New worlds waiting

I feel terrible. I’m rapidly approaching the three-month mark without having written a word on here. It wasn’t meant to be this way. I know there aren’t a lot of people out there chomping at the bit for me to post something new, but my silence is also indicative of a more worrying condition: being too busy not just for writing but for listening to and discovering new music in general. Well, I wouldn’t say I haven’t listened to anything lately – I always have my iPod with me at work – but mostly I’m listening to the same things over and over again (which is fine, I do have pieces I love and will never tire of) or I’m rehearsing unfamiliar music in both my choirs but not taking the time to really discover and appreciate it. I guess it’s fine to go through phases and perhaps I’m just in a lull at the moment, but it doesn’t feel like a good kind of lull, it just feels like life is too hectic and that’s seldom a good thing. Not from the point of view of creative fulfillment and nourishment.

I’m hoping that’s about to change, though. For one thing I’ve recently started taking the first tentative steps into discovering the sublime – and possibly life-altering – Bach St Matthew Passion, which I’m very excited to be seeing in performance in about ten days. Director Lindy Hume’s semi-staged production of this amazing work is being recreated in Brisbane by Opera Queensland, in collaboration with my favourite orchestra, Camerata of St John’s. Add to the mix some stellar soloists like Paul Whelan and Sara Macliver, and conductor Graham Abbott (from ABC Keys to Music), and I think you’ve got a great recipe for magic happening on stage. And there’s a certain thrill in coming to a work this significant for the first time; mostly I’m only familiar with Bach’s motets and various bits and pieces from his cantatas, the Brandenburg concertos and some keyboard music. I’m not quite sure why I haven’t taken the time to explore the Passions, but not having yet done so means that I feel that eagerness of a new world waiting for me, like teetering on the brink of a canyon of musical wonder and awe. Superlatives aside though, I’m trying to familiarise myself with some of the chorales and arias before I go to the performance, which I’m expecting to be pretty damn special. I’ll keep you posted.

(I listened to about five different recordings of this last night – I think this is my favourite so far of this particular aria. Some of the live performances are a little more interesting to watch, but this one’s closest to the right speed for how I personally feel the music.)

Posted in Choirs & Choral Music, Orchestras & Instrumental Music, Solo Vocal Music | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Christmas under southern skies

If you’re in Brisbane this Christmas then it’s shaping up to be a warm one. The last couple of weeks have been generally hot and humid too, yet every time I go near a shop I still hear Jingle Bells and Winter Wonderland played over the speakers. Australians enjoy irony. I’m always vaguely amused when people from the northern hemisphere can’t get their head around Christmas falling in the middle of summer over here. Though that’s not entirely surprising, when all the traditions and popular culture associate the day with it being cold. Alas, no snow for us, or roasting chestnuts on open fires. We still sing the songs though – after all, a tradition is a tradition.

No, far from being chilly, Brisbane is hot and alive with colour this time of year. In fact, as I drove up my street the other day, it occurred to me that a tree decorated with tinsel is supremely overrated when I can look out my bedroom window and see this instead:

A flame tree - nature's own "tinsel"!

Nature’s own “tinsel”! I love the tropics.

In Brisbane Chamber Choir’s Christmas concert a week or so ago, we included a great piece which is very appropriate for celebrating this time of year in a hot climate. Sydney composer Matthew Orlovich has set a poem by Pat Edwards called ‘If Christ Had Been Born in Another Time’, which asks the hypothetical questions of how the Christmas story would be different if Jesus was born in a different small town in a different desert? After all, when you think about the story of the birth of Christ, the climate of the middle east, and the vast open and starry skies of the desert, it’s not hard to find parallels with the Australian outback. We are no strangers to heat, dust, big skies and long distances – even those of us who are primarily city-dwellers. So to mark this Christmas Eve, here’s an enjoyable and light-hearted alternative story for you to consider:

If Christ had been born in another time
in a town of a different name,
If Christ had been born under southern skies
would the story have been the same?

Would Mary and Joseph have travelled the road
Dusty and hot and tired
brushing the flies from red-rimmed eyes
longing to end the ride?

Would there have been no room in the pub?
Would they have been turned away,
while drovers and stockmen jostled the bar
toasting the end of the day?

Would the Southern Cross have lit up the sky
marking the rough bush track?
Would Kings have ridden in from the west
and would they all have been black?

What would have been the gifts they brought
for the Child with the light round His head?
Perfume and oil from a eucalypt tree?
Gold from a river’s bed?

Would cicada and kookaburra have sung
while angels on high looked down
if Christ had been born in another time
in a little outback town?

Fa la la la la! It’s fun to sing too!

Wherever you are I wish you a relaxing and musical Christmas & New Year (or “holiday season”, if you prefer). I’ll be escaping the heat a bit down in Melbourne and catching up with family and friends, but I’ll be back writing again early in 2013. Season’s Greetings!

Posted in Choirs & Choral Music, Christmas | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Listen to a different city

Have you ever heard of Super Critical Mass? I hadn’t, until yesterday afternoon. Super Critical Mass is a ‘sonic arts’ company which creates events in public spaces involving multiple players all playing the same type of musical instrument. It started in Australia about four years ago with the first event being held in Sydney and featuring 80 flutes in a giant railway storeroom, but since then events have been held all over the world in different spaces and on different instruments.

Yesterday’s performance, fitting nicely with the festive season, was for bells. I knew about it only because a friend is the director of a handbell choir called Brisbane Bells who collaborated with SCM for the event. So after work I wandered up to King George Square to see what it was all about, but not really knowing what to expect. The square was filled with the usual mix of shoppers, tourists and office workers on their way home. The stage, which is set up for a variety of performances this time of year, was empty. There were no rows of chairs out for an audience. No real indication that anything was about to happen – except a few people like myself who carried an air of expectation as they sat on benches and looked around for some sign of an impending performance. And then just after the City Hall clock chimed 5 o’clock on a beautiful A flat, a slow procession of bell ringers – probably about sixty or so people – began to drift into the square, each with their own bell playing only a single note. They walked slowly and scattered themselves several metres apart over the wide open space, and every few minutes someone would stop playing and walk to a new spot to resume their ringing. Gradually they moved further into the space, starting up near the north corner of Ann St and working their way down to Adelaide, but still spread out across the square the whole time.

