Category Archives: music


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.


Verdi Requiem

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!

Summer Concert

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[1] 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.

[1] 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!

Symphony of a thousand

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!

Veni Creator Spiritus

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.