Tag Archives: Southwark Cathedral

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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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.

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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!