My own music festival

Many thanks to Naomi for contributing this lovely description of her own Music Festival.

Music festivals are events for which one normally has to plan way ahead and travel a considerable distance to get to them.  But I had my own, private music festival earlier this month, which required only short forays out of my home and not much planning.

On the Friday at the Conservatorium of Music I attended the gala evening of the ‘Out of the Shadows’ event – a project aimed at discovering and performing the rarely heard music of composers who perished or survived the Holocaust.  The Con’s Verbugghen Hall was full to capacity and there was a buzz of excitement and awe but the event did not live up to expectation.  The music was good; indeed some probably deserves more exposure than it has received, but the organizers failed to seize on the opportunity to celebrate the occasion.  Scant program notes, no presence of relatives, no stories, no sense of a memorial.  We came, the musicians performed, we listened, we clapped, we went home.  Pity as the concept behind the event is so worthwhile. 

Then I spent almost the entire day on Sunday at Cremorne Orpheum for the New York Met’s production of Strauss’ ‘Der Rosencavalier’.  It was Renee Fleming’s and Elina Garanca’s farewell performance to their iconic roles in this opera and it was sheer magic.  Everything that opera should be – the design, the lighting, the costumes and above all the voices and the acting – perfection.  Even the story is engaging! 

And finally on the Monday at the City Recital Hall I heard Pieter Wiseplwey play the six Bach Cello Suites – an amazing experience.  I love that music but I have never heard the six performed together and wondered how I would last the distance.  But in fact after more than three hours, I was sorry Bach had not written ten cello concertos.  I was awed by the cellist’s stamina and his ability to have all that music in his head; no scores. 

And we find it too difficult to memorize a few bars when Carlos asks us to!

Just a co-incidence?

Have you ever been listening to one piece of music and found yourself thinking, “That sounds rather like something else , but I can’t quite place it?”  Usually it’s the melody which causes that pondering, or sometimes just the general sound.

For us basses in this current concert, there is an even weirder connection.  Three of the pieces start with essentially the same set of notes:
the Kyrie of the Schubert Mass,

the Kyrie of the Misa Criolla

and El Gavilan.

The notes, in tonic sol-fa notation, are basically doh, re, mi, fah, soh.   There is some sliding between notes in semi-tones, and one piece is in a minor key whereas the other two are in a major key, but essentially it is the same sequence.  Schubert and Ramirez leave the phrase hanging with the last note as soh: in El Gavilan the phrase finishes with a concluding return to doh.

What is it about this sequence?  It is like an announcement, “Sit up and take notice”, or a sort of subdued fanfare commanding attention before the real music starts.

Can anyone think of any other pieces of music which start in the same way?  If there are only these three in the repertoire, it is something of a co-incidence that we are singing all of them in one concert!

Small can indeed be beautiful

There have been a number of commentaries recently about the power of music.  Usually it’s about big occasions like a “come and sing Messiah”  in a huge venue like the Opera House.  But of course music does not have to be big and brassy to move listeners.  Think of the Schubert Mass we are singing at the moment – small scale and personal yet still very moving in its own way.

Speaking of which, our Choir Secretary, Naomi, writes:

Every Friday afternoon I work as a volunteer at Bear Cottage.  Most of you would know what ‘Bear Cottage’ is.  For those who don’t – it is a hospice for children with limited life expectancy.  It is a wonderful, amazing place.  Volunteers do a variety of tasks – folding laundry, chopping vegetables, stacking dishes, play with siblings, chat with parents or grandparents, perform administrative tasks.  But the prime task is to interact with sick children; to give them company and support.  And that is the task that I find the most difficult.   Over time I have learnt to cope with the proximity of seriously, sometimes terminally sick children but what I still find so difficult is to interact with a person when there is no response at all.  I feel lost when I don’t get a sense that a child is aware that I am there beside him.

 But the other day, perhaps for the first time ever, I actually left Bear Cottage feeling that I did something useful; that I made a difference to a child.  Jack (not his real name) was on the floor, wriggling. He can’t talk, walk or control his movements.  He just lay there and wriggled.  I sat beside him on the floor; he was watching TV, or more correctly, his face was turned towards the TV.  I can’t say whether he was watching or taking anything in.  No expression at all.  I asked him whether he wanted me to read him a story.  No response.  None expected.  But I read all the same and indeed got no response.  He shifted his head from me to the TV – I didn’t know whether he was aware that I was there.  But then I wondered: how would react to my singing?  I started singing – some Hebrew melodies, something from ‘The Sound of Music, the last chorale of the ‘St John Passion’ – a random selection of songs. To my surprise our interaction changed immediately.  He looked at me, engaged my gaze and smiled.  He was obviously not only listening but also enjoying it.  There was real pleasure in his face.  He can’t ask for more but when I stopped, I had a feeling that he would have wanted to.  And the most amazing thing is that after a while of singing, I started reading again, and Jack seemed more responsive to the story I was reading.  He actually seemed engaged.

