Category Archives: music
Our next concert is a week tomorrow: Sunday July 1st at the Guildhall, Plymouth. This concert presents three works, all of them new to me and one of them to all of us. Overall an exciting programme of some lovely works, and firmly recommended to those readers within evening-out distance of Plymouth.
The least-novel and least-exciting work is Mendelssohn’s Hymn of Praise. This is in a similar idiom to his much more famous oratorio Elijah, though less bloodthirsty (and less of an actual story). The music is similarly lovely, and if you enjoy Elijah you’ll like this. However, it’s not so well-written for singers, and is physically exhausting.
Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, Coleridge-Taylor’s setting of Longfellow’s epic poem, is a middling-level bucket-list work for me to sing in, and I’m thrilled to be doing it now. This is a long poem in trochaic tetrameter, which has always seemed to me fiendishly difficult to set to music. And though you couldn’t call the Ode to Joy in Beethoven’s 9th symphony boring, it is undoubtedly very four-square, pushed into that mould by the shoehorn of a rhythmically-similar but much shorter poem. Yet there’s no hint of that in this piece: it flows effortlessly. That Coleridge-Taylor’s creative imagination with such a rhythm outshines mine is of course unremarkable, but that he should do the same to Beethoven is indeed impressive!
Tonally it’s also interesting. Premiered in 1898, it’s on the cusp of the 20th century. There’s no hint of C20 dissonance, but the tonality is constantly on the move, and seems to me to carry hints of what was to come, both in the English Pastoral and the Verismo movements. If you enjoy the gorgeous-yet-dramatic harmonic language of a Puccini opera or a Vaughan-Williams symphony, this foreshadows them both.
Finally, Bob Chilcott’s Dances of Time. Published only in 2015, I had never heard of this until scores were handed out. These five songs are pure pleasure. And if you ever thought modern music can’t be easy both to sing and to listen to without being trite “crossover”, this is a perfect counterexample: gorgeous yet always fresh. Though having said that, I think the virtue of brevity is essential to its appeal: it’s the perfect length for what it is.
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.
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!
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 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.
 Look-and-feel in the context of music 😀
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.
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, 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.
 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.
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.
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!
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.