian corpus, set by the 19th-century master best known for his gorgeous symphonies. Another one not to miss, especially if, like me, you don’t already know this work!
Looking forward to an exhausting but intensely rewarding weekend!
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!