Wednesday, July 25, 2012

With the sweetest burst of melody I know... it's the piccolo

I haven't done much singing since Manchester Lines finished a couple of weeks ago. There've been normal choir practices, of course - last week's caused me to have "Come Follow the Band" stuck in my head for days. We're doing that at Tatton Park this Saturday, along with several other much more conventional choral classics (although I'm still baffled about who keeps suggesting that Walton's Henry V is appropriate at all for concerts like this, let alone that it makes a good finale!) Actually, I feel that my main contribution towards this concert has been alerting some of my friends to the existence of the Foreskin Chorus, which I was surprised to find they'd never heard of…

We do have our trip to the Proms in a couple of weeks' time. I have to admit that so far I haven't been bowled over by any of the proms I've seen or heard, but there's still time. And this Thursday has Beethoven 5 (and 6, but 5 is the one I love) on BBC4, so I'm looking forward to that, at least. I did listen to My Fair Lady, which was OK, but I think I would have preferred to see it on TV. I was surprised it wasn't, actually - the John Wilson ones usually are - but this BBC blog post reveals that they couldn't get the rights!

The Olympics are just about upon us too, but I'm almost as unexcited about them. (I seem to be grumpy about everything lately!) Actually, the one part of the Olympics I have been looking forward to, ever since I heard about it, is the extreme bell-ringing which is due to take place at 8.12am this Friday morning. It seems that even Big Ben is going to join in. Assuming I wake up in time, I plan to shake my sleighbells :-)

Actually, I will be part of the Olympics in one way, even if I don't join in with the bells. There's a sound installation which will be played along the whole length of the Millennium Bridge, between July and September from 8am to 10pm every day… and at the start of each hour it will play the Virtual Choir 3 performance of Eric Whitacre's "Water Night", which includes me. I must say I'm quite taken by the thought of being part of "an astounding invisible 3,746-voice strong choir from 73 countries"!

I wasn't paid to be part of the Virtual Choir, of course, but there are lots of musicians who should be receiving payment for their part in the Olympics but aren't… or, at least, aren't being paid enough. This Guardian article explains. Outrageous.

This is a totally insane idea, but I love it: there's a bloke who's attempting to create an orchestra made up entirely of people he meets on the Tube. Not only that, in order to qualify they have to be actually carrying their instrument the first time he meets them.

Apparently sopranos live longer than altos! Yet there is no significant difference between the life spans of tenors and basses. Another example of the fact that the universe hates altos, I think!

It seems that there's an Austrian grave robber who is stealing bits of dead composers. He's already got the teeth of both Brahms and Strauss. *boggle*

Here's a nice Telegraph blog post about why musical taste is more revealing than reading habits.

Was it just me that didn't know that it was Sir Thomas Allen who was the real-life inspiration for Billy Elliot?

I'm extremely amused that Spem in Alium has raced to the top of the classical charts due to being mentioned in "Fifty Shades of Grey", which - if you haven't heard of it - is the current bestselling book in the UK (and probably everywhere else). (I haven't read it, and have no plans to do so - I do read lots of fanfiction, but I have friends who have read the original piece of Twilight fanfiction, before the author changed the names so it was publishable, and they tell me that it was unbelievably bad fanfiction. Normally I would prefer to read something myself and make my own mind up, but life's too short to read rubbish, and I've not yet seen a single review that suggests my friends are mistaken.)

This is a nice story: there's a Manchester wrestler who has chosen to have his next fight at the RNCM so that he can enter the ring to the sound of a string quartet playing the New World Symphony. I'm not sure whether he doesn't know that it's 45 minutes long, or the reporter doesn't, but never mind. I imagine it must be the start of the last movement that he's using - I can't imagine most of the rest of it fitting the bill!

The Guardian has a nice obituary of Neville Roberts, who sadly died recently.

If you're a Sudoku fan, you may be interested to try this one: it's supposed to be the hardest one there is.

And finally, there's a flower festival going on in Manchester city centre this week. It's called Dig the City, and the BBC news site has some lovely photos of it.

