Category Archives: music

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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Go for Baroque: Singing Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610

I’ve come to realize that chorus concert days are sort of like track meets: it takes a lot of endurance, focus, and conservation of energy to get through a long afternoon and evening. We have a 3-hour afternoon rehearsal, an hour-ish break, and then the concert. Like track meets, it’s tricky to figure out how and when to eat on concert days. I usually have to leave the house around lunchtime, travel an hour or so to the venue, sing for a couple hours, take a short break, sing more, take a longer break, and perform. I’ve finally discovered that frequent ingestion of high-energy food is the key to keeping me going on concert day: nibbles of oatcakes and cheese, a peanut butter and banana sandwich, apples, even sports drink.

Anyway, all that goes on in the background of rehearsing and performing incredible music in gorgeous venues, as I was fortunate enough to do as part of the Crouch End Festival Chorus this weekend. We performed Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610, accompanied by the period-instrument English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble and fronted by a fantastic group of soloists. The venue was also beautiful: 300-year-old St. John’s Smith Square, a large church just south of Westminster Abbey that is now used primarily as a music venue (not surprisingly, as the acoustics are wonderful).

Gosh, where to begin? Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 is a remarkable 90-minute piece, full of florid early Baroque runs, trills, and invitations for improvisation for the soloists and musicians. The chorus is split into two choirs for most of the piece, as the various movements demand up to 10 different vocal parts. Traditionally, the choir would have been all men and boys, but in today’s modern age the top 3-4 parts are sung by women. It’s also really meant for a chamber choir, with just a few voices per part, but our director (DT) decided to go for the challenge of getting 140 of us to sound like a small choir. Here’s the masterful John Eliot Gardiner leading his professional Monteverdi Choir in a performance of the Vespers:

Intonation and blend are key in a piece like this, which requires a pure sound and Italianate Latin vowels. Diction is tough to coordinate and execute well — especially Latin, as these Brits speak with so many diphthongs! — with so many singers. And the standards were high, as we were accompanied by the well-known English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble, who could probably play the Vespers in their sleep! (side note: cornetts are really cool and the theorbo was likened to a “Renaissance banjo” by DT.) Not to mention the incredible soloists, all clearly trained in the unique early Baroque style, which requires so much vocal control to sing all those 16th and 32nd notes. Highlights include the two sopranos singing “Pulchra es” (24:15 in the above video) and the tenor duet/trio with baritone, “Duo seraphim” (36:24, above).

Although I may be biased, I think we pulled it off. Even if not, it was certainly challenging and great fun to sing. Despite the Vespers being a religious piece, DT kept emphasizing that, in fact, Monteverdi’s music is incredibly sensual and erotic (ever seen/listened to his operas? I can still remember seeing Oberlin Opera Theatre perform Poppea back in 2008 and being struck by the sensuality of the 17th-century music). I completely agree. Part of what I enjoyed about singing the Vespers of 1610 is the variety of moods and styles in the piece: in some sections we had to sound like a children’s choir, while in others we broadened our sound to that of a symphonic choir. It was a real treat to sing this 400-year-old piece of music and start to get inside its complexities. Well done all!

Year in Review: 2014

Happy New Year! Frohes neues Jahr! З Новим Роком!

I can hardly believe it’s already 2015, can you? 2014 was quite a year, I hardly know how to sum it up. For brevity’s sake, let’s go with some good ol’ bullet points.

2014 by the numbers:

  • blog posts published: 92 or so
  • books read: too many to count — some for fun and lots for my MA course
  • miles run: 549 (quite a lot less than last year, due to hip/knee issues)
  • miles cycled: 2,028.65 (mostly commuting in London, but a decent amount of road cycling in the first half of the year)
  • courses completed: 2 (1 MA in English & 1 DELTA course)
  • countries been in: England, Portugal, Belgium, Spain, Germany, USA
  • weddings attended: 2

Looking back on my intentions for 2014, I more or less achieved most of them, although things like improving my German and staying in better touch with friends and family could always be worked on. My main intention for 2015 is to find a healthy balance between work, exercise, time with F, and my other hobbies like cooking. That comes with some sub-intentions, like building up my running mileage and speed without getting injured.

