Happy Christmas

 

clare mccaldin

Clare performing at a Christmas concert at Leighton House earlier this month

Thank you for following me and my work both here and through my production company, McCaldin Arts. It’s been a busy year of new and exciting work. The promise of 2016 is, if anything, even exotic and demanding.

You can read back over my previous Newsletters by going to the dedicated page on this website (it’s also to be found as a drop-down link, if you hover over the Blog link in the menu).

Have a peaceful Christmas break and a prosperous New Year.

O Veni

clare mccaldinThe Church of England traditionally marks the beginning of Advent with a service on the eve of the season and this year at St Paul’s Knightsbridge we observed the date in a decidedly non-traditional way. Since the summer a group of us has been discussing the meanings of the O Antiphon texts and making creative decisions about how to express them in a combination of new music and dance. The process has been documented along the way in a series of short films and culminated in a performance in the church on Sunday night.

 

antiphon4For parishioners who had been expecting the usual readings and carols it might have come as something of a surprise, but the films and blogposts around the project have been designed to bring the congregation with us on the creative journey. For those who hadn’t seen any of the online materials, Father Alan Gyle gave two short meditations providing context and ideas for reflection. An openness to experience something a bit different is all that was requested of anyone in the pews last night and, from the responses shared with us afterwards, we succeeded in touching people and provoking thought.

Gaia Cicolani, Hubert Essakow & Clare McCaldinThe performance was also a remarkable example of what is possible in a short time. Composer Thomas Hyde had, necessarily, finished writing the score some weeks ago in order that it could be recorded in sketch form for the dancers to work with. Three chorus movements were, as is normal for professional church choirs, rehearsed on the day and fitted together with the dance at the general run-through before the performance. Half an hour of music is a substantial amount of time to fill with movement on just a week’s rehearsal. In the end, choreographer Hubert Essakow‘s decision to leave one of the choral movements un-danced proved a good instinct, as it briefly re-directed the focus to the relationship between the music and the space itself. The church’s High Victorian interior and generous acoustic were a sumptuous canvas on which the movement and music could meet.

 

 

 

CHROMAtic music

Yesterday I joined members of CHROMA to workshop new compositions by students of the Music Department at Royal Holloway, University of London, where CHROMA is currently resident. Apart from the pleasure of seeing old friends whom I bump into surprisingly rarely in the course of our work, it’s always interesting to discuss how and why music works. Mark Bowden, Director of Composition at RHUL, had split his group of students into groups to write for one of two combinations: mezzo, violin and clarinet, or baritone, flute and cello. They had not heard their compositions before, other than in a synthesised version, so this was an essential experience to discover how different the reality can be from the performance in their inner ear.

We worked in the lovely Victorian chapel, whose generous acoustic helped those pieces which contained plenty of space and fogged those with lots of texture and detail. In a dryer acoustic we would have had a very different experience of each work and this in itself generated a useful discussion about the advantages of giving the listener’s ear a rest (and the musicians an occasional breather).

Stuart King (clarinet) CHROMAMy partners for the afternoon were CHROMA Artistic Director Stuart King (clarinet, Right) and Alexandra Wood (violin), and these are some of the things we discussed:

Like any language, music has grammar that can be correctly or wrongly notated, including the spelling. If it’s wrong it’s still possible for players to work out what the composer means, but doing so takes time and effort. For a performer, it jolts the attention, even in a piece that one already knows well, to see something that momentarily makes no sense. In a sight-reading situation it can be really tiring to keep having to decipher the way the score is presented. Clearly the fun bit of composing is writing the music. The more boring but totally essential bit is then to go through every part in the score and check for these spelling and music-grammar errors. Many publishers no longer offer proof-reading as a matter of course, so we rely even more on the composer to supply an accurate edition.

