Take Two

Champs HIll Records Clare McCaldin Libby BurgessLast week I returned to Champs Hill to record my second solo CD for Champs Hill Records. It hardly seems possible that I was last there two and half years ago, as so much has happened since, including the label’s well-deserved winning of the RPS Award for Chamber Music and Song 2014.

Champs Hill is a remarkable phenomenon; a house of moderate size that acquired a purpose-built concert hall next-door (modestly known as the Music Room), through the enthusiasm of its owners for live music. A few recordings of performances followed and the idea of bespoke recording projects was quickly born. It soon blossomed into a large-scale project and there are now over 80 CDs in the catalogue, with many more to come.

Recording at Champs Hill Clare McCaldinSince my last visit, it seems that the level of activity has considerably increased. Ours is the first recording of 2015 but a whole series of projects is stacked up behind us in a carefully-arranged constellation that includes not just the recordings, but all the live concerts, talks and other activities that take place in the Barn as well. And that’s without all the planning required to maintain the beautiful gardens and open them to the public.

Making music in a supportive environment is wonderful in itself and the experience is enhanced still further by the ever-changing display of artworks on the walls of the Music Room. Clare McCaldin and Augustus JohnI loved being able to potter off between takes to look at a painting or a bust (I encountered Augustus John, who gets a name-check in Vivienne: “of all philanderers who might want to try it on…I might mention Casanova and Augustus John”).

It would be easy to delegate a lot of this to other people but the notable thing about Champs Hill is that Mary and David Bowerman remain in such close contact with every aspect of every project; the cover image for a CD, the placement of a piece of garden sculpture and the choice of recording artists all get careful attention. That they make time for each of us and make us feel so welcome in their house is the greatest compliment.


Multiple personalities

Clare McCaldin as Vivienne (photo: Claire Shovelton)My recent performance in Somerset was the second time that Libby Burgess and I have done Stephen McNeff’s Vivienne as a concert work rather than in its staged form. Alexandra Coghlan’s kind words in her review of the original production have proved to be correct and the power of the songs in their own right is undeniable.

The piece was conceived with the intention to stage it and is magnificent in a brilliant production by Joe Austin, designed by Simon Kenny. Having given four staged performances in 2013, there is now a rich hinterland of character and movement which informs the piece in concert. There are also interesting differences – not just the different micro-decisions one makes mid-performance, but also the way in which the relationship with the audience in a concert situation changes things. Vivienne in her staged world is isolated and genuinely alone: she makes contact with an audience but it is in her imagination, conjured from memory by her own need for comfort in the asylum. The actual audience in the space sometimes doubles as her imaginary audience but for me, as Vivienne, there is a distinct separation between them.

The composer’s sub-title for Vivienne is “six cabaret songs” and in a concert presentation they irresistibly lean toward this model, in a much more direct dialogue with a ‘real’ audience. Different aspects of Vivienne’s character emerge. She is still undeniably herself, but I find more of what I imagine her to have been in real-life social situations – by turns charming and coquettish, attention-seeking and sulky, as well as confronting painful self-revelation in the extraordinary ending. Words in Andy Rashleigh’s magnificent libretto acquire additional nuance and in concert Vivienne reacts to the audience’s response in a way which feels wrong in the isolation of her staged environment.

I love the flexibility of the piece in these two situations, and the various aspects of Vivienne that emerge in the deepening relationship Libby and I continue to develop with her. This week we record the cycle at Champs Hill, which will require us to commit to an interpretation of it for posterity. Hopefully a third version will emerge that captures her infinite variety even more vividly for the aural experience.

A hasty retreat

Champs Hill CD dry run at The Old RectoryOne of the most useful things for me before an important performance is to give the programme a dry-run. There’s no substitute for the energy and intensity of delivering to even the smallest audience and surprising “pressure points” emerge, which are only discoverable in this way.

