Tag Archives: pärt

St. John’s College Choir in Nijmegen

You’ve heard about the Night before Christmas. Well, this year I got to experience the Weekend before Christmas. Because basically Christmas started one weekend before the actual date, with the singing of O Come All Ye Faithful in a packed Stevenskerk in Nijmegen with the St. John’s College Choir! 🙂

The renowned St. John’s Choir gave a splendid Christmas themed concert, in what director Andrew Nethsinga considers his favourite church in the Netherlands, because of the wonderful acoustics. And wonderful it did indeed sound – and look too, with a life size nativity scene in the background, trees glowing with starlike lights and candles burning in the chandeliers above our heads.

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A great atmosphere for a night I’d been looking forward to. Earlier this year, I witnessed the King’s College Choir live in concert and now it was time to get a taste of their neighbouring ‘rivals’.

Without any introduction the choristers filed onto the stage and a solo tenor voice started the Gaude, gaude, gaude, Maria by John Sheppard, a gorgeous and elegant polyphonic piece with bits of old plainchant still intact. I find I quite like these old pieces which have the original plainchant melodies still in them, like the way you can sometimes see original wall paintings in a church that’s been around for ages. Luckily, some ideas change along with the development in music, as the rather dubious sentence, sung in plainchant, about Jews who do not believe in the divine nature of Christ, proved. It was amazing to hear how tight and controlled the choir sounded, like Nethsingha was just manipulating dials on a machine, rather than making calm and concentrated gestures in front of human beings. The trebles seemed to roll and shine on top of the lower voices, and were almost singing as one, while the distinction of the adult voices (countertenors, tenors and basses) served to adorn the fabric on which the high notes were woven. This long first piece was followed by an organ solo, a Prelude and Fugue in C by Bach. I wasn’t always fond of the heavier sounds coming from the organ but loved the more flute- and brasslike sounds in the joyful fugue.

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Up next was the Ceremony of Carols by Benjamin Britten, accompanied on a harp with a beautifully adorned gold column. The boys and men filed in procession to the stage whilst singing. Because they were at first invisible, and we could see the life size nativity scene in the background (which was part of a small exhibition of nativity scenes), the ilusion was created of angels coming down to sing the praises of the newborn Jesus. Very moving.

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Tonight’s arrangement of the Ceremony by Julius Harrison included the lower voices, which was cleverly done, but for me took away some of the unique charm of Britten’s work. Nevertheless, the dramatic impact of This little babe was undeniable. The choir performed it with an almost military force, in concordance with the lyrics, and left at least myself and the lady in front of me breathless. The interlude for harp solo which followed could not have been more perfectly timed. A lovely, enchanting, tender piece, that had the boys and men crowded around the harp player with rapt attention, as if they were crowded around the crib in the stable in Bethlehem.
In freezing winter night, the next piece, had a beautiful solo, though at the final two words (“doth bring”) the boy’s voice sounded a bit rumbling. But perhaps the boy will one day grow up to become one of the choir’s hallmark roaring basses 😉 (some of which, by the way, were pretty handsome lads ;)). The Ceremony ended with the same piece it started with, and the boys and men had to make sure they formed a neat procession again, which for some of the younger ones was a bit difficult 😉 The choir continued singing all the way in the back of wherever they disappeared to, until the absolute faintest “Alleluia” could be heard, truly fading into silence. Magnificent.

During the interval it was time for coffee and a visit to the merchandise stand, where we bought, how appropriate, the album “On Christmas Night”.

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Looking forward to listening to it in the coming days! We also wandered around and enjoyed the church interior and some of the nativity scenes on exhibition.

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What a nice treat to add to a wonderful concert!

In theatres you have bells that ring to tell you it’s time to get back to your seat again, in churches you just let the organ play a few notes 🙂 So back in our seats we were for the second half which began with a piece that I was really looking forward to, and which – I think – I had never heard live before: Allegri’s famous setting of Psalm 51, Miserere mei. Truth be told, it did not have the impact I had expected but perhaps that was due to my feelings of anticipation. Nevertheless I got goosebumps when they started. It was interesting to experience it live, as it added more dynamics to the different parts in regard to where the sound came from: the plainchant tenor part, the bits with high and low voices together and ofcourse the famous treble solo line. Nethsingha employed two boys for this, alternating one another: one older boy with a ‘thinner’ voice who had to make some effort to get the job done, and a younger, smaller boy with a rounder voice, who sang it with just as much intensity as if he were ordering a loaf of bread at the bakery – in other words, I couldn’t believe how well he sang it with such little emphasis 🙂 Again the choir departed, and two organ pieces by Bach followed: Gottes Sohn ist kommen and Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland. The first one contrasted dry low sounds with a high melody, the second piece was again very joyful.

