Tag Archives: andrew carwood

Jubilee service at St. Paul’s

Note: this post may fill up with more footage as time goes by πŸ™‚

Ofcourse, all eyes are on London these past few days as Queen Elizabeth II celebrates her 60 years on the throne. As a choir fan, I was especially looking forward to today, when the Queen celebrated a service of thanksgiving at St. Paul’s Cathedral with lots of great music. I’ll just run through the Order of Service to give my thoughts on the performances.
Taking part were ofcourse the Choir of St. Paul’s Cathedral along with the Choir of Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal, directed by Andrew Carwood. They were joined by the Diamond Choir, a mixed choir of choristers aged 10 to 13 selected from cathedrals across the United Kingdom to sing The Call of Wisdom, an anthem by Will Todd, specially commissioned for the occasion. The singers were accompanied by the magnificent organ of St. Paul’s, played by Simon Johnson, as well as the Wren Brass Ensemble for the hymns Old 100th (All people that on Earth do dwell) and Cwm Rhondda (Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer).

As the Queen moved into the cathedral in procession, the choirs sang the magnificent Te Deum in G by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Grand and majestic in the opening section, full of subdued awe and wonder in the closing part. A fitting way to mark the trasition from the boisterous crowds on the streets to the more reverent and calm atmosphere inside.

The Old 100th is one of Britain’s most famous hymns and festively adorned with trumpets in the last verse.

The setting by Alan Gray of the last seven verses of Psalm 96 made for some thin, floating organ sounds and a strong contrast between the trebles and male voices. As a fan of Anglican psalm chant, I thought this piece was over way too quickly πŸ˜‰

I also want to mention the sermon by Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, as I thought it was such a nice message for the young people and the choristers. Dr. Williams expressed his hope that this extended Bank Holiday weekend full of celebration might encourage a rebirth of a spirit of dedication for the common good.

After the archbishop’s inspiring words, the choirs sang Charles Wood’ anthem O thou the central orb, a very dynamic piece, with wonderful treble lines and a short but firm solo part for the lower male voices. As with the Psalm, the contrast between the trebles and the basses was striking and colourful.

The hymn O praise ye the Lord by Charles Hubert Parry, which followed the litany of prayer by representatives both young and old from all over the Commonwealth, has a nice and recognizable tune but did not make much impression on me, as I thought the entire service was more formal and subdued than truly spectacular.

However, I was full of anticipation for the next piece on the programme, the commissioned anthem The Call of Wisdom by Will Todd with words by Michael Hampel, canon at St. Paul’s, based on the service’s Old Testament reading from the Book of Proverbs. Earlier today, on the steps of the cathedral, Todd had told a BBC reporter that as he had been composing, his 8-year-old daughter Petra had walked in and said she liked the tune he had written, and was still singing it hours after. That for him was a sign he was onto somthing good and so he continued with it. Indeed, The Call of Wisdom is memorable mostly for its lovely simple melody rather than its wow-factor.
It starts off really quiet, maybe even a cappella (although it started off, I thought, with a few soft notes by the organ) and builds up with every verse. The chorus has a very strong focus on the lines “I am here, I am with you”, with strong melodic shifts and some higher notes. During the third verse a countermelody is introduced, but without much frills. One or two verses later (I can’t remember exactly) there is a wonderful short jump way up high during the “I am here” part, which is about all the stuntwork Todd pulls off. All throughout, the organ plays very soft and floating, until it reaches the climax, with a full choir sound and full blowing, almost roaring, organ pipes. It ends on a soft fade, just as it started.
This one-off choir may not have given me the fireworks I had been hoping for, like the Ubi caritas by Paul Mealor at Will & Kate’s wedding last year, but I have to hand it to them that their pronunciation was excellent throughout, even in the more complex parts.

Despite the anthem’s lack of grandeur, I kind of like the unexpected choice for Todd as he is a young composer trying out new things (he is also known as a jazz composer). Incidentally, this weekend also marks the release of Todd’s new album on Signum Records, aptly called The Call of Wisdom, featuring a newly scored four-part version of its title piece, sung by the renowned professional choir Tenebrae.

