Messiah, St David’s Hall in Cardiff

B42U3kbIcAA3wfS.jpg-largeFor my second Messiah of the season I made the trip to Cardiff, to sing with the Cardiff Polyphonic Choir at its farewell concert under conductor Neil Ferris.

St David’s Hall was packed with an attentive and enthusiastic audience which roared its approval at the end for the brilliant work by all my colleagues. A great treat to be singing alongside international stars (and local heroes) Rebecca Evans and Matthew Brook, and to be part of tenor Trystan Griffiths‘ first performance of the piece. Baroque period instrument ensemble Réjouissance played wonderfully under its leader Simon Jones and it was a nice surprise to find the leader from last week’s concert in Worcester leading the second violins.

The choir sang fantastically well and I was able to ask a few of them about the fact that they weren’t grouped in voice parts but, unusually, were all mixed up. Everyone admitted that it was more challenging that way, but that for a work that they knew well such as Messiah, it was a great way to raise the stakes for each individual’s contribution. I don’t know that it would work for every choir, but for the Polys it clearly contributed to their excellent, committed performance and it was a great pleasure to be sharing the stage with them.

What a pity, then, to discover that St David’s Hall and the New Theatre are threatened with a withdrawal of subsidy by Cardiff Council, which is seeking to make savings on its budget. In a situation reminiscent of the one Grimsby Bach Choir is in, the Cardiff Polyphonic Choir may find itself without a large-scale performance venue if the hall passes into commercial hands and becomes prohibitively expensive to hire, as seems likely.

A final decision seems to be pending, but it doesn’t bode well for the breadth of cultural activity in Cardiff.


Messiah with Worcester Festival Choral Society

2014-12-06 15.40.16The first Messiah of the year is always a great moment and I had to wait until December 6 this year to get my fix. It’s one of those works that I look forward to singing, whether as a soloist or as a member of the ensemble.

This performance was in Worcester cathedral (seen right, with me and Janet Coxwell, soprano) conducted by the cathedral’s Organist & Director of Music, Dr Peter Nardone. The other two soloists were Nathan Vale (tenor) and Stuart Young (bass).

It’s always a pleasure to come onstage and find a full auditorium. It was especially lovely at this concert to see the illuminated cathedral nave stretch off into the distance and almost fade into the darkness. It’s fairly remarkable that there’s so much of it left given how fought over Worcester was during the Civil War and the remains of a Christ in Glory on the wall of the College Hall testify to how much damage was done. Last time I sang at the cathedral the Chapter House was being restored, so I was very pleased that it was back in business offering a warming cup of tea in the interval so that I could take a look at it.

Nice, too, to mingle with members of the audience and hear what the Messiah means to them. Christmas wouldn’t really be Christmas without it, one man said to me. I agree.

Sylvia and Vivienne

About nine months ago, I decided that I would like to record Vivienne, my most recent collaboration with Stephen McNeff. The piece is rich in emotional colours and historical context, so I thought it would be interesting to make it the centrepiece of a programme of works related by subject rather than musical lineage.

The narrative of Vivienne is fascinating to me not least because Vivienne Haigh-Wood was a real person, to whom lyricist Andy Rashleigh has given wonderfully sharp thoughts and feelings. She was highly creative and highly-strung. Considered not only troublesome but ‘morally insane’ by her own mother, she was consigned to an asylum for the final nine years of her life, unvisited by her husband TS Eliot (whom she had married without her family’s permission).

If this sounds like a depressing subject for a CD, the sheer quality of songs about madness in the repertoire suggest that it can also strike some kind of a chord. Mental instability is not only a well-worn subject for literary storylines but has often been closely associated with the creative mind itself, in artists as various as Virginia Woolf and Mark Gertler. The majority of the lyrics for such songs are presented ‘in character’ – Shakespeare’s Ophelia, Agnes in Mörike’s Maler Nolten, Rashleigh’s Vivienne – but there is one exception in my programme.

