Thursday, 28 April 2005

On the road again

We had our first rehearsal yesterday for the Fifteenb consort's concert at the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music at St. Pancras Parish Church, Euston Road, London. The Festival lasts a week and our concert is on Tuesday 10th May at 5.30pm.


We are performing a compressed version of our programme A TRE which we performed in February and early March. But this time there are just 4 of us, not 5, so that I am singing the alto part on my own. Coming back to the music after a break was rather strange. At first, there were bits which were completely unfamiliar and but some kind soul had annotated them with all sorts of helpful comments (usually COUNT!). Gradually my mind got into gear, the music became more familiar and I realised the kind soul had been myself.


For part 5 of the Byrd Ave Maris Stella, which requires the altos to suddenly turn into 2nd sopranos with a series of repeated top E's and top D's, I have chickened out and borrowed one of our sopranos to sing with me.


Back at home, my study is turning into a print shop as I organise the copies for the choir for my birthday concert. It's a bit tedious at times, as I sit there alternately feeding the printer and doing a little bit of work on the new Magi. But it will be worth it in the end

Tuesday, 26 April 2005

Falling off the radar

I've just been listening to Carl Orff's Prometheus. This dates from 1968 (30 years after Carmina Burana) and is a setting of ancient Greek text taken from Aeschylus's play. The result is remarkably dramatic though it hovers between play and opera, much of the text is declaimed rather than sung and the instrumental accompaniment serves more as punctuation than real accompaniment. Orff uses melody sparingly but the result it still remarkable

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Orff's centenary was way back in 2005 (a bare 23 years after his death), but in the English speaking-world his reputation does not seem to have recovered, Carmina Burana apart. This is strange, considering what a curiously fascinating composer he was, in addition to his extensive work as an educationalist. Though this latter, of course, is better known in Germany than in England.


There are two factors which affect his reputation. The one which drifts around just out of view, is the possibility that he might have been a Nazi. A speculation which is fuelled by his residence in Bavaria. This is one of those miasmas which no amount of concrete evidence will dispel.


The other, more serious problem, is that much of Orff's later work is not really like Carmina Burana. Orff's concerns were with rhythm and text and in many of his later works he brought his considerable melodic gifts to bear only intermittently. But there is much to enjoy and we can only dream about a concert scene in London which would enable promoters to put on such risky works as Prometheus.

Friday, 22 April 2005

Onwards and upwards

Well, Respice, Domine is 'finished' and a copy given to the conductor. The next stage is the enourmously nerve-wracking moment when the choir tries the piece out for the first time. I am usually perfectly satisfied and people are very polite generally, but that doesn't stop me worrying


I've started doing some sketches for the journey of the magi piece, the setting of Andrewes sermon. Typically I've started work on a section of text from the middle of the piece. I have no clear idea of the final structure, so I'm sketching things out to see what occurs


We went to see Un Ballo in Maschera at Covent Garden last night. The production was pretty traditional and generally rather attractive, though I felt that Ulrica's scene and the scene at the gallows lacked the requisite sense of creepiness or mystery which can bring the work alive. Despite some superb singing, for me the drama only really happened in the last Act. Its not an opera I know well (embarassing admission), but with a new production in place we have more to look forward to I hope.

Wednesday, 20 April 2005

Respice, Domine again

Well the first draft of my motet 'Respice Domine' is finished and possibly the last as well. After much soul searching, (and not a little trouble with FINALE), I transposed the piece down a little to move the altos into a more reasonable tessitura. I still can't decide what key to notate the chromatic opening in, but I've opted for a scheme which, if not truly 'Correct', seems to be the easiest to sing from. Though no doubt, when we actually start singing it, I will come to rue whatever final decision I make.

Tuesday, 19 April 2005

Twighlight of the Ring

To the London Coliseum on Saturday to see the final instalment of ENO’s Ring. Having missed the first 2 instalments for personal reasons, this was only our 2nd exposure to Phyllida Lloyd’s wacky world of Wagner.