The final hymn, Guide Me o Thou Great Redeemer, with trumpets and wonderful clear, high organ sounds finally brought true festivity in the cathedral, in my opinion at least. The Queen herself joined in singing as well, as did Will and Kate with broad smiles on their faces. And even with a congregation of 2,000 we could still hear the choir trebles on top of it all, thanks to the BBC πŸ˜‰

My phone rang just as the national anthem started and I also didn’t catch the music after the service, sadly (neither did the BBC really properly broadcast any of the organ and brass music before the service). But altogether it was a nice and interesting celebration, which hopefully Prince Philip enjoyed from his hospital bed as well…

Download the official Order of Service here.

P.S.: And here’s what started it all – the coronation on 2 June 1953. Included in this short clip are parts of Parry’s I was glad (with the shouts of “Vivat Regina!”) and Handel’s Zadok the Priest, sung by the combined choirs of Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal and St. George’s Chapel in Windsor – numbering 182 trebles, 37 male altos, 62 tenors, and 67 basses in total. Together with a full orchestra, the total number of musicians was 480.


A choral London Sunday in May

After visiting Arundel for the Libera concert, my boyfriend and I added two more days in London. On Sunday 6 May we attended Mass at St. Paul’s Cathedral and Evensong at Westminster Abbey. The choir at St. Paul’s sang the Missa octo vocum by Hans Leo Hassler (1562-1612), a setting for eight voices dividing the choir into two separate choirs. I thought their music director Andrew Carwood directed them forcefully and I enjoyed the parts with high and low voices together the best. It’s a great feat to pull off a Mass setting with this complexity, but they did not impress me as much as the last time I heard them. I thought they did not always blend beautifully. The anthem, Dic nobis, Maria by Giovanni Bassano, with words from the sequence on Easter Day, was very nice though and the organ voluntary, Prelude and Fugue in C major (BWV 547) by Bach, played om the remote console next to the choir, was just spectacular. A nice bonus was the fact that the closing hymn was How Shall I Sing that Majesty?, which the Libera song of the same title, the last song of the previous night’s concert, is based on πŸ˜‰

The Westminster Abbey Choir did not disappoint however, on the contrary. I think right now they are my favourite English church choir. I was so lucky to be able to hear them last Sunday because they sang beautiful classic responses by William Byrd and a Psalm setting by Samuel Wesley (Psalm 96) as well as the very modern and dynamic Jesus College service by William Mathias and an anthem which is one of my absolute favourites: Great is the Lord by Edward Elgar. This setting of Psalm 48 showcases a wonderful range of choral singing and is the first song on the CD I bought of the Abbey choir as a souvenir of my first visit there last year in March. And they sang it even more beautiful than on that recording. The dynamics were played out even more; each section of the song was given its own momentum, especially the dramatic part about the kings who were amazed and dismayed and hasted away. Each picture was painted perfectly. The baritone solo that follows was just fantastic, so peaceful – a rich, bronze voice that warmed up the whole church. And the moment when the trebles start the part of “Let mount Zion be glad” really was a moment of glad tidings approaching, culminating in a wonderful, powerful climax. Amazing and hats off to James O’Donnell.

What I love about the Abbey is not just its stunning atmosphere but also the fact that you can hear each voice so clearly, especially when seated in the choir stalls. Two of the basses on the Decani side really stood out for me. They seemed to be enjoying themselves a lot as well. One of them had a bit too much vibrato to my taste, but it’s really minor remarks for a choir of this standard.
I was also struck by the way some of the young trebles listened attentively to the long sermon by the former Bishop of Hereford, which sounded a lot like a lecture in school, despite its inspiring material. What a childhood it must be for these young boys, getting so close in contact not only with amazing music but food for thought as well. There were two probationers in the stalls, directly opposite to us, who made me wonder how they experienced this service. I would so love to borrow their head one day to see what a day in their life is like πŸ™‚ The service ended with a hymn that is now becoming a favourite, Love divine, all loves excelling. All in all a wonderful experience.

