Tag Archives: choirs

Enjoyable concert: full rehearsal and concert day

I wrote the previous post after the first rehearsal. We had a second rehearsal on Friday night (with the choir and the full orchestra: Wednesday was just strings), and then a final rehearsal on Saturday afternoon, with the concert in the evening.

Friday rehearsal

The main thing that became apparent at the Friday rehearsal was that the orchestra seating was going to be very cramped. This is quite uncomfortable for a string player. The reason is probably quite obvious: you need to be able to move the bow freely without either jabbing somebody with the sharp end, poking them in the ribs with the blunt end, knocking anyone’s music over, or damaging the bow by hitting an immovable object such as a stone pillar with it. And you want to be able to sit at an angle which allows you to see the conductor, the leader and your music, and which also allows your “desk partner”–the person you share a music stand with–to do the same. And THEN you want to accomplish all this without getting a stiff back from sitting awkwardly.

Everything seemed fine until the cellos said they hadn’t got room to play. Obviously something had to be done about this, so we all moved a bit thereby sharing the discomfort out. Now we were all short of about an inch of space compared to what we needed, rather than the cellos each having a foot less than they needed. We shuffled around into carefully crafted positions which just about made playing possible. I remarked that an inch of movement in any direction would prevent me playing. Everyone else seemed to be in a similar situation. All the chairs were in exactly the right position and woe betide anyone who moved them…

Then the alarming announcement: during the first half of the concert, it would be necessary to completely dismantle the string section after the first piece, to make room for a piano. Then, after the piano had been finished with and trundled off again, we would have to restore the seating and play our string piece. Things like this add considerably to the stress of a concert! So I was rather apprehensive about how it would work out. (I once had the experience of playing the whole of Suk’s Serenade for Strings without being able to see the conductor at all, at a concert in which the wind players performed a piece on their own directly before ours, and moved all our seats around in the process.)

Dress rehearsal

The Saturday afternoon rehearsal was good. The choirs sang well, their improvement from the day before was quite noticeable, and they seemed likely to improve even more by the evening. The orchestra’s playing was good too. But the leader–remember I was sitting with her, at the front–had got a bad cold and a cough which was threatening to become uncontrollable. And she had lots of solo passages to play. So it was quite worrying that she had to leave the rehearsal several times in search of drinks, cough medicines and so on. What if the cough got out of control in the concert and stopped her playing at a crucial moment? Who would play the solos? Very possibly me, but whereas she’d spent time at home practising them to make them sound wonderful, I’d be sightreading them, during the concert…!

I’m sure people in audiences just go along and listen to the music, unaware that all this stuff is going on!


In the event it worked out fine. Katy was full enough of cough medicine and heaven-knows-what to be able to play without disruption, and somehow managed to be full of medication without her brain clouding over; the solos were absolutely beautiful, and our performance of the Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis seemed to take off–and miraculously, we did in fact manage to get our seats close enough to the original arrangement for us to be able to play it. And it was interesting hearing the original Thomas Tallis hymn–the one used by Vaughan Williams as the basis of the Fantasia–sung by a small choir at the back of the church before we played the actual piece.

It was quite a varied concert: music for big choir and full orchestra, for strings alone (the Fantasia), for choir and organ, for small unaccompanied choir (the Tallis hymn), and for solo singer and piano. (The solo singers were the baritone and soprano who would be singing in the second half for Fauré’s Requiem.)

So I enjoyed the concert, but was also very relieved when the first half was over, with all its potential sources of unwanted excitement. And judging by their response, the audience did too. The prolonged silence after the end of the Requiem before the applause started was a good sign; if the piece is performed well the audience like to enjoy the closing silence for a while before clapping. That’s very unnerving for the performers: it feels as though actually, they may never start clapping. But the enthusiastic applause then started, and we knew it had gone well.

And then off home, exhausted.

Enjoyable concert: string rehearsal

Last night I went to the first rehearsal for a concert I’m playing in on Saturday. This is another nice event: it’s a mainly-choral concert which happens once a year. There is a small orchestra consisting of invited players, and a very good choir which I think consists of invited singers. (Well I’m assuming they’ll be good; last night was a strings-only rehearsal, but this will be the third year I’ve played and they were excellent the first two times.)

The music (for us) is

  • Vaughan Williams, Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis
  • Fauré, Requiem
  • Vaughan Williams, Towards the Unknown Region

though probably not in that order.

I’m not sure how well-known Vaughan Williams is outside the UK, so perhaps I should say a little about the Fantasia (and then give you a Wikipedia link or similar when I’ve looked it up). In this country it’s regarded as the string piece of all time, really (unless that place belongs to Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro). It was originally written to be performed in, I think, Gloucester Cathedral and it is written for string orchestra, a second, smaller string orchestra of about 8 players (seated well away from the main one), and string quartet. Just strings. In the original performance the string quartet was again seated separately, but we’re playing it the usual way: the leaders of the string sections stay in their normal seats and play solo for the quartet bits. We’re not playing it in a cathedral but we are playing it in a large parish church which isn’t much different from a cathedral and has just the right acoustics.

