Out & About in London – October 2016

My parents visited F and me in London for five days this month. Luckily, their visit coincided with both a chorus concert and Half Term, which meant no teaching duties for me and so the ability to take a few days off work. It was fun to be a bit of a tourist around London for a few days — I hadn’t done that in a while. Here’s what we got up to, including pictures.

Bletchley Park

A co-worker of mine recommended visiting Bletchley Park as a nice day trip outside of London. My parents wanted to get out of the city for a day, and it turned out that Bletchley Park was an easy train ride away from Euston Station. In case you don’t know, Bletchley Park is where the British Government Code and Cipher School (CG&CS) set up their codebreaking endeavors during World War II. CG&CS recruited bright young minds from Oxford and Cambridge to work machines, translate, and cipher/encipher/decipher enemy codes, the most famous of which being the Enigma code. Alan Turing, perhaps made better known recently by the movie The Imitation Game, led a team in developing the Bombe Machine to help crack the Enigma code.

Bletchley Park is centered around a mansion on lovely grounds surrounded by lots of “huts,” where various teams were set up to work on codebreaking projects. It was a lovely day when we went, which made for pleasant wandering in and out of huts and learning about what went on at Bletchley Park. There’s also a very detailed museum, which we didn’t spend much time in, having already become saturated by the information in the mansion and huts. It was a nice and informative day out and I’d recommend it.

Dinner at Ottolenghi Islington

Eating at Ottolenghi has been near the top of my “to eat in London” list for a while. We’ve got one of Ottolenghi’s cookbooks — Plenty, or Genussvoll vegetarisch in our German version — that I’ve enjoyed using at times. A few friends recommended the Islington restaurant, and my parents, who love trying new restaurants, were game!

Ottolenghi Islington has cold salads and desserts in the front window and operates a bustling (upscale) takeaway business. The restaurant consists of two long, communal tables and a handful of small two-person tables. The decor is more modern than I expected, but I quite liked the simplicity with splashes of color. The menu consists of small plates that are conducive to sharing — I love this kind of eating, because I get to try a few bites of a lot of dishes! We ordered eight dishes for the four of us, which was plenty and allowed us to save room for the delicious desserts. Dinner highlights for me were: the beetroot and cumin mash, the cauliflower, the braised artichoke and fennel, the pork belly, and the octopus. The almond financier cake for dessert was incredible.

National Portrait Gallery

Looking for something to do before afternoon tea (see below), I suggested to my parents that we pop into the National Portrait Gallery for an hour or so. I had never been there before, and to be honest was not sure I’d like it — how interesting can it be to look at a bunch of dead people’s painted portraits? Turns out, it’s fascinating! We stuck to the 19th and 20th century displays, and they did not disappoint. It was cool to see painted portraits of famous historical figures, from statesmen to the first woman admitted to the British Medical Association to authors like Dickens and Hardy. There was a small but powerful photograph of Virginia Woolf’s husband (or maybe father? I can’t remember) in the foreground with an out-of-focus but so obviously Virginia Woolf in the background. Wow.

My favorite part of the Portrait Gallery was a temporary exhibition, “Black Chronicles: Photographic Portraits 1862-1948.” It was incredibly moving to see such dignified, soulful photographs from the early-ish days of photography. There is something much deeper about photographic portraits from 100+ years ago: carefully composed poses and backdrops, and no cheesy smiles, as people had to hold poses for a long time for the exposure. It is a stunning exhibition and highly recommended.

Afternoon Tea at The Delaunay

My mom suggested that we go out for a proper afternoon tea, like we did a couple of years ago when my parents spent time in London. And who am I to refuse afternoon tea? I had The Delaunay on my list as a well-reviewed (but I can’t remember by whom!) and affordable afternoon tea spot. We each ordered the full Afternoon Tea — my dad and I with scones, and my mom with Gugelhupf (remember that from Bake Off last year?).

Two tea towers (what are they actually called?) arrived, chock full with sweets and savories. The tea also came with brilliant straining devices that had solid bottoms to catch drips when you put them back on the table. It’s the little things! I have a big sweet tooth, but surprisingly I ended up preferring the savories at The Delaunay. The smoked duck sandwich had a great blend of flavors, and I could have eaten five of the cheese puff/choux flatbread-like things sandwiched with cream cheese. The fruit scones were deliciously light and balanced. I found most of the cakes a bit too sweet, although the pistachio financier with poppy seeds and orange cream was really nice. The Delaunay’s afternoon tea selection was very generous, and the three of us agreed that next time we’d only get two full tea menus plus a couple of extra scones.