Friday, June 22, 2012

F is for phone, for those who spell phonetically

Well, we're now halfway through the run of Manchester Lines, and it's great fun. (It does feel a bit as if I've spent more time at Number One First Street this month than my best friend, who works there, but I know that's not really the case!)

If you haven't seen the show yet, do get a ticket if you can, because it ends on 7th July and you'll never be able to see it anywhere else - and it's fabulous. I just want everyone to see how good it is! It's magical and happy and sad and thought-provoking and beautiful. There are loads of reviews (not sure why there are so many more than there ever are for any of our concerts, but that's definitely the case!) Most of them are good, but there are a couple of awful ones, which baffled me when I read them. (Especially the one in the Oldham Chronicle, where the reviewer complained that his seat was uncomfortable - you get to choose your own seat! So it serves him right for picking an uncomfortable one! Mine was fine when I saw the show, and it wasn't even one of the cushioned ones!)

Hardly any of the reviews mention the choir at all, but luckily we're used to that, aren't we? If you do come to watch, though, try to make it a Monday or Thursday - those are the days you're most likely to see choir members that you know :-)

Before you read the reviews, watch the trailer on the official website - that'll give you an idea. Then, in order of publication:

The Guardian
What's On Stage
The Arts Desk
Oldham Chronicle
British Theatre Guide
The Public Reviews
The Good Review
Jildy Sauce
Creative Tourist
The Stage
Remote Goat
Manchester Evening News/City Life
Alison's Adventures in Theatreland
Cheshire Today
Reviews Gate
The Observer

Other news: let's see… Not much going on with my main choir - we don't have a concert until the end of July and we haven't started rehearsing for it yet (which is alarming quite a few people who haven't sung some of the pieces before!) We did a bit of an Apostles recap last night, but mainly we've been sight-reading a few new things. I really enjoyed having a go at the Holst Hymns from the Rig Veda last week - I'd done some of them before, but not all, and they're all lovely. (Paul Brennan said that the last one sounded like a camel wearing Lycra!)

My school choir has a concert a week on Saturday, which I'm looking forward to. This week we tried adding movement to our last song, and it looks really good - the kids picked it up instantly and then improved it! The only worry is that our songs this time involve quite a few soloists, and we've had to make several changes to these for one reason or another. Let's see who turns up on the day!

One bit of great news that's related to both my choirs is that I persuaded my star singer from the school choir - a year 10 bass - to audition for the HYC, and he's got in \o/ I'm so proud!

You know I always go on about Whit Friday? Well, this week there was a lovely article in the Daily Telegraph about the whole thing.

Gareth Malone's next project is called Sing While You Work, in which he'll train choirs at four different workplaces and then they'll compete against each other. Which is fine, I suppose, but why does it always have to be a competition? His previous projects have been great without setting people against each other - seems unnecessary to me.

A bit of Manchester news: Having been to First Street so many times recently, I'm very well aware that the hoarding in front of the Central Library says it's reopening in 2013. But, according to the MEN, it's actually not opening till 2014… and, what's more, the City Library will close in September 2013 and there'll be a temporary library in the Town Hall until the main library reopens! Does this make any sense to anyone?

I'm sure lots of you are enjoying the football (at least until England lose…) so you'll be well aware of the significance of this advert!

And finally… this made me cry with laughter. Most of you will have sung O Fortuna from "Carmina Burana" (it's the opening item of our next concert, in fact)… but I suspect that after you've watched this video you will never hear it the same way again :-)

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Let me entertain you

Did you watch the Jubilee concert on Monday? I watched all the Jubilee coverage over the four days, but I didn't attempt to see any of it live - the commentators on such things always annoy me far too much, so I usually record them and watch them on fast forward. But I watched more of the concert than I did any of the other events (because there was less commentary!) and really enjoyed most of it.