It’s a lyrical and very English piece, which uses everything from the sound of a quartet on its own to the lushly orchestrated sound of the whole string orchestra playing as loud as they can… Actually, around 18 months ago I had the opportunity to play it at an orchestral study day (just for strings) where we had an orchestra of about 60 string players; now that was quite something.) The second orchestra typically feature as an ethereal sound in the far distance, which continues after a climax from the full orchestra or which precedes a dramatic entry by everyone. The piece is based on a hymn setting by the Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis, and a small choir will sing the original from the back of the church before we then play the Fantasia.

For this concert I’m sitting at the front of the first violins, next to the leader. I hadn’t known this or maybe I’d have looked at the music a bit more, because it means that I have to lead the orchestra in the sections where she’s playing solo as part of the string quartet. But I’ve played the piece before, so that’s OK. Anyway I digress. Her comment about playing the Fantasia after a summer of non-playing was “It’s like a nice hot bath”–which it is, really.

Towards the Unknown Region was a new piece to me. As I feared from the title, it did, towards the end, ascend speedily to heights on the violin which are unknown to many players… I ought to have a look a that section before Saturday. There’s about half a page of it.

And yes, the Fauré is the same piece as in the conducting course (see Opening the Envelope and How the conducting course went), but in a different version: this one has a full violin section. But it’s still a viola extravaganza really; we only play for a few of the movements, and then when we do play we often feel as though we should try to sound like violas. 😉

There’s another rehearsal tomorrow, then the concert is on Saturday. I wasn’t really in the mood for rehearsals and concerts yet, but this should be good. 🙂

How the conducting course went

Here are a few random details and thoughts from a sleepy mind. Maybe they can get less random later, with a bit of editing.

The format

Similar to a typical concert day, but with tutoring:

  • Afternoon rehearsal
  • Short evening concert

The music

  • A Haydn motet with dramatic orchestral accompaniment. I don’t have a note of the title with me, but it includes the word insana (Choir and orchestra)
  • Mozart, Ave Verum Corpus (Choir and orchestra)
  • A short symphony by J C Bach (not J S Bach; a descendent who wrote early classical music) (Orchestra only)
  • J S Bach cantata Jesu, meine Freude (Choir and harpsichord; we didn’t play)
  • Fauré, Requiem (Choir, organ and orchestra)

The orchestra

Small. If we’d all played in everything, it would have consisted of

  • 5 violins
  • 4 violas
  • 4 cellos
  • 1 double bass
  • 2 horns
  • 2 oboes
  • Timps
  • Harp
  • Organ

But in fact the instruments required varied quite a lot from piece to piece; in particular, there are two versions of Fauré’s Requiem, both beloved of viola players, and the one we used is for a highly unusual combination involving full viola and cello sections and just one, solo, violin–who was me. Furthermore the violin only plays in two out of the seven movements. This brings its own special stresses–see below.

The players were a mixture: some students from the course, and some outside players like me. One of the oboe players was someone I used to know from work some years ago, which was nice. And some familiar faces from previous occasions were missing, because of holidays and so on. But you can’t have everything…

The rehearsal

In the rehearsal, the student conductors took turns to conduct a movement of one of the pieces, which they would then be conducting in the evening concert. They had been allocated strict time slots, to ensure everyone had a fair go; all managed to make good use of their rehearsal time. The conducting tutor made comments as necessary. The more accomplished students were given the more difficult movements or pieces to conduct, and this had been done well–there weren’t any moments of terror as to whether the conductor would manage to do what was required. (Or at least, no terror on the part of the players.)

It’s hard to say much about the tutoring aspect since it was mostly small last-minute detail, though we did do one exercise which comes up every so often: the orchestra is asked to try to rush, and the conductor has to try to slow us down. There are techniques for doing this, which are quite difficult to rush against. But this was an orchestra of quite experienced players, and on this occasion we won 😉

The format was slightly different from previous years; previously we’ve had an orchestra-only session in the morning, then an afternoon session with the singers present, then a late-afternoon concert. The orchestra-only session has been the one where conductors and players were most relaxed, and where there was most opportunity to give feedback to the conductors. This time the rehearsal felt very like a dress rehearsal with a looming concert deadline, meaning that it was more like the normal experience of getting ready for a concert. So we were better-behaved than we might otherwise have been 😉

The Fauré was the first piece to be reherased, which was actually quite uncomfortable: I had to sit through several movements of the piece, rather than play and get warmed up, and then play my solos “cold”. Unsurprisingly, I was much happier with how I played the solos in the concert than at the beginning of the rehearsal. But people made nice comments afterwards, so that was OK.