Wicked

In addition to afternoon tea and a day out of London, my parents wanted to see at least one theatre show. We settled on Wicked, the music of which I knew thanks to my Oberlin housemate Claire, who introduced me to the soundtrack in college. But I didn’t know the story that links the songs together (other than that it’s about the Wicked Witch of the West). 

Well, the musical was brilliant. Along with the hits like “Defying Gravity,” “No Good Deed,” and “For Good,” Wicked actually has a relatively complex plot with a good deal of character development and many messages about trust, friendship, love, and self-regard. The cast was great, with Suzie Mathers and Rachel Tucker more than living up to my expectations as Glinda and Elphaba, respectively. They had personality, depth, and great singing voices — I got chills more than a couple of times.


Singing Brahms at the Barbican: “Ein deutsches Requiem”

It’s October again, which in my world means singing in the first Crouch End Festival Chorus concert of the new season! Last year, we sang Mozart’s Mass in C minor with the London Mozart Players (LMP). This year, we were lucky to be joined by LMP again, back at the Barbican for Johannes Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem (“A German requiem”). Soprano Erica Eloff sang Strauss’ Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs) to open the concert, as well as the soprano solos in the Brahms. Baritone Benjamin Appl took on the male solos in the Brahms. Brahms’s requiem is unique in that it is not set to the traditional Latin mass, but rather Brahms chose selections of German text from the Luther Bible. Even for a non-believer like myself, parts of the libretto are quite moving.

Didn't get any pictures during rehearsal, so here's a City of London shot on my way to the Barbican.

Didn’t get any pictures during rehearsal, so here’s a City of London shot on my way to the Barbican.

Now I’m not sure you you feel about Brahms, but I’ve had mixed feelings about his music ever since first hearing and attempting to learn his clarinet sonatas back in high school. It took me ages to understand what seemed to be a lack of melody and get used to the irregular, dancelike rhythms. A track teammate at Oberlin introduced me to Brahms’s symphonies, numbers 1 and 4 of which grew on me. His piano concertos are great fun to listen to. But I’ve never felt quite the same connection with Brahms as I have with composers like Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach (what can I say? I like the traditional stuff). While I did go through a period of enjoying sweeping, Romantic-era orchestral music, I’ve always come back to my three favorites for their melodiousness and simple complexity (is that a thing?).

All of the above goes to say that I looked forward to singing Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem, but it didn’t enrapture me as much as it does some, including our chorus director (DT) and many fellow singers. But the piece grew on me, and I loved singing the rich, dark moments — like those in the second movement — where I could let out my inner mezzo soprano:

I also enjoyed singing in German, and we had a good language coach to help smooth out the choir’s tendency towards English diphthongs. Fellow soprano SG, also a German speaker, and I shared a few chuckles about how selige Toten (“blessed dead”) came out a bit like selige Torten (“blessed cakes”) at times! Overall, our hard work on the German paid off and the choir received many compliments on the clarity of our words — although F pointed out that we still had trouble with the “ch” sound, pronouncing Stachel more like “stackel.”

The performance went well. The LMP were incredible, as usual; Eloff’s singing was lovely (despite not having great German diction); and Appl’s diction was impeccable — it helps that he’s actually German — although he made a few mistakes, which I’m willing to forgive after seeing his busy event schedule. DT was very pleased, given the email he sent around to the choir afterwards, and I enjoyed finally getting a sense of the requiem’s story and drama when we sang it in full with the orchestra and soloists. My parents had come over to London for a week, in part to see the concert, and they loved it. A few current and former choir members in the audience were equally impressed. I’d say we pulled it off!

Next up: Sing Christmas! 2016 at St. Michael’s Highgate. Get your tickets now!


Summer Singing: “Reflections” in St. James’s Church, Piccadilly

IMG_3038And just like that, another year singing with the Crouch End Festival Chorus has gone by. We wrapped up the regular concert season this weekend with a varied a cappella programme in St. James’s Church, Piccadilly. St. James’s Church was a new venue for us and, though it doesn’t look like much from the outside (despite being designed by Sir Christopher Wren, best known for St. Paul’s Cathedral), it offers a lovely open space inside with a great acoustic. The theme for this summer’s concert was “reflections”: each piece we sang had some sort of reflective element (water, mirrors, a double choir, or simply a sense of internal reflection).