My very favourite bit was right at the start, though: Robbie Williams with the Scots Guards (pictured above). (Things where the best bit is at the start are always a bit disappointing overall, I think - I call this the "Haydn's Creation Syndrome" - but at least in the case of the Jubilee concert I didn't know that would be the best bit!) I loved the idea of the band marching onto the stage and opening the concert anyway, but when they segued into "Let Me Entertain You" (which has a very distinctive intro) and Robbie appeared, I squealed in excitement. And then when the trumpeters all stayed there and played bits I thought it was fabulous! Especially the way they all moved their trumpets together. If you didn't see it, here's the whole song:

(or via this link if the embedding doesn't work for you)

There were lots of other good bits, even if none was quite as amazing as the start. I loved Annie Lennox's dress, and the fact that all the musicians wore wings for her song. And Tom Jones was great, especially "Delilah" (with an extra Spanish flavour). I liked Kylie, especially the a cappella intro to "Step Back In Time" (and she had the best dancers, too). And Paul McCartney, unsurprisingly, had the best actual songs… and the best firework display and light show. Actually, there were loads of great lighting effects - I loved the way they used the front of the Palace for that.

Actually, I almost forgot the other bit that really moved me: Gary Barlow and the Commonwealth Band with "Sing". The performance was good, but what made it really special was having just seen the documentary in which Gary went round the world collecting musicians for it. It's on iPlayer till Sunday if you missed it, and I thoroughly recommend it. It's much more fun than programmes like that usually are, and it meant that when I watched the concert I was delighted to see that they'd managed to get so many of the performers to London; it was much more meaningful having seen where they'd come from.

Oh, and here's Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber talking to the Telegraph about the process of creating the song. Turns out that at one point they hoped to have Lovely Daniel Radcliffe as lead vocalist, until they realised he was anti-royalist! (That article also includes a link via which you can get a free copy of the sheet music for "Sing". You have to sign up for a Really Useful Group newsletter to get it, but there's nothing to stop you unsubscribing straight after!)

There were a few sour notes among the jubilee celebrations, including the fact that the thirteen specially-commissioned new musical works were totally ignored by the BBC. Such a pity - I was looking forward to those! Would have been much more interesting than a bedraggled RCM chamber choir singing "Land of Hope and Glory" repeatedly. But it's par for the course these days, sadly. (Did you see that the LSO has been told to mime at the Olympic opening ceremony? I can't imagine how ridiculous that will look! And I just don't believe the spokesman who said "the performers have no issue with it".)

Better news is that Petroc is home, and back on the radio! He wrote a thank-you note on the Radio 3 blog.

Speaking of Radio 3, did you hear the live concert on Tuesday from Bath Abbey, featuring I Fagiolini? (It's on iPlayer till next Tuesday if not.) It included Spem in Alium (Tallis's 40-part motet), but the main programme item was Striggio's Mass in 40 parts, which is believed to have been Tallis's inspiration. Striggio doesn't stop at 40, either - there are 60 parts in the finale! Both the Mass and Spem are performed with instruments, but the voices aren't overwhelmed, don't worry. (Do listen to Robert Hollingworth's interviews during the concert, too, in which he explains all sorts of interesting things.) Oh, and the concert ends with a reconstructed Gabrieli Magnificat, which they'll be repeating at the Proms on 22nd August.

Slightly less successful for Radio 3 has been Choral Evensong, recently at least: they've been having a few technical hitches!

I hope lots of you experienced Whit Friday last week. (If not, put a ring round 24th May in next year's diary.) For those who are interested, the results from both Saddleworth and Tameside are online, and here are a few videos: Wardle High School marching at Friezland and playing their contest march at Denton, and both Brighouse & Rastrick and Black Dyke playing at Delph. These two bands were probably the best ones who were playing on the night, but Black Dyke was more successful overall, winning more than £8000 prize money.

This week is all Manchester Lines. Do try to come and see the show if you're not singing in it - it'll be great fun! We had the first runthrough with the actors last night, and I enjoyed it a lot, although it was hard work. I'd been a bit worried about the memorising, actually, but only because I'd switched parts a few days ago - I sang alto in all the previous rehearsals, and had no trouble memorising the alto part (we only sing one song, and it's only about four minutes long)… but then they realised they were really short of tenors and asked me to switch. I'd offered to sing tenor in the first place for exactly that reason, but they said they'd be fine… then changed their mind after I'd already learned the alto part! So I wasn't sure which one would emerge, but it was fine - and, in any case, we did it so many times last night that there's no danger of me forgetting it any time soon!