In some blog-related reflecting, here are two listicles of my top posts — via views and via my opinion — from 2014:

The 10 most popular posts in 2014 (your favorites?):

My 10 favorite posts/moments in 2014 (in no particular order):

Wishing you all a happy, healthy, and successful 2015

At the Royal Opera House: Puccini’s “La bohème”

For my birthday this year, F surprised me with tickets to see Puccini’s La bohème at the Royal Opera House in London. (He’s the best.) This July at the ROH, John Copley directs seven performances of his iconic production of La bohème — set in 19th-century Paris — that is 40 years old this year. The staging is quite magical, thanks in part to great sets designed by Julia Trevelyan Oman. There are a few different casts for this revival; we saw the first one, featuring Ermonela Jaho as Mimi and Charles Castronovo as Rodolfo.

Entering the Royal Opera House, located in one corner of London’s Covent Garden, feels like entering a different world. Not an elite one, as you may think, but an old-fashioned one where people mingle with drinks and time slows down for a little while. The theatre itself may have something to do with that: dating from the late 19th-century, it’s sea of red velvet and gold ornament, complete with candelabras around the edges that you can imagine once held real candles.

inside the Royal Opera House

inside the Royal Opera House

The opera itself was great. Having seen a couple of Puccini operas in the past (Turandot at the Met and Madame Butterfly at the Kyiv Opera in Ukraine), I knew what to expect in terms of continuous music and general tragedy. I was particularly looking forward to La bohème because the musical Rent — based on Puccini’s opera — is one of my favorites. The ROH did not disappoint. Cornelius Meister led the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House in a lush, Romantic rendition of the score and despite a few points when the orchestra overpowered the tenors, I hardly noticed the orchestra at all (which I think is how it should be in opera). Though the large ensemble scenes — particularly Act II — are somewhat hard to follow in La bohème, the arias are gorgeous.

In terms of the singing, Ermonela Jaho as Mimi stole the show. I’d never heard of her and was at first a little disappointed not to be seeing one of the bigger names (Anna Netrebko and Angela Gheorghiu will appear in the role for subsequent performances), but now I can confidently say that I didn’t miss the big names one bit. Jaho has lovely tone and an exquisite pianissimo on her high notes — her Si, mi chiamano Mimi gave me chills. She was believable as the shy seamstress and played the tragic heroine without melodrama. Castronovo (Rodolfo) had a lovely tenor and paired well with Jaho, though his swelling climaxes were often drowned out by the orchestra (not sure if that was because of where we were sitting or a genuine orchestra-voice balance issue). The other vocal standout was Jongmin Park as Colline, whose ‘overcoat aria’ in Act IV was beautiful and moving. Simona Mihai played a fine Musetta and the other supporting singers were strong.

Overall, I really enjoyed my first outing to the Royal Opera House (and who knows when the next one will be? Holy ticket prices!). Copley’s La bohème production is fantastic and magical, and the ROH delivers a great experience (though I do agree with the Guardian reviewer that it could do without the second interval). If you can get tickets, go.

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Birthday Wisdom 2014

Another year gone by…this one has certainly flown. My 26th year (yes, I turn 26 today but — as my dad has pointed out — it’s actually a celebration of living through my 26th year) has been a busy one and filled with new experiences and people.

the most recent picture of me (taken last week by Sarah)

the most recent picture of me (taken last week by Sarah)

Over the past year I’ve settled into my London life with F; having more “productive” things to do has helped. Gosh, how to begin without dissolving into lists? I’ll try to hit on the highlights and leave you with my family’s traditional Birthday Wisdom at the end.

The big event in my 26th year has been working on my MA in English here in London. It has been challenging to re-enter academia after three years out of formal education, but after the first term I started feeling more comfortable and have met and begun socializing with some great people from my program. It has also been great to work two part-time jobs in different areas of EFL/ESOL teaching/tutoring — I’ve built my own skills and have worked with some really inspiring people. That has led me to realize that — at least for the foreseeable future — I would rather teach English as a language (as opposed to literature). In the athletics arena, I’ve run twelve races over my 26th year. Half of those were cross-country, another fun new experience for me. All those races probably caused me to get injured, though, and I am slowly working my way back to peak running form while enjoying more swimming and cycling. I’ve also joined an incredible chorus and love having a musical outlet again.