I could just about cope with Siegfried and Brunnhilde’s ‘Little House on the Prairie’ idyll during the prologue, though I was rather disturbed at the sheer dislocation between the rather twee visual signals and the magnificent music. Was Lloyd trying to tell us that the love between Siegfried and Brunnhilde was not real? This was only 1 of many instances where I felt that Lloyd was telling us a different story to Wagner; more particularly, she seemed to ignore the implications of the leitmotifs in the orchestra. Having the Gibichungs living in some sort of classy hotel spa is OK too, but why was Hagen wearing a shalwar kamiz and why was did Gutrune’s dresses have a distinctly Bollywood flavour.


By the end of Act 1 we were happy enough and still prepared to trust Lloyd, but Act 2 is the most complex of the opera and takes you to the heart of the drama. And here, Lloyd decided to depict the complicated manoeuvrings between Hagen, Gutrune, Gunther, Siegfried and Brunnhilde as some sort of Jerry Springer-like show with Hagen as the host. Not only did this completely took the drama out of the piece but it undermined the principals attempts to create coherent music drama. Lloyd’s view of the fundamental drama was further compromised by her having Brunnhilde apparently going into Gunther’s bed at the end of the act. Previously in the Act, Hagen’s dream had been complicated by his masturbatory visions of Gutrune and nothing Andrew Shore as Alberich could do would redeem the situation. A shame as Gidon Saks was a superb Hagen, when he was allowed to be.


Our appreciation was further compromised by a situation that Lloyd could not have envisaged. When the chorus were no longer required, instead of them going off stage Lloyd has them hide behind some of the scenery. But by accident (or design) they were visible and the revenge trio was accompanied by the sight of members of the chorus playing charades in silhouette!


By Act 3 we were wondering what else we were in for. Not much as it turned out as most of the act was played out on a black stage with just three girders across the floor and thin wires running up to the ceiling, almost as if someone had forgotten to add the scenery proper. Oh, and I forgot, there was also a platform for the Rhinemaidens pole-dancing poles.


It might have seemed a good idea, way back on day 1 of the cycle, to make the Rhinemaidens into pole-dancers. But Wagner did not envision this when he brought them back for their encounter with Siegfried in Act 3 and Lloyd’s conception did not do much to help the drama. We also had a very stagy bear running across the stage during the hunt, one of a number of moments when the audience laughed inappropriately.


The only coup de theatre came in the final moments of Act 3 when the girders lifted up to reveal shimmering curtains representing the Rhine, a beautiful moment; I just wish there had been more of them


Musically things have improved in the conducting and orchestral departments though I am still not convinced that Paul Daniel is a natural Wagnerian. Richard Berkeley Steele has developed into an extremely useful Siegfried, though he will probably make more impact in a slightly smaller house. And in a production where he does not have to pretend to be half his age, resulting in him coming over rather like Jeremy Clarkson. As I have said, Gidon Saks was outstanding. Claire Weston and Iain Paterson made a good impression as the Gibichungs and Weston’s soprano is definitely one to watch in this repertoire. Kathleen Broderick has developed as Brunnhilde, but she is still hyperactive on stage and needs to learn that less is more sometimes. Here account of the music was always carefully paced, she lacks the vocal resources to ever let go and it was only in the very closing moments of the Immolation Scene that she really soared. The single biggest puzzle of this Ring is why someone like Susan Bullock is not singing the role rather then Broderick, a singer whose voice would be far more suitable to doing Wagner in one of the smaller German houses rather than in the cavernous spaces of the Coliseum


You may have noticed rather a gap between our attending the opera and my posting this notice. I was so furious after the performance that it took some considerable time for me to be able to write this piece rationally. The big shame is that my partner, who was hearing the opera for the first time, has taken away a rather skewed view of the piece. I only hope that musically, at least, the Royal Opera will be able to remedy the situation.

