Category Archives: plymouth

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.

The Sentinels

Living here, I have lots of nice places within easy cycling distance.  Indeed, also walking distance.  But what I’m missing is places to walk.

The trouble is the monster main road: the six-lane dual carriageway along the estuary.  Walk that and not only do I get filthy on the outside, but the lungs fill with crap so I feel grotty throughout.  The third road that actually goes somewhere is no better: it’s small but busy, little different to walk, and much worse to cycle.  Ouch :(

On a bike, these roads have the redeeming feature of brevity: it’s never long before I can get off them and onto something nicer.  On foot, no such thing: they’re all a barrier to going out.  Fortunately there is an alternative: I can go up the hill a short way on quiet residential streets (enjoying the view) and thence into footpaths and parkland.  I can make a pleasant enough short walk mostly off road: for example up to Efford Cemetery, then back on another variant of the route.  Another direction from the same start takes me to Marsh Mills, which is a hub of terrible roads, but also a vast retail park where I can get many things I’d hitherto have expected only to find online.

What about getting to any kind of walking country?  The Plym Valley, the Coast Path, or even just across the estuary to Saltram?  Access to any of these destinations is cut off not merely by the road, but by the Sentinels: monuments to terrible design that turn a simple crossing into a nightmare.

Let’s take a look at what I have to navigate to get home if I’ve just been across the estuary.  At the head of the estuary it narrows rapidly to a fairly small river, and that is where transport routes converge.  First the A38 parkway – the big road, which is elevated – appears overhead on the right.  The landscape becomes one of urban dereliction, and vegetation gives way to polluted-land scrub.  Next the path rises to go over the railway.  Immediately to the left the railway goes over a bridge across the river, while to the right, the slip road to the parkway is tantalisingly close (as seen in google maps from the slip road).  Either railway bridge or parkway would take me where I want to go, but both are firmly inaccessible.

Instead the path descends again the far side of the railway and goes diagonally under the parkway and its slip roads on both sides.  Returning to the river upstream from rail and road, there’s still no crossing, so I have to walk some distance up the river until I hit another road, the B3416.  This is a five-lane dual carriageway.  If it’s not too busy I can cross the first half painlessly, but for the second half – where the traffic comes sweeping round a blind bend from the parkway – I have to wait (usually quite a long time) for the lights to change.

Now finally the way is clear to turn and head back in the direction I need to go, following the B3416 back to the parkway (crossing another couple of minor roads on the way).  This time I’m at the level of the roundabout, so I have to cross the slip roads in three crossings.  Approaching the roundabout, the slip road is bifurcated, so two separate crossings – the first two lanes, the second three – are required.  Fortunately the lights for these give me plenty of time, as their real purpose is to control traffic entering the roundabout.  Now back under the parkway and some way along it, until I can cross the final slip road – again with traffic sweeping round a bend at me – to my side of the estuary.

Phew!  At least that way there are light-controlled crossings of all the big roads.  The other evil Sentinel – to get between Laira Bridge and Plymstock – has no such help: pedestrians are faced with a choice only of which of the big dual carriageways to cross.  And of how far out of the way to go to put distance between yourself and the roundabout, so you can at least see what traffic is coming on the road you’re trying to cross (though that only works on the bypass: the other way has too many roundabouts to get a relatively-safe distance from any of them).

Yes I do enjoy cycling, and none of these are as bad from a bike – provided you’re not scared to assert yourself and take the lane for wherever you’re going, which may mean crossing lanes of traffic.  But walking is surely the most basic and natural way to get out, and it’s a bit miserable having to do battle with these ghastly Sentinels every time.  Especially when it would be so easy with a little thought to give us some decent routes!


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!


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.

Seasonal Concert

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.


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.


It’s time to give a mention to next week’s concert.  Sunday April 10th at the Guildhall, Plymouth.  We’re performing Haydn and Mozart.  Haydn’s Creation Mass, along with Mozart’s great C Minor mass.

Of the two works, the Mozart is the one that really turns me on.  This mass was left unfinished at his death, but what we have is an exciting and glorious work.  To my mind, it leaves his better-known Requiem sounding almost dull by comparison.   I expect an important reason for the Requiem’s popularity is that it’s not just one of Mozart’s great works, but also a safe and straightforward choice for anything more than a basic church choir, whereas the Mass is rather more challenging.

If you’re within evening-out distance of Plymouth, this concert should be worth seeing!

Autumn fun concert

A week today (or rather yesterday, looking at the clock – Sunday 28th to be clear), we’re performing an autumn concert at the Guildhall, Plymouth.  I understand tickets have sold well and they may no longer be easy to find, but if you can get one it should be fun.

On the programme are two medium-sized works.  Rutter’s Magnificat is light, tuneful, very bubbly, yet good music and with a deeper, darker side: a Schubert for our times, though obviously a lot more modern, and quite a bit more challenging to perform.

Then the big crowd-puller: Orff’s Carmina Burana should need no introduction: no matter if you’re completely unmusical, you’re sure to have encountered something from it somewhere in an advert, soundtrack, sound effect, or something.  A very big and very distinctive sound, a collection of extremely bawdy mediæval poems that’d get us onto the sex offenders register if performed in English, and lots of fun.  It’s many years since I last sung in it, but I still have fond memories of my first time as a young student, when I was just discovering some of the concepts in it with a soprano from the same choir. ;)


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