Like Pachelbel with his Canon, or Allegri with his Miserere, Samuel Barber has become one of those composers who is mostly remembered for just one piece, the grief-stricken arrangement for string orchestra of a movement from his Opus 11 quartet that has become known simply as “Barber’s Adagio”.
If you’ve seen already Barber’s name on our summer concert posters you may possibly be expecting us to sing the later reincarnation of the “Adagio”, set to the words of the Agnus Dei, but we’re singing reincarnations of an entirely different nature.
In the last few years, our summer concert has become a time for us to explore new music – sometimes that means pieces that are just new to us, such as the ravishing House of the Mind by Howells, that we sang last year, but it often also means really new, freshly written music by living composers. Singing recently composed pieces is particularly exciting as it reminds us that choral music is not a fossil in a museum, it’s a living, breathing animal that is continuing to evolve. It also helps us, as a group, to grow together: when we sing a very new piece of music, no-one has the advantage of having sung it before; no-one is having to erase instructions from other conductors, and so we create our own performance together, from scratch.
In his programme note for our concert on 8 April 2017, Michael Gilmore takes us back to 16th century Rome, using Rosselli's Last Supper fresco in the Sistine Chapel as a visual guide to the music. (Click on the picture to explore a larger version of the painting on Wikipedia Commons - new window)
If we were to link our concert programme to a place, it would be Renaissance Rome where much of the music was written, and to its Sistine Chapel where some of the music was first sung and has been heard repeatedly over the centuries since it was written. The Sistine Chapel is magnificent. Visitors are overawed by Michelangelo's touch of creation on the ceiling and his brooding last judgement above the altar, but they often overlook the less famous frescoes on the side walls. Five artists took events from the lives of Moses and Jesus to mark moments in the annual cycle of Christian worship. One of the paintings by Cosimo Rosselli marks a climax of the sequence in Holy Week. His painting of the last supper is in a way the archetype of our concert programme.
This week, our Monteverdi 1610 Vespers plans started to take shape, as we had a first peek at the music and a workshop with Robert Hollingworth, the director of I Fagiolini, who will conduct our performance on 21 October. It was a hardworking but rewarding day, and Robert managed to cram in a fantastic amount of information for us, along with a good helping of classic comedy references and plenty of fun.
The candles illuminating the chapel are being snuffed out one by one; the serenely beautiful faces painted on the walls and ceiling fade slowly into the gloom; and somewhere above you, out of the darkness, comes the sound of a choir. The words they’re singing come from Psalm 51 and are a bleak acknowledgement of all humanity’s manifold sins and wickedness, a cry of pain searching for relief: and the healing comes from the music itself, so simple and gentle, with an ethereally pure solo voice rising effortlessly out of the harmony. You’re in the Sistine Chapel, on Good Friday, and the music you’re listening to is Miserere Mei, Deus, by Gregorio Allegri.
We had a wonderful time on 19 November singing Messiah to a full cathedral nave, and getting a standing ovation too! It was an honour to welcome our five young soloists from Samling Academy and to hear the amazingly powerful bass voice of Samling Artist Arshak Kuzikyan. As ever, our wonderful period instrument orchestra filled us with energy. Here are a few photos from the weekend, taken by Edmund Ong, Allison Potter, Linda Atunes, Jane Shuttleworth and Julian Wright. For full details, please visit the concert page here
We know that, for families with young children, coming to a full evening's concert is not easy, and so as part of our afternoon rehearsals in the cathedral, we've taken to giving a mini-performance of one of the highlight moments of whatever we're preparing, so that children can enjoy a little taster of a really exciting piece of live music, in a completely relaxed, informal way. It began in 2014 with Zadok the Priest and last year around a hundred primary school children joined us to sing "The Heavens are Telling" from Haydn's The Creation. This year with Messiah, there's only one possible choice for our afternoon spot – the legendary "Hallelujah chorus". Read on to find out a little bit more about this famous piece of music:
Our next concert is probably the most unusual one we've ever taken part in, for never before have any of us sung with an orchestra of 40 lute players.
We've been invited to take part in a concert in Durham Castle on 30 October with the European Lute Orchestra, a group of professional and semi-professional lutenists that was founded in 2011 by their director, Professor Gian Luca Lastraioli, with the aim of recreating a lost sound of the renaissance – the massed lute band. This is also the first time that the European Lute Orchestra has performed outside Italy.