Vivaldi, Pergolesi and Bach

It was great to be back at Choir last night – singing is one thing I really miss when Anne and I are travelling.  And I was reminded last night just how lovely is the whole of Vivaldi’s Gloria – not just the rather hackneyed first movement, but the whole piece.  It is wonderful to both to sing and to listen to.

A curious co-incidence happened on our travels.  My best man of fifty years ago and I do not get together very often, but we managed it on this trip – a delightful lunch in a Georgian house within the precincts of Ely Cathedral.  Chris is a really good singer, a rare and valuable first tenor, unlike my middling baritone, and he has sung with a number of prestigious choirs in his time, including the City of Birmingham Choir under Simon Rattle.

Chris now sings with the Stamford Choral Society.  We always compare singing notes when we meet up and this time was no different.  I asked him what SCS were singing at the moment, and he replied that they were starting a summer break, but that they had had a concert the previous week.  So then I asked what they had sung.  The reply was the Vivaldi Gloria, the Pergolesi Magnificat and some Bach motets.  “Snap!” I retorted, especially when one of the motets turned out to be “Jesu, joy of man’s desiring.”

It would be good to have Chris join MWC for this next concert – I did invite him but, as he pointed out, he would hardly be home from one rehearsal before it was time to set off for the next!



Which section of yesterday’s program has been buzzing around in your head all night?

It seems that an occupational hazard of singing in a choir is that the night after the concert one or two phrases go round and round in you head and refuse to go away.

For me, the most magical moment yesterday was in the Nelson Mass.  It was not a phrase as such that caught me, but a short sequence which was uncharacteristic in a concert full of busy music..

At the end of the Credo there is a huge “Amen” with orchestra bowing and blowing as hard as they can and the choir at absolutely full pitch.

Then silence.

Then the choir comes in with a very quiet “Sanctus”, building to a crescendo with a big orchestral chord, and then dying away.

Then silence again before the sequence repeats.

What a way to stress the awesome nature of the Almighty – a truly numinous piece of composition.   And in this Mass where Haydn does so many things differently, it is entirely fitting to introduce a feeling of awe and reverence in this way.

It seemed to work a treat – you could have heard a pin drop during the silences.

It seems that the audience appreciated our efforts throughout the program, from all that was said afterwards.  And it was particularly kind of the weather to stay fine for the post-concert drinks and nibbles.  As someone commented to me over a glass of red wine “What better way is there to spend a Sunday afternoon?”


How is your breathing?

Mine is dreadful.  I am always taking a breath in the middle of phrases when singers around me seem to be carrying on regardless.  And last week’s rehearsal, with the soloists adding their glory to our singing, showed me up really badly.

For example, I noticed that in a piece where I could just about manage two bars’ singing before gasping for breath, the soloists were typically singing for four, five or even six bars, apparently effortlessly and without any strain on their bodies.

How do they do it?

Then Anne and I went to hear the Sydney Philharmonia Choir sing JS Bach’s Magnificat and Mozart’s Great C Minor Mass (sub-plot – is MWC really good enough to sing music like this – we are? wow!!) and the soloists there showed me up even more, only I was not actually singing – well, maybe just very, very sotto voce, under my breath. Sarah Macliver, Fiona Campbell and David Greco (yes, the same David Greco who has sung with MWC) effortlessly filled the huge cavern of the SOH Concert Hall with bar after bar of delightfully resonant sound, sometimes in long flowing phrases and sometimes in florid repeating runs up and down the vocal register.  And all without apparently taking a breath in the middle of a phrase.

How do they do it?

Even more amazing is the story of Charity Tilleman-Dick, an American singer who has just died at the young age of 35.  She had embarked on a career in opera when she was diagnosed with a condition which required a double-lung transplant.  While she was re-learning how to, amongst other things, breathe, the new organs failed and she had to have a second transplant.  She recovered both her health and her career, which lasted until her premature death.  

Click here if you would like to read more of her story and hear her sing – yes, with uninterrupted, long, flowing lines showing that she really did learn how to breathe again.  Quite an inspiration to those of us who are challenged in the breathing department.

No blog this week.

“Are you going to go and write your blog?” Anne asked as we finished breakfast.

“No, I don’t think there is anything to write about this week”, I replied.

“Not even the lecture at the City Recital Hall yesterday on Music and the Periodic Table of Elements?”  Anne retorted.  Well, I admit that I had hoped it would spark a few ideas, but all it really did was confirm the human condition of pattern making – categorizing things into patterns if you are a mathematician or scientist, and creating your own patterns if you are an artist or composer.

Then ABC Classic came to the rescue.  It was 8.15am and Russell Torrance had been entrusted the task of announcing this year’s Classic 100 – the basis for music played over the Easter weekend.  No prior clues had been given, so it was with eager anticipation that we listened.

The station has recently focused quite a lot on women composers, with music by, amongst others, Fanny Mendelssohn, Grace Williams and Peggy Glanville Hicks being highlighted, and opening a delightful new world to many of us.  So could the Classic 100 be listeners’ favourite music by written by women?

On the other hand, presenters have played a lot of music recently from films and video games.  Could they have been softening us up for an Easter weekend of music from this specific genre – not something Anne or I would have welcomed at all, as this is an unknown world to us.

After the essential tension-creating build-up, we were relieved to hear that listeners are being asked to vote for their favourite composer.  Simply that.  No favourite piece; just the composer.  Presumably someone at ABC Classic will determine which piece for each chosen composer is played – now there’s a minefield if ever there was one!

For me, typically unable to make such judgements, the decision is atypically simple.  Sir Edward Elgar. No question.  He was a man who bared his soul through his music.  He struggled to be taken seriously in his day, yet his music combines echoes of its time with quintessential timelessness.  Soaring melodies with heart-stopping harmonies; intimacy alternating with grandeur; down-to-earth tunes elevated to his most common expression marking – nobilmente.  He gets my vote.

Will you vote?  How will you decide for whom to vote?  Whom will you vote for?  It will be fascinating to savour the results in due course and to spend a weekend in the company of Australians’ favourite composers.

A musical Everest

What a stunning rehearsal we enjoyed last night!

The Mozart Te Deum, which last week seemed like an insurmountable massif, was conquered and has become a part of the Choir’s collective psyche.

It is interesting to reflect that we spent 75 minutes getting our heads around a piece of music which, on my favourite recording, lasts no more than 1 minute 18 seconds.  Now there are lots of notes in that short time, but this is still 58 minutes of practice per minute of singing.

That set me thinking – how long do we typically spend rehearsing for each hour of music we sing?  Well, in most concerts we sing for about an hour.  And each session involves around 15 rehearsals of two hours each.  That’s 30 hours of rehearsals (ignoring what we each do individually at home) for one hour’s singing, or to get a straight comparison, 30 minutes rehearsal for each minute of singing.

So maybe we were not so bad at the Te Deum after all.

Some time ago after watching some surfers at Long Reef beach I commented that they seemed to expend a huge amount of time and effort battling wave after wave to get out to sea and waiting for the right wave, and then they were upright on the board in the surf for only 5 or 10 seconds.  “Ah” they said, “but there is such a thrilling sensation for that short time – it’s well worth the trouble of getting out there!”

And it’s certainly worth all our rehearsal time for the thrilling moment when the music comes together like it did last night.

Which reminds me how fortunate we are with our musical team.  Valerie’s accompaniment, somehow sensitive yet also exuberant, is one key to our success.  And of course Carlos’ unrelenting search for true meaning in the music we sing, matched with his belief in the Choir’s capabilities, enable us to scale heights we might not ourselves ever think possible.