All instruments have a finite range and most singers and instrumentalists will say that it’s not great to spend lots of time at either extreme. I am often asked what my vocal range is. In explaining that it’s less about the absolute extremes and more about context, it can sound as if I am weaselling around the subject. But, as I said to our students yesterday, the four things that combine to affect accuracy and quality of sound for a singer are: the speed of the music, the distance between the notes, the degree to which the intervals in a phrase are tonic or augmented and the complexity of the text. I once heard an actor talking on the radio about the correct speed to speak a certain text. He said that if all the consonants were sounded correctly, that would dictate the tempo at which the text could best be understood. I’m not suggesting this is something that should be imposed on a finished composition but speaking text aloud in this way reveals the time required to articulate words full of consonant clusters or dipthongs. It’s a very useful thing for composers to be aware of.

I think it’s fine for a composer not always to be able to articulate why a phrase or piece of music is written a certain way. Sometimes the musical idea comes without being preceded by a definitive thought or image. However, performers do want to know how to phrase what is on the page and what kind of colour or emotion might be attached to it. This is often so much more useful than a tempo marking. I often have questions about why a word is set a certain way or what’s going on with a particular kind of articulation. Stuart’s pet hate is when the first marking in his part is mezzo-forte – it’s a kind of “half-way” volume but half-way between what, when it’s the first phrase of the piece? It’s really helpful to have descriptive markings. We had a lovely one yesterday: dancing, without weight.

Word-setting. I feel strongly about this one because I love words and feel they often provide initial inspiration but then somehow lose out to the music after that. Stravinsky got away with all kinds of crimes against word-setting but that was because he was Stravinsky. Citing him as an example of why it’s ok to ignore the scansion and weight of words in a phrase is, in my humble opinion, a sign of not having given it enough thought. Of course there are works in which the whole point is that the words are chopped up and treated as sound rather than meaning; Berio did a lot of this and it can sound amazing. However, the fact that a composer has chosen to set words in the first place would generally seem to imply that the words have some meaning worth sharing. Setting them in a way that makes the singer’s and audience’s experience harder begs the question of why the composer set the text at all.

We did have one great moment when we started a new piece and it sounded pretty cacophonous. Looking over at the composer’s horrified face, we realised that it perhaps wasn’t quite what she had expected. It was only after several more false starts that we realised she had forgotten to transpose the clarinet part. Sibelius and other music-processing software programmes are wonderful but in the end someone still has to remember to press the right button!

BrainstOrm

Hubert Essakow, Tom Hyde, Clare McCaldinRecently we had our first creative “brainstorm” for the O Antiphons project at St Paul’s Knightsbridge. I’m reasonably good at staring reflectively into space (see left) but the business of capturing flashes of possible inspiration so as to examine them with a collective critical eye is fascinating.

Choreographer Hubert Essakow (far left) and composer Tom Hyde (centre) are old hands at making something ex nihilo; their respective roles demand that they make decisions in order to begin to create. But as a singer I am more accustomed to being an interpreter than a creator. Generally I am handed the finished product, at which point my creative process begins, which is to lift the song off the page and breathe life and individuality into it. One of the things composers learn early on is that they have to be able to release their creation to this process and trust that the performer will make something of it that is good, even if it is also different from what they had imagined or expected.

So being involved at the very beginning of this creating is already a challenge for me. How to talk about something that doesn’t exist yet? How to describe what qualities it might have, physically or musically? Are any of my ideas any good and do I feel brave enough to try to articulate them?

Tom Hyde and Clare McCaldinWe do at least have the texts to respond to (particularly attractive to me with my fondness for words) and they offer a useful starting point. As a group, the texts have a general theme, but individual texts are of different temperatures and contain images that may be concrete or abstract. The O from which the Antiphons take their name is a call, an address – O Wisdom, O Root of Jesse, O King of the Nations – and the O shape is both a graphic image with a rich symbology, and a sung/spoken vowel. Possibilities start to open up from those starting-points, before we even begin looking at the broader Advent themes of light out of darkness and anticipation. The history of ritual and the circle of the liturgical year offer still more possible points of contact for the creative team.