The singers

There was a large choir consisting of people who were there for the singing part of the course. I always have trouble estimating numbers of people, and usually get it too low, but my guess is around sixty people. And it was good singing–I think the people who go on this course are similar to the ones who go to chamber music weeks for string players and so on: amateurs who take their music seriously and who look forward to an event where they can do it well 🙂

The soloists were also very good. I’m extremely critical of most solo singers, especially the ones with very operatic vibrato. Well there wasn’t any of that: just good, musical singing with a nice tone (and some vibrato, yes–but tastefully used and never excessive). One of the highlights of the Requiem concert was the singing of the soprano soloist in the Pie Jesu, which was superb. Everybody told her so too, which is good 🙂

The concert

This was enjoyable. And unusual (for our parts of it) in that the orchestra faced away from the audience, so that the conductors faced the audience… but this was presumably for the very good reason that actually, the audience consisted mainly of

  • the large choir mentioned above
  • conductors who were awaiting their turn at conducting.

Actually the only negative feature of the concert was the hot weather. Unfortunately we (the orchestra) didn’t get ourselves organised enough in time to decide unanimously to play without jackets, which I for one would have found much more comfortable. (I don’t like being too hot, and neither am I happy about dripping sweat onto the violin…) So at the beginning I thought I was going to have quite a lot of difficulty playing. But fortunately, the temperature fell to a more manageable level as the evening progressed.

But every time I play for this event I wonder what it must be like for the conductors who are also singing–they will sing in the choir for part of a piece, then come to the front to conduct the next part. How on earth do you sing in a relaxed way, knowing that in a few moments it will be YOUR turn to hold the performance together?

We got a break from playing while one of the groups sang the Bach cantata. It was quite an ambitious one, full of complicated counterpoint which they sang well.

And at no point during the concert was I worried that any of the conductors might not cope–the playing all felt safe. The only alarming moment was when the one who started the Haydn motet off launched into it at a speed which I think was considerably faster than he’d intended… but everyone survived and it was certainly dramatic 😉

The different format this year meant that I didn’t hear some of the groups singing that I have done before–in particular I’ve looked forward to hearing the Advanced Singers performing quite difficult unaccompanied songs to a high standard. Sadly we were there on Friday for the accompanied singing, and they would be performing on the Saturday. But still, a very enjoyable event.

Opening the Envelope

Sitting in a nice nearly empty and quiet library. People still seem to insist on using the computers in pairs who then sit next to me, but at least the pair next to me is a quiet one.

Anyway: yesterday I finally got round to Opening The Envelope…

What envelope? The one with the music in which needs to be practised by Friday.

Sorry, what music for Friday? What are you on about? Talk sense, man!

The event

Friday is interesting: I’m leading a small orchestra, for a conducting course. It’s part of a week-long event for singers and choir conductors. Both the singers and the conductors come in three flavours: Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced.

On the last day of the course, the Advanced conductors have the scary task of conducting a piece for choir and orchestra. Bear in mind that these are choir conductors and that conducting an orchestra is a substantially different skill. So, we’re here for them to practise on. And we’re allowed to abandon usual orchestral etiquette and answer the conductors back, tell them why their beat was difficult to follow…

For an orchestral player it’s all quite fascinating, because usually, we simply follow the conductor with more or less success and play accordingly. At the conducting course we get to discover why some conductors are easier to follow than others, and we get to compare and contrast different conducting styles. And we discover that sometimes the things that go wrong in our own orchestras are actually the conductor’s fault. It’s brilliant! And what’s more, they pay us for it!

But we have to be nice to the victims conducting students because for most of them it’s their first experience of conducting an orchestra, especially one that answers back, and they’re quite nervous. Get it right and great fun is had by all, including the students.

The envelope

Anyway, I opened the envelope. Looked at the music. Sightread most of the music. Took 20 minutes. It’s all pretty straightforward and it looks as though all I really need to do is to write a few fingerings in one of the pieces.

I was worried about having to do this after six weeks of non-playing (see earlier entry), but it was obvious that any deficiences in my playing were the result of needing to get warmed up a bit rather than any Nasties in the music. My right arm seems to have made friends with the violin bow again, but my left hand was tensing up a bit. So I spent the rest of the practice session doing some Sevcik finger exercises and practising keeping my fingers as relaxed as possible.

I suppose I now need to include a health warning post about how to practise finger exercises, but that can wait until I feel like writing it. In the meantime: Don’t practise them incessantly and with tense fingers, since that’s the opposite of what they’re for and has the potential to give you RSI and the like if you keep it up.