All in all, it has been a busy and eventful year — I’ve been challenged mentally, physically, musically, and socially, and feel that I have grown in all of those areas while integrating further into my little corner of London and starting to feel like part of the Crouch End-area community. My Birthday Wisdom this year comes from the always-inspiring (and recently-deceased) Maya Angelou, who has said:

“You only are free when you realize you belong no place—you belong every place—no place at all.”

I wish you all another year of challenging yourself and belonging in all places.

Singing in Southwark Cathedral & Waltham Abbey

It has been a busy few months in the Crouch End Festival Chorus (CEFC) world. After singing big choral-orchestral works at the Barbican in March, we’ve been rehearsing hard for a completely different style of concert: 75 minutes of (mostly sacred) Renaissance-y a cappella music. This week we performed the same program (in a different order) twice, in London’s gorgeous Southwark Cathedral and in historical Waltham Abbey in Essex. On the program:

  • Three motets by Anton Bruckner (1824-1896): Locus isteOs justi, and Ave Maria. You may look at Bruckner’s dates — or be familiar with his symphonies — and ask, “Renaissance-y, really?” Oh yes. These three motets are unaccompanied, three- or four-part wonders of expressive harmony and modulation. I had been familiar with the motets from my “Music of the Romantic Era” musicology course at Oberlin (thanks, CMcG!) and always wanted to sing them. When our conductor, David, added them to the program partway through our rehearsal schedule, I was thrilled. If some of the modulations in Os justi don’t give you chills, I don’t know what will…
  • …except maybe the final cadence of Ralph Vaughan Williams‘ (1872-1958) Mass in G minor. Yes, another Romantic/modern-era composer writing a piece that sounds much older than it is, using Dorian and Mixolydian modes as well as plainsong-like passages in addition to “normal,” non-modal keys (thanks, program notes). This mass is written for two choirs and four soloists (which David turned into a semi-chorus), which means that at some points, 12 different parts are singing. It is a more challenging piece than it seems at first reading — lots of tricky rhythms and time signature shifts. And though it sounds older, there are moments of characteristic Vaughan Williams harmonic progressions that will draw you back into the 20th century.
  • Annunciation and Song for Athene by John Tavener (1944-2013). Written in the Orthodox tradition (Tavener converted in 1977), each piece uses a semi-chorus to great effect and each is heartbreakingly beautiful. Song for Athene is best-known for being performed and broadcast at Princess Diana’s funeral. Tavener wrote some remarkable music — David thinks he’ll become known as one of the great late 20th-century choral composers.
  • Thomas Tallis’ (c.1505-1585) 40-part Spem in aliumYes, 40 parts: eight choirs of five voices each. Though this would traditionally be sung with one person on each part — that’s how I’d seen Collegium Musicum sing it at Oberlin — CEFC is large enough that David put 2-5 people on each part. I sang in Choir 4 with three other sopranos on my part. This piece is incredible in its complexity and interwoven parts — even moreso because it dates from the 16th century. Give it a listen and let the glorious sounds wash over you. I am thrilled to have had the opportunity to sing it.
  • A world premiere of Salve Regina by Bernard Hughes (b. 1974), which was commissioned by CEFC for its 30th anniversary this year. Written in memory of a chorus member’s husband, this also requires two choirs and, like the rest of the program, it is beautiful and quite challenging. I think we pulled it off well and Bernard seemed pleased.
  • A strange arrangement of Paul Anka’s Buddy Holly song It Doesn’t Matter Anymore by Orlando Gough (b. 1953).

That’s the music — I haven’t even told you about the venues yet. Both venues were places where CEFC had never sung, so these were exciting opportunities for us.

inside Southwark Cathedral, post-concert

inside Southwark Cathedral, post-concert

We sang the first concert at Southwark Cathedral, which sits next to Borough Market near London Bridge. Apparently Southwark is the oldest cathedral building in London, and it is beautiful, with high vaulted ceilings that made for lovely acoustics with great reverberations. I had stepped into it a few times while visiting Borough Market but it was even more incredible to sing in it.

Southwark Cathedral

Southwark Cathedral

For the second concert, we traveled outside the M25 to Essex (is it still London? That’s up for debate) and historical Waltham Abbey. Someone told me that the Abbey’s foundation dates to the 11th century and the building dates to the 12th. It is best known around the UK as the place where King Harold II is (probably) buried, after being shot in the eye at the Battle of Hastings (or something). Less than half the size of Southwark, Waltham Abbey made for a more intimate concert setting — fitting for much of the music we were singing. Its acoustics weren’t as grand, but I think Spem sounded better in the smaller space.

