Wednesday, May 19, 2010

don't forget to look at the pictures...

Yesterday was very busy, but productive. I tried to catch Peter Horton at the RCM library in the morning, but he wasn’t in yet. It felt so wonderful to be inside a school of music again. There were sounds of practice rooms and lessons floating through the halls and even into the library. It was disappointing to not catch Peter, but it was good to figure out where the library was and how accessible it was.

Steve, Emily, and I made our way to the BBC Singers rehearsal, but only left ourselves exactly enough time. When the bus came late, and the tube was running slow, we got there late. Luckily we had been told to arrive 15 minutes early and we didn’t get admitted until after we had showed up anyway. On the way we saw a van almost get run over by a bus. The driver of the van was not the wisest, instead of backing out of traffic, he tried to blindly pull into it — the terror!

The rehearsal was the best rehearsal we’ve attended since being here. I would like to sing with the BBC Singers, more than the other groups we’ve been involved with since arriving here. They are directed by Bob Chilcott. I was very impressed with their sound, but I think a lot of that came from the balance that was built into the choir. They had 24 singers with six voices on each voice part. They also used women for altos. This creates a sound much more in line with the traditional American choral sound.

They were incredibly adept at sight-reading music well. They did a great job of reading dynamics alongside text and pitches during a first read-through. The energy they sang with was also most impressive. They wanted to sing and as an “audience” member, I could feel that.

From what we have seen in many English choirs, this choir is very different and I like it. I’ve already said that I liked even voice parts and female altos, but the strong rehearsal ethic and striving towards perfection instead of just getting by are the most endearing characteristics of this choir. I wish we could hear one of their concerts while we are here. It isn’t on our schedule, but I’ll see what I can do during the Proms.

After the morning rehearsal, Jake, Phil, and I took off for Westminster Abbey to take the tour. That was likely the best £12 I’ve spent since I’ve been here. The Lady Chapel built by Henry VII was the most gorgeous room I’ve seen since I’ve been in London. The heraldic emblems and the most intricate ceiling were spellbinding. It was also interesting to learn some details about England’s history. The fact that Mary is buried under her sister Elizabeth in an Anglican chapel is an interesting twist of fate, and then having Mary Queen of Scots buried in similar splendor across the way is also interesting. English history is full of wonderful twists of fate. I LOVED standing in Poet’s Corner. To see either the graves or memorials to Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Keats, Handel, Tennyson, and Shakespeare, to name a few, filled my heart with such joy. It was also great to see the memorials to members of the armed forces and Muzio Clementi’s tombstone in the cloisters. Of course, the tomb of the unknown soldier was a thought-provoking sight, surrounded by poppies.

After we finished the tour (it took us over an hour and a half), I took the tube back to the RCM while Phil and Jake wandered around Westminster. I was able to catch Peter Horton and he showed me into the library proper. He gave me free access to the catalogue of manuscripts; interestingly, a lot of it is still accessed through card catalogue! They are slowly transferring over to computer...oh, musicians and traditions!

I met back up with Phil and Jake on the Westminster Abbey lawn for us to run to grab a bite to eat and head into the concert. We got to pick our seats in the quire, so we sat on the back row with the shields of the Commonwealth behind us. I was sitting in New Zealand. It was disappointing to not see the choir, but it was still a good experience.

Today I woke up at 7. I decided that I didn’t want to be awake, so I fell back to sleep for a bit, but it does seem that my body is getting on an appropriate schedule finally. And Josh talked of going running in the mornings, so that would certainly help some more. We’ll see how committed he is in the next few days.

We had class today that went fairly well, and turned out to be fairly interesting since we were talking about Bach and his genius for most of the time. Bach is so incredible; I love finding more evidences of this, and the motets are further evidence in my mind.

After organizing things, Jake, Josh, and I headed to the Science Museum. We spent almost all of our time in the exhibit on the Muslim scientific influence through the ages. There were some incredible inventions and discoveries that I’d never known about or thought about. The elephant clock and all of the medical knowledge and innovations truly impressed me. I also would love to see a full-size replica of the ancient Chinese (Muslim) boat that they had a small-scale model of. Apparently it was five times larger than the ships in Europe at a similar time.

We met up at the flat and ate a quick dinner. Then we dashed to the rehearsal for the evening. It was neat hearing the rehearsal in one of the churches featured in the Da Vinci Code. Tonight we attended the rehearsal of the Holst Singers, under the direction of Stephen Layton. Dr Staheli and Sister Hall were a little unsure of information about the choir, but I understand that they are an amateur choir that is auditioned. They have female sopranos and altos and are somewhat balanced in numbers between voice parts; it appeared that they had the fairly typical problem of more women than men, but it had been kept in check before getting too out of hand.

I really appreciated how Stephen Layton handled the choir; they were rehearsed, not just pushed through a run-through. He frequently stopped and would ask for differences in sound, pronunciation, and balance. He also used rehearsal techniques like having some sections hum their parts while others sang, singing quietly to check parts, and frequently used a cappella section run-throughs to emphasize correctness. To give an idea of how detail-oriented he was, it took over 45 minutes to run Motet VI, which is only about 170 measures long. I LOVED it! The only thing that would’ve made it better would’ve been to be in a seat where I could’ve heard his voice better or to have been singing in the group.

As far as the group goes, I was impressed. We had been prepared for mediocrity, but they had a very engaging sound. I enjoyed listening to them and am excited that we will hear the final product in concert next week. I liked their attention to detail; the conductor’s directions were not wasted. They sang “strong-weak”s and had diction that lined up decently. I also enjoyed their dynamics. The agility was quite good considering their level of training and rehearsal schedule.

A quick note on Stephen Layton’s conducting: irregular. He gave a beat, but it wasn’t always steady, even though they sang fairly steadily. I’m guessing his irregular time works because he has conducted these singers for so long and they are used to it. That being said, I want to know where he was trained and where he has worked since receiving that training; I’m curious if he is innovative or just from a different school than everyone else we’ve seen. I’m guessing that next week’s programme notes will elucidate the answers to a few of these questions.

Tomorrow we are heading to Cambridge. Who knows the adventures that await?!

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