The final part of the programme was made up of different shorter Christmas pieces from all parts of the globe and from many different eras. My favourite carol of all, Silent Night, was probably THE highlight for me. I closed my eyes and dreamed away, to my memories of the shepherd’s fields in Bethlehem that I visited in February this year, mingled with memories of Christmas celebrations as a child. During the concert I often enjoyed watching the choir sing, their expressions etc, but for this piece I just wanted to revel in the sound alone. Very, very moving.
The peace and calm of Silent Night was paired with the bouncing energy of Tomorrow shall be my dancing day, employing the rich contrast between the bell-like trebles and sturdy men, followed by a boisterous power piece for the men, Riu, riu chiu. Each verse was sung completely a cappella by a different singer, and it was amazing to hear them sing so many words in Spanish in such a rigorous tempo and with such conviction. Bravo!

Two completely different settings of the same text followed: Bogoroditse Dyevo (‘Hail, Mother of God’) by Pärt and Rachmaninoff. The Pärt version was another amazing example of this choir’s control of volume and intensity at the most detailed level, again as if Nethsingha was operating a machine, though there was nothing detached in this warm and convincing performance. For the Rachmaninoff piece I once again closed my eyes and bathed in the voices, which gave the typical St. John’s intensity at the full-on climax near the end. Again the church showed its great acoustics, with all the voices kept clear and tight and the echo ringing just long enough. The same trademark intensity was showcased in Peter Wishart’s Alleluya, a new work is come on hand, which sounded just as festive as the title suggests and fit the choir like a glove. And then it was already time to rise and stand for the final piece and to sing with full gusto former King’s director Sir David Willcock’s arrangement of the famous Christmas classic O Come All Ye Faithful. Like my boyfriend said afterwards, it’s hard to get back in Advent mood for three remaining days after this!

Receiving a standing ovation, the beaming Nethsingha and his proud choir could not resist two encores: Tavener’s The Lamb, just glowing with dissonances and melody, and a comic barbershop interpretation of Jingle Bells sung by the men, complete with thigh slapping and finger snapping, as Andrew Nethsingha lounged on the side of the stage, enjoying it all, like everyone around him did as well. A wonderful night and a perfect runner-up for the real Christmas celebrations that are coming soon.

I wish everyone, whether you follow my blog or just dropped by, a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, filled with joy, love and music! See you in 2013!

Israël 427

11 for ’11

So, in the final weeks of 2011 it’s time to look back at what the year has brought this choirfan 🙂 Since 11 is my lucky number, I thought it fun to make a top 11. Here goes, counting from 11 to 1…

11. Choirs of Westminster Abbey & Chapel Royal – Ubi caritas (Paul Mealor)
Ofcourse, royal weddings are historical and romantic, but also perfect opportunities for mini-choir concerts. Such was the case when Will and Kate said yes. This motet was definitely the highlight of the day for me. I simply adore the part where the boys join the men with their “Timeamus” (at 1:39) – that is such gorgeous choral writing. And the soloist deserves another round of applause as well. Truly captivating.


(btw the CD version doesn’t have the intruding sound of the photographs being taken :))

10. Kampen Boys Choir singing I was glad by Parry
Ever since that wedding this famous piece by Charles Hubert Parry had caught my ear, so I was pleased to find it on the programme of the Kampen Boys Choir‘s summer concert. A fun affair, with some surprises – the biggest one being me bursting into tears at the opening of this, their closing piece. What power lies in choral singing, was felt right then by me. Music to lift your soul.

9. All wisdom cometh from the Lord by Philip Moore
An anthem I first heard at a Choral Extragavanza concert in St. Alban’s Cathedral. The concept of this was that you could donate money for your favourite song and the ones voted most for would be sung, as a fundraise for the choirs of St. Alban’s Cathedral. This one was handpicked by James McVinnie, assistent organist at Westminster Abbey who played the organ. It immediately stood out for me, especially because of the haunting, dream-like plainchant ending. After the concert, I found out they sold CD’s of the choir singing this piece and it’s this version which you can listen to in the video, edited with pictures I took at the cathedral. Enjoy!