IMG_20140621_160925

Waltham Abbey

Waltham Abbey

inside Waltham Abbey

inside Waltham Abbey

In terms of how the concerts were received, I leave you with an email David received from an audience member after the Tuesday performance:

We went to see CEFC at Southwark Cathedral two nights ago. Probably the best I’ve ever heard them. 
The acoustics of the cathedral were superb and their version of the Tallis masterpiece was sublime. 
I was wishing I could get to Waltham Abbey on Saturday, but alas other commitments.
Well done, all!

At the Globe: “Much Ado About Nothing”

As a celebration for finishing our ‘Authors’ exams, Sarah and I headed down to Shakespeare’s Globe for a Thursday afternoon performance of the Bard’s comedy, Much Ado About Nothing.

inside The Globe

inside The Globe

The performance was excellent. I hadn’t seen a Shakespeare play live since attending the Oregon Shakespeare Festival with my grandma back in 2008, and this lived up to all expectations. I appreciated seeing Shakespeare performed in a simple and straightforward manner — as it should be. There were minimal props, simple costumes, and a cast of eight with almost everyone doubling parts. Now to the play:

First of all, Much Ado About Nothing is hilarious. The older I get the better I understand the language and get the jokes; Shakespeare really was a genius. This performance of Much Ado was very well-acted. Stand-outs for me were Emma Pallant as Beatrice and Simon Bubb as Benedick — they made a great pair, and Pallant and Bubb’s banter was brilliant to watch, as Beatrice and Benedick carry the bulk of the wit in the play. I — along with the audience — also took particular pleasure in Chris Starkle’s performance of Dogberry, for which he exchanged his serious Don John face for an aviator cap and Scottish accent. I was also surprisingly touched by the scene of Hero’s return — and Claudio’s surprise at it — near the end.

The production pleasingly and effectively incorporates a lot of music, too: the entire cast takes part, on accordion, tambourine, guitar…and they sing! (the well-known Shakespeare song, “Sigh no more, ladies.”) The early banquet/”revels” scene was done exceptionally well, with the music swelling and subsiding as sets of characters break away to converse.

Overall it was a top-notch performance. If you have a chance to see a Shakespeare play at the Globe, I highly recommend that you do it!

(Play aside, it was thrilling to sit inside a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe, the theatre most associated with his works. As it rained on and off throughout the performance, Sarah and I were very glad to have splurged on proper seats.)

Have you seen a performance at the Globe? What did you think?

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Singing at the Barbican

After thinking about it since September, I finally plucked up the courage to visit and audition for the Crouch End Festival Chorus (CEFC) just over a month ago. Meeting people who sing in the chorus and hearing their positive reviews helped convince me to give it a try, and I’m particularly grateful to those who encouraged me to audition despite my reservations about Friday rehearsals and the general time commitment. Luckily, I passed the audition and was placed among the 1st Sopranos. CEFC is an amazing group of ~130 singers, led by the dedicated and passionate David Temple. Many chorus members are in the 23-33-year-old age range, which makes for a nice mix of energy, experience, and socializing. CEFC also appealed to me for the range of repertoire it sings: from Thomas Tallis to Bach to Mahler to premieres of new commissions. Not to mention they rehearse just up the road from where I live…hard to beat that in a city as big as London!

I had missed singing in a big chorus — aside from brief stints with the Sniatyn teachers’ choir in Ukraine and the UCLU Symphony Chorus last term, I hadn’t sung in a “real” chorus since my Oberlin Musical Union days (on which I still look back very fondly). CEFC has more than adequately filled the gap in my musical participation.

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My first concert with CEFC was singing at London’s Barbican — home to the London Symphony Orchestra, no big deal — along with the Forest Philharmonic. On the program(me):

  • The world premiere of a piece by contemporary composer Will Todd, “Rage Against the Dying of the Light,” with text based on the Dylan Thomas poem, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.”
  • Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor “Resurrection,” which I sang my senior year at Oberlin with Musical Union and the Oberlin Orchestra, in a memorable performance that left me with an adrenaline rush for an hour or two afterwards.