Ned Rorem’s cycle Ariel sets a group of five poems by American poet Sylvia Plath from her collection of the same name. We are closer to the reality of mental distress here than in any of the other texts, but there is still room for dark humour. Not only is Plath’s use of language virtuosic, but our knowledge that she is writing directly from her own experience sharpens every word. Like Vivienne Haigh-Wood, Plath was treated according to the best practice of the day, which was not always pleasant or even successful. Plath was able to distil this experience into poetry in a truly extraordinary way.

In the course of my research I discovered that Plath once dined with TS Eliot and his wife. It would have been wonderfully tidy if that had been Vivienne, but by that evening in 1960 Vivienne was dead and Eliot was married to Valerie.

I wonder what Sylvia and Vivienne would have made of each other.

Like a Chemist from Canada

This week I spent several inspiring evenings in the company of director and Théȃtre de Complicité founder member, Annabel Arden. Although Annabel regularly directs opera (a new Andrea Chenier for Opera North in 2015), I was involved in workshops for a new play. Music is never far away though. Like a Chemist from Canada tells the extraordinary true story of Shostakovich’s visit to Oxford in 1958 to collect an honorary degree. The text is by first-time playwright Lewis Owens and takes its factual detail from a substantial letter written after the event by Sir Isaiah Berlin, the Oxford academic who hosted Shostakovich.


(from right) Harold Macmillan, Hugh Gaitskell, Alan Herbert, 
and Dmitry Shostakovich, Oxford, England, June 1958.

Our text this week was a jumping-off point for discussion and improvisation rather than a finished script – unusual for me, as I generally get to comment on the music rather than the words in development work like this, and all the more interesting because of it. The play is not about music per se but music has an essential role in it. A key aim of this week was to define and refine the relationship between the musical text and the verbal text. Luckily we have pianist Colin Stone on the project, who specialises in Shostakovich’s music, to help us build a musical character line through the play.

The play is also a piece about real people – we know, for instance, that one of the Russian characters went on to be a high-level spy – which raises questions of authenticity vs art. It’s tempting to include interesting details that are historically accurate, but which slow down the momentum, or snag the audience’s attention in an unintended MacGuffin. This project aspires to more than simply re-creating a historical event, layering fact and imagination, past and present, words and melody, in a way that demands the audience’s complicity and compassion.

Many of the same challenges pertain whether we are working on music or words for a piece still in development. Seasoned writers know that they can’t afford to have ‘favourite’ moments without also being prepared to sacrifice them if they don’t work in context. Lewis is fantastically open to Annabel’s treatment of the play and has had to agree to kill a few of his darlings in this week’s process. Ideas are offered, interrogated and claimed or discarded.

It’s a steep learning curve for all of us.


Performances of Like a Chemist from Canada will be at the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, July 3, 2015 and the Duke’s Hall, Royal Academy of Music, June 14, 2015.

Picture credit: Oxford Mail and Thames/Newsquest Oxfordshire


Stoke Newington Opera Cabaret

P1040595For the past few years, I have been involved in the wonderful and eccentric event that is the Stoke Newington Opera Cabaret. It’s a simple enough idea – the audience crowds onto long tables and listens appreciatively while we (a select band of pro singers) perform serious and less serious numbers from the operatic repertoire, linked by a running commentary from compère Adey Grummet. The interval allows everyone to eat their Glyndebourne-style picnic and buy more wine from the bar (proceeds to charity), after which the audience is much more disposed to join in the audience-participation section of the evening, which traditionally includes Va pensiero from Nabucco (in Italian, of course). After a few years of regular attendance, many people now have it off by heart.

This year the Cabaret took place on November 9 at the Round Chapel in Hackney. The event used to happen in Stoke Newington Town Hall, but had to find other premises when the Town Hall was refurbished, and the quirky charm of the Round Chapel now suits it very well. Indeed the event is so popular that it sells out well in advance, raising significant sums of money for charity and providing a fantastic local get-together. The idea works so well that there are now plans for a sister event in Primrose Hill.

It’s not just a lovely event for the guests, who undeniably have a great time, but also for the performers. A big friendly space to sing into and a big friendly audience which is conspicuously on the performers’ side, together offer a wonderful opportunity to try out new repertoire in a same environment.

The Primrose Hill Cabaret will be on April 19, 2015 – more information here.