Bell ringers in King George Square

At first it was hard to know what to make of it, whether this was a precursor to something more, whether any minute now someone would appear to conduct the large ensemble, or whether the group would suddenly launch into a song which would be recognisable to the people gathered. Some people looked intrigued and genuinely fascinated; others kept walking and talking on their mobile phones as if nothing unusual was happening. But once it became apparent that this was pretty much it, the music seemed to take on a new quality. What started as a random assortment of dings (I would describe it as a gentle cacophony, if such a thing exists) began to feel more like being inside an enormous, living, breathing wind chime. You started to hear the occasional accidental melody emerge, or notice the volume or tempo of individual bells being played, or the sound of one bell stop and then start again from further away as ringers moved around the space. If you can imagine something like a flash mob but with the emphasis on the sound rather than the spectacle, that was a little bit what it was like.

Listen to a different city

Samantha, the director of Brisbane Bells, handed me a card which said “listen to a different city”. And as the bells rang over a backdrop of bus engines and snippets of stranger’s conversations I thought, yes, this is what I’m doing. I’m listening to a different Brisbane. A really enjoyable and worthwhile experience.

* * * * *

What and where would your ideal Super Critical Mass be? I think mine would be the earthy sound of a hundred cellos, somewhere cavernous with a marvellous echo, like underground limestone caves. Or otherwise an army of trumpets in Piazza San Marco, Venice. Oh, the possibilities…!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your dream SCM!

Posted in Christmas, Orchestras & Instrumental Music | Tagged , | Leave a comment

One year of music blogging

Today is the one year anniversary of Music Tasting, a milestone which might have passed me by entirely were it not for another site I visit regularly which is celebrating its second blogoversary. Despite having given it very little thought until this morning, I feel like I should mark the occasion in some small way. Compared with some bloggers out there I’ve produced very little content in a year, but it’s still a year’s worth more than was there the year before that. Mostly I write for me and so this site is primarily a diary of my own music discovery, but I’m happy that I’ve actually kept it up for twelve whole months. As anyone who knows me really well will tell you, I have something of a propensity for starting lots of little projects and not following through with them (yes, I am an INFP!) and therefore a year is definitely celebration-worthy in my book.

So what’s the best way to celebrate a birthday? Well, cake and presents are the obvious ones. Cake, presents, friends and a little bit of a reflection. Alas, the cake is in eye-candy form only:

Yeah. If only I had a cake that awesome. I would like the G flat please! As for presents – well, I’d like to give a present back to you, my readers and friends, as a thank you for coming to read the assorted ramblings I put here and then letting me know what you think. So I’ve decided to run a small competition, the winner of which will receive a $20 iTunes gift card to engage in some new music tasting of their own.

All you need to do to enter is to leave a comment at the bottom of THIS page telling me which was your favourite Music Tasting post from the last twelve months, and I will choose one of you to receive a gift card in your letterbox. So that’s all you need to do to enter the draw, and the winner will be chosen at random. But it would be really, really lovely and helpful if you could also tell me why it’s your favourite post – all bloggers love to receive feedback when they put a little bit of themselves out there online, and so it would be super awesome to hear from you and will also help me think about what else I might write about during my second year of blogging. As a thank you, anyone who gives me additional feedback about what they’ve enjoyed here will double their chances of winning the iTunes gift card with an extra entry into the draw. (There’s a way to win an extra extra entry into the draw as well… scroll to the bottom of this post for details.)

I’ll run the competition for 2 weeks, so if you’re new here that gives you some time to read over the smallish archive. Entries close at midnight Brisbane time on Sunday 9 December and I’ll pick a winner the next day and contact you by email (thus you have to leave an email address with your comment). I don’t mind if you’ve been following me from the beginning or if this if your first visit to my site – I’d love to hear from anyone. The only condition for winning the gift card is that you have to live in Australia (or at least have an Australian iTunes account) – that’s unfortunately Apple’s condition on the back of the card, not mine. But wherever you are in the world you can still give me feedback and your reward will be the warm inner glow you receive from knowing you’ve totally made my day.

As I reflect on some of the music I’ve loved or discovered over the past year, and think about what a difference it makes to my life, I’m really happy I started Music Tasting – even if it is only a small and fledgling little blog in a big wide world of blogginess. It makes me continually think about how music connects and bonds people, and transcends differences of all kinds. You and I could have absolutely nothing in common except the fact that we both love a particular piece of music and already we’ve found some common ground. Next year I’m hoping to spread the reach of this site a little wider, and start inviting a few people I know to write guest posts about their own musical stories, but in the meantime I’m content with what I’ve accomplished in a year of writing. Persevering with anything creative can often be really hard, and it makes me think of the quote from the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu who said “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Well, to paraphrase that (badly), I guess you could also say that the journey of a thousand years begins with a single year. Although please note that I can say with relative confidence that I will not still be blogging in 3012.

And so with that, here’s a song from the Piano Guys whom I only discovered this year. I don’t think there’s anything particularly profound about their cover versions of popular songs, but for some guaranteed feel-good music I really like listening to their piano and cello renditions. Enjoy, and thanks so much for being one of my readers!