We started off the evening with Eric Whitacre’s Water Night. I’ve been a Whitacre fan for a while, but this was the first time I’ve had the pleasure of singing one of his pieces. It is magical, the way the dense chord clusters and harmonies melt together and shimmer. After a brief piano interlude (see below), we sang Mirror Suite, a contemporary piece written by composer Alan Charlton and set to poems by Spanish poet Federico García Lorca. This was a quirky, four-movement piece with various elements of reflection embedded within it: double (and triple) choirs, canons, inverted figures, birdsong, and fugues. I didn’t fall in love with the piece, but I did enjoy singing in Spanish and experiencing the different effects of the reflective elements. F liked the imitation of birdsong (a small group of soloists) in the second movement, Réplica.

Photo courtesy of FZ

Photo courtesy of FZ

The longest piece in the concert was Josef Rheinberger’s Mass in Eb Major. Have you ever heard of Rheinberger? Neither had I, until we started rehearsing his mass. Rheinberger lived right through the middle and end of the 19th century, and elements of his mass conjure composers as diverse as Mozart, Bruckner, Mendelssohn and Bach. It was an enjoyable mass to sing, and I think we gave it a good performance. My friend A, who attended the concert, said the church’s acoustics worked especially well for the piece’s double choir and rich harmonics.

We ended the concert with two short pieces: Stanford’s pure and beautiful The Blue Bird and a fun arrangement of Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror. Here is the Stellenbosch University Choir singing it:

A unique part of this summer’s concert was that we were treated to instrumental interludes for piano and cello. Our very own accompanist, Peter Jaekel, played some lovely solo Debussy, and he was joined by cellist Joely Koos for Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel and Saint-Saëns’ The Swan. The Pärt performance was a highlight for me and other audience members, being at once contemplative, reflective, and sorrowful yet healing and uplifting.

I always enjoy our summer programs, as we get to sing a variety of shorter, unaccompanied pieces in beautiful churches and chapels: Southwark Cathedral; St. John’s College Chapel, Cambridge; Waltham Abbey. Rather than having our usual summer break now, the choir is singing in a BBC Prom at the end of July and recording Bach’s St. John Passion in September. I’m not doing all of it but am looking forward to Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem in October. We hope you’ll join us in the audience.


Birthday Wisdom 2016

Another year older, another birthday reflection post! I turned 28 this week and F baked me the best cake anyone has ever made me:

IMG_2976

Last year I wrote about completing an MA and DELTA and starting a new full-time job. I offered a word of wisdom on prioritizing and finding balance. This past year has tested those words of wisdom on more than one occasion, but I like to think I tried my best to stick to them.

Looking back on this year, I’m coming up on two years as an ESOL and Functional Skills English teacher to migrant women in a deprived area of east London. I’ve taken on responsibility as a line manager and am completing a leadership and management course through work to help me develop in those areas. Teaching continues to bring its joys and challenges; switching to a new exam board for our ESOL courses has helped our students’ achievement rates, but there are still kinks to work out. I have an incredible set of colleagues, inspirational women all.

Ready to get married! 8 April 2016. Photo credit: Fotomanufaktur Wessel (www.fotomanufaktur-wessel.de)

Ready to get married! 8 April 2016. Photo credit: Fotomanufaktur Wessel (www.fotomanufaktur-wessel.de)

This year was big because F and I got married! It felt like the right time. He proposed last summer on Cape Cod, a memorable and meaningful spot for my family and for us, with fond memories of cycling, swimming, running, pastry eating, and relaxing. We got married in Germany this April, in a small civil ceremony with parents by our sides.

This past year has also seen a good deal of choral singing, with highlights being Rachmaninov’s Vespers at St. John’s College Chapel, Cambridge; Mozart’s Mass in C minor; Bach’s Mass in B minor; and even recording a Christmas CD. F and I saw Steven Isserlis in a solo recital and we attended a few other concerts, theatre and musical theatre productions. We must take advantage of London cultural life while we can!

Running and sport(s) have been up and down. I did run a 5k PR/PB last September  but slowed down after that, due to busyness and stress in other aspects of life. I’m currently focusing on rebuilding my running fitness base and starting to incorporate speedwork again. I also did my first multisport event this past year: a team duathlon! It was a blast and I could see myself doing more run-bike-run events in the future.

Recent political events in the UK/EU and the USA made me gravitate towards the following quote as my word of wisdom for this year:

We all have a responsibility to now seek to heal the divisions that have emerged throughout this campaign – and to focus on what unites us, rather than that which divides us.

-Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, after the ‘Brexit’ vote

With that, I wish you all a tolerant year of unity.

At the National Theatre: Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”

On a recent Wednesday evening, F and I took a weeknight out to see Shakespeare’s As You Like It at the National Theatre (NT). I had never been to the National Theatre but when I found out that they have £15 tickets to most shows — practically a steal in London — I jumped at the opportunity.

