The year that was. Because I forgot to write about it in the year that was.

Hildegard_von_BingenIt’s been a while – yes alright 10 months! – since my last post. I’m not even going to apologise. Really, what could I say – the dog ate my blog posts?

I’ve done lots of singing, mostly of the church/sacred variety, both in groups and solo. I won’t bore you with all the details but will pick out a selection of highlights.

10th Century plainchant

The most interesting item I sang was O Ignis Spiritus by Hildegard von Bingen, a very interesting and gifted 10th century abbess. I was initially asked to sing all 10 stanzas myself, but after having a look at it, I realised it was going to be no easy task to learn (I already had a good load for that concert) and so the concert organiser suggested we rope in another of the soloists to share the burden. Some time on from that, I realised that that if we added in yet another voice we could do 3 stanzas each and then sing the final one together. That way there would be different voice timbres to create a little variety. And y’all thought I was just being lazy didn’t you? Shame on you!

Some Caccini. Or was it?

The solo item I sang in that same concert was the ‘Caccini’ Ave Maria. I wrote Caccini in the written equivalent of those air quotes you make with your fingers – think Dr Evil from the Austin Powers movies and his “sophisticated heat beam which we called a “laser.” “.. ..and where was I?……oh right, so it really wasn’t written by Caccini at all, as anyone with any knowledge of his music could have instantly told you on hearing it, but was erroneously attributed to him. Which is rather ironic given his history. In essence it’s quite trite, but it’s full of those typical Baroque falling fifths which makes the audience feel a bit soppy when they hear them without knowing why (unless they know about these things in which case they will roll their eyes while feeling soppy). It’s an easy sing with a nice soaring bit that makes you sound amazing. Which is rather useful if, like me, you aren’t actually amazing.

Headlights and Eyebrows

Two concerts in December gave me something of a breakthrough in terms of sound production. Many years ago I was singing in a choir where the conductor talked about needing to ‘turn on your headlights’ meaning keep your cheekbones up. And you thought it meant something else entirely didn’t you, you naughty people! Oh…that was just me? Ahem. Moving right along. I had forgotten about headlights until a singing friend – Hi Michelle! – reminded me about it, and also added in keeping the eyebrows up, the two together creating changes in the palate and facial musculature which allow the sound to brighten as well come out more easily in higher registers. In the first concert I had to sing the Benedictus duet in Saint-Saens’ Christmas Oratorio which near the end has a lovely soaring line up to a top C. I nailed it, headlights beaming. The second concert I sang Handel’s ‘Let the Bright Seraphim’ and my fellow singers said they could hear an immediate brightening in the sound when I turned my headlights on.

The year ended with another rendition of the New Zealand National anthem at a rodeo, this time in Te Anau. Unlike a number of the cowboys, I didn’t require the ministrations of the St John’s medics afterwards.

Right you can have a bit of breather now while I start on the next post – stop the snickering, it won’t take a year this time!

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!

Something old, something new

Now is the time of the singing year where, with competitions over, I get to choose a whole bunch of new music to learn and expand my (pathetically small) repertoire and Christmas music starts looming in the shape of end of year concerts and solos gigs. So a mixture of new (to me) and old.

Firstly the new music. My teacher hauls out all sorts of new and delicious pieces from her vast collection and tantalises me by singing snippets of this lieder and that aria which she thinks will suit my voice. Frankly I just want to sit and listen to her sing the whole time but she’s clever enough just to sing enough to let me get a feel for a piece and decide if it’s ‘me’ or not and then she moves on to the next one. I know there are teachers who just say “Here’s what you are to learn” and off you go, but I guess I’m a big enough girl to say no and my teacher is relaxed enough to not mind when I say no. Let’s face it, it’s not like I’m preparing myself for a singing career where I would have to sing things I might not like in order to advance myself. 

So currently I’m beavering away at: the lower part of the Flower Duet* from Lakme (will learn the upper part later), Mendelssohn’s ‘Neue Liebe’, and ‘Kommt ein schlanker Bursch gegangen’ from Der Freischutz. 

As we work away at extending my register upwards, it’s a pleasant feeling to be able to look at piece of music with a C6 or three and not feel an immediate rise in heart rate. If I can become as comfortable with D6 as with the C6 then it will open up a whole lot of new repertoire for me. It’s only 2 semitones difference but feels like 2 vertical miles some days.

Christmas music comes in the form of choir music with A Capella Singers and the usual church music including 2 services on Christmas Eve. The ACS concert is a combined one with a brass band. This is a combination for which the singers will have to find their collective squillo!! Then there is a programme of Christmas music at Womens Club which I am in charge of, which is allowing me to be self-indulgent and allot myself Adam’s O Holy Night, which I can then repeat at a dinner gig a week later.

*Do those of you of a similar vintage to me always think of the old British Airways ads when you hear/sing this??

Seriously entertained

Last night I sang at a Christmas dinner function. I was scheduled in between the main and dessert. Perfect timing really – the guests have had enough wine to be slightly merry and expansively forgiving of any minor slip-ups, but not so much food they’re going to sleep and you have to studiously ignore the man at the second table with his head resting on his side plate, snoring in the key of E.

Actually it wasn’t really me they wanted. Originally the organiser rang my teacher Rebecca Ryan, but she was unable to do it, so she recommended me. With any luck no-one told the dinner guests that they were getting second choice and a very distant second at that. Like three miles astern. When I was discussing the details with the organiser he said that they wanted a ‘serious’ singer. This tends to be a non-singer’s term for ‘person who sings very loudly, with a lot of vibrato and in a foreign language and therefore must be rather good’.
It’s always interesting choosing repertoire for performances. You may have just put the finishing touches on a technically-challenging 20th century aria with more accidentals and time signature changes than should ever be crammed into 5 pages, but it’s most likely going to fall flat with a bunch of Rotarian’s at their Christmas party looking to be entertained. Oh they’ll politely applaud and look impressed but will they enjoy it? Probably not. So serious, but enjoyable was required.
I started with the short but very sweet Quilter song ‘Music, when soft voices die’, just to give them a dose of ‘serious’. This seemed to be appreciated i.e. thank heavens you’re singing in English and it’s short and tuneful. And then I combined ‘serious’ with ‘entertainment’ and let rip with Flanders and Swanns’ ‘A Word on my Ear’.  If you’ll forgive my lack of modesty, I had them at ‘Hello, I am the great operatic diva Dame Edith Huntington-Smythe-Jones-Smythe’ and it was all smiles, laughs and applause from there. A girl could really get used to that. I’ve sung this several times now and I’m at the point where I can relax and really get into the acting side of things and not sing it through strictly adhering to the time/bar lines/rests etc. Of course the accompanist is very much an intergral part of not just the music, but the acting in this one and mine was with me every step of the way.
So that’s the last pre-Christmas performance and with three weeks holiday starting from Friday next week, plenty of time to start getting my teeth into new repertoire. ‘King David’ here I come….

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’.