* * * * *

(If you’re super keen for the iTunes gift card and if you really want to show how much you love me, you can help out by telling people about my site whom you think might enjoy it. I don’t mind how you tell them – in person, email, Facebook, Twitter – but if you send me an email with the names of any individual people you spread the word to, then I will also give you an extra entry into the draw for each person who also leaves a comment on this post and enters. How about that?! If you tell a hundred people and they ALL enter the competition, well, $20 worth of new music is practically yours! Think of the possibilities…)

Posted in Folk & Popular Music, Foundations, Orchestras & Instrumental Music | Tagged , , | 14 Comments

A Beautiful Song

While I was overseas earlier this year, a wonderful Brisbane violinist sent me a brief message recommending a novel she thought I’d enjoy and which would be perfect for me to blog about. As it just so happened, I already owned a copy but hadn’t got around to reading it yet (I tend to do that a lot!), so as soon as I returned from Europe I went hunting on my shelves. The book was Bel Canto, by American author Ann Patchett, and my friend was right – I loved it.

Bel Canto is set in an unidentified South American country, at the extravagant and luxurious home of the Vice President. To celebrate the birthday of honoured visiting Japanese businessman Mr Hosokawa, a private party of international guests gathers and is enjoying a perfect performance by renowned and beloved opera singer Roxane Coss when terrorists storm the building. They intend to kidnap the President and leave. Unfortunately the President is not in attendance, having stayed home to watch his favourite TV soap. And so what begins as a simple kidnapping operation slowly unfolds into a house arrest, as power structures and fractured lives are revealed. As the novel progresses, some hostages are released. Those whom remain form friendships and bonds which are transcended by language differences, most of the guests being international diplomats or foreign investors, and only Mr Hosokawa’s translator Gen is able to aid communication between many of the different groups. There is also a young local priest in attendance, who is offered the opportunity of release but who chooses to stay. Slowly but surely, it is the hostages who begin to have more control over their daily routine of captivity; particularly Ms Coss, whose magical voice transfixes everyone, terrorists included, with its beauty. By negotiations, music is allowed into the house once again, and a perceptible shift in power dynamics begins as Roxane practices and performs daily for the household.

It’s an absolutely beautifully-written novel. Tender, intriguing, and full of music. Here’s a passage from about the middle of the book, with a piece I didn’t know until I looked it up.

“As Father Arguedas opened the windows in the living room, he thanked God for the light and the sweet quality of the air. Though he was in the house, across the garden, and behind the wall, he could hear more clearly the rustling on the street without the rain to muffle the sounds. There were no more messages shouted over the wall, but still he could imagine a large crowd of men and guns. The priest suspected that either they had no plan of action anymore or that they had a plan so complex that it no longer exactly included them. While General Benjamin continued to cut out every mention of their circumstances from the newspaper, they had caught a snippet of talk on the television that a tunnel was being dug, that the police were planning on digging their way up into the house, and so the crisis would end much the way it had started, with strangers crashing into the room and redirecting the course of their lives, but no one believed this. It was too far-fetched, too much like a spy movie to be real. Father Arguedas stared at his feet, his cheap black lace-up shoes settled on such expensive carpet, and he wondered what went on deep beneath the ground. He prayed for their safe delivery, for the safe delivery of each and every one of them, but he did not pray to be rescued through a tunnel. He did not pray to be rescued at all. He only prayed for God’s will, His love and protection. He tried to clear his heart of selfish thoughts while at the same time being grateful for all that God had granted him. Take the mass, as only one example. In his former life (for that was how he thought of it now) he was only allowed to celebrate the mass with his parishioners when everyone else was on holiday or sick and then it was the six a.m. mass they gave to him or a mass on Tuesday. Mainly his responsibilities within the church were the same as the ones he had held before he was a priest: he distributed the host he had not blessed on the far left-hand aisle of the church or he lit the candles or he snuffed them out. Here, after much discussion, the Generals agreed to allow Messner to bring in the implements of communion, and last Sunday in the dining room, Father Arguedas celebrated the mass with all of his friends. People who were not Catholic attended and people who did not understand what he was saying got down on their knees. Everyone was more likely to pray when there was something specific they wanted. The young terrorists closed their eyes and bent their chins deeply to their chests, while the Generals stayed in the back of the room. It could have been something else entirely. So many of the terrorist organisations nowadays wanted to abolish all religion, especially Catholicism. Had they been taken over by La Dirección Auténtica instead of the much more reasonable La Familia de Martin Suarez, they would never have been allowed to pray. LDA would have dragged one hostage up to the roof every day for the press to see, and then shot him in the head in an attempt to speed negotiations. Father Arguedas considered such things while he lay on the living-room carpet late at night. They were fortunate, really. There was no other way to look at it. Wasn’t there still freedom in the deepest sense if there was the freedom to pray? At his mass, Roxane Coss sang “Ave Maria,” an event of such startling beauty that (and he did not wish to sound competitive) it simply could not be topped at any church, anywhere, including Rome. Her voice was so pure, so light, that it opened up the ceiling and carried their petitions directly to God. It swept over them like the feathery dusting of wings, so that even the Catholics who no longer practiced their faith, and the non-Catholics who came along because there was nothing else to do, and all those who had no idea what he was saying, and the stone-cold atheists who wouldn’t have cared anyway, because of her singing they all went away feeling moved, feeling comforted, feeling, perhaps, the slightest tremors of faith. The priest stared at the slightly yellowed stucco wall that protected them from whatever was waiting to happen outside. It must have been ten feet high and was covered in some sections with ivy. It was a beautiful wall, not unlike what might have surrounded the Mount of Olives. Perhaps it was not immediately obvious but now he saw how one could consider such a wall a blessing.

Roxane sang Rossini that morning, in keeping with the weather. One song, “Belta crudele,” she sang seven times. Clearly, she was trying to perfect something, to find something lodged at the very center of the score that she felt she had not reached. She and Kato communicated in their own way. She pointed at a line of notes. He played it. She tapped her fingers in light rhythm against the top of the piano. He played it again. She sang the line unaccompanied. He played it without her. She sang while he played. They circled each other, each one oblivious to feelings, each caring only for the music. She closed her eyes while he moved through the opening, she nodded her head slightly in approval. He made such easy work of the score. There was no showy bravado in the movements of his arms. He kept things small and light, perfect for her voice. It was one thing when he played for himself, but when he was the accompanist he played like a man who was trying not to wake the neighbors.