Aside from knowing the NT’s As You Like It production had gotten good reviews, I didn’t know what to expect of their production (would it be modern? Period?). I read As You Like It years ago so briefly refreshed my memory of the plot before the play started: essentially, the Duke gets overthrown and exiled, then his daughter Rosalind gets banished and so does young Orlando. Everyone ends up in a forest, there is some crossdressing and foolery, and all turns out well in the end.

The National Theatre’s production included an open office with computers, modern-leaning-corporate dress, and a brilliant set design to create the forest for the second half: the tables and chairs were attached in groups and lifted up into the rafters on cables to create obstacles and hiding places in the forest. Real people sat in high up in swings and the wings to create “live” forest sounds: hoots, howls, wind blowing, and more. There were also some great sheep.

As You Like It was such fun to experience. Seeing Shakespeare live brings so much more life to his words than just reading them on the page, and the actors did a wonderful job emphasizing the precision of Shakespeare’s language and turns of phrase. Rosalie Craig made feisty and fun Rosalind and was balanced by Patsy Ferran‘s Celia.

Although Rosalind and Celia shoulder much of the play’s plot, As You Like It is really an ensemble piece. There are plenty of laughs to be had thanks to Touchstone and Audrey, Silvius and Phoebe. There’s a bit of melancholy from Jacques. And there’s music! I had forgotten how much music is incorporated into Shakespeare’s comedies. The NT’s production of As You Like It did a wonderful job with the forest ballads, sung by an actor with a lovely, lilting tenor voice. The final scene was also largely sung and made for an enjoyable and happy end to a thought-provoking comedy.

I would highly recommend the National Theatre’s production of As You Like It. There is nothing like seeing Shakespeare performed live, and the comedies are accessible and fun for all. There is not a bad seat in the NT’s Olivier Theatre — our seats were in the very last row but because the theatre is sloped so steeply, we could see the entire stage without any heads blocking the view.

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Concert Review: Steven Isserlis at Wigmore Hall

F and I got £5 tickets — if you’re under 35, check out the scheme — to see cellist Steven Isserlis at Wigmore Hall in London last week. I had seen Isserlis, a fellow Oberlin graduate, perform in the Oberlin Artist Recital Series back in 2008 or so. It remains one of the most memorable concerts I attended during my four years at Oberlin — and I went to a lot of concerts — so I jumped at the chance to see Isserlis perform again. Here is my review of his concert at Wigmore Hall.

Isserlis’ program at Wigmore Hall included three of J.S. Bach’s Cello Suites — No. 1 in G major (BWV1007), No. 5 in C minor (BWV1011), and No. 4 in Eb major (BWV1010) — interspersed with Signs, Games and Messages — short, fragmentary pieces by 90-year-old Hungarian composer György Kurtág.

Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 is probably the best-known of the cello suites, especially its characteristic Prelude. Isserlis opened the concert with this suite, although he played it a bit fast for my taste and it felt rushed. He followed this with two movements from Kurtág’s Signs, Games and Messages before flowing directly into Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5. The Kurtág pieces were short, fun, and playful; they reminded me of Penderecki solo string pieces, such as the Divertimento for cello. Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5 is one of my favorites — I’m a sucker for C minor — and Isserlis gave a gorgeous and moving performance of it, drawing a rich tone from his cello’s gut strings and letting the music dance in the faster movements.

After the interval, Isserlis played three more short Kurtág pieces — one of which drew a laugh from the audience as Isserlis glanced up with his characteristic impish look — before transitioning immediately into Bach’s Cello Suite No. 4. The audience was rapt by the time Isserlis got to the slow Sarabande, which he played with such feeling and emotional depth that even he seemed to tear up. The Sarabande’s gravity contrasted well with the playful last movement (Gigue).

Isserlis took three or four bows before settling down for an encore with another joyful movement from another Bach Cello Suites. Isserlis is a great performer to watch, as he so clearly feels the music and adapts his character to it without being distracting. He played all three Bach Cello Suites from memory and with such poise that the music seemed to flow out of him. He periodically glances at the audience with a half-smile, as if letting us in on a private joke.

It was a stunning concert. If you ever get the chance to see Isserlis play, do it. F said it’s the best classical music concert he has ever been to; his mind was sufficiently boggled. We talked about Bach’s genius: his music sounds so simple but is actually very difficult to play or sing (as I know well from recently tackling the Mass in B minor) and requires flawless technique and command.

