It’s not Christmas without a Messiah

Messiah-titlepageI had two major concerts to finish off the year. The first, with A Capella Singers, was Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. This was my first choral performance of it, having only previously sung the ‘Echo’ aria (Ah, My Saviour). The solos were shared around the choir members, and I was given the soprano/bass duet ‘Lord Thy Mercy’, the Angel’s recitative ‘Be Not Afraid’ and the echo in the Echo aria.

We sang it in English which, while easy on the audience and those choir members who have difficulty learning anything in another language, means that the vowels and consonants do not always fall comfortably. A perfect example was in the duet where I had to sing the word Free sustained on an F whereas in the German it would have been the much more open Frei. Breathing for long phrases was sometimes more challenging due to the words (and meaning) falling differently. However it is all a good learning experience. And of course it’s Bach, where you can’t relax your concentration for a second or you slip on a musical banana skin. I was reasonably happy with my performance after putting in a fair bit of effort. I find recitatives difficult and often feel I spend twice as long on a 20 bar recit as I do for a 5 page aria!

The second concert was one I had been looking forward to for ages as I hadn’t sung a Messiah for quite a few years. This was quite a special one. Organised by Dr White (conductor of our St Mary’s choir) the soloists were bass Jonathan Lemalu, soprano Rebecca Ryan, mezzo Sandra Martinovic (also Jonathan’s wife) and local tenor Clive Thompson. The choir was handpicked from local choirs and combined with members of Dunedin’s Cantores choir. The chamber orchestra consisted of members of Southern Symphonia led by Sydney Manowitz and Gregory Peyroux and Raymond shared the conducting duties.

The Basilica was packed, the soloists were great and the ringing of the third-last Amen around the dome was electrifying. We had two moments in the choruses where we were a whisker from coming unstuck  (no, not in All We Like Sheep Have Gone Astray) but we pulled it together. My teacher who was the soprano soloist deserves extra kudos for performing magnificently 7 weeks after giving birth – by caeserean no less.

So now there is a lull (I’m still on holiday, neener neener). Lessons aren’t resuming till March. Choir rehearsals don’t start till the beginning of February. This year I plan to start working on repertoire for my LTCL (Recital). I’m also getting to sing for the first time in concert the Flower Duet from Lakme. I have decided that my New Year’s Resolutions – yes, yes I know I’m 10 days late – are musical ones:

1. Work on my coloratura – specifically the ‘runny bits’. I seem to veer between lead-footed thumping and laughing hyena.

2. Learn to place the sound forward while maintaining that yawny space thing (apologies for being overly technical).

Only 2 resolutions but I’m thinking they might be enough!

Getting stuck in

Yes, I am still alive. And singing. There was a bit of a lull once Christmas arrived and the country went on summer holiday, and I allowed myself to be lazy and not practice properly. But now we are back into it, indeed we are. I’m talking like the Queen. I shall revert to first-person so you don’t have to curtsy while you read this.

I already have several performances lined up for the first half of the year. First up is a Concert South concert on 17 March. You may remember the Concert South concert I was preparing for at about the same time last year and my dalliances with metaphorical rose bushes. There’s still a thorn or two lurking to catch me this time too, but my bicycle doesn’t wobble as much when it spies a top C or in this case a top C#. I have been asked to sing Les Filles de Cadix as well as be part of a trio for two songs – Lift Thine Eyes from Elijah and Handel’s Where E’er You Walk. I’m doing the middle part for the Handel and I’m having to concentrate mightily to fight off the tendency to sing the tune. I also get to repeat Les Filles at Womens Club about 10 days later.

Hard on the heels of that is Easter and a full programme of music starting with a service on Holy Thursday evening and finishing with Easter Vespers on the Sunday afternoon. I’ve got some nice solos amongst all of that including the Mozart Ora Pro Nobis.

On April 28th as part of the Southland Arts Festival, A Capella Singers is doing a programme of Rutter music with the main work being his Magnificat. It’s a very approachable work but, dare I say it, could do with a little editing here and there. Is that heresy? If this blog post stops abruptly at some later point, with little whisps of black smoke curling up from the last few words, you can assume I have been smote. Or should that be smitten? Either way it ended badly. 

But despite this potentially terrible fate awaiting me, I shall bravely soldier on. The work calls for a soprano soloist and our director decided that she would divvy up the three solo bits amongst choir members. We were asked to audition, preparing one of the three solos. I worked on the Misericordiae, which is the hardest of the 3 (for me anyway) but, fortunately as it turns out, also had a look over Esurientes. I turned up for my audition and the director said “Right let’s do Esurientes!” I got through alright – it’s a piece that lies nicely and suits my voice. The director apparently agrees with me as that’s what I have been given.

And finally in June there are two concerts with a mixture of choir work and solos. So plenty to work on, and I’m right into singing lessons again picking up new repertoire. I’m doing a gorgeously lush-almost-to-the-point-of-corny French song Les Chemins de l’Amour by Poulenc. Listen to this version by Veronique Gens. This is very different from the Poulenc I know! 


I’m also learning one of Richard Rodney Bennett’s ‘Dream Songs’ – The Song of Shadows, a lovely atmospheric piece.

I had a session with the voice therapist yesterday, which prompted some interesting thoughts as I drove home. But that’s for another blog post.