8. Composer James MacMillan
I blogged about him before, so I’ll be brief. Discovering his music has been one of this year’s highlights and the Wells Cathedral Choir recording of his works for Hyperion is probably my favourite non-Libera choir recording of 2011. Although my absolute favourite piece of his is Christus Vincit, sung by Westminster Cathedral Choir. What MacMillan does there with the treble solo moves me profoundly. The first time the treble reaches his high solo “Alleluia” he lands back safely, so to speak, on the lower voices, as a bird trying to fly. The second and last time though, he soars away freely on his own, on wings of faith. Wow.

7. Evensong at Westminster Abbey
Technically, my first ever Evensong was probably at the St. Nicolaas church in Amsterdam. But the one I attended on St. Patrick’s Day this year at Westminster Abbey to me counts as my official first ever Evensong proper and full. The sad thing is I didn’t keep the liturgy booklet but fortunately I wrote all the pieces down as it was part of an article I wrote for Eredienstvaardig, a Dutch magazine about liturgy and church music 🙂 Here’s the fragment from that article, translated to English:

“A chilly wind is blowing when I hear Big Ben strike four. A busker ensures me his cello can handle the cold, if he tunes it regularly. Unfortunately his playing is drowned out by the hubbub of traffic and tourists.
By contrast, a sacred silence hangs in Westminster Abbey, when a few dozen visitors shuffle inside for Choral Evensong. Walking over the graves of composers such as Henry Purcell I too reach the quire, with its characteristic red lamps, deep blue carpeting and gothic ornamentation. No metropolitan hectic here, but breathing space. The introit, after Psalm 37, immediately gives me goosebumps, and that will hardly change in the following hour or so. The boys of the choir school and the professional lay vicars, under the direction of James O’Donnell, seamlessly weave together devotion and musical splendour, painting lines like those in stained-glass windows.
The big city is not completely gone, however. The Collects are accompanied by what appears to be a helicopter drone, and during the silent pauses of Pärt’s
Beatitudes, sung a cappella, sirens are screeching. Today is Saint Patrick’s Day, the national holiday of Ireland which is celebrated exuberantly throughout the world with parades and fireworks. Here, the festivities are expressed in the closing hymn, I bind unto myself today, one of the best loved hymns in the Anglican church. Not really the same thing.”

(yeah, that's me 🙂 picture taken by a self-proclaimed choir geek from Canada :))

On June 12, on the feast of Pentecost, I was again in London and was lucky enough to decide more or less at the last minute to attend Evensong at the Abbey again – and I’m glad I did. I got to sit in the Quire this time, which was really exciting, and witnessed a beautiful procession with richly illustrated banners and lots of incense. The choir sang a dramatic and inventive Evening Service by William Mathias and two anthems, Der Geist hilft unsrer Schwachheit auf and Du heilige Brunst, süßer Trost, both by Johann Sebastian Bach and it was pretty cool to hear them sing German so effortlessly. Near the end of the service, the choir and clergy once again formed a procession and moved to the Lady Chapel behind the great altar where the choir sang a piece by Thomas Tallis – an eerie experience, their voices seeming to be those of invisible celestial beings.

6. Joining my own choir again!
After an absence of two years I realised I missed singing so much I wanted to join my old church choir Mixtuur again, and I did! I now feel so much more at home there and enjoy the singing a lot more as well. There have been church services which were a delight to sing in and I really missed it when I couldn’t go to choir practice in November because of theatre rehearsals.

This year my choir has had two projects, one with a full Sunday service written by Dutch composer Henny Vrienten (famous for being the frontman of a legendary Dutch beat/pop group from the eighties called Doe Maar as well as being the composer of several film scores) and a Christmas project featuring works by John Rutter (In Dulci Jubilo and his setting of the Magnificat). A rewarding experience to sing with a choir twice the size I’m used to and seeing people new to choral singing growing in their part and enjoying themselves.

I for one have grown in my place in the choir as well. I can read scores more easily now and some songs I can even sing by heart! The most beautiful new song I learned and can now sing almost by heart is Maurice Durufle’s setting of the Lord’s Prayer in French, Notre Père.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, it’s time for the Top 5! 🙂
But since I’ve already stuffed you way too full with this post like a good Christmas dinner, I’ll post them next week, as a nice dessert of the year 🙂