The woods and the trees

As we got to grips with David Willcocks’ delightful arrangement of Lord of the Dance last night, I was struck by how difficult it is for choir and conductor alike.

Much of the rehearsal process consists of taking many different and apparently unrelated snippets of music quite out of context, polishing them in isolation, and only after much individual effort putting them all together to create a piece of music.  While we are rehearsing the individual segments, it is hard to see how they will all fit to make a coherent piece of music.  You could say that it is hard to see the wood for the trees.

I have found that listening to the music beforehand can help.  It’s true that it can be a bit like reading travel guides, which make much more sense after the visit than before.  But they do help to give the overall feel of a place, and some hints as to how to navigate your way around.  Similarly, listening to the music beforehand gives clues as to the role and place of your particular “snippets” in the piece, so that you can visualize the whole while practicing.

John Kibby’s excellent CD’s and Dropbox material make a wonderful foundation for our rehearsal preparation.  Here also are top quality performances on YouTube of the three carols from the Carols for Choirs book.  Just click on the links below – they only take a few minutes each, and you will find the time amply repaid at rehearsal next week when we sing them!

Lord of the Dance               The Jesus Child              The Shepherds’ Pipe Carol

Do you remember the Buzz Wire?

When I was a lad growing up in England, every Village Fete, Church Fair and School Fundraiser would have a row of pocket-money priced sideshows.  For a penny or two you could show off your skill and win a modest prize – a free lolly perhaps or a cheap trinket.  Of course they were quite challenging as the object of the exercise was to raise funds rather than to hand out prizes!

The Buzz Wire was a twisted piece of rigid wire.  The ends were about half a metre apart, but the wire, with all its twists and turns, was at least a metre long.  The wire was threaded through a metal loop about 2cm in diameter, which in turn was attached to a handle.  The challenge was to traverse the length of the rigid wire with the hoop, held in just one hand, without hoop and wire touching.  If they touched, then an electrical circuit would sound a buzzer or a bell, and your turn would be over.

I was thinking about the Buzz Wire last night as we were rehearsing the ups and downs and twists and turns of Bach’s choral writing in the Magnificat.  The shape of the wire is not unlike that of some of the phrases we have to sing – think of the theme in Fecit potentiam, for example.

We basses get off quite lightly, but Bach clearly had supreme confidence in his other voices, as the vocal contortions he asks of them are amazing.  Some of the twists are gentle, just a few notes apart and in a memorable sequence.  Then comes something quite different such as an octave jump up, then a smaller leap down, then more twiddly bits around the same or different sets of notes.

With the Buzz Wire, you have to keep the centre of the loop as close to the rigid wire as possible.  With singing Bach, we have to keep each note as close to the proper pitch as possible.  With the Buzz Wire, contact brings the buzzer or bell and the end of the turn.  With Bach it is the opposite. If we do not get just one note sufficiently close, Carlos’ internal buzzer sounds: he stops us and we have the “bonus” of another turn, and maybe even more turns until we get it right.

I find that rehearsing Bach gives a huge sense of satisfaction.  To sing his music accurately is no mean feat, and, what is more, it sounds pretty good too.

Next week we start looking at the carols.  They need singing accurately too, but they are much easier, and simply good fun.  It will be great to be singing them again.


It’s who you know, not what you know

Thank you to Marj Binns for this fascinating article.

Sometimes it is in fact who you know rather than what you know.  I was delighted and privileged to attend a performance recently of the Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra.  Nicole van Bruggen, one of the founders of this orchestra, a clarinetist, is a niece of one of my long -time friends.

I confess I have been invited to hear Nicole previously but have never quite managed to make it – my loss.  On this occasion she was soloist in the Mozart clarinet quintet playing her very unusual basset clarinet.  This instrument goes back to Mozart and his freemason friends, virtuoso clarinetist Anton Stadler and clarinet builder Theodor Lotz who worked together to create a new clarinet with a larger range than the usual clarinet by adding four low notes.  The original instrument with its bulbous bottom joint was lost and, struggling with descriptions from early performances, some strange instruments were built.  It was as recently as the early 90s when a musicologist researching in Riga, Latvia came across a hand drawn illustration of the instrument on an original concert program, and a builder in Paris, Agnes Gueroult, was able to craft this instrument with the strange bulb on its end, almost touching the floor when played, specially for Nicole.  She only uses it for performing the Mozart Quintet K.581 or the Mozart Clarinet Concerto K.622 as no other works have been written using its particular range of low notes.

Nicole has studied and lived in the Netherlands for 17 years, returning permanently to Australia in 2012.  She, with violinist Rachel Beesley, was co-founder of the Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra in 2013 under the artistic direction of Richard Gill.  The performers in this orchestra have wide international experience and specialize in performing on historical instruments.  Peter McCallum reporting the recent concert in the Sydney Morning Herald wrote “This was a gem of a concert for its caressing sweetness of sound and pristine tonal beauty.” 

These artists are enthusiastic in their love of Historically Informed Performance and are advertising a 2018 series of three concerts in Sydney and Melbourne.  I can wholeheartedly recommend an exceptional, beautiful experience.

Full blooded Beethoven

Naomi writes:
Back in June Richard posted a blog about a concert performed by the Sydney Conservatorium of Music he and Anne attended.  The Con Orchestra and Choir performed Elgar’s ‘The Dream of Gerontius’, and the concertmaster on that occasion was my oldest grandson, Noam, now in third year violin studies at the Con.  I was in Paris at the time and while you could say “how tough!” and yes, I did enjoy being in Paris, but just on that evening I would have preferred to be at the Con. I was so grateful to Richard for posting the blog, sending me a detailed e-mail about the evening and even attaching a clandestinely taken photo.