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Singing Bach’s “Mass in B Minor”

Design: John Featherstone. Copy: Rachel Yarham

Design: John Featherstone. Copy: Rachel Yarham

It was a long, hard slog to the Barbican Hall to perform J.S. Bach’s Mass in B minor (BWV 232) as part of the Crouch End Festival Chorus. The Mass in B minor (completed in 1749) is a piece of epic proportions — it’s almost two hours long and requires the utmost concentration to keep up with the tricky rhythms, runs, and fugues.

Although I had never sung Bach’s Mass in B minor before, I was familiar with bits of it from listening to recordings over the years. It is a glorious piece. When you listen, it doesn’t sound all that complex because the melodies and harmonies are so pleasing and hummable; however, singing it is another matter! I was forewarned, as my good friend Emma sang the piece with her choir in Boston last year and told me how difficult it was. What I wasn’t prepared for was the non-logical placement of words and syllables on unexpected beats. Learning Bach, I soon figured out, requires the ability to quickly recognize patterns and repeat them at different pitches. Once I understood that, it made many bits of the music easier to learn (multiple sectional rehearsals to “note bash” were also helpful).

To add another degree of complexity (particularly for those singers with perfect pitch), we sang our Mass in B minor in Baroque pitch, which is half a step lower than today’s standard pitch used by most orchestras. Our orchestra for the Mass in B minor, though, was the Bach Camerata, a period instrument ensemble complete with strings, old-school oboes, wooden flutes (they sound beautiful — sort of a cross between a modern flute and a recorder), and horns with no keys (amazing that the musicians can control all the pitches with their embouchures).

Concert day brought the usual marathon afternoon rehearsal, which is always brightened by the fact that it’s the first time we (the chorus) get to see the orchestra and soloists. They did not disappoint. I was captivated from the first duet, “Christe eleison,” between soprano Mary Bevan (whom F and I saw in the ENO’s Mikado last fall) and mezzo-soprano Diana Moore. Moore’s “Agnus Dei” at the end of the piece was also breathtaking. Callum Thorpe delivered resonant bass solos and Ben Johnson‘s tenor was in good form. The Bach Camerata was a joy to listen to and sing with; I was particularly impressed by the two flute players and the accuracy and articulation of the entire ensemble.

By many audience accounts, we pulled off a great performance. The Mass in B minor is exhausting to perform — and probably to listen to — but early reviews and comments point to a success. Our director, DT, certainly seemed really pleased after the first half. It a great experience to learn Bach’s Mass in B minor; I’m glad to have done it, but as a fellow singer pointed out, also glad to move onto the next challenge.

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At the theatre: English National Opera’s “The Mikado”

When my parents visited in May, we took them to see the English National Opera‘s (ENO) production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance.” It was such good fun that last weekend F and I attended another Gilbert and Sullivan production at the ENO — this time, “The Mikado”. Here’s my review:

Whereas the ENO “Pirates” took a minimalist and period approach to its setting and costumes, “The Mikado” took the cast and audience back to the 1920s. The set was a cream and white space on a tilted stage platform. The performers wore pristine suits and flapper dresses while speaking with über-posh English accents (plenty of diphthong!). There were even six male and six female dancers, dressed as waiters and maids, that added to the 1920s feel with tap dance and the Charleston. The only inconsistency was that, at least according to the libretto, they were still supposed to be Japanese.

Musically, “The Mikado” is a strong production. Anthony Gregory played Nanki-Poo with the right dose of romanticism and sang with a solid tenor voice. Mary Bevan’s Yum Yum complimented him well, although I was more impressed by Rachael Lloyd’s Pitti-Sing; she has more opportunity for comedy and has quite a few solos for a supporting character. Graeme Danby’s Pooh-Bah, however, stood out the most. Danby had solid comic timing in his (literally) multi-faceted role and his rich, agile bass voice and excellent diction were a joy to listen to. A musical highlight was listening to the above four singers join forces in Act II’s quartet, “Brightly Dawns Our Wedding Day” — beautiful.

Fergus Macleod led the ENO orchestra to a great performance that complimented the singers without overpowering them. The men’s and women’s choruses had good intonation, although their diction could have been better. There was more spoken dialogue in “The Mikado” than I expected and it gave me a chance to revel in the wittiness and precision of Gilbert’s libretto.

Trust the ENO to inject some present-day politics and pop culture into Gilbert and Sullivan — the operettas already use parody, after all. The ENO used Ko-Ko’s opening monologue, “As some day it may happen” or “I’ve Got a Little List,” to get digs at the English rugby team, the VW emissions scandal, and even David Cameron’s “close encounter with a pig.” Brilliant.

Overall, the ENO’s “Mikado” is well worth seeing. The setting is fun, the singing is strong, and the libretto is spot-on. It makes a great way to escape and enjoy a rainy weekend afternoon. Go see it if you have the chance.