Get your tickets now. I suspect they may sell out rather fast!



Lunchtime Recital, St. Martin-in-the-Fields

St_Martin_in_the_Fields, a busy Autumn I was absolutely delighted to be able to take part in the ongoing lunchtime recital series at the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields on the corner of Trafalgar Square. Like many London churches, it’s easy to walk past this building on your way to some other venue in the West End. Once inside though, its hard not to be impressed. The sizeable interior has a booming acoustic but this is can be dampened if there is a considerable audience. Many of those who attend concerts here are tourists and the typical programming of familiar works of the classical repertory reflect that.

On Tuesday I had come along with my pianist Chris Hopkins to perform what is, for this venue then, a rather unusual programme of largely contemporary music: Andrzej Panufnik’s Love Song (in this, the centenary year of his birth), Gustav Mahler’s Rückert Lieder and the cycle of songs by Stephen McNeff, Madrigali dell’Estate, that I recorded last year for Champs Hill Records.

We had a packed and attentive house: the quality of their attention suggested that many of them were German or Italian speakers and could follow the texts closely. One German audience member even approached me afterwards to ask where I had learned to speak the language.

Reassuring to know that the detailed language work we all need to do for such concerts is time well spent!

Mahler Rückert Lieder, Ernest Read Symphony

B0ZfPhdIYAAQp58.jpg-largeDuring the Summer I performed Mahler’s Rückert Lieder for the first time at the Presteigne Festival. Last weekend I was delighted to be able to revisit these wonderful songs but with full orchestra in a concert with the Ernest Read Symphony Orchestra under the direction of its conductor, Paul Hoskins. The performance was given at St John’s Church, Waterloo, where amongst the appreciative audience was a music-loving whippet!


Bach B Minor Mass, Grimsby

Philharmonic-poster-octAt the weekend I performed in Bach’s B Minor Mass alongside the Grimsby Bach & Philharmonic Choirs.

Our venue, the Grimsby Central Hall is one of those typical circular meeting-house structures, with a high stage and big upstairs balcony (where the audience congregates because the sound tends to better for classical concerts). The news had recently been announced that the building is to be put up for sale because the organisation which owns it can no longer afford to maintain it. Without a major overhaul, minor issues may become major concerns for health and safety and the old-fashioned heating and lighting are already uneconomical to run.

It’s a great shame to hear this as, apart from the hall in which we were performing, there was another fantastic big space upstairs. Walking to the Hall from the train station it was clear to me that it is situated in a part of town which may once have provided many congregants but which probably provides few supporters of classical music. The financial challenge for the building’s owner is undeniable, but so too is the need for such a resource to remain available to the musical community in Grimsby.

It will be a great shame if another established music venue passes out of use in this way and leaves the local musical community short of a place to perform.

Be Warned – Part 2

A fantastic trailer has been created by Nick Mercer to show off the delightful production of Errollyn Wallen’s Cautionary Tales, which we took to Latitude Festival earlier this year.

Hexham Festival 2014

Last week I went to Hexham in Northumberland to sing in a pair of concerts during the week-long Hexham Abbey Festival. In this, the centenary year of the beginning of the First World War, the Festival had taken as its theme War & Remembrance. The first Saturday’s concert marked this with performances of Mozart’s Vespers and the ever-popular Requiem.

On the following Thursday I returned with the pianist Paul Turner to perform my narrated recital Haydn’s London Ladies.

We have now performed this show a number of times and it’s great to feel it gel, and the delivery settle into a rhythm. Musicians of all sorts frequently remark that it is only in a run of performances of the same work that one really starts to enjoy the detail and the relationship with the audience – I have always found this to be absolutely the case. In particular, solo recital programmes benefit from a dry-run followed by a couple of performances, not only because the first performance is full of so many practical concerns, but the comfort of having already successfully delivered that sequence of music before gives all involved a license to explore the music differently.

I was talking to a colleague recently about this, who is in the middle of a run of a dozen or so performances of Messiah. He confirmed that even in a work he has performed so many times, his performance only becomes more enjoyable as his understanding of it deepens.