And there came all manner of flies!

Workshop Flyer

Workshop Flyer

Last weekend I went along to an open workshop on Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt with the Twickenham Choral Society. The flyer caught my attention in the local library: “Come and Sing” it proclaimed. Yes, I was up for singing. I was also up for hearing Laurence Cummings talk about Handel all day for only £20. Cut lunch and coffee included was a bonus. Still, I didn’t really know what to expect – Handel’s choruses aren’t exactly easy, and if everyone was going to be sight-reading it could be a bit of a disaster! Quite the opposite; the day was wonderful.

It turns out the open workshop is a yearly event, with about half the singers being permanent members of the choir, and the rest retired choristers, members of other choirs, and a couple of totally random blow-ins like myself and the friend I coaxed along. So most of the vocal force had already spent two months working on the choruses, and those of us truly sight-reading (I meant to bash through the score on IMSLP) were in relatively safe hands. The sound was big, rich and self-assured, with a sense of style and quite good balance.

That isn’t to say there weren’t stumbling points. The workshop aimed to cover a lot of ground: almost all the chorus material of part one, along with the final “Sing ye to the Lord” of part two. While reading alto 2 in choruses like the opening “And the children of Israel” isn’t too challenging, the runs and canon effects in “He led them through the deep” was rather hair-raising. I hadn’t sung in a proper choir for years, and was pleasantly surprised by how much my confidence and sight-reading improved over the course of a single day. By the mini-concert at 4pm, I was singing with full voice and a renewed sense of Baroque choral style. By 5pm I had no voice left!

A short extract from "He led them through the deep", with the alto 2 part highlighted.

A short extract from “He led them through the deep”, with the (somewhat tricky) alto 2 part highlighted.

The most invigorating part of the workshop was most certainly Laurence Cummings – his passion for Handel’s music was the driving force through the day. He didn’t dumb down the musical concepts at all; we were singing Handel and so should aim for the clarity and fineness that he expected of a professional choir. Of course, he made some concessions for accuracy, and forgave a whole manner of sins in the tricky interlocking passagework of the final chorus “Sing ye to the Lord.” Yet he also breathed incredible life into the score, particularly the text. He was constantly encouraging us to consider the meaning of the text, emphasising that in Baroque music repetition meant we needed to find a different interpretation of the same lines. Laurence also wanted us to embrace the grotesque and bizarre – lines like “and there came all manner of flies, and lice in all the quarters” needed to be crystal clear so our audience got the full picture. All fed into the day’s central concept: theatre of the mind created through music.

While Israel in Egypt still isn’t my favourite Handel oratorio, the day has certainly prompted a renewed interest in it. I’ve listened twice through the whole thing over the past week, and enjoyed the exhilaration of the music (and, let’s be honest, just how bizarre some of the text is). Most importantly, though, was the exhilaration of singing, of being part of a greater whole with the joint goal of creating wonderful music.

Thanks Twickenham Choral Society, it was great!

Of the recordings in Youtube, this version with the Leeds Festival Chorus, English Chamber Orchestra and Sir Charles Mackerras is certainly my favourite for sheer energy. “He gave them hailstones for rain” and 20:00 is particularly wonderful. The vocal score is on IMSLP if you want to follow along!

Give Me Excess of It – Richard Gill

My first attempt at a musically-related book review!

Richard Gill’s memoir Give Me Excess of It is a rather unusual blend of self-reflection and a survey of the Australian music and music education scenes of the last 50 years. The book is full to the brim with Gill’s personality, and his voice is clearly audible in every paragraph. Indeed, it sometimes feels that in his haste to get this done and then be onto another task, Gill dashed off a first draft and left it as was – no editing needed! Honest (sometimes brutally so) and witty but occasionally rather brusque, it was easy to imagine him reading the whole thing.

Gill’s memories of his early years are without a doubt the funniest. Though occasionally making himself out to be unbelievably stupid as a boy (hard to believe considering how far he has come since then) the various incidents are poignant and insightful. Gill seems almost pleased with himself at times, then shocked at others, but tells all with a wonderful clarity and attention to detail.

From the beginning of Gill’s tertiary years, there is a marked shift in narrative focus – it becomes almost exclusively focused on music. The young adult that we see making forays into the wider world is so single-mindedly focused on classical music that I would certainly forgive some of his students for being less than interested in what he had to offer. When, later, Gill meets his wife and gets married, it is mentioned almost in passing. His children seem to appear on the scene at around the age of two without any prior announcement, giving the impression that he was so focused on his various jobs that he almost failed to notice them himself. It is due to this, I feel, that the title of memoir is rightfully earned. It is a book about music, and anything else that makes its way into the pages is auxiliary.

Gill’s career – working with various tertiary music institutions, Victorian Opera, Opera Australia and the Sydney Symphony – is fascinating to read as a music student. His involvement and dedication has without a doubt given a huge amount to Australian opera and music education. For me, in particular, it was interesting to read about the history of Victorian Opera and how it has arrived at its organisational structure and method of presenting works. However, I wonder whether this would necessarily be the case for a broader reading audience, who might appreciate a few more amusing anecdotes and a little less name dropping.

The Orchestra’s Choice

‘Twas nine Monday morn, and in a big hall,
A symphony orchestra was not having a ball.