Friday, 15 April 2005

Respice, Domine

In the summer, London Concord Singers will be singing Mass at Strasbourg Cathedral as part of our summer trip. The main mass setting is going to be Krystof Harant's lovely Missa Super Martyr Dolorosi, one of the Czech composer's few surviving pieces - he was killed in 1621 after the Battle of the White Mountain, an anti-Catholic uprising.


I have been asked to write the Introit for the choir to sing. Last year the choir sang my motet Deus in adjutorium as the introit for mass at Barcelona Cathedral. Both this and the new motet, Respice Domine, will ultimately find a place in my Tempus per Annum project where I am writing motets based on the texts of all the introits for the Sundays (and major feasts) of the Church's year. Theoretically I'm currently working my way through Lent, but am happy to take requests out of sequence

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Respice, Domine is a rather fraught text:-


Have regard, O Lord, to Thy covenant, and forsake not to the end the souls of Thy poor: arise, O Lord, and judge Thy cause, and forget not the voices of them that seek Thee. -- (Ps. 73. 1). O God, why hast Thou cast us off unto the end: why is Thy wrath enkindled against the sheep of Thy pasture?


And the piece is proving to be one of those which won't stay in a particular key, and sometimes wanders into two keys simultaneously. This all proves rather tricky to notate as the most 'correct' key structure is not necessarily the easiest for singers to sing from. So for the moment I've given up worrying and everything is in C major with lots and lots of accidentals.

Thursday, 14 April 2005

Demonstration and Communication

Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I've just taken delivery of a new batch of Demo discs. We've unpicked the various FifteenB concert recordings that I've done over the years and stitched the results together onto a series of themed discs (Sacred Music, Cantatas, Orchestral Music, Song Cycles, Opera). The results have come out well.

I took advantage of the march of technology to have the video of my opera 'Garrett' transferred to DVD. The video was made by a friend who does wedding videos as a side-line, so is not superb quality but is a record. I was warned that the resulting DVD's would not play in all DVD players, but that 90% of them would play the discs OK.

Such is the perversity of things that the new DVD's do not play on our, admittedly rather fancy, DVD player. Ho hum, I'll need to find a kind friend, before I can actually see them.

For the concert in July (promoted by FifteenB but using professional singers rather than our usual amateurs) I'm experimenting with using a professional firm to write and mail the principal press release. Its not overly expensive and their list of press contacts seems to be rather greater than mine. It will be interesting to see how their press release text compares with those that I produce.

I have ended up writing press releases for a number of groups that I am involved with. Some, like FifteenB, partly because I am in charge of the group; other groups I've ended up doing publicity because I've done it before - such is the way of things in amateur groups.

But the July concert is my 50th birthday celebration so I'm partly celebrating by having people do things for me, for once I'll allow myself the luxury of a little idleness (well that's the theory!).

Monday, 11 April 2005

On the Town?

We went to see the new production of On the Town at the London Coliseum on Friday. I've no problem with opera companies doing musicals per se, but too often some sort of clash of cultures means that the productions don't work. That it can work is shown by Grange Park Opera, who have been successfully producing musicals and operettas alongside grand opera ever since they were founded. Part of the Grange Park magic though, is that the theatre is small enough for them to perform without the aid of microphones


In a theatre the size of the Coliseum, microphones are inevitable in a musical. I must confess that I found rather disturbing the contrast between the amplified singing voices of the actors and the more regular sound of the chorus. Grand though it was to hear the score well played and sung by the ENO chorus and orchestra, the production did not quite fully integrate the actors and the opera singers


The size young singers in the lead roles worked very hard and were pretty talented in an all round way, but none had the sheer charisma to capture one's heart. And Jude Kelly's production seemed to be working a little to hard at generating energy and filling the stage; sometimes less really is more.

The way forward?

As a non-practising Anglican singing in the Latin Mass choir at a Catholic church, I find that I have mixed views on the possible changes in the Papacy following on from Pope John Paul II's death.


On the one hand, I have a number of friends in the Latin mass society, I sing regularly at Sunday morning Latin mass and have sung at a number of Tridentine masses. I am therefore sympathetic to the desires for a new Pope who will strengthen the church's committment Latin mass. Someone who will try an stem the tide of musical dross which is threatening to overwhelm us and encourage, again, the use of real music within the church's liturgy.