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Singing Mozart & Britten at the Barbican

As a member of the Crouch End Festival Chorus, I was kept busy for the past six weeks as we spent one to two nights a week preparing to sing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Mass in C minor, K. 427/417a (1782-83) and Benjamin Britten’s Saint Nicolas, Op.42 cantata (1948). With a shorter rehearsal period than usual, we all had to put in extra effort, but I’d say it paid off in our concert at the Barbican on 18 October.

Photo credit: FZ

Photo credit: FZ

It helped that we had the London Mozart Players as our orchestra for the evening. They are an incredible group of professional musicians and it was an honor to sing with them. The soloist lineup was also impressive, the highlight being Grace Davidson, who sang the Monteverdi Vespers with us in February. Fellow soprano K referred to her as, “she who cannot be faulted” — yes, she is that good. Julia Doyle, Ed Lyon, and Dominic Sedgwick blended well with Davidson in the Mozart mass, and Ed Lyon performed a dramatic Nicolas in Britten’s cantata.

But on to the music. I would venture to say that Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor is one of the few well-known pieces that Mozart wrote in a minor mode, and it carries every bit of weight and drama you might know from works such as his Symphony no. 25 in G minor, Symphony no. 40 in G minorRequiem Mass, and parts of his opera Don Giovanni. Our director, DT, believes the Mass in C minor is even better than the Requiem — the latter, of course, is more often performed and enshrouded in the tragedy of Mozart’s early death before finishing it. But the Great Mass is glorious (and also happens to be unfinished). I love singing Mozart because it suits my voice well; the soprano parts sit comfortably in my upper register and I’m able to bring out my operatic vibrato sound, cultivated back in my Oberlin Musical Union days thanks to exposure to many talented voice majors. My favorite movements to sing in the Mass in C minor were the opening “Kyrie” and the powerful “Qui tollis”:

Along with the heavy and dramatic bits, Mozart’s mass has plenty of tricky runs and a couple of fugues that hearken back to Bach, Handel, and Monteverdi. Much of the solo writing foreshadows Mozart’s late operas. I just love it.

Photo credit: FZ

Photo credit: FZ

In contrast to the Mass in C minor, Britten’s cantata Saint Nicolas can only be described as “quirky.” Britten wrote it in 1948 for amateur singers and musicians (plus a solo tenor part for his partner Peter Pears to sing), so it has choral parts for boy sopranos, and small choruses for childlike soprano and alto voices. We had three school choirs join us for those parts, which created a lovely balance of adult and children’s voices. Based on the life of Nicolas, who became the patron saint of sailors and children as well as Santa Claus, Britten’s cantata tells a compelling story of Nicolas’ life, works, and piety before he becomes a saint. The cantata has drama, journeys to Palestine, a storm at sea, and even pickled boys. Britten has also embedded two hymns in the work, which DT rehearsed with the audience so they could join in at the right times.

An Oberlin friend, who is an accomplished musician himself, came to the concert and said that the chorus was “really quite impressive,” especially for an amateur group. Thanks, S! I think the concert went really well and it was incredible to sing with the London Mozart Players. Some audience members complained that the Mozart Mass in C minor was “too much of a sop-fest,” but I didn’t mind a bit. Britten’s cantata was a nice contrast to the mass and highlighted our chorus’ ability to make musical connections with school choirs as well as professional musicians.

Next up: Bach’s Mass in B minor at the Barbican in January. Get your tickets now!

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Summer Singing: An “All-Night Vigil”

This month I participated in wrapping up the Crouch End Festival Chorus concert season with two performances of Rachmaninov’s Vespers, Op. 37, also known as the All-Night Vigil (or Всенощное бдение, for those of you versed in Russian).

Composed in 1915, Rachmaninov’s Vespers is a monumental work: 15 movements of Russian Orthodox texts set a cappella with lots of lush, thick harmonies. As our director DT pointed out, recordings of the piece can last anywhere from 50 to 75 minutes, depending on who is conducting. DT opted for us to sing a speedier rendition, clocking in at 50-53 minutes.

Interestingly, Rachmaninov kept the texts in an older form of Russian, which was more phonetic than modern Russian. For example, in today’s Russian the letter о would be pronounced as а after some consonants. In the Vespers text, the о‘s remain о‘s. (Side note: in our first rehearsal of the Vespers, my brain got quite confused because I could read both the Cyrillic and transliterated texts so didn’t know where to look. I opted to cross out the English transliteration and read the Cyrillic instead. I had to put in some pronunciation reminders for myself, though, since even the older Russian is less phonetic than Ukrainian. It was fun to brush off my Cyrillic-reading skills.)

