Swing high, swing low.

It has been a week of contrasts.

Firstly the weather – one day 33 degrees and sunny; two days later, especially for rehearsal, torrential rain with the most magnificent and scary thunder and lightning.

Then the cricket – both my teams, Australia and England, suffering humiliating defeats, only to recover with magnificent victories to each win their respective series.

For those of us still with a vested interest in what happens in the UK, hopes one day of an orderly process over the next few weeks to Brexit were dashed the following day as a dysfunctional House of Commons seemed unable to agree to anything.

Then the music.  It has been a week of listening, rather than singing myself.  One day I heard the wonderfully rich sounds of that quintessentially English ensemble, The Sixteen, and on another I listened as a grandparent to a succession of school choirs and instrumental groups.

The Sixteen were, as you might expect, wonderful.  The program was English renaissance and contemporary music.  The encore, Byrd’s Ave verum corpus, was typical.  Each note was meticulously weighed for pitch, tone and intensity; then the notes were imaginatively assembled into phrases of pleasing shape, then the phrases were carefully woven together like an exquisite tapestry.  I could have listened to them for ever.

As for the school groups, well, they were quite a contrast to The Sixteen.   But two stood out – the senior choir and the string ensemble.  Both tackled pieces of some difficulty, and were not phased by them. The choir’s enunciation across tricky rhythms complemented perfect tuning, and the plucky (please pardon the pun, especially as there was not a pizzicato note in sight) string ensemble pulled off a piece with alternating two and three beats to a bar with great panache and much tunefulness.

Maybe not such a contrast after all.  And of course the young musicians at school could well be members of MW Choir in say twenty, or forty, or even sixty years time.  Now there’s a thought!

Modern times

I am rather old-fashioned and a bit of a Luddite, so social media is a bit of a mystery to me – what Facebook and Twitter and the like do and why we need them.  But you can’t escape the phenomenon in this day and age, especially when someone as exalted as the President of the United States (POTUS) uses Twitter as his preferred method of communication.

As I was trying to get off to sleep last night – always difficult after a really good rehearsal – an idea came to mind.  Here is a Tweet from an XPOTMWC (I am sure you can work that out!)

“BRILLIANT rehearsal last night!  FABULOUS singing from all, especially top noted sopranos!  INSPIRATIONAL conductor on TOP FORM!  This is Haydn’s VERY BEST music!  This concert will be a SELLOUT!  MWC is the GREATEST community choir EVER!”

BTW, don’t forget that booking opens next Monday.  Get in early to buy your tickets, just in case the XPOTMWC is right about the concert being a sellout!

A Mass of Angst?

It was really good last night to be shepherded by Carlos through to the end of the Nelson Mass.  However much we may rehearse or listen to recordings at home, there is nothing like singing it at rehearsal, under Carlos’ guidance, to really begin to understand the music.

And what music it is!  As Carlos said last night, it is beautifully crafted, very singable and tuneful.  That does not mean to say that it is easy, and the Sopranos might have a quibble or two about the number of top As and top B flats which are required of them.

But these are details.  We always think of Haydn as composing bright, sunny music, most often in bright, sunny major keys.  He is affectionately known as “Poppa Haydn”, reflecting a warm, friendly personality.

The Nelson Mass is something different.  Its sub-title gives the first indication:  Missa in Angustiis.  I can’t be sure, but I reckon there is a connection between our word angst and the Latin angustiis.  Haydn must have been going through considerable angst at the time.  Napoleon, then at the height of his powers, was expected to invade Austria at any time.  Church authorities had severely restricted the use of music in regular services.  Haydn’s employer had been forced to sack several members of his court orchestra for a combination of political and financial reasons.

Haydn’s world was falling apart around him, as was that of his employer and potentially the whole of his beloved homeland, Austria.  His response in the Nelson Mass is remarkable.  The music is so different to what we expect.  Can you think of another Mass where we almost shout the invocation “Kyrie eleison”- “Lord have mercy”?  or where “Donna nobis pacem”-“Lord grant us peace” seems more like an instruction than a request?

And that’s not all. In the Credo, most composers set the words of Christ’s death in a sombre minor key and his resurrection in a bright major key, for obvious reasons.  But in the Nelson Mass,  Haydn reverses the sequence.  Following a gentle G major laying to rest in the tomb, there is a striking B minor sequence to announce the resurrection – most unexpected and most effective as a precursor to D major for the remainder of the Credo.