Roxane stood so straight that one could easily forget how short she was. She rested her hand on the piano, then she crossed her palms over her heart. She sang. She had taken to following the example of the Japanese and had given up wearing her shoes. Mr Hosokawa had kept the tradition of his host and had worn his shoes for the first week of their captivity, but as time went on he felt that he could no longer bear it. Wearing shoes in the house was barbaric. There was almost as much indignity in wearing shoes in the house as there was in being kidnapped. When his shoes came off, then so came Gen’s, and Kato’s, and Mr Yamamoto’s, Mr Aoi’s, Mr Ogawa’s, and Roxane’s. She padded around in a pair of athletic socks borrowed from the Vice President, whose feet were not much larger than her own. She sang now in those socks. When she got the song exactly right she took it straight through to the end without a flutter of hesitation. It was impossible to say that her singing had improved, but there was something in her interpretation of the lines that had shifted almost imperceptibly. She sang as if she was saving the life of every person in the room. A breeze made the sheers at the window shiver for a moment but everything else was still. There was not a sound from the street. There was not a sound from the two yellow birds.”

From Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (2001), pp198-201.

(There is also an opera of the book currently being written, which will be premiered as part of the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 2015 season, with Danielle de Niese in the role of Roxane Coss.)

Posted in Literature, Solo Vocal Music | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Wonderful World of Dartington – Part 2

So after an even longer than usual hiatus, I thought I should finally get this out in the blogosphere, to remind myself of some more of the great music I was introduced to at Dartington. And to reassure everyone that I still exist.

Madrigal Afternoons

After lunch each day was the Vocal Ensemble course, taught by Sally Dunkley and members of the Tudor Ensemble, all of whom sing regularly in the top choirs in the UK. (Yes, I’ll admit that for me it was a little bit like mixing with “choral royalty”, since Australia doesn’t have anything like the same scale or number of excellent choirs as England. I hope I didn’t swoon too much.) Anyway, this course presented a great opportunity to break into smaller groups and sing early music, both sacred and secular. The groups changed each day so we were able to sing with different people and look at different repertoire. I think the best session was the day we had a group of six of us, just one per part (my favourite kind of ensemble singing), and we worked on a madrigal by Thomas Weelkes that I’d never come across before. While plenty of madrigals are full of talk of nymphs and double-entendre’d fa-la-la-ing, I quite liked this one for its historical and geographical significance and its slightly unusual text.

Thule, the Period of Cosmography makes reference to a number of volcanoes which had presumably been active enough in living memory of the start of the 17th century to be known about in England: Etna (Sicily), Hecla (Iceland) and Fogo (one of the Cape Verde islands, off the west coast of Africa). In medieval and Renaissance geography, I believe, Thule basically denoted a place “beyond the borders of the known world”, but could possibly have meant what we now know as Iceland, Greenland or Norway. So, not your usual subject matter for a madrigal, and there’s some fabulous word painting to do with sulphurious fire, ascending flames and flying fish. But my overall impression is that essentially the author of the text is saying that, amazing as all these things are, they’re not more amazing than the fact that his own heart freezes with fear and fries with love. (Happy to accept a different interpretation though.)

Thule, the period of cosmography,
Doth vaunt of Hecla, whose sulphurious fire
Doth melt the frozen clime and thaw the sky;
Trinacrian Etna’s flames ascend not higher.

These things seem wondrous, yet more wondrous I,
Whose heart with fear doth freeze, with love doth fry.

The Andalusian merchant that returns
Laden with cochineal and China dishes
Reports in Spain how strangely Fogo burns
Amidst an ocean full of flying fishes.

These things seem wondrous, yet more wondrous I,
Whose heart with fear doth freeze, with love doth fry.

Indeed. A little melodramatic, but so much fun to sing!

A concentration of concerts

In the evenings we were spoilt for choice of performances to go to, most of them given by the musicians who were teaching various courses. There were generally three concerts a night (with a couple of film screenings thrown in as well), and the most amazing variety of talent on display. I went to as many as I could reasonably handle – given that the days were long and intense as it was, and sometimes all we wanted to do after dinner was head to the pub. But I think I still counted twelve that I went to. Plus the pub.

I won’t regale you with details of all them, but a couple were particularly memorable. There was a really interesting music and puppetry collaboration by the early music ensemble The Dufay Collective, in which a beautifully-made bird puppet was launched along a wire from the side of the stage to the balcony at the back; accompanied by their early instruments, it was quite a poignant moment. And one of the late-night concerts included a stunning sonata for solo viola da gamba. I have a soft spot for the cello (and you might recall a brief excerpt from The Cello Suites earlier this year) and the viola da gamba is a close relative, but with extra strings. It wasn’t my main motivation for going to the performance, but it was my personal highlight. There were a number of ensemble pieces first before Reiko Ichise (from Fretwork) took the stage – when she started playing, wow did I sit up and take notice. I’ve rarely seen anyone have such a commanding presence on stage and look as though they were in such perfect union with their instrument. The physicality of her playing was just extraordinary. She played like her life depended on it; I could barely take my eyes off her. I can’t find a recording of the piece from the concert but it was the Suite in A Minor by Monsieur de Sainte Columbe le fils (as in, the son of), a French composer from around Bach’s time. Here’s the D minor suite instead which gives you the general idea. Such a sorrowful but achingly beautiful sound.

Other things which made Dartington awesome

Of all the many things to love about attending the summer school, one of the things I enjoyed most was how much it’s like entering a parallel universe for a week. The world still looks kind of the same, and you’re still the same person, but there’s one crucial difference: you’re not considered strange for having a passion bordering on obsession with early music, or choral music, or with whatever unusual instrument you’ve chosen to specialise in. For an entire week you get to mix with people who completely and utterly get what it means to get shivers down your spine at a glorious suspension in Tomkins’ When David Heard, who compare different score editions the way ‘ordinary folk’ talk about celebrity gossip, or people who make reference in casual conversation to ‘four-forty’ or ‘four-fifteen’ and you know they’re not talking about what time it is. In other words, it’s completely OK to be a music nerd on a grand scale without attracting awkward looks in public.