Tom Hyde, Hubert Essakow, Clare McCaldinWith so many ways in, the need for some early structural decisions is quickly apparent. Hubert could suddenly decide up to the last moment (budget permitting) that an extra dancer is required, but for Tom to get on and write much, he needs to know what he’s writing for. Our O Antiphons will contain sections for eight-part choir, organ and a couple of soloists. Different texts suggest themselves for different combinations. Questions of spoken vs sung text are relevent here too; in an operatic situation I feel strongly that to come out of singing into speech has to be properly justified but in a liturgical setting where we regularly toggle between the two, the transition feels much more natural, with and without accompanying harmony.

We’ve also decided to let the music lead a certain amount of the process but to elect one movement in which the dance will come first. The music will, therefore, be created in response to this. It’ll be interesting to discover what, if any, difference it makes to do it this way round.

Read more from me about the O Antiphons project or watch the video introduction on the St Paul’s Knightsbridge website.

Photo credits: James Bellorini

 

 

O my!

stpauls_dec2014There’s creativity in the air at St Paul’s, Knightsbridge. This is the church where I have sung on Sunday mornings for the past twelve years, as one of an eight-part professional choir. The church is rightly known for the high quality of its music-making and I think it’s fair to say we are a happy group who look forward to working together even when many other people in London are having the day off. The church is blessed with a thoughtful and engaged congregation – whose support extends well beyond the usual parish duties – and a Vicar, Alan Gyle, who has Big Plans for us all.

One of these plans is a project exploring the nature of creativity as it manifests in collaboration between different artistic disciplines. Taking the text of the Advent “O Antiphons” as a starting point, a group of us are generating a brand new work which brings together dance, composition and performance. Nothing particularly unusual so far, but the process is also designed to be as open as possible and so we are documenting it as we go along. Creativity is often seen as a mysterious process that takes place behind closed doors and the intention here is to shine some light on it for those who would not normally witness that process.

It takes a certain courage to let someone peer over your shoulder while you are trying to engage the creativity that you use professionally. Luckily, composer Tom Hyde (also one of the congregation) and choreographer Hubert Essakow are willing to allow the camera in and Liz Smith of entertainingtv is making a series of videos showing how the discussion, and then the piece itself, develops. I am representing the choir in the collaborative process and three professional dancers and the rest of the music team will join us when we start building the performance. We intend the congregation of St Paul’s to be involved too, and will be inviting them to observe and comment as we go along, as well as attending the premiere on 29th November which takes place at the Advent Carol Service.

The O Antiphons are beautiful texts, full of hope and anticipation at the coming of the Messiah. Surprisingly, perhaps, they haven’t often been set as a group. We intend that the St Paul’s settings should work both as individual anthems and as a whole, not least so that they have the possibility of an afterlife in future Advent programming.

We, too, are full of excitement and anticipation as we start the process.

I’ll let you know how we get on.

Watch an introduction from Father Alan Gyle.

 

Shostakovich at the Sheldonian

11032725_10154183948164657_180029179814784887_oLast Friday was the final performance of Like a Chemist from Canada, the play in which I have been taking a minor role as the English singer Margaret Ritchie. Appropriately enough, the show was in Oxford University’s Sheldonian Theatre, the space in which some of the play’s events took place in 1958 when honorary degrees were conferred on Shostakovich and Poulenc. The performance was preceded by a walkabout in Oxford by Shostakovich (Lucien Morgan, seen left in ceremonial robes) with his KGB minders lurking behind him.

 

11717375_10154179905234657_4867384763118275348_oInevitably, trying to take any publicity photos out of doors in tourist season in Oxford attracts attention. The cast of Like a Chemist from Canada is now probably featured in photo albums across the world, without the owners having any clue why. We were also accosted by a man who was particularly concerned about the angle of the mortarboard worn by the Public Orator (Carl Gombrich) and spent some time enlightening us about the correct way to wear it. He wasn’t able to say whether his way was historically correct for 1958 but was insistent nonetheless.