Language digression aside, the Vespers are much harder to sing than they sound. Lots of hairpin swells, dynamic changes, and sopranos having to sing high and ppp — not to mention the Russian. All those elements together meant I didn’t enjoy singing the piece quite as much as I thought I would, but it was certainly a good challenge and I did like singing in Russian. Have a listen while you’re reading the rest of this post:

We bookended the Vespers with four short a cappella works: Grieg’s Ave Maris Stella, de Victoria’s O quam gloriosum, Gabrieli’s Jubilate deo, and Lotti’s Crucifixus a 8 (total musical orgasm — just have a listen below — also that guy is impressive).

We performed this musical program twice: first at Southwark Cathedral in London (where we sang summer concert #1 last year) and then at St. John’s College Chapel in Cambridge. Southwark has great acoustics, but the concert there was tough: it was a Friday evening, so everyone was tired from the workweek; the cathedral was way too warm; there were a lot of us positioned close together but facing out (naturally), which made it hard to hear the other parts.

The concert in St. John’s Chapel was completely different: it’s smaller than Southwark and has incredible acoustics — probably the best I’ve ever experienced as a singer. We performed in a horseshoe shape, which made it easier to hear the other parts. It was also much cooler. There’s a benefit to performing the same program twice (and the second time on a Saturday) — we were all more rested and relaxed, and it was inspiring to sing in such a beautiful and resonant space.

The St. John’s audience was very appreciative and the Rachmaninov harmonies sounded glorious. F said it was his second favorite concert of ours, after February’s Monteverdi Vespers. I’m glad to have finished the concert season on a high note (ha!). Stay tuned for the new concert season…

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At the Theatre: English National Opera’s “The Pirates of Penzance”

I grew up attending the occasional community theatre production of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, the most memorable being HMS Pinafore, The Mikado, and The Pirates of Penzance. That’s partly why discount TimeOut London tickets to the English National Opera (ENO) production of The Pirates of Penzance caught my eye. Even better, the dates coincided with my parents’ visit to London last week. My parents always enjoy a bit of theatre and music — after all, they’re the ones who dragged me to those community productions as a kid — so I snapped up some Saturday matinee tickets for Pirates. As if I needed further incentive, I also hadn’t yet been to see the ENO. Here’s my mini review of the production.

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The ENO’s The Pirates of Penzance was hilarious and good fun all around. We all liked the colorful, minimalist stage set: bold orange, green, and blue sliding half-circles, stairs, and a half moon “ship” worked effectively and kept the focus on the acting and singing.

Vocally, Claudia Boyle’s Mabel stole the show. Her effortless runs, pure tone, and range were particularly evident in the first half’s “Poor Wandering One.” The female chorus — playing the Major General’s daughters — produced a lovely one-voiced sound, and the male choruses (the pirates and the constables) were also strong.

While the singing was solid all around, unfortunately Robert Murray’s acting as Frederic was flat and couldn’t match Boyle’s comic timing as Mabel. Luckily, Jonathan Lemalu’s performance as the Sergeant of Police was spot-on and complete with a great Cornish accent; the character worked well alongside Rebecca de Pont Davies’ comically tragic Ruth.

David Parry led the orchestra well through the light and hummable score, although occasionally it took a few measures for the orchestra and singer(s) to settle into the same tempo.

I hadn’t seen a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta since before my days of musicology courses in college. With a much greater knowledge of 19th-century opera, I really appreciated the parodies of Romantic opera that Gilbert and Sullivan slip into Pirates: the overdone melodrama, impossible-to-fulfill promises, and an improbably (but pleasingly) happy ending.

In short, The Pirates of Penzance makes for a hilarious, rollicking afternoon and I’d highly recommend that you see the ENO’s production before its run ends.

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“Meyer, where are you?” — Jazz Brings Jewish Mobster to Life

Last week as part of the Crouch End Festival Chorus (CEFC), I had the privilege of singing in the world premiere of an ambitious and challenging new jazz work by composer Roland Perrin at London’s Southbank Centre. The piece, titled Lansky, the Mob’s Money Man, is billed as a “choral jazz drama” and depicts the life of Meyer Lansky, a Jew whose family emigrated to New York in the first decade of the 20th century to escape pogroms in their native eastern Europe. Lansky ended up rising high in the Jewish mafia’s ranks to become known as the “Mob’s Accountant.”

Photo courtesy of Paul Robinson

Performing in Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall. Photo courtesy of Paul Robinson.