The grounds of Dartington are also quite beautiful. Situated on a large estate not far from Totnes in Devon, the main buildings surround a luscious green courtyard where it’s not at all unusual to walk past someone sitting on the grass practicing the lute, or singing madrigals – just for fun. That’s right… FUN! And as you stroll from one end of the quadrangle to the other, you can usually hear someone in a practice room nearby, maybe a harpsichord and soloist, or a string ensemble. So music is pretty much everywhere. It’s entirely possible to forget what the rest of your life consists of outside of the Dartington experience. (I know I did; I didn’t think once about geology the whole time!)

One afternoon a friend and I were two such people sitting on the grass making music. She plays theorbo, which is a large long-necked plucked stringed instrument – essentially a bass lute. She introduced me to a piece for theorbo and solo vocalist which we sat down to look at under a big shady tree. Gorgeous music by Alessandro Grandi. This is Philippe Jaroussky (whom I raved about in my Monteverdi & Minestrone post):

And another day, in the free time between dinner and the evening concert, a quartet of guys got together in the striped deck-chairs to sing through a barbershop arrangement of Tonight from West Side Story – which just goes to show how diverse a bunch of musicians you will find at Dartington! Watching them was pure fun – if only I’d been able to get them on video, although I managed to get some photos. Here’s another group singing the same arrangement.

Well I think that all the music I’ve shared in these two posts pretty much sums up what a wonderful week I had at the summer school in July. I already miss friends that I made, but I relive the experience by listening to some of the tracks above (and those in Part 1). If you’re an aspiring musician of any sort, professional or amateur, I highly recommend checking out what Dartington might be able to offer you!

Posted in Choirs & Choral Music, Folk & Popular Music, Orchestras & Instrumental Music, Solo Vocal Music, Travel | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

The Wonderful World of Dartington – Part 1

I’ve been back from my whirlwind visit to Europe for more than six weeks now. “When are you going to write about Dartington?” several people have asked me eagerly. “Soon,” I reply, mentally adding it to my ever-growing to do list and wondering what I can realistically cut out of my life to make more time for writing. (Sleep and exercise are the most likely contenders, but I suspect that less of either of these would not be a great idea.) But as you can see, I’m finally getting around to it. And although my readership is no doubt small, I’m glad for my sake to document some of the wonderful music I got to experience at the summer school in July.

I should say from the outset that I didn’t really intend for my blog to become a music-themed travelogue, and that I still want to continue finding and sharing stories about music more generally. It does seem that music discovered while travelling often cements the most vivid memories and is accompanied by the most interesting stories, because it’s when we’re taken out of our comfort zones and even the smallest details are remembered and counted as more significant than those in our everyday lives. But I would be disappointed if I let this site become only about that. So after this post (and since I wrote about Prague not long ago), I’ll find something else to write about for a bit – lest you all become bored and just think I’m bragging about my travels!

The other thing I should add is that I’ve included quite a few music clips in this post – more than usual, at least. Well, what would you expect when I’m writing about a week in which I spent at least 30 hours in rehearsals and masterclasses, and went to about a dozen performances! And I wasn’t even able to get to everything – there was just so much happening! So what I’ve included here is music that brings back a particular memory or special moment for me. Alas, none are actually recordings from the week itself, but I’ve tracked down some fairly decent performances on YouTube. Some pieces I discovered for the first time while I was there, and some I already knew but heard with new ears that week. Some I sang myself, some were performed by others. So if you’d like to watch all of it then by all means please do, but I’d suggest fetching yourself a glass of wine and putting your feet up for an hour or so of delicious listening! Or bookmark it and come back later…

A feast of French Baroque trilling

I’d never heard of Jean-Joseph de Mondonville before I enrolled in my week at Dartington.  It turned out that lots of other people hadn’t heard of him either, even though he was well-known during his own lifetime. A contemporary of Rameau from 18th century France, he wrote quite a few operas, and some sacred music, mostly in the form of grand motets, which were the dominant musical form of the Chapelle Royale prior to the French Revolution. (Thanks, Wikipedia!)

The main choir at Dartington, which was open to everyone at the summer school, rehearsed after breakfast each morning to prepare a program to be performed at the end of the week. This year was all French Baroque, and so our repertoire consisted of Charpentier, de Lalande and Mondonville.* With plenty of scope for adding decorative trills in as many bars as humanly possible. “Sopranos, let’s add a trill in bars 44, 46, 52 and 60,” conductor Andrew Griffiths would announce. “Oh, and 72, 74 and 76.** But I suppose I’ll let you leave out the one in bar 80.” The result, especially once we combined with the orchestra for the dress rehearsal, was a wonderfully joyous and frequently majestic rich and full sound. And I did absolutely fall in love with Dominus Regnavit (the Mondonville) that week. The first movement is full of swagger, the fourth is a fast and furious flood, the fifth is a sublime soprano solo that I can only aspire to one day sing as delightfully as Amy Haworth did in the performance. I highly recommend the whole thing if you have twenty minutes or so. Movements 1-3 are below, 4-5 are here, and 6 is here.***

*For the pedants: yes, you’d probably call Mondonville a Classical rather than a Baroque composer, but Charpentier and de Lalande were both a good fifty years or so earlier.

**I’m completely making up the bar numbers. I wouldn’t have a clue which bars we added trills to. Lots. In addition to the ones which were already notated on the score.