How a choir works

There’s an interesting and entertaining documentary on Youtube from the BBC all about how choirs are built up and what makes a great choir sound, aptly called How A Choir Works πŸ™‚

It follows choirmaster and broadcaster Gareth Malone working with the BBC Singers to demonstrate the basic choral ingredients and methods with lots of great examples. Malone is famous for making choral singing popular for a wider audience with TV programmes like The Choir in which he teaches people with no previous experience to sing.

The show takes about an hour and focuses on mixed choirs with examples from both classical and pop music. It starts off by showcasing the possibilites of the human voice and the four different voice sections of most choirs (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass). This first part has some great examples of groundbreaking explorations of the use of the human voice for music: a piece by modern composer Giles Swayne and R&B group Naturally 7. It also introduced me to an amazing choral finale, the one from Gustav Mahler’s 2nd Symphony. I must get my hands on a recording of that soon! πŸ™‚

It then goes on to explain what harmony and polyphony are. I found both explanations to be very insightful, with just enough history and theory in it to make it easy to follow. Great to see how harmony gradually developed from gregorian chant. You can almost feel the insecurity of the first steps of trying to sing together to combine different sounds. Harmony seems like such a natural tool to use these days but it’s the result of a long development. Imagine a timeline from monks singing plainchant all the way through to the Beach Boys πŸ˜€ Polyphony was another step along the way, and the way it was explained in this show really made me appreciate it as an art form.

Next up were two aspects of choral singing that perhaps are easily overlooked, by amateurs anyway: the venue where you sing (and its acoustics) and the words of the song. It introduced me to the stunning architecture of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice which inspired a lot of composers of polyphony to write material especially for the acoustics of this amazing and theatrical building.

Another great venue ofcourse is St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, which, as its director of music Andrew Carwood explains, has an 8-second echo – a real challenge if you’re singing fast-paced Bach πŸ˜‰
I also enjoyed conductor and composer Jason Lai‘s anecdote of singing Berlioz’s Te Deum in London’s Royal Albert Hall, where the sound just went up into the air to never come back, making it sound as if he were singing on his own… so frightening!! πŸ™‚

The part I loved most was the part about paying attention to words. It reminded me so much of our own choirmaster, who constantly tells us to realise what we are singing and to reflect the meaning of the words in the way we sing. He also works very hard to make sure we always produce nice clean vowels. Like choir master, singer and teacher Suzi Digby says: “Singing is all about the vowel and the breath, how the vowel travels on the breath”. I just want to get that quote framed and put it on my wall πŸ˜‰

Also look out for a moving performance of the well-known hymn Abide With Me. As a poet with a commission for two new hymn lyrics, I was especially pleased and inspired by this part of the show.

Finally, we take a look at the one choir member working the hardest: the conductor πŸ˜‰ Jason Lai says you can tell straightaway if a conductor is any good from their very first up beat and I can safely say that ours is a great one πŸ™‚ I agree with what Gareth Malone says about the conductor making all the decisions. A choir basically fails or succeeds depending on its conductor. So let’s hear it for the usually unsung heroes of the choir world! πŸ™‚

The show ends with a moving piece called Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, a Methodist hymn which eventually became the anthem of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, and today part of their national anthem. A strong example of the necessity and power of community singing in times of hardship and struggle.

Strangely enough, the show pays no special attention to church choirs, despite footage of some and having the directors of music of both St. Paul’s Cathedral and Eton College featured as two of the commenters throughout the show. Perhaps to the BBC, popularising choral music does not spell church or collegiate choirs? This choirfan felt a bit sad about that and would like to suggest the makers of the show to seek out a certain Norbury-based boy choir in order to find out exactly just how much can be done to popularise the English church choir tradition πŸ˜‰

Nevertheless, it was great to watch. Hope you enjoy it as well!
Thanks to markfromireland for uploading.