Perrin’s jazz drama tells Lansky’s story, from his life as a boy in a village to his arrival on New York’s Lower East Side to his travels in Cuba and his retirement in Florida. The chorus plays different roles throughout the 19-scene piece, while soloist Rachel Sutton sings as a number of the women in Lansky’s life and narrator Allan Corduner punctuates the music with brief accounts of Lansky’s doings (all in a great 1950s New York / film noir accent). The fantastic Blue Planet Orchestra, Perrin’s own jazz band in which he plays piano and accordion, helps hold it all together.

Let me tell you: this piece was hard. Perhaps one of the hardest things I’ve sung, in large part because I’d never really sung jazz. It took me at least a month of rehearsals to realize that the seemingly random notes we had to learn actually did fit together with the accompaniment and other voice parts into a comprehensive whole. Once I figured this out, Lansky turned out to be a lot of fun to sing.

I loved all the different styles that Perrin incorporated into his piece: ragtime, swing, blues, Klezmer (that was the most fun to sing), Afro-Cuban, crazy-sounding free jazz-like stuff — you name it and it was probably in there.

The performance itself went well, and I felt the most relaxed that I ever have in a chorus concert. Many audience members gave rave reviews, and luckily no one seemed to notice those few missteps in scenes 15 and 16… I really hope that Lansky gets performed again and perhaps even recorded one day — it is certainly a testament to Perrin’s versatility and it tells a fascinating story in a vibrant way.

My view from the first row of the soprano section

My view from the first row of the soprano section

Click here to see more photos from the concert, and watch the trailer below to get a sense of what the piece is like:

Up next for CEFC? Rachmaninov’s Vespers (glorious!) at Southwark Cathedral and St. John’s College Chapel, Cambridge in July.

What’s Been Cooking?

Hello, everyone — long time no blog. Apologies for my blogosphere absence; I have been lacking in motivation recently, still a bit burnt out from last fall’s DELTA course (I passed all three modules on the first go, thank goodness). I’ve also been wondering what the point is of re-blogging recipes that I haven’t changed all that much. And, if I do continue blogging, in which direction I’d like this blog to go. More musical? More sporty? More education-related? I’d love to hear what you enjoy most about my blog, so please leave a comment and let me know what you’d like to see more of.

Now to today’s topic: what’s been cooking in my kitchen? I’ve tried some great new recipes lately (okay, in the past six months…) but haven’t modified them much, so I’ll just link to the original recipes below. Here are some highlights:

parmesan, kale, & white bean soup + tortellini

parmesan, kale, & white bean soup + tortellini

  • Parmesan Broth with Kale, White Beans, & Tortellini (smitten kitchen). F and I collected parmesan rinds in the freezer for an entire year before we had enough to make Deb’s soup. It was worth the wait — umami-salty, warming, and satisfying. We added tortellini for some extra heft.
  • Miso-Coconut Chicken Soup (i am a food blog). I made this one way back in September. Unfortunately, F was sick that weekend so I ended up eating most of it myself, but I loved it and look forward to making it again at a time when we can both enjoy it. Creamy but not too rich, great over rice.
  • The Best Chocolate Chip Cookies (i am a food blog). These. are. SO. good. Crispy edges, moist and chewy insides. F dubbed them “maybe the best cookies I’ve ever had.” Now that’s saying something! Use whatever chocolate you want (I used extra dark) and don’t leave off the sprinkling of sea salt on top. I passed this recipe onto J, whose family devoured them in no time.
lemon poppy seed muffins

lemon poppy seed muffins

  • Double Lemon Poppy Seed Muffins (Cookie +  Kate). In my mind, it is hard to beat the combination of lemon and poppy seeds. Let’s be honest, lemonanything is pretty great. I had combined lemon and poppy seeds before in pancakes but not in muffins. This recipe presented great flavors, although the muffins were a teensy bit dry for me.
  • Lemon Cornmeal Cake with Lemon Glaze (Bon Appétit). F was away last weekend and I wanted to surprise him with something tasty upon his return home. He loves lemon cake, so I tried out this one, which had been sitting in my “make this” bookmarks for ages. It was fantastic, remaining moist for a couple of days. I took a bunch to work and four of us devoured it pretty quickly. F’s only comment was that it could be even more lemony, so next time I’ll use the zest of 2 lemons in the cake batter.

Of course, those aren’t the only things I’ve been cooking. We’ve done many of the usual dinner rotations, like pizza and roasted root vegetables and various stir fries. I reprised chocolate beet cake for dinner with friends last month — this time adding a tasty pink cream cheese frosting — and whipped up an apple dutch baby pancake for a Sunday brunch.

What have you been cooking up recently?

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