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 173 – March 22nd – Baroque

Just a short one tonight, as it’s all of a sudden late and time for bed. I spent the day alternating productive flute activities and semi-productive procrastination! Along with Syrinx tomorrow we’re playing Telemann sonatas in F major and F minor, and I had a lovely time this afternoon practising them. My time here has really rejuvenated my love of playing Baroque music.

This evening, I bit the bullet and did a good session proofreading my flute history project. I’m making sure to use language suitable for fifteen year-olds this time, and have been sure to include some nice clear pictures. Hopefully I’ll be able to finish it all off after class tomorrow.

As for the procrastination….I went for a run, did some sorting in preparation for moving out, and baked bread again! It wasn’t as good this time unfortunately. It seems like I got the one good kick from the out-of-date yeast when I opened it a few days ago. This time it didn’t activate at all, and I had mostly self-raising flour to use up. The result was a pair of rather pretty but solid loaves that have the consistency of scones rather than bread. Oh well, I just enjoyed kneading the bread! And it didn’t taste too bad with my carrot soup either.

My rather solid bread

My rather solid bread


Day 71 – December 10th – Bach and bunnies

After my relatively slim practice yesterday I had a really productive day today. Though none of the warm-up exercises were exactly easy, that was because I was trying to push myself and play things that I couldn’t do rather than those I could. I’ve been practising Reichert No. 2 with either the first or second set of semiquavers in each bar at double speed, in the hope of convincing my fingers and brain that I know it and not to worry so much. So far it seems to be working, at least in the practice room.

I chatted with my little sister this morning and was introduced to her two gorgeous new rabbits – Rory and Danny. It rather makes me miss Horace from the weekend before last!

Tomorrow we have a masterclass with Rachel Brown, who is a flute and traverso player well-known in particular for her performance of Baroque works. I’m playing the C.P.E. Bach (originally thought to be J.S.) Sonata in Eb major. It’s been an interesting piece to prepare in that the notes themselves aren’t that hard but I still don’t feel terribly comfortable leaping into Baroque music from a stylistic point of view. Hopefully I’ve done a good job with this one – it’s really a trio sonata as the right hand part of the harpsichord is very important, and I’ve really tried to think of the way the flute fits into the ensemble.

Out walk tonight was cold and blustery, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the moon. A few nights past full, it sat fat and low in the sky with waxy, yellow glow. It felt like the setting for some Gothic novel!

Day 57 – November 26th – Bach

Today’s class went well enough from a repertoire point of view. It seems like I’m generally alright with orchestral excerpts, and managed Strauss’s Salome without too much negative feedback. The main point, as always in Trevor’s excerpt sessions, is an incredible precision of rhythm, along with a knowledge of what’s going on in the orchestral parts beneath.

I also felt that my Minuets I & II from Bach’s C major sonata were well enough prepared and thought through that we could engage in a discussion of the music rather than my failings as a flautist! We discussed duration of notes, placement of slurs, and methods for ornamenting the repeat. Trevor’s advice on the final one was to be a bit cheeky or cunning; plan something out but not necessarily in the way that one would expect. It certainly shouldn’t sound like it’s been practised, and the best way to arrive at good baroque ornamentation is often to improvise to the extreme and then take away the bits that sound too much! This does, of course, mean that one needs to practise improvising though.

The rest of the class on Bach was really interesting, and I genuinely felt much better equipped to tackle a sonata by the end of it. I’ve tended to steer clear of Bach in recent years, as it always seems such a minefield of opinions and musical dos and don’ts. Trevor didn’t talk so much about ‘performance practice’ as what can be gleaned from looking at the facts of the score and using our own musical judgement. He also stressed the importance of a clear tempo relationship between all movements of a sonata – if an allegro movement can’t be played in good relationship with the andante then the andante probably needs to go faster!

Trevor quite likes picking a way of stirring someone (often me) a bit, and today chose the fact that Roya and I have masters degrees as his prodding point. Every other comment was followed by “but the masters will know this already” or a pointed question in our direction. This one though, I didn’t mind too much – he didn’t actually bother to ask until lunchtime about what my masters entailed, and when I went through my recital programs he did listen without any snarky remarks about new music. By the end of the day, the master-ness or lack of (Trevor didn’t go to uni/college at all) had grown into a joke for everyone.

Our repertoire for next week is Fukushima’s Mei, which I’m excited about working on. It’s a lovely piece, and I’ve been wanting to have a look at it for a while. Though performing contemporary music for Trevor will leave me wide open for cutting remarks, I also hope that I can apply some of what I’ve learned over the previous months to music that really inspires me.

Day 56 – November 25th – Something old and something new

Rechiert exercises continue to be a pain, but I am slowly improving with both memory and speed. I can get through the whole cycle of Reichert No. 2 without looking at the book, though often loose confidence the first time through in a key. However the second (or third for harder keys) time through I can play it quite quickly, so I think part of it is now developing confidence in my memory rather than getting the notes in.

Today was a bit of a juxtaposition of musical styles. I started off the day with another good stint of traverso practice in preparation for playing in class tomorrow. The allegro movement of Telemann’s Fantasia No. 6 in D minor isn’t perfect, but it’s definitely sounding a lot better than a week ago. Some passages might almost come across as fluent. I think I unknowingly picked quite a tricky fantasia to learn; D minor has F naturals, B flats and quite often C naturals as well! Then there’s the odd G sharp thrown in for good measure whenever the music heads for the dominant! I’m looking at it as a good thing though – picking a piece in D or G major would have meant that I avoided most cross-fingerings. It shows how much I’ve learned that I could actually sightread the C major fantasia quite well this morning!

Later in the day, I Skyped a friend in Australia to put the finishing touches to an application for the New Music Miniseries (run by the New Music Network) next year. We’ve put together a concert of flute and bass trombone music, along with some potential new commissions to expand the currently rather slim repertoire. Who knows whether we’ll get the New Music Network’s support, but either way I really hope we can make the concert happen.

I then finished off the afternoon back in the Baroque, learning the minuets from J.S. Bach’s Sonata in C major BWV 1033 for class tomorrow. Trevor has assigned everyone different movements of the C and E major sonatas, with the aim to discuss Baroque style in general and get a good idea of how to play Bach. I’m quite happy to have fewer notes than usual to learn – more time on technique and studies!

I suppose my little gem of wisdom from today is that diversity is wonderful, and that it must be relished. I have the opportunity to engage with, play and dream about beautiful music from so many different eras, as well as (hopefully) to help in the creation of more. Vlve la différence, vive la musique!