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:

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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.

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 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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“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.