135 days later…

It is 135 days since my last post! This is not because of a lack of things to say or news of projects to report, but rather that 3240 hours can just fly by and before you know it you’re four and a half months down the line…

In that time, I have workshopped new choral pieces written for the Tallis Scholars as part of the NCEM Young Composers Competition; I have sung a continuo only version of the Monteverdi Vespers with the Ebor Singers; I have sung Birtwistle with Britten Sinfonia Voices as part of his 80th birthday celebration series curated by the Barbican; I have rehearsed and performed with the Voices of York (York’s MA Vocal Ensemble) whose academic year culminated in a very successful final assessed recital last week; I have performed exquisite French music with Ex Cathedra in their Vespers for the Sun King programme, at Birmingham Oratory for the last time; I have made a recording of Byrd and Dering with Les Canards Chantants featuring incredible instrumental accompaniments played by Jacob Heringman and Susanna Pell; I have sung Purcell and Britten with the Gabrieli Consort in France and Switzerland, and been completely inspired by the solo and duet singing of Charles Daniels and Nicholas Mulroy; I have broadcast Choral Evensong live on BBC Radio 3 with the Minster Choir; and I have recorded Alec Roth’s A Time to Dance with Ex Cathedra in London. We have also seen the Tour de France peloton weave its way through Yorkshire, and bought (in February) and begun renovating a house in Fulford. Not bad work for just 135 days!

The property thing has been hugely exciting; very tiring and far more time-consuming than we ever imagined, but our house is slowly becoming the home we have always wanted. As a byproduct of this purchase, we have also become rather obsessed with the myriad of home renovation shows on TV – most being reference points of how not to achieve your ‘dream home’. The one exception is the BBC’s 100K House: Tricks of the Trade fronted by Kieran Long and Piers Taylor. These two offer architectural and design advice to individuals who have very limited budgets. What the show illustrates is that a small budget need not mean compromising architectural design integrity as is so often the case in builder led projects. The budget restraint forces clients to consider out of the ordinary construction techniques not usually associated with domestic architecture, and budget materials not intended for finishing in order to achieve their goals. This approach requires the client to be open minded enough to consider the creative solutions offered by the architects. While usually skeptical to begin with, clients are usually overwhelmed by the extraordinary beauty and integrity of the finished product.

The reason for this preamble is that I think this is true of much live music at the moment. Many big name groups are churning out the same repertoire year after year in order to get bums-on-seats. Festival brochures are full of tried and tested shows – there are few risks being taken for fear of the financial consequences. These groups are the building equivalent of the huge builder/developers building bland identikit houses that are not fit for modern living and yet continue to make profits by doing so. There are very few groups who are willing to go out on a limb and push the boundaries of performance and repertoire, and challenge the perceptions of their audience – they’re afraid of alienating that potential long-term subscriber. This seems to me to be rather patronising. As with the 100K House, the audience just needs to be coaxed into a slightly different way of thinking about music by a professional whom they trust, and they will no doubt be surprised and delighted by the beautiful, if sometimes challenging, results.

This risk averse approach does not seem to be the case in Europe. I have said before that while visiting Holland, I have been struck by the lack of embarrassment surround culture and the pushing of boundaries within this. The architecture analogy continues to be useful here too. While there is certainly a vernacular that makes domestic architecture typically Dutch, it is rare that you are confronted with huge populations of the same house. Where additions have been made, these are often in a contrasting and exciting style, usually with a nod to the history of the building it is enhancing, but with a radical look to the now and beyond. Historic buildings are adapted for a modern lifestyle too with little National Trust mentality in sight.

It is against this backdrop that I have been having some rather exciting conversations with a collective of singers about creating a new group – a flexible group who will not be afraid to embrace the indie band mentality of getting music out there, and of collaborating with other interesting creatives. We will likely visit the music of the past, and will certainly explore the new, but hope to present it in a way that is relevant to the needs and lifestyles of a modern audience. There is much still to explore, but the ideals of the group are aligned in such a way that this could be a very exciting project. Watch this space!

NCEM Composers award 2012

Last month, the Ebor Singers were asked once again to take part in the National Centre for Early Music’s Composers Award 2012 which they hosted in conjunction with The Tallis Scholars and BBC Radio 3. Composers in two age categories were invited to compose a new choral piece with the Tallis Scholars in mind and using John Taverner’s In Nomine theme from Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas as their starting point. From some 50 entries, seven were shortlisted for workshopping at the NCEM by the Ebor Singers with the composer Christopher Fox.

In the days running up to the workshop, the Ebor Singers had the luxury of three rehearsal sessions in order to learn the shortlisted pieces. This time was invaluable when it came to the workshop day because the singers were confident with corners which may otherwise have presented a challenge. All of the participants commented that they gained most from the workshop because of this preparation. There was a competence and performance confidence from where musical comments and adjustments could be made, rather than most of the time being taken up by singers grappling for notes as had been the experience at other similar events.

The workshops were fascinating from a singer’s perspective. Not only was it interesting to hear the many interpretations of the composer’s use of the source material – some very literal and others rather more esoteric – it was also fascinating to hear the various assumptions made by the composer’s when notating their work and vice-versa. As we have found in previous years, Christopher Fox is a fantastic facilitator in these situations. His charismatic, often ‘devil’s advocate’ approach, created a very interesting dialogue between composer, performer and ‘teacher’. The results of minor suggested amendments often had further reaching effects on the pieces overall.

The day culminated in a public performance by the Ebor Singers of all the workshopped pieces, recordings of which can be heard on the NECM’s website. These were then judged by Delma Tomlin (Director of the NCEM), Peter Phillips (Director of the Tallis Scholars) and Chris Wines (Senior Music Producer for BBC Radio 3). In her winners announcement, Delma highlighted that although there could only be one winner in each category, all who had made the shortlist had won in some way and will have inevitably gained from the experience of working with Christopher Fox and the Ebor Singers. The winners were Benjamin Rowarth (20) and Alex Woolf (16) whose pieces were performed by the Tallis Scholars in Durham Cathedral and will be broadcast on the Early Music Show later in the year.

As always, this competition proved that the future of choral composition – and by extension, performance – is in good hands.