On the other hand, as a gay man and a protestant, I am aware that if such a Pope is elected, then his general policies will be rather inimical to me; representing as they will the more conservative wing of the church. It always saddens me that within our Western Christian churches the more liberal tendencies (or however you want to describe them) always seem to be associated with populist movements in music and liturgical reform, turning their backs on traditional forms rather than revitalising them.


This is a conundrum that has no easy solution and I suspect that whomsoever is elected Pope in the coming weeks, he will have his work cut out.

Wednesday, 6 April 2005

Performances of sorts

Music and Vision have just published my latest article about Dame Nellie Melba's rather curious Wagnerian episode, when she sang Brunnhilde at the Met. A most unlikely combination of singer and song.

The programme has just been produced for the London Festival of Contemporary Church music which takes place at St. Pancras Parish Church, Euston Road, London NW1 from 7th to 15th May. The FifteenB consort are back on the road, giving a performance of my Missa Simplex at the Festival on Tuesday May 10th at 5.30pm.


The full programme includes a varied selection of music from composers as diverse as myself, Paul Ayres, Christopher Batchelor, Michael Finissey, Michael Berkeley and Diana Burrell. It is well worth investigating and helps give the lie to the idea that contemporary church music is dead.

Monday, 4 April 2005

Dido and some

To the Barbican on Saturday for the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's concert. Under Richard Egarr they did an all Purcell programme, The Masque in Diocletian and Dido and Aeneas, the latter with Christopher Maltman and Alice Coote in the title roles.


Diocletian was brilliant, with an fine array of soloists including Maltman, Carolyn Sampson and Andrew Tortise. Tortise is an tenor/haut-contre to watch, he was recently seen here to great effectwith William Christie and Les Arts Florissants. The programme notes gave us the words but no indication of the, admittedly rudimentary, plot and scene settings for the Masque; Purcell's arias, ensembles and choruses became a set of charming objets trouvees, still with singing as lovely as this, who cares.

In Dido, Egarr was obviously making some gestures in the direction of restoring the opera to its presumed more complete, aristocratic form. Michael Burden's programme note was a model of clarity when it came to the operas confused provenance and probably first performance at the court of Charles 1st. Egarr reflected this by casting the Sorceress as a man, the excellent Giles Underwood. (But the libretto referred to him as the Sorceror). Additionally the missing guitar dances were improvised by the orchestra's guitarist, not entirely successfully I thought. Maltman and Coote were on stunning form; Coote looking wonderfully glamorous as well.

Unfortunately all the soloists, except for Underwood, were firmly wedded to their scores. Why is it that Emannuelle Haim and William Christie can bring shows to the Barbican with all the singers off the book but English groups seem to have arrays of soloists with eyes firmly fixed on the score. Even in a concert situation, having the singer not bound by a score and music stand makes such a big difference.

Friday, 1 April 2005

Chelsea Festival

Last night was the Launch party for the 2005 Chelsea Festival, the second festival to be programmed by Stewart Collins. With the piano as a rough theme and Joanna MacGregor as a featured artist (she's doing 4 concerts), Collins has put together an attractively eclectic mix which includes the Monks from Tashi Llunpo Monastery in Tibet, a millinery show from Kensington and Chelsea College, sacred music by Handel performed in the Royal Hospital Chapel and Catherine Bott singing a programme of songs themed around Emma Hamilton.


The Chelsea Festival's charm is the way it comes over as a sort of grand village fete, albeit a fete which can hire the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The festival uses venues all over Chelsea but this year they are making good use of the new Cadogan Hall; a concert hall created by Cadogan Estates out of the old Christian Scientist Church in Sloane Square.

One of the singers in my own choir, FifteenB, sang in Cadogan Hall last year at a festival event and was very enthusiastic about its acoustic. We've performed in 3 festivals so far (2000, 2002 and 2004) so I feel that we have a strong connection with the festival.