 

11717454_10154197929524657_2612022434463276163_oIn the performances we’ve given, we’ve had the challenge of three very different spaces; the modern ‘black box’ of the Lilian Baylis Studio at Sadlers Wells; the Duke’s Hall, built in 1911 as a concert venue at the Royal Academy of Music; and the Sheldonian, a space designed in the 1660s by Sir Christopher Wren for ceremonial use by the University of Oxford (see left). Different aspects of the buildings have favoured different aspects of the play and made for interestingly different experiences. From a singing point of view, the Sheldonian was the most enjoyable, but that wasn’t the easiest space for hearing text clearly. It was definitely the most historic and beautiful venue too, despite the Edwardian grandeur of the Royal Academy. From a purely theatrical point of view, the Lilian Baylis studio allowed us to control the lighting and, therefore, the stage in a more traditionally theatrical way. Action can guide the audience’s eye but there’s nothing like a big pool of light to show people exactly what they should be looking at. On the other hand, it’s amazing how little is actually needed to suggest different locations clearly to the audience and when the lighting state didn’t change with each new scene it didn’t seem to interfere with anyone’s understanding.

11143575_10154179905224657_8235751309863441416_oThe final performance also brought the frisson of knowing that the audience included family members of some of the characters portrayed. Aline Berlin (Isaiah’s widow) only died last year, and her son is still alive. He, and relatives of some other characters, met the playwright and actors during rehearsals. They not only came along but, more importantly, approved of how their forbears were portrayed in the piece. Margaret Ritchie, my character, didn’t marry or have children so I don’t know whether there is anyone still alive who would have recognised her from (or disagreed with) my portrayal of her. I did have a lot of fun researching her though, and hope she would have approved of my singing. I feel fairly sure she would have passed a dry remark about my splendid diva-ish evening dress, seen left with Tanya Ursova, my accompanist for the project.

For details of Like a Chemist from Canada and full cast see here.

Ludlow English Song Weekend 2015

There are plenty of good reasons to visit Ludlow. John Betjeman thought it was “probably the loveliest town in England” and, as well as its historic buildings, good food and beautiful countryside, it hosts a rather wonderful English Song Weekend which I was fortunate to be part of this year.

The Finzi Friends promote the weekend and Finzi’s musical world is the point of departure for its mixture of poetry, music, culture and ideas. However, Artistic Director Iain Burnside is keen to ensure that the English song tradition is a living, growing one. Alongside ‘core’ composers such as Finzi and Vaughan-Willams, a new commission by Judith Bingham was premiered this year and the repertoire of the future is now being midwived through a competition for young composers.

John-Mark Ainsley, Iain Burnside & Clare McCaldin in LudlowMy appearance was on Sunday morning, with Iain and John-Mark Ainsley (seen left, discussing last-minute details). Iain had programmed a series of songs from a female perspective to interleave with Finzi’s A Young Man’s Exhortation in a sort of musical tag-wrestling whereby the songs answered and commented on each other. John-Mark arrived hot-foot from a recital the previous night (and was also singing in the afternoon concert) but we just had a few minutes to sound-check with the BBC before the audience filled the Assembly Rooms and we were underway. This is the first year that the Radio 3 has taken the concerts and it is a reflection of the increasing esteem in which the festival is held. The concerts – featuring Roderick Williams, Anna Huntley, Marcus Farnsworth and Alex Sprague as well as John-Mark and me – will be broadcast in the lunchtime slot on Radio 3, probably in the week commencing 8 June. Check the BBC schedule for details.

Martin Bussey, Marcus Farnsworth & Clare McCaldinGiven my interest in new music, I was delighted to be performing some songs by contemporary composers: Martin Bussey‘s A Church Romance and two songs from Geoffrey Allan Taylor‘s Larkin cycle, The Echoing Axe. A couple of American tunes even sneaked in, in the form of William Bolcom‘s The Crazy Woman and The Bustle in a House. (Martin is seen on the left of this photo, with baritone Marcus Farnsworth in the background).