***Ignore the creepy skeleton that looks like it’s holding a remote control.

A masterclass miscellany

After the morning choir rehearsal, the second session of the day – for me, at least – was spent in masterclasses with Emma Kirkby, and thirteen other inspiring students. All of us from different backgrounds and from all over the world (Sweden, Japan, Australia, Brazil, the Czech Republic, the US, the UK). This was a wonderful opportunity not only to work on aspects of my own performance, but to see and hear what other people are working on, the things they do well, the things they’re still trying to perfect. No one comes fully-formed but it was just such an enriching and supportive atmosphere to be part of. For someone like myself who has spent far more time performing with ensembles than as a soloist, it’s still one of the scariest things to be the only person in the limelight. But the classes at Dartington were invaluable for confronting some of those things, and helped me more clearly identify strengths and weaknesses.

I watched some breathtaking performances that week in the classes. In some ways more so than during the concerts. As musicians we naturally want to be in absolutely top form and giving 100% once we’re on the stage; sometimes it happens and it’s magical when it does. But I think it’s also true that in solo practice, lessons and rehearsals there can be moments of exquisite beauty when we’re completely at one with the music without the pressure of an audience. I witnessed several moments like this that week, as singers repeated phrases over and over to discover exactly what worked for them in order to find the sweet spot, the jewel contained within. I found it transfixing, the kind of experience you just don’t get from attending a concert. Plus there is the added bonus of seeing someone develop musically right in front of you in less than half an hour, and the confidence that builds. So the next three pieces will always remind me of the people who worked on them in their masterclass session. The first two were from Emma Kirkby’s class (so, primarily early or Baroque music), and the last one from countertenor Andrew Watts’ class.

First, a beautiful tenor from Brazil sang some Bach from the Easter Oratorio. I didn’t know this aria before that day:

A soprano from Washington D.C. brought tears to my eyes with Purcell. Especially when singing “wond’ring how your pains were eas’d”. Just divine:

And then a tenor whom I didn’t even properly get to meet sang this Vaughan Williams which is probably now one of my favourite early 20th century songs. Beautiful writing for the piano as well, and I just love the chord at 0:15 (and 0:24 and 0:31…). You should read the poetry for this one too, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti:

Your hands lie open in the long fresh grass, –
The finger-points look through like rosy blooms:
Your eyes smile peace. The pasture gleams and glooms
‘Neath billowing clouds that scatter and amass.
All round our nest, far as the eye can pass,
Are golden kingcup fields with silver edge
Where the cow-parsley skirts the hawthorn hedge.
‘Tis visible silence, still as the hour glass.

Deep in the sunsearched growths the dragon-fly
Hangs like a blue thread loosened from the sky: –
So this winged hour is dropt to us from above.
Oh! clasp we to our hearts, for deathless dower,
This close-companioned inarticulate hour
When twofold silence was the song of love.

So what did I sing?

Well, I had a few songs with me that I’d prepared, but I ended up working on two in the masterclasses. For Emma, a piece by Alessandro Scarlatti (father of Domenico) – Se tu della mia morte – the translation of which is, loosely: “If you, by your strong right hand, do not wish to give the glory of my death, you give it with your eyes, for it is the dart of your gaze which kills and consumes me.” Cheerful. I do like Scarlatti though. I’m not too fussed over this particular recording, but it was the best I could find.

And in Andrew’s masterclass I sang Samuel Barber’s Sure on this Shining Night, which I have loved for years. Yet another piece where the poetry is absolutely central to the song:

Sure on this shining night
Of star made shadows round,
Kindness must watch for me
This side the ground.
The late year lies down the north.
All is healed, all is health.
High summer holds the earth.
Hearts all whole.
Sure on this shining night
I weep for wonder wand’ring far alone
Of shadows on the stars.

I’m finding more and more as I get older that I’m quite the Romantic when it comes to text and music. (That’s capital ‘R’ Romantic as opposed to little ‘r’, although I might be that as well!) It’s the first of the two items Cheryl Studer sings here:

* * * * *

It would appear that I have enough music to warrant dividing this into a couple of posts. So stay tuned for Part 2 and I’ll share just a couple more musical discoveries from my week at Dartington. Coming as soon as sleep and work schedules and singing commitments will allow…

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Monteverdi & Minestrone

It’s warming up in south-east Queensland. Our short “winter” has passed, but I took one final opportunity last week to make a big pot of soup before it gets too hot to enjoy it properly. After all, no one wants to be eating soup during a sultry Brisbane summer.

When I lived in Melbourne, one of my very dear friends was Cathy. She’s a fellow soprano, and we’re both somewhat foodies as well (she probably more than me, but we do both love cooking). She also moved to Brisbane for a while shortly after I did, but these days she’s off having adventures in Japan. While we were both down south, however, Cathy and I used to meet at my place for ‘sing and bake’ days. Or sometimes ‘sing and soup’ days. Basically we would cook something together and while it was in the oven or on the stove smelling more and more delicious we would pull out a pile of music and sing through whatever we felt like, just for fun. Mostly duets of whatever we could find in the public domain – Bach, Vivaldi, Monteverdi and so on. We’re both reasonably competent sight-readers, and it was great fun to note-bash our way through something fast and sprightly, with the added challenge of getting our heads around Italian or German. Then we would reward ourselves with the results of our culinary efforts. And tea; there was always tea.

It was Cathy who introduced me to what is now one of my all-time favourite classical CDs, Teatro d’Amore. It’s an album of instrumental and vocal music by Claudio Monteverdi, by the excellent and sometimes blissfully unconventional ensemble L’Arpeggiata. Several tracks feature soprano Nuria Rial, and current darling of the countertenor world Philippe Jaroussky – who are just fabulous, there really are no other words to describe them. Cathy and I attempted a few of the tracks, like Pur ti Miro (which we later ended up performing for friends and family in a small, informal lounge room soiree last year) and Chiome d’oro, which we found a duet setting of instead of the solo version on the album. But the one which I will always associate with Cathy and ‘sing and soup’ days is the final track, Zefiro Torna (literally ‘Zephyr Returns’, Zephyr being the Greek god of the west wind):

“Zephyr returns and fills the air with good scents, and warms the waters, and, whispering in the green branches, gets the flowers to dance in the meadow.”