So when another concert came along last Friday with Noam as concertmaster, I mentioned it to Richard.   He and Anne were there with me at the Con, along with John, my daughter and son-in-law (the parents of the concertmaster!), granddaughter and several of their friends.  What a privilege: family, friends, the Verbugghen Hall, a large, youthful orchestra and a concertmaster grandson performing, among other pieces, that sublime symphony, Beethoven’s seventh.

I will let Richard describe the musical side of the evening.  For two reasons:  first because his grasp of the musical aspects of the evening is more proficient than mine and second, when a grandson is the concertmaster there is no way I can be objective.  Noam comes onto the stage to the acclaim of his mates, the ‘cheer squad’ at the back of the hall; he is smiling, confident and so handsome!  He takes a bow and starts tuning the orchestra.  The music takes over.  Tears of pride and affection well in my eyes and I am so glad to be in Sydney and not in Paris….

Richard writes:
For a concert with the “blood connection” described by Naomi, this was, appropriately, full blooded Beethoven.  Not for the Con a pared down orchestra of gut strings, transverse flutes and the like.  No way!  There were twelve first violins, matched by comparable forces in the remainder of the string section, along with modern woodwinds and brass.  What a sound they made in the resonant cavern of the Verbrugghen Hall!

The opening work – Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, was played with alternating vigour and empathy, showing off the ensemble’s accuracy and expressiveness.  Then the strings accompanied a delightful Marimba Concerto (one of only two in the repertoire, we were told) which required both musicianship and athleticism on the part of the soloist.

And then, with a change of conductor, came Beethoven’s Symphony No 7.  Comprising one of the longest symphonic introductions in the repertoire and one of the most abrupt endings, with loads of musical variety in between, this is not an easy work to play well.  But the Con Orchestra and their dynamic conductor excelled themselves.  In all its variety, the music flowed coherently from idea to idea.  As musical ideas were developed, the tension was gradually heightened, and yet it was always resolved satisfactorily to the ear before moving on.  The final movement seemed somewhat frenetic at times.  However, the following day a broadcast of Daniel Barenboim conducting the East-West Divan Orchestra in the same work was just as frenetic, so the approach of the young conductor at the Con, Tae-Soo Kim, was more than justified.

Just one minor criticism – with all those strings playing fortissimo, sometimes the woodwind and brass were lost.  Had they been positioned higher, their sound would have come over more effectively.

Perhaps the last thing to say is that this was not just a good concert by student standards.  It was an excellent concert by any standard, comparable with professional orchestras heard in more prestigious venues.  A wonderful evening’s music making indeed.


Another Thursday night….

Some of our more eagle-eyed members may have noticed Carolynn Everett’s unusual absence from rehearsal the other Thursday.  Here she tells us why she was absent………

It’s Thursday night, and we are walking into the school grounds for a 7.30 start – but this week we are not at Collaroy Plateau PS, and there will be no choir here. Instead, we are at Epping West PS for the Pre-Tour concert of their award-winning Concert Band.

The school hall is abuzz, with lots of excited families waiting …  and then the band, looking very smart in their black pants and black polo shirts, file in, and take their places – almost 40 of them.

And so the concert begins: this is a tight ensemble, and the kids quickly get into the swing of things.

Perennial school band favourites such as ”Gonna Fly Now” (the theme from the movie “Rocky”) and “George of the Jungle” are all played with great style. These children understand that different kinds of music have a different ‘feel’, and they adapt easily to each new chart. We tap our toes as they play “The best of ‘Queen’ ” and a medley of Henry Mancini tunes, “Jai Ho” (from “Slumdog Millionaire”), a calypso medley, and Sia’s “Cheap Thrills”, amongst other musical treats.

There are some outstanding band members, including a fantastic kit-drummer, who is rock-steady, and rarely takes his eyes off the conductor. The girl who leads the trumpet section is another stand-out: a confident player, with a very nice tone.

This band is very fortunate to have a very experienced, highly-skilled musician as their conductor. He shows us the latest trophies the band has won, and these are passed around the audience during the concert for us all to admire.

The conductor tells us about their forthcoming tour, which will take place in the first week after the school holidays. The band will travel to the Blue Mountains, where they will visit four schools: at each school they will do a workshop with the local school band, and then they will do a concert. They will be working hard, but it will be a fantastic experience, and they will learn such a lot.

During each concert the various sections of the band will be introduced, and the members of each section will play a few bars of their part from the band’s next number. Tonight may well be the first time that some of these children have played a ‘solo’ like this, but they all do very well.

After about an hour, it’s all over. With a final reminder that, in spite of tonight’s concert, “There will be band practice tomorrow morning before school!” the band plays their last number. We, the audience, have had a great night, and the band has too.

How lucky these children are to have the opportunity to play in a concert band like this! Not only are they learning to play an instrument, but they are learning how to be team players, and they are being exposed to many different kinds of music. Hopefully they will continue to enjoy music, as players and/or as listeners, throughout their school years, and beyond! Many of them have already performed on the Sydney Opera House stage, so who knows just how far some of them will go …

PS I will, of course, be back at Choir next week!

PPS I should probably ‘confess’ that the conductor mentioned is our younger son, Mike, and our grandson, Harrison, who is 14, was helping out on tuba.