Daughters of the Elements at the Crick

Last night I sang at the Francis Crick Institute as part of an event to mark the second birthday of the Knowledge Quarter. This is an organisation that exists to focus and enable collaboration between the many knowledge-based organisations clustered in the geographical area around Kings Cross-St Pancras, including the British Library, the Wellcome Trust and the Crick Institute. As The Crick is the home of world-class biomedical research and it was appropriate to be singing two scenes from Stephen McNeff‘s work Daughters of the Elements, about Marie Curie and her daughters Ève and Irène.

 Daughters of the Elements was originally premiered at Tête à Tête: the Opera Festival, an important event on the London opera calendar where I first presented two other works by Stephen McNeff, A Voice of One Delight and Vivienne.

Our team last night consisted of Tim Burke conducting members of the CHROMA ensemble (above), with Mary Plazas as Irène and Caroline Kennedy as Ève (pictured right, with me as Marie Curie).

McCaldin Arts announces projects for 2017

Two new projects for 2017 are in development with McCaldin Arts:

Mary is a monodrama for mezzo, trumpet, oboe and cello, by Martin Bussey with libretto by Andy Rashleigh (Vivienne). Queen Mary I is chiefly remembered as Bloody Mary but her personal story is more subtle and interesting than many of us realise, and her contribution to British history more significant.

Elizabeth and Jessie is a narrated recital along the lines of the very successful Haydn’s London Ladies, and tells of the curious link between international opera diva Elizabeth Schumann and darling of 1930s musicals Jessie Matthews.

For more information, click on the links above.

Working titles are provisional and performance dates to be announced.

Haydn’s doctor’s diagnosis confirmed

Fascinating news today about John Hunter, husband of Haydn’s collaborator Anne Hunter, who worked with him on his two books of Canzonettas.

John Hunter, physician to King George III, was a pioneering surgeon and his 200-year old diagnosis of osteosarcoma in a patient has recently been confirmed by modern technology.

Happy birthday to the Haffner


L to R: Julian Cann, CMcC, Justin Doyle

My family lived in Lancaster when I was growing up: my father was Head of Music at Lancaster University, running a department which has alas since been closed. There was a lot of good music-making in the area, including by the Haffner Orchestra, which my father even conducted for a time.

It therefore felt rather special to be invited to return to Lancaster to sing Elgar’s Sea Pictures with the orchestra as part of its fortieth anniversary celebrations. Conductor Justin Doyle – a fellow Lancastrian with whom I have done a lot of music-making in London – was giving his final concert with the Haffner, having recently been appointed Chief Conductor of the RIAS Kammerchor in Berlin, and Julian Cann, with whom I was briefly at school in Lancaster is the orchestra’s Leader.

img_4430Edward Cowie, who was appointed by my father as Composer in Residence at Lancaster many years ago, was commissioned to write a new work, Tide in Knots, to mark the Haffner’s birthday. Edward is a visual artist as well as a musical one and an exhibition of his works on paper was on show in the University gallery.

It was an exceptionally happy concert, and my parents (who have long since moved East) were warmly welcomed back by local friends and colleagues. A packed house duly cheered the orchestra’s fine achievement not just on the night, but over the last forty years.

Paul Ayres’ Artemisia now available to watch

In July I gave the first performance of the complete Artemisia, a song-cycle for voice and string trio by Paul Ayres. It sets poems by Sue Powell and tells the story of the life and art of Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the earliest women painters to establish a lasting reputation.

The videos of the performance are now available to watch on You Tube and you can read more about the project in my earlier blogpost.

Above is the video of La Giuditta, the song about the making of Artemisia’s famous painting Judith slaying Holofernes.


To Hull and back

Piano accompaniment is one of those skills which, the more brilliantly it is executed, the less one is aware of quite what is being done. The sense of exposure I generally feel when about to start a recital from memory is lessened by the knowledge that behind me there is an amazing person, apparently with several brains and more than just two hands, who is seemingly able to read my mind.

image1At the end of an incredibly busy week, during which we had both workshopped and performed The Ubiquitous Woman, I joined pianist Libby Burgess in Hull. The University Music Department was hosting a weekend symposium with Malcolm Martineau, titled Piano Accompaniment in Practice. A range of sessions covered academic and practical aspects of accompanying both singers and instrumentalists.

In her paper, Libby addressed the question of how the accompanist “plays” the text. Malcolm had referred during the previous day’s masterclass to the range of functions the piano can serve, including “carpet” and “wallpaper” and the composer may also direct a pianist towards a much more specific characterisation in the story of the song. This is such rich territory that I would happily have spent the whole afternoon talking around the issues raised by the five songs we performed – Gebet (Wolf); Die Forelle (Schubert); Silent Noon (Vaughan Williams); Sleep (Gurney) and Love’s Philosophy (Quilter).

Our live experiment was to perform Silent Noon without ever  having rehearsed it. Of course it’s a song we both know well, so this was a way to show in action the mechanisms which Libby had been describing, by which the accompanist pays attention to the singer and the text. Despite only scratching the surface of the subject, I have come away with some new ideas about how to return the compliment of the accompanist’s care.