Very appropriate for the second day of spring! This music makes me all kinds of happy. And whenever I hear someone say that classical music is slow and/or boring, this is what I want to play them. I wish I could sing it even half as well as Nuria Rial! But I can continue to dream (and practice).

Anyway, I’m sure that on at least one occasion Cathy and I made the recipe below. I thought I would share it here so that you can also have the complete Monteverdi & Minestrone experience!

What you need

An onion

Carrots (2-3 depending on size)

Celery (probably 2 sticks, I usually match the amount of carrot)

A leek

A handful of green beans (or more if you have small hands or really like beans)

Stock (chicken or vegetable, cubes or liquid, they’re both fine – you’ll want about a litre, maybe slightly more)

Tin of tomatoes*

Tin of kidney beans (butter beans, cannellini beans or a bean mix also work)

Small pasta like macaroni, shells or spirals (about a cup, uncooked)

Garlic (2-3 cloves)

Herbs (fresh if you have them, but dried will do – I try to use fresh basil and Italian parsley, and supplement with dried oregano or thyme. Whatever is in your pantry that is vaguely Italian is fine.)

Grated parmesan cheese (the actual cheese, not that strange powder that is supposed to pass for cheese which people put on bolognese)

A good olive oil

How to turn it into the most amazing minestrone ever

  1. Go to iTunes or the album’s website and buy Teatro d’Amore. Play it loudly somewhere near the kitchen.
  2. Joyfully chop all your vegetables. I dice everything fairly finely, but it really depends on how chunky your like your soup. I chop the beans into 3-4cm pieces.
  3. Heat a little oil in a large soup pot, and sautee the onion, carrot and celery for about 5 minutes.
  4. Add the stock, leek, beans and tomatoes and bring to the boil.
  5. Reduce the heat, add enough water to make sure the vegetables are covered, and then leave on the stove simmering for about the length of time that it takes to listen to Zefiro Torna eight times. (That’s approximately an hour for the party poopers who don’t think they could handle quite that much Monteverdi. Oh, and a note about adding water… better to add a little too much but let it reduce down than to not add enough initially and have to add more later, which will make it more watery and less flavoursome.)
  6. While you’re listening to Nuria & Philippe serenade you, finely chop your herbs and garlic, and mix them together in a small separate bowl with the grated parmesan, 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil, and some salt and pepper (and any dried herbs you’re using). You want to make a thick pesto-like paste, so just add as much oil as you need for it to hold together.
  7. After about the sixth time through Zefiro Torna, cook and drain the macaroni.
  8. When the soup has had about an hour of simmering (timing is not crucial, give it longer if you like), add the cooked macaroni, kidney beans and the pesto. Stir and increase heat again until just starting to boil.
  9. Serve with a little extra parmesan sprinkled on top, and with your favourite bread. (If you’re looking for something simple to make yourself that requires no yeast or rising time, I heartily recommend this sour skon.)

*At some point in the cooking process I was momentarily distracted by the music and inadvertently added the tin of tomatoes which also included sliced green olives, thus creating a sort of Spanish-influenced Italian soup. But Nuria Rial is from Catalonia, so it’s all OK… and it still tasted great!

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Sorry for the long absence between posts. Instead of writing about music I’ve been busy experiencing it, travelling around Europe, exploring cities, making new friends and of course gathering more stories, musical and otherwise. I’m back in Brisbane now and have gradually returned to something resembling a normal routine, but it was just too difficult to write from the road. Pretty much every day was filled with activity – which made it busy but wonderful!

There are lots of things I could write about music I discovered while I was away, especially since the final week of my trip was spent at the Dartington International Summer School in the UK where I did some vocal masterclasses and a fair bit of choral and small ensemble singing as well. Such a fun and inspiring week, and a terrific way to be exposed to a lot of new music all at once. But I thought I’d start by recollecting my short time in Prague. Being a bit of a whirlwind tour (six countries in 33 days), each place I visited seemed to have an overriding theme for the brief period I was there. Berlin for me was mostly about Cold War history, politics and culture; Spain was primarily a linguistic journey (through both English and Spanish, and the often intriguing differences between them); Iceland showed me the beauty of the natural world like I’ve never seen it before. But my two days in Prague were quite a musical couple of days, spent meandering the streets, hearing live music, and visiting the graves and museums of the Czech Republic’s two most notable composers.

It started with a four hour train ride from Berlin which, after crossing the Czech border,  takes a delightfully scenic route along the river Vltava (or the Moldau, in German) and into Prague. Through most of the trip I just put in my earphones, listened to some very appropriate Smetana and gazed out the window at charming villages. Arriving about lunchtime I wasted as little time as possible in getting out of the hotel to explore, but instead of heading into the centre of the city which I was saving for the following day, I walked south through backstreets until I reached Vyšehrad, or the High Castle, which was the seat of the earliest Czech kings. From up here, you not only get great views over Prague in all directions, but it’s here that both Bedřich Smetana and Antonín Dvořák are buried in the cemetery next to the Basilica of St Peter and St Paul.

The good mood I had enjoyed all morning was tainted only momentarily by a grumpy ticket woman at the entrance to the castle. My guide book had informed me that admission to Vyšehrad was free, but neglected to say anything about the small museum (really just one room with a few pictures and maps in it) at the front entrance which cost a tiny sum to look around, and so I sauntered in not even thinking about a charge or realising that what I was walking into was even a museum. Suddenly I was being told off by an indignant woman in Czech. A few other tourists glanced at me suspiciously. Yet every sign in the entire room had an English translation on it except for the one with the admission prices, so they weren’t exactly making it easy for the non-locals. I paid the equivalent of about one Aussie dollar to look around for all of three minutes, uncomfortably aware of the eyes of the ticket woman on me the whole time. I couldn’t tell if she thought I was about to steal something or if she merely considered me a bit thick, but I quickly left to explore the rest of the grounds.