 

clare mccaldin in LudlowIt was a bit of a flying visit on this occasion but I want to make time to return to Ludlow to explore it properly. Although the weather had been poor for most of the weekend, as we prepared to leave late on Sunday afternoon the sun came out and the spectacular view we had missed on the way in was revealed.

Definitely somewhere to go back to!

Yes, ’tis Mabel

I wrote in a previous blogpost about researching the English soprano Margaret (“Mabel”) Ritchie, whom I will be playing in the forthcoming drama about Shostakovich, Like a Chemist from Canada. At the time of writing that first post, I still was waiting to hear from various people who might have more information about her. This is a summary of what else I have learned since then:

It’s clear from the correspondence between Britten and Pears that they were both fond of Mabel and respected her as musician. Dr Nick Clark at the Britten-Pears Foundation points out that Britten and Pears were pretty candid with one another and specific in their comments on the abilities of their musical colleagues, so their continued work with and fondness for Mabel is significant. The English Opera Group was carefully formed of musicians whom Britten could trust to do good work; Mabel was just such a member from the Group’s foundation in 1947.

Britten and Mabel corresponded up until the mid-60s (she died in 1969) and she often invited him and Pears to sing at events she had organised. In terms of work offered to her, she was very clear about what she felt she could and couldn’t do. Britten apparently proposed the role of Lady Billows but Mabel declined: “I feel she is not me”.

Nancy Evans (who sang Lucretia at Glyndebourne in 1946, with Mabel as Lucia) writes in her unpublished manuscript After Long Pursuit of the intensity of the rehearsal process and the need to relax at the end of the day.

One suggestion was made by the delightful, but mildly eccentric, singer Margaret Ritchie, known to us all as ‘Mabel’, who possessed a beautiful, soaring soprano voice… [she] pinned up a notice on the rehearsal-board: “Would any singers who would enjoy the refreshment of singing Madrigals please meet at the bottom of the lily-pond [at Glyndebourne] after supper?”

Her anecdote suggests to me a lively person who cherished music-making in all its forms. Her mild eccentricity seems to sit perfectly comfortably with Britten’s references to her seriousness, sensitivity and musicianship. As Dr Nick Clark puts it, she was very likely one of those “salt of the earth” people who kept the rest of a cast calm, especially when the work became challenging.

On the question of her speaking voice, I was able to talk to Philip Scowcroft, whom I had discovered through this online article about Mabel, thanks to Jim Brooks. Philip attended a lecture recital given by Mabel in 1959 and, as a great fan of her singing, remembers it clearly. He writes:

if she had spoken with a northern accent, particularly a noticeable one, I would remember it, even across the intervening 56 years…

So I guess that settles it in terms of the Grimsby accent. Philip adds at the end of his letter:

for me she was one of the greatest of British sopranos of her era.

Another Mabel fan, Starrman22, has uploaded a number of her recordings of Mabel to YouTube. Here she is singing Schubert:

With thanks to Dr Paul Kildea, Dr Nick Clark of the Britten-Pears Foundation, Philip Scowcroft and Jim Brooks. Photo of Mabel, Kathleen Ferrier and Anna Pollak in The Rape of Lucretia used with permission of Getty Images. Text from After Long Pursuit used with permission of Britten-Pears Foundation.

Finding Mabel Ritchie

There are many operas and plays based on real events or people who really lived: Don Carlo and Kròl Roger; Oppenheimer and Masterclass (about Maria Callas) to name a few. Any performer playing someone who died within the last 100 years probably has the benefit of archival information in the form of photos, recordings and film, or in the memories of those still living.

Margaret Ritchie, soprano

Photo: Derek Allen

I’m currently researching the English soprano Margaret (or “Mabel”) Ritchie as I am playing her in a theatre production later this year.

Mabel had a walk-on part in several important musical moments in history – Benjamin Britten was fond of her and cast her as the first Lucia in The Rape of Lucretia (with Ferrier as Lucretia), the first Miss Wordsworth in Albert Herring, and the first soloist in A Ceremony of Carols. She also appeared in a couple of films: as the wordless soloist in Vaughan-Williams’ Sinfonia Antarctica (based on his soundtrack for the 1953 film Scott of the Antarctic) and as Adelina Patti in the film Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945).

