Tag Archives: music

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!


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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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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“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.