The power of music!

Thank you, Naomi, for sharing with us what must have been a very special moment. 


What might they have thought?

Wasn’t it good to sing right through the Schubert Mass at rehearsal last night?  Thank you, Carlos, for bringing it together to this point, and thank you for last night encouraging us to sing those lovely solo lines.  Schubert certainly knew how to write a good tune!

I was wondering what Schubert might have thought of us last night.  Would he be pleased that his music is still giving pleasure to people around the world?  Would he be embarrassed by the naivety of his early music compared to his later, more mature works?  Would he mind that our performance is perhaps not up to the standards he would expect?  Indeed, what would the likely standard of performance have been in 1815 when the work was first performed?

Similar musings occurred when Anne and I attended two concerts back-to-back a couple of weeks ago.  Both included a Mozart piano concerto.  One was played on a modern Steinway accompanied by a full orchestra.  The other used just a string quartet as accompaniment (a version Mozart performed himself on more than one occasion) and there was some considerable debate as to whether the piano should have been a fortepiano as used in Mozart’s day rather than the Steinway which was actually used.  Again, what would Mozart have thought about the performances and about the debate surrounding them?

A third comparable musing came when Choir members Julie Dawson and Jane Cameron sent photos of themselves at The Big Sing in the Royal Albert Hall in London recently.  Just imagine the hall full to capacity with 5,000 people singing en masse.  It must be a wonderful experience.  This year’s works were the Glorias by Vivaldi, Rutter, and Jenkins.  Presumably the latter two composers, being very much contemporary, had actively consented to their music being performed in this way.  But what about Vivaldi?  Could he possibly have conceived of his Gloria being performed several centuries after his death, and what might he, a priest turned composer, have thought about the sheer number of singers, the musical standard of the performance and the very secular nature of both the event and the venue?

So, lots of questions this week, and no answers.  I suppose that is what musing is all about.  And if, in searching for the answers, we begin to understand the music and the composers better, then it can only be to our benefit.

Eleven down and four to go.

Well that’s maybe not quite accurate.  As with any statistic, it depends on what you count and how you count it.

In this case, it’s rehearsals for the next concert.  To be absolutely precise, there have been eleven rehearsals up to last night; there are four more general rehearsals to go; then the session with the orchestra at the School; and finally the general rehearsal in the Chapel on the Thursday evening before the concert.  So you might say it’s eleven down and six to go.

But for my money the last real rehearsal is the one before the orchestra joins us.  By that time the choir needs to sing accurately and confidently so that Carlos can then concentrate on joining choir and orchestra together.  Hence the reality is eleven down and four to go.

How are we shaping up?  It’s hard to say.  Some pieces such as the Schubert Mass seem to be in good shape, while others such as parts of the Misa Criolla still seem to be a bit of a struggle.  Perhaps it’s not surprising.  This is the season when we more mature folk can easily catch colds and ‘flu, leading to a few weeks away from the music.  It is also the season for folk to take extended overseas travels (including musical ones) leading to the need for more compressed rehearsal times.   Add to that the fact that many of us are unfamiliar with south American dance rhythms and with Spanish text and so need extra help to learn them.

In my ten years in the Choir, we have somehow always managed to get there on the night.  However difficult the final rehearsals might have been, the concerts have always gone well.  So with hard work and concentration on everyone’s part, I am sure that this concert will follow suit.

Last night’s rehearsal shows what we can do when we get down to it; both Misa Criolla and El Gavilan were sounding much better by the end of the rehearsal.  El Gavilan is wonderful to sing, the rhythms criss-crossing each other, the music bouncing along like a horse at a gallop.

Incidentally, there is a great YouTube of El Gavilan (click here to see it), which is not entirely the same as our version in the middle, typical for arrangements of folk songs, and which has a fantastic addition at the end (but don’t tell Carlos in case he wants us to do the same!)

Right.  Nearly time to go and do the weekly shop with Anne.  Just time for another run-through of El Gavilan before we go!