In anticipation of next week’s recording sessions at Champs Hill, I spent the last two days in Somerset, rehearsing with Libby Burgess and Catriona Scott, culminating in a concert for an invited audience. Initially it felt like a long way to go for two days and, possibly, a bit of an indulgence. This in spite of the fact that performing (and therefore rehearsing) is my job! I couldn’t have been more wrong about the value of taking this focussed time away. Admittedly it helped that we were spoiled rotten by our hosts, whose enlightened patronage through the provision of a beautiful working environment, great food and an intuitive understanding of what performers need, is the key to serious productivity.

Taking a sabbatical from ‘normal’ life isn’t a new idea – it’s at the heart of the Leighton Artists’ Colony at Banff and similar creative retreats. I was reminded again of the powerful effect of leaving my normal routine for one in which my sole purpose was to give my attention to my work. Being extremely good at multi-tasking, I tend not to make this a priority but it’s something I’ll be finding more opportunities for in the future. There’s no question that it works.

At the end of our ‘retreat’ we tested our audience and ourselves with an intense programme of songs about madness – Purcell’s Bess of Bedlam, Wolf’s settings of Mörike’s Agnes songs, Rorem’s Ariel Songs (poems by Sylvia Plath) and our starting place for the project, Stephen McNeff’s Vivienne. Blessed with a sophisticated and appreciative audience (including the local builder, who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of C20th music), we were gratified by one man who simply said “that was one of the most astonishing evenings I’ve ever spent”.

That’ll do for me.

Return to Champs Hill

Garden sculpture at Champs HillI’m delighted to announce that I will be returning in March to Champs Hill to make a new solo recording.

Since I was last there to make my all-McNeff CD, Madrigali dell’Estate, Champs Hill Records won the RPS 2014 Award for Chamber Music and Song:

“This award celebrates a unique venture in West Sussex which offers holistic support for chamber music and song: promoting excellence in performance, and through its own record label, nurturing young talent and exploring unusual repertoire in a calm and supportive environment”.

It is therefore a great compliment to be invited back there and to be working with a wonderful accompanist, Libby Burgess. Libby is also a familiar face at Champs Hill, having previously recorded there with the oboist James Turnbull.

alt_flyer01For the new CD I wanted to build on my work with Stephen McNeff and, in particular, to record his song-cycle written for me and Libby Burgess in 2013, Vivienne. This work met with critical acclaim when performed in a staged version and will be presented again in June 2015 to mark the 100th anniversary of the marriage of TS Eliot and Vivienne Haigh-Wood.

I also wanted to develop a thematic programme that complimented the content of Vivienne. This took me down twin paths:

Vivienne Haigh-Wood was a real person, married to a famous poet but with her own artistic aspirations, who suffered mental illness and an early death. Sylvia Plath followed a remarkably similar personal arc (although her artistic achievements are unquestionably greater than Vivienne’s). The American composer Ned Rorem has set a group of five of Plath’s magnificent poems from her Ariel collection, which seemed an obvious pendant to McNeff’s song-cycle. The Rorem songs also offered me the chance to involve clarinettist Catriona Scott, whose instrumental line provides a powerful other voice in the cycle.

Mary Catherine Bolton as Ophelia in 1813The second path I explored is that of fictitious literary women who experience madness and death, of whom there are many examples. This led me to the austere beauty of Brahms’s Ophelia Lieder (settings of her texts from the Shakespeare in German translation), and also to Wolf’s Mörike Lieder. A particular group of his texts appear as songs within Mörike’s early novel, Maler Nolten, in which Agnes, a sheltered young woman like Ophelia, is disappointed in love, goes mad and drowns herself. Several of her songs are well-known but they are not always performed together and it is satisfying to re-unite them as a companion group to the Brahms songs, whose heroine suffers a similar fate.

To open the programme we will perform Britten’s realisation of Purcell’s Mad Bess, setting an anonymous Bedlam text from the seventeenth-century that typifies the fascination of the time for lunacy and asylum-dwellers. Bess’s humour and self-awareness provide a wonderful departure-point for the rest of the programme, in which dark comedy and sharp truths abound.

Madness may seem at first to be a depressing subject for a recording, but the quality of the repertoire we will be exploring makes this a very exciting and thought-provoking project. Watch this space for news of the release date and the commemorative performance of Vivienne in June.

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!



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!