Mabel also sang at a soirée in Oxford in 1958 on the evening of Shostakovich’s receipt of his honorary degree from the University. Quite how she found herself there isn’t clear but it may have been through Alexandra Trevor-Roper, wife of a prominent academic, who was a keen amateur singer and music-lover. The events surrounding Shostakovich’s visit are now the subject of a new play by Lewis Owens, entitled Like a Chemist from Canada.

We know that Mabel was born in Grimsby but I haven’t yet been able to find out whether she spoke with an accent (as Kathleen Ferrier did) or whether she was rather more RP.

Luckily a letter from Britten to Peter Pears has yielded some character clues:

Mabel is being awfully sweet. She is a very sensitive good artist – sometimes as a person that funny Christian Scientist streak appears, a sort of solemn obstinacy – but she is very serious and understanding“. (November 1946)

We know from a letter written by Sir Isaiah Berlin after that evening in Oxford that Mabel sang some Poulenc songs, but not which ones. He is rather ungenerous about her performance, writing that she sang “absurdly, in the ludicrous Victorian English fashion, Shostakovich writhed a little but Poulenc, very polite, very mundane, congratulated her and made grimaces to others behind her back“.

It’s interesting to read such judgements of her singing; as so often, it says as much about the critic as the singer. Her delivery does indeed sound slightly old-fashioned to modern ears but she was known for her silvery sound and purity of tone. Britten describes her as “a very light coloratura soprano” (I will therefore be playing her with a certain licence!) and was clearly fond of her professionally as well as personally. She was also rated highly by the critics of the day and sang alongside other great British singers such as Joan Cross, Kathleen Ferrier, Peter Pears, Alfred Deller and Constance Shacklock.

You can form your own opinion from her various recordings on You Tube and here she is singing Mozart’s Ridente la calma:

Like a Chemist from Canada is at Sadlers Well on June 13, the Royal Academy of Music on June 14 and the Sheldonian, Oxford on July 3. If you want to know what the play’s title refers to, you will need to come and see the show!

 

“Notes from the Asylum” CD recording sessions

Clare McCaldin & Libby BurgessRecording a substantial recital disc of wildly-different repertoire was always going to be an exciting challenge. That was the point. Knowing that we had the support of Champs Hill Records, and some fantastic technical assistance in the form of producer Matthew Bennett, engineer Dave Rowell and my singing teacher Paula Anglin, it was up to Libby Burgess and me to go into the studio and take some calculated risks. It can be tricky, though, to calibrate how much energy is still available, even with a seemingly endless supply of tea and Kit Kats on offer.

Three solid days of work requires some serious tactics; how to structure the sessions in order to get the best results and still leave room for experimentation, knowing the distance we needed to cover from Purcell to Stephen McNeff via Wolf, Brahms and Rorem. Even in the best of health, with high levels of preparation, sleep and hydration, a tessitura ranging from low G flat to high C is demanding on the voice. Switching from one style to another also subtly changes how we use our voice and this can throw up extra challenges when something that was working brilliantly yesterday starts misbehaving today. We learn to anticipate and deal with these moments through experience but it’s when it’s starting to get tough that we discover how well we really understand our own technique and instrument. That’s also when we need to know we can trust the people in the producer’s box, as it’s surprising how different things can sound in there.

Clare McCaldin & Libby Burgess at Champs Hill RecordsI’m happy to say that we did everything we wanted to and more. There will undoubtedly be a moment of hesitation before I press PLAY to listen to the first edit, in which I will remember all the things that could have been different, but I am really looking forward to hearing it all from the other side of the mike. For me, one of the great pleasures of recording is tweaking each song for greater expressive detail. A CD-full of unruly female characters gave us plenty of room for creativity on that front and I’ll be really excited to hear how they come across as a group of musical personalities.