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!

Day 46 – November 15th – Wibb masterclass reflections

After such a busy day yesterday, it was good to get back to practice and let some of Wibb’s comments and ideas from the masterclass sink in. For some reason, I found that I got a lot more out of this masterclass than the last one we attended – maybe I was a bit better prepared for Wibb’s teaching style this time? Here, in summary, are a few of the key points that I took away:

– The flute is like a voice, and Wibb tends to express things in vocal terms when talking about both rhythm and tone. Almost every key phrase was given a set of lyrics, which helped to guide the performer’s emphasis or encourage them to correctly show the meter. There were also a couple of favourites that kept cropping up: “el-e-phant” for triplets, and then “el-e-phant’s bum” for a triplet followed by a less-important crotchet. For tone, the performers were asked to sing a phrase “like a baritone” or “like a soprano”, which showed how different vibrato and tonal concepts can give us such a huge palette of colours to play with.

– A Moyse quote, related by Wibb in a lovely French accent: “syncop take accent”

– I was impressed by how Wibb managed to related everything back to either Moyse’s De la Sonorité or his 24 Melodic Studies. The exercise would always start out simply, gradually adding steps so as to arrive at the sort of phrase he had found in the piece. It really did bring home to me just how fundamental expressive phrasing is, and prompted me to practice my tunes with renewed awareness this morning.

– Love final notes in phrases, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that vibrato is needed.

– Composers, even really good ones, often make mistakes with slurs. The phrase is always more important than slur marks, and so we should edit in a way that bring out the melody rather than always trying to respect every single marking on the page.

Hopefully I’ll be able to incorporate some of this wisdom into my practice in the coming days.