Happy

Yes, I’m happy!  *does Happy Dance* Sure, there were bits I didn’t sing as well I would have liked in a perfect world, but I’m not going to beat myself up over them. (Maybe I’ll do that when I hear the recording). But hey, I’ve ticked something off my bucket list, so that’s a bonus, right? 


It was a big day in more ways than one. Because we had musicians coming from Dunedin, the rehearsal was held the same day. Certainly not ideal, but when you’re on a strict budget these things sometimes have to be done. The rehearsal went pretty well, and I tried not to sing to full out to help preserve my voice for the performance. 

‘Belinda’ sang her first aria then we were into the first chorus, the short ‘Banish Sorrow’. By two-thirds of the way through my heart was beating so hard and fast I thought it was going to leap out of my chest. I stepped out and tried to look as if I were ‘press’d with torment’. It is entirely possible that my expression could have been interpreted as ‘deer caught in the headlights’. The first ‘Ah’ was a bit short due to me not having prepared for it properly but I had myself sorted by the second one and the aria went well – I even got through the longest ‘I languish’ phrase with breath support intact. 


I enjoyed the latter part of the performance best, as I was able to interact more with other characters, in particular Aeneas in the scene where Dido compares him to ‘a deceitful crocodile’! And finally the Lament. About half way through I thought ‘Let go! Don’t think, just be Dido!’  and so I just let myself get swept up in the emotion and it felt amazing. Someone afterwards told me that I really conveyed Dido’s despair, which made me feel pretty good! I stood there and let the choir’s ‘With Drooping Wings’ wash over me and wished I could do it all over again. Although ideally I would want it to be a full opera performance. 


Now my performance calendar has a bit of blank space, so I can sit down and work on some things that I haven’t had time to – Tornami a vagegghiar from Handel’s Alcina for one. Here’s La Stupenda in a 1960 rendition….


Let There Be Joy!

Last night I was part of a world premiere! In fact, I can now claim to be the first person to sing a particular song in 450 years. I am a member of A Capella Singers and A Capella Concertino and last night we gave a performance entitled ‘Let There Be Joy’, music with Scottish connections for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. These are songs and carols researched, translated and edited by Dr Raymond White and recently published in a book also entitled Let There Be Joy. 

In the mid-1500’s John Knox and his cohorts of the Reformation disapproved of art, music, dance – in fact as Raymond puts it in the preface of his book, ‘they were the cultural terrorists of their time’. Apparently Knox had the idea that ‘Satan had corrupted the noble gift of singing cheifly through the Papists, by the use of the Latin language that does not edify’.

Surely the man must have been tone deaf! How can you listen to Palestrina or Gabrieli and not want to be a better person?? 

It was a good test for me of how well my focus on breathing was working, as it was a big sing – 13 items in all, including 3 of them with the small Concertino group and one a solo. (Not to mention I was making my debut as a conductor with two of the songs). In rehearsal the solo had gone well, and felt nice and free. Stepping up to sing it at the performance my mouth was as dry as the Sahara and I was terrified that the lower notes at the end of the first and third lines (only middle C#, so yes I can hear the mezzos and altos amongst you scoffing – stop it Sarah!) but a leap downwards to get there and I wanted to stay in head voice rather than grind them out in my chest. So I just focused on taking the most relaxed and full breath I could and let that do the work for me. And it did. And more good breathing and the echo-y acoustic of St Mary’s Basilica allowed the higher notes to float out easily. For once I was actually reasonably happy straight off.  Just the chamber organ and cello as accompaniment. 

The music as a whole was joyful and uplifting and I absolutely adored ‘Illuminare Jerusalem’. So many of the songs are dance-like there were times I wished we could have moved accordingly, but of course choirs in church don’t do that, that would be naughty. And the shade of John Knox would come and clip as all around our collective ears and consign us to the fires of Hell. 

And of course what would a concert of carols be without a good hearty rendition of The Twelve Days of Christmas, Adeste Fidele – ooh! more of that wicked Latin – and Silent Night.

My next gig is as part of the entertainment at the local Rotary club Christmas party. Apparently I will be on straight after the main meal so hopefully they won’t have all nodded off by then. I’m going to lull them into a false sense of security with a Quilter art song and then knock ’em dead with ‘A Word on My Ear’.

Beautiful Baroque

I think we all have a era of classical music that appeals to us the most. One where, if we were stuck on that Desert Island of radio fame, and were told that we could choose only music from one era, this would be what would choose.

For me? Baroque all the way baby. Bach, Handel, Vivaldi – quite apart from the quality  of those three, there’s thousands of MP3 files right there without even thinking about other Baroque composers. Right from a young age I gravitated to the Baroque composers – both in instrumental music and in vocal. What would Christmas be without Messiah? (And my consequent discovery of Emma Kirby. Sshhhh, don’t tell my singing teacher).

Of all the works I studied at High School, what do I remember – and can pretty much sing all arias and choruses of without a score still? Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Which incidentally will stand me in good stead when the choir I belong to, A Capella Singers  performs it next year.It wasn’t until recently that I discovered the delights of the Arie Antiche, mostly thanks to the CD of the same name by Cecilia Bartoli. Love her or hate her, she certainly immerses herself in the arias. Deceptively simple they are. (Sorry, channeling Yoda there). My favourite? It changes from week to week. Right now it’s Vivaldi’s ‘Sposa son disprezzata’ If I could do that last trill as softly as she does at that pitch I would be a very happy soprano.