I also have a copy of a magnificent chart (above, right) compiled by one of the other speakers. Proof, if it were needed, that accompanists have nine brains.

The Ubiquitous Woman revealed

Last week we gave a presentation of early development work on The Ubiquitous Woman, a comic chamber opera commissioned by New Notes & Noises. After a week of workshops on the music and structure, we performed two sections of the piece.

The opening few scenes introduce Sabine, her husband Tony, Sabine’s clone Judith and Theo the artist with whom she makes off when she realises she can have her cake and eat it.

Clare McCaldin and Jenny DeeThe second section dealt with how to present the idea of multiple clonings, both visually and in terms of the soundworld. We had been experimenting all week with pre-recorded voices and live singing, with additional sounds cued from the composer’s laptop.

The good news is that the feedback from the audience was positive and we are encouraged to go ahead both by supportive comments and by donations that have been made to this end. Read much more about The Ubiquitous Woman on the New Notes & Noises website and do support us with a donation if you can.

Joubert’s Jane Eyre

img_4358This week I was part of the world premiere of John Joubert’s Jane Eyre, his seventh opera. Charlotte Brontë’s story is tightly condensed into two acts, focussing on the relationship between Jane and Rochester, but giving prominence to the scene with St John Rivers, which Joubert considers the emotional turning-point of Jane’s journey. I had not previously encountered Joubert’s music outside the choral repertoire (his Torches being a staple of many carol services) so it was a revelation to hear the influences of two of his admitted great loves, Britten and Wagner, in his vocal lines and orchestration. For my money there was some Richard Strauss in there too (never a bad thing).





img_4354April Fredrick and David Stout (left) led the cast as Jane and Rochester, with Mark Milhofer as St John Rivers. A group of us played various smaller roles in the wedding scene, which is a crucial dramatic and musical climax. Kenneth Woods conducted the English Symphony Orchestra and our performance was recorded live by SOMM records for commercial release in 2018.

I hope Jane Eyre has a future on the stage – the story is such a strong one and it would be great to see this piece, which has waited so long to be heard, make the final leap into a full production.



New Notes & Noises Launches

I’m very pleased that I am finally able to announce the launch of a new charity I have set up to help support high-quality performances of new work and multi-disciplinary collaboration. New Notes & Noises will look to help support every step of the process of commissioning, developing, rehearsing and producing work in an exciting new period for lyric drama. I am already working with my familiar collaborator, Libby Burgess, as well as an altogether new, highly-skilled professional creative team to bring to life a new piece called The Ubiquitous Woman as a flagship project to get the charity off to a winning start.

You can read more about New Notes and Noises at the dedicated website, newnotesandnoises.org.uk.

A tough act to follow

skagenI’m on the e-mailing list for various London venues, and sometimes I book on a whim for something that just catches my eye. Last night’s double-bill of Big Mouth and Small War at the Barbican’s Pit was just such an occasion. I have been involved in writing and producing one-woman shows for myself and I am especially interested in experiencing how other artists use this intimate format.

If one person is to keep the attention of the audience for an evening, the performance and the content need to be pretty interesting. Technology (and budget) can make a huge difference: video duplication of the single performer in Small War gave us four ‘extra’ actors. But it doesn’t have to be that way – in Big Mouth, the sheer virtuosity of the performer’s delivery persuades the audience that they are in the company of many individuals. Simple live-looping of text and song (see also Complicite’s The Encounter) is a pleasing way to share the ‘technique’ of the show with the audience and create the impression of a crowd.

For me, thinking about what I could programme with my own Vivienne, the challenge of a double-bill is to ensure that the two halves complement and balance each other. This isn’t an issue with two parts of the same piece but two separate works inevitably invite comparison. The first half last night (Big Mouth) was also the first piece to be made and appeared at the Edinburgh Festival in 2012 [review]. It is a tour-de-force for Valentijn Dhaenens who, at the end of it, might reasonably not fancy doing any more work for the day. However, at some point a pendant work, Small War, was made for him, addressing more directly the issues of war and human damage implicit in Big Mouth.

Both works make use of found texts, and this is where the imbalance lay for me. Big Mouth is an ingenious weaving-together of bits of public speech, often made famous or notorious because of who spoke them. Consequently the oratory is knowingly crafted – the speaker is always addressing an audience. Small War mines private testimonies, which turns out to be less interesting, because the content and delivery are inevitably more introvert. For me, the most interesting text came from a serviceman articulating the energy and thrill of killing someone in the line of duty, but it wasn’t enough to keep my interest in the way Big Mouth had gripped me. Having started the evening with an amazing show, the follow-up piece couldn’t really compete, despite everyone’s best efforts.

Arguably, shorter-length evenings are becoming common and a strong show lasting just over an hour doesn’t seem to leave audiences feeling short-changed. However anything less than an hour is unlikely to work for financial reasons – you can’t charge a high enough ticket price to cover your overheads unless you have a decent-length programme. So, while last night’s programme was a useful confirmation of my view that Vivienne needs a partner, it didn’t help me to decide who or what that might be.

The answer will come at some point – it always does. In the meantime I’ll keep enjoying other peoples’ solo shows until I have sorted out my own.