I like to think that the Nelson Mass shows the true deep inner personality of Haydn.  Yes, a cheerful man in the main, but someone with deeper beliefs, feelings and emotions than he often permitted himself to display.

We are most fortunate to have Carlos conducting us for this work.  He forces us to think about what we are singing, and about how the composer is using music to communicate ideas and feelings. The combination of Haydn and Carlos is indeed compelling.

Numin-what?

I learnt a new word this week.  Numinous. Do you know it?  The word has been in use since 1647, so I was taken aback that I had not come across it before.

Where did I find the word?  In the programme of a concert I was not able to attend, but did however manage to listen to the subsequent broadcast.

Arvo Pärt and JS Bach were the main composers featured in a concert given by the Australian Chamber Orchestra and the Estonian Philharmonic Choir.  The music was mesmerizing; the singing and playing well up to their extraordinarily high standards.  Even on the radio, something of the magic of the occasion came through. By all accounts being at the live concert was electrifying.  For an amateur choral singer, to hear the choir sing for ten minutes a cappella and then be perfectly in tune for the orchestra to join them, was most impressive.  But that is mere technique.  There was something else about this concert which raised it above the usual.

Arvo Pärt and JS Bach come from different musical eras and from almost opposite ends of the religious spectrum.  Pärt is a devout Orthodox Christian, having converted from Lutheranism as an adult, whereas Bach was a staunch lifelong Lutheran.  Bach’s music is richly woven with patterns both visible and invisible, in contrast to Pärt’s music which often borders on the minimalist.  Both Bach in the 1700s and Pärt today aim to make a profession of their faith through their music.

In the concert the music from the two composers was sewn together seamlessly.  It segued from Pärt to Bach and back to Pärt and so-on with breaks for applause only at the end of each half of the concert.  It was indeed magic.

The concert programme contains the usual notes about the music, and also two thought-provoking articles about the place of religious music, especially in an age when more people than ever profess no particular religious affiliation.  It suggests that music and other art forms can be “numinous”.  The dictionary definition of “numinous” is, “revealing or suggesting the presence of a god; inspiring awe and reverence”.   This reminded me of a comment by a Choir member (I am ashamed to say that I cannot remember whom) after Messiah last December, “Whoever or whatever your god, somewhere in Messiah you will encounter them.”   

Maybe that is true of all music.  Maybe “numinous” is a term to describe what we are all seeking for in music, whatever our individual faith or religious affiliation.  Maybe what binds us together as members of the Choir, is the common aim of seeking the “numinous” for ourselves and, having found it, to communicate it, as best we can, to our audiences.

It could be said that this all sounds a bit grandiose for a community group such as the Manly Warringah Choir.  But I like to think that there is at least a grain of truth in those articles, and that it explains why we do so much more, under Carlos’ inspired direction, than just have a pleasant sing-along every Thursday.

Fly me to the moon

It was as we were circling for the second time somewhere over Goulbourn, waiting for the storms over Sydney to abate sufficiently for a safe landing, that the young lady in the seat next to me said, “Flying half-way around the world in under twenty four hours is an absolute miracle, but do you realise that none of the several million components of this plane can actually fly by themselves?”

Indeed, I thought, that is true.  From the smallest individual components, such as screws and rivets, to the largest, such as aluminium spars and panels, not one can fly in its own right.  Even the components made up of other components are flightless by themselves.  The wing, which produces the lift to keep the plane in the air, is useless on its own, and an engine, powerful as it might be, will sit firmly on the ground until it is fitted to the rest of the airplane.

I was reminded of this exchange last night, particularly when we were rehearsing the fugue “In Gloria Dei Patris, Amen.” We each rehearsed our own part, which sounded OK, up to a point.  Then pairs of voices sang together, and it felt a little bit more like music.  But it was only when all four voices got together that Haydn’s intentions were met and the notes made sense, both musically and, with the words, artistically.

Just as the individual screws and rivets which hold a plane together seem trivial but are in fact fundamental to its successful operation, so each member of the Choir, however experienced or novice a singer they may be, is fundamental to delivering a quality performance of which the composer would be proud and which excites and enthralls our audiences.  And what is more, unlike the inanimate rivets, screws and the like in the plane, we ourselves will derive huge satisfaction from playing our part in the Choir.