A sunny blue sky and a good view soon helped me forget the unfortunate encounter, and I wandered around the grounds and gardens taking a few pictures and people-watching before going into the cemetery. It’s not a very big place, but many of the graves are small and quite close together, so if you’re looking for someone in particular it could take a while to find on your own. Fortunately there’s a small map at the gate, with a list of prominent Czechs and their locations, so finding the musicians I’d come to see wasn’t too difficult. Smetana’s grave is marked by a rather austere obelisk; Dvořák’s on the other hand is a little more elaborate, and a much larger plot which is part of the long wall of tombs behind a cast iron fence. I couldn’t help feeling that the inequality of headstones was a little unfair given that Smetana has been referred to by many as the “father of Czech music”, but I suppose Dvořák is the better-known of the two by people outside the country, and possibly more revered in his own lifetime.

If you read my post last year about the Sibelius monument then you’ll know that one of my favourite things to do when I travel is to listen to music while out visiting culturally or historically important sites. Finlandia under the composer’s sculptured monument in Helsinki. Arvo Pärt in the oldest church in Estonia. Italian renaissance polyphony in the duomo in Verona. So it seemed only natural that I would honour each composer at their grave by doing the same. I found a place to sit not far from each tombstone where I could close my eyes and listen. (Note: This sometimes attracts odd looks from people.)

I confess that it was only in the lead up to my trip that I really started to acquaint myself with Smetana’s work, and so Vltava seemed the obvious choice, the famous movement of  Vlast (My Homeland) which is of course named after the longest river in the country. The opening portrays the river from its beginning as two small streams near the border with Austria to the south, and then becomes gloriously expansive as it flows through Prague and broadens on its journey towards Germany to the north. Wandering along the banks of the river the next day and crossing the iconic Charles Bridge, it was hard to resist humming the main theme which I’m sure is deeply rooted somewhere in the consciousness of all Czechs. However, I find it sad knowing that Smetana was completely deaf by the time he wrote it at the end 1874 – he never got to hear for himself the piece which most people know him for.

While I was more familiar with Dvořák’s music and could have chosen a number of things (the New World Symphony, the cello concerto, something from the Stabat Mater), I was moved to listen to one of my all time favourite arias, ‘Song to the Moon’ from Rusalka. The first time I heard a recording of Renee Fleming singing this it literally stopped me in my tracks. I am quite a recent convert to opera, but this may have been one of the first things which really hooked me. There’s a brief synopsis to the storyline on Wikipedia, but it shares similarities with Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid – Rusalka is a water nymph from Slavic mythology, who falls in love with a human prince. But as with all tragic love stories, their love comes at a cost. This aria is Rusalka asking the moon to tell the prince of her love. (Rusalka was also the name given to Dvořák’s house in Vysoká, a town about an hour south west of Prague where he spent much of his life and wrote some of his best and most mature works. You can just hear the wooden summerhouse and the small lake, and the large garden dotted with apple trees. It’s all right there in the music.)

So that was the beginning of my two days in Prague, supplemented nicely by street performers outside Prague Castle and around Malá Strana, and a ‘custom made for tourists’ but nonetheless excellent concert by a string quartet in the Old Town. I also passed a pleasant hour at the Dvořák Museum on my final morning listening to samples of his music sitting next to an upstairs window. Such a beautiful city with such a rich musical heritage. I will be back.

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The Flying Orchestra

Since moving to Queensland about two and half years ago, I’ve really come to love my new home. In fact, recently I’ve had so many “I love Brisbane!” moments when I’ve been out doing ordinary things: people-watching in the city, strolling home from a friend’s place under starry skies after a cup of tea and chat, standing at the bus stop in the morning on the way to work and counting how many palm trees I can see (I think it was about sixteen without even really trying). With the exception of this week, Brisbane does a pretty decent winter and it’s mild and sunny most days, even if the temperature drops quickly as soon as the sun goes down. I do like it here.

Last year I discovered I really beautiful children’s book which is set in Brisbane, and it’s also about music. Chances are anyone in Australia with kids under five already knows about it, but that’s not me; I heard about it during the homily at a wedding of all places. The illustrations are just gorgeous and while Brisbane doesn’t really have any world-famous icons that make it obvious where the pictures are of, everyone who lives here will know City Hall (still undergoing renovations) and the view from Southbank across to the city. So when I’m walking past City Hall on my way into work, I often think of this book.

It’s called The Flying Orchestra by local author Clare McFadden, (you can see her reading the whole book on YouTube, with musical accompaniment) and it’s a beautiful short story about the orchestra which is always in the background, playing the soundtrack to all the events in our lives, big and small. It begins:

“Some days are so windy that even the angels lose their balance from the top of City Hall. It’s always a day like this when the Flying Orchestra blows into town.

Their concert program is a busy one – a violin solo when someone misses their train, a symphony at the airport for a traveller coming home, a concerto when someone stays awake all night thinking, and a sonata for a sad moment at a birthday party.”

That’s about a quarter of it so it’s not very long. If you have young children – or if you don’t – I highly recommend it.

Last week as I walked through the lovely tree-lined streets of suburban Ashgrove on a sunny morning, my flying orchestra was playing this. Just because.


I’m actually going overseas today for a month, heading to Europe for various wonderful adventures, including a friend’s wedding, a volunteer program and a music summer school. I am so excited, but the last few weeks have just been insanely busy, and I think I’ve only had one weekend since Easter where I haven’t had a rehearsal, concert, wedding or church service to sing at. It was last weekend. So that’s why the blog’s been quiet, as I demonstrate the near impossibility of maintaining a good writing habit on top of good work habits and good singing practice habits.

I will try to post at some point from the road though, as I’m pretty sure my flying orchestra has some Mendelssohn lined up to play for me in Berlin, and some Dvořák and Smetana in Prague, and maybe some Rodrigo in Spain.

What’s your flying orchestra playing for you today?

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