After getting over a burst of nerves and lightheadedness during the afternoon rehearsal, I felt calmer for the performance and remembered how amazing it is to finally perform pieces that have been meticulously rehearsed for weeks. The orchestra sounded great — the Todd piece, which many of the chorus members seemed either to love or hate, was greatly enhanced by the instrumentation that we had little sense of when rehearsing with piano accompaniment. The Mahler was thrilling to sing, as always — sitting through an hour of intense orchestral music to finally stand and sing the finale feels incredible.

Next up for CEFC, a total change of period and pace: sacred music by Tallis, Vaughan Williams, Tavener and others performed in Waltham Abbey and Southwark Cathedral in June. I’m already looking forward to it.

Concert Review: London Philharmonic Orchestra with David Zinman & Emanuel Ax

Sarah accompanied me to this London Philharmonic Orchestra concert, for which I again scored £4 student tickets. The concert, on 19 March, was conducted by David Zinman and featured Emanuel Ax on the piano. [N.B.: David Zinman conducted the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra early in his career — I grew up in the Rochester house he lived in!]

The LPO concert, broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, opened with one of Mozart’s late symphonies: No. 38 in D major, K. 504 (“Prague”). It’s called the “Prague” symphony because that’s where it was premiered in 1786. The three-movement symphony is a lovely piece — very “Mozartian” and pleasant to listen to, with glimpses of his late-style minor chords and introspection. As the concert opener, the symphony provided a great introduction to David Zinman’s conducting style: he is the subtlest conductor I have ever seen. A small, amiable-looking 77-year-old (!), Zinman conducts with gentle, non-distracting gestures — at one point during the Mozart, he completely stopped conducting, letting the orchestra carry themselves, until he took up the baton again for a cue. I loved watching him smile over to the first violins when cueing them. Such a kind-looking little man — and it was clear from the next two pieces that he and Emanuel Ax have much affection for each other.

Ax made his first appearance for Richard Strauss’ Burleske in D minor for piano and orchestra. I didn’t know this piece before the concert, but the performance made me want to hear it again. It has typical Straussian harmonic layers and hints of lush Romanticism in many of the piano’s lively passages. Most impressive were Ax’s cadenza and his superb call-and-response dialogues with the timpani and first flute at various points throughout the piece. Ax is fun to watch — we were close enough to see his mouth moving along to the music; during rests he would turn to watch the orchestra, clearly reveling in the wonderful music they were all making.

David Zinman and Emanuel Ax with the London Philharmonic Orchestra (photo credit: Sarah)

David Zinman and Emanuel Ax with the London Philharmonic Orchestra (photo credit: Sarah)

After the interval, Ax returned to the piano for a piece written some 150 years before the Strauss: Bach’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, BWV 1052 — one of the major precursors to the modern piano concerto, according to the program notes. Now I love Bach, and this piece was fun as always, but I found the balance to be slightly off — the grand piano, played with what I thought was a bit too much pedal for Bach, often overpowered the small string orchestra. Maybe that’s just because of where we were sitting — in the center of the fifth row — too close, in retrospect. Ax’s technical skill certainly cannot be doubted, and he plays with wonderful feeling.

The final piece brought us back to the late 19th century: Richard Strauss’ tone poem, Tod und Verklärung (“Death and Transfiguration”), Op. 24, which was premiered at the same concert as the Burleske we heard in the concert’s first half. I was looking forward to this piece, because I learned when we studied Tristan und Isolde in one of my MA classes that Strauss had in mind the (in)famous “Tristan Chord” from Wagner’s music drama when he was composing Tod und Verklärung. I did recognize glimmers of Wagnerian harmony throughout the piece, which is a vast, sweeping tone poem worth listening to if only for the haunting opening and breathtaking ending, which imparts a feeling of suspension with a bit of longing — the “transfiguration” or “transcendence” of the title, perhaps. Here’s a recording of Zinman conducting the piece with his “home” orchestra, the Tonhalle Orchestra Zürich:

Throughout the concert Zinman — as subtle as ever — drew a magnificent, full sound from the LPO, particularly from the low strings, timpani, and horns. Zinman and Ax’s clear enjoyment of the music made it seem like a cozy evening with friends — and great music, of course.

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