They rubbed their sore eyes, uttered whispers and moans,
“Why wake us so early?” came the disgruntled groans.

“Can’t you see that we’re artists? We must have our sleep!
Before ten o’clock, you really won’t get a peep.”

So they sat for a while, they whinged and they whined,
‘Til one of the admin to the podium climbed.

“I have an announcement,” she proclaimed with a stutter,
That failed to quash all the orchestra’s mutter.

“There will be a concert, a spectacle fine,
Everyone’s favourite piece, in just one week’s time.

It can be any piece, be it big, be it small.
We’ve got the conductor, we’ve booked out the hall!

But to pin down the piece, well, we thought on a ruse,
We could go for a change and let the orchestra choose.”

All jumped up at once, there was no hesitation,
For the room it was filled with a sort of elation.

The horns called for Mahler, the strings cried for Brahms,
“Stravinsky,” came one voice, “the one with the Psalms!”

The cellos for Dvorak put in a quick plea,
With which the cor anglais, for once, did agree.

The flautist threw in Afternoon of the Faun,
But the trumpeter answered to this with a yawn.

“Only ten minutes? We need something longer,
Where the mood it is dark and the meaning is stronger.”

“It should be Shostakovitch, I don’t care which one!”
But the piccolo’s squeak was not dwelt on for long.

The percussionists yearned for something modern and faster,
Scheherazade a clear favourite for the concertmaster.

Mozart and Vivaldi, Schumann and the Bachs,
All were tossed back and forth with some cutting remarks.

But as the orchestra’s mood escalated to rage,
The contra-bassoonist climbed up on the stage.

He cleared his throat once (for luck) then began,
And the speech that then followed, like this it ran:

“My friends, each of these pieces is a glorious dream,
But yet in this room, we must work as a team.

If we continue to play out this musical fight,
I really do think we’ll be staying the night.”

(This comment attracted a flurry of nods,
On one point at least, there was no one at odds.)

“Rather than pieces that show off just one,
Let’s choose us a work that is weighty and long.

I propose we play Beethoven, symphony nine,
For surely, we must all agree it is fine.

It uses full orchestra, chorus as well,
And the final result, it will surely be swell.

What’s more, it is great, it has weight and yet class;
A symphony it would be hard to surpass.”

All stood stock still, not so enthusiastic,
Then the timpanist gave a great roar: “It’s fantastic!”

The orchestra cheered all as one, now on fire,
The harpsichordist, a smile, “I can sing in the choir!”

But back at his desk, the director he sighed,
To the unfortunate admin, he turned and he cried:

“They’ve chosen a piece that’s a nightmare to stage!
Of all things to forget, there was one final page!

For we had a shortlist, not a choice of just any,
The confines of our budget excluded so many.

We cannot perform this; we don’t have the time,
What’s worse, this conductor is not in his prime!”

But down from the hall, a sound it was ringing,
For the orchestra, well, Ode to Joy they were singing.

The director sat down held his head in his hand,
Against such uproar he could not take a stand.

The moral of this tale? Well there could be a few,
Like how best not to make one’s directing debut.

But I think, in the end, though it could well amuse,
It is wise not to let the orchestra choose!

Musical Silence

A reflection on the article ‘Silent Music’ by Andrew Kania[1]

The question of whether a ‘silent’ piece can be considered as music is central to Andrew Kania recent journal article Silent Music. In an attempt to draw the line as to where music ends and only sound remains, the author first argues for the importance of silence within music, then moves on to consider John Cage’s famous 4’33” alongside other less well-known candidates for a silent piece.

While Kania’s analytical description of “measured”, “quasi-measured” and “unmeasured” silences seems logical in theory, I find it hard as a performer to draw even such sketchy lines between them.[2] Pauses within a movement of a symphony are indeed measured, but measured at the discretion of the conductor or performer’s musical inclination. By contrast, the ‘unmeasured’ pauses that frame works are at times as integral to the performance as those that are internal. In 2010 I played in a concert of Mahler’s 4th Symphony conducted by Simone Young. From the very first rehearsal, she warned us that the final pause would be held for a while, much longer than the final note (a morendo in the double basses) would sound. Ms Young’s goal in this, I believe, was to make the audience question where the sound ended and the silence actually began. Did Mahler intend such a long pause? Is this a measured or an unmeasured silence? I think that most performers, if asked to describe the duration of such a silence, would say only that it was what felt right.

The subsequent discussion of totally ‘silent music’ presents difficulties from many angles. Kania argues that “4′33″ is not a piece of music, since Cage intended the sounds audible at its performances not to be listened to under traditional musical concepts”[3]. Can this intention fundamentally separate music and non-music when the composer cannot be sure of what the audience is actually listening to? In our society, we generally expect to listen to or for something, and I feel that in the absence of musical sound we are much more likely to listen to ambient noise than to attempt to focus solely on the silence of a performer (in the Mahler, the audience were listening for the double bass note even if it no longer existed). Even if the audience of Kania’s Composition 2009 #3 were instructed to focus on the ‘music’ of the silence, I wonder whether some of their attention might not be taken up still with ambient noise.

[1] Andrew Kania, “Silent Music,” The Journal of Aesthetics and art Criticism 68 (2010): 343-353, accessed March 24, 2012, DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-6245.2010.01429.x.

[2] Ibid., 343.

[3] Ibid., 348.