Do any of you do Pilates? I only found out last week about the possible conflict between Pilates and singing. I've been trying to find out more information, but all I've found are lots of contradictions - it seems that not all Pilates experts agree with each other, and neither do all singing teachers! In a nutshell, the issue is that Pilates apparently teaches you to breathe while keeping your abdomen rigid at all times (not just while doing Pilates but in everyday life too), which is obviously at odds with the way most of us are taught to breathe as singers. Fascinating - I don't plan to try Pilates any time soon, but I'd be interested to hear from any singers who have tried it. (Well, apart from the one who alerted me to the problem.)

This is both sad and funny: it seems that in certain parts of New York City they have a plague of a cappella groups! "I don’t need to hear ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ 14 times," said one resident. Hee!

This is interesting: you've probably noticed that pop songs have got longer (on average) over the past few decades - the days of the three-minute pop song are long gone - but did you also spot that they're also slower and sadder? "According to the research, this has meant fewer hit songs in major chords (the number of minor chord hits has doubled over the decades), more epic warbling and more heartbroken lyrics: a slow Adele-ification of the charts."

There's been all sorts of discussion recently about the photo in this Guardian article, which shows an astonishing line of people climbing Mount Everest. Here's a bit of what people are saying.

I saw this on the BBC News site today and realised it had never occurred to me to wonder before: why do some country names have 'the'? (as in 'Poland and the Ukraine')

I love this: 25 handy words that simply don't exist in English. I was about to name my favourite, but I can't decide - they're all great!

You've probably seen Seth Godin's blog, which is always interesting (it's been in my sidebar for ages), so he will need no introduction before you watch him ranting about things being broken. (Scroll down the page for the video.) He is SO RIGHT.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Whit Friday is this week!

This is an updated version of a post I made several years ago. Whit Friday this year is 1st June 2012; next year is 24th May 2013.

I'm always quite surprised that many musical people who live in Manchester have never heard of the Whit Friday band contests, so every year I feel the need to tell people about them. Then, if you're intrigued, you can come and watch next time they take place - and you're just in time for this year's!

The whole Whit Friday thing will make a lot more sense if I explain about brass bands first. Brass bands are commonly perceived as being a typically Northern phenomenon, but, although I was born and raised in Manchester, I knew practically nothing about them until I started work in Rochdale. The whole system is so unusual that I find it fascinating.

There are more rules concerning brass bands, I think, than those covering all other areas of music put together. The reason for this is that the brass band world is primarily geared towards competition rather than entertainment. (They even have rankings!) The contests, however (invariably taking place on a Sunday, starting at a ridiculously early hour like 8 a.m. and continuing until the bar closes at midnight or so) are very bitter, hard-fought affairs, with the results being discussed for weeks afterwards.

For the purposes of contests, bands are divided into five sections (Championship, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th). There is a fixed number of bands in each section, but I’m not sure what it is these days (it used to be something like 30 in the Championship or “top section” and rather more in the others). At each contest, bands score points according to their placing (so many for a win, 2nd place, etc.) and at the end of the year there are promotions and relegations, just like in football. In addition to the five sections, there is also a Youth Section, which is just as competitive - the only limit is that players must be under 19. (Young players can, of course, play for “section bands” too.)

The actual contests are amazing. (Whit Friday is a special case, and not everything I'm about to say applies on Whit Friday, although most of it does. I'll explain specifically about White Friday afterwards.) I thought someone was pulling my leg when I was told what happens, but I’ve seen it for myself and can assure you that this is all perfectly true! (Note: It's been a while since I was directly involved with any brass bands, so what's described here is how I know it worked over 10 years ago. However, I'd be very surprised if it was any different now.)

The actual admin stuff for the contest starts several weeks earlier, when the band’s secretary checks that each player’s registration card is in order. These cards have (amongst other things) the player’s photograph and signature, and they are amended at Head Office (wherever that is) if a player is transferred between bands. No-one can be registered with more than one band. At the same time, the secretary will get each player to sign the contest registration form, and this will be sent off so that the band is officially entered. The band will have been practising the test piece for weeks - in each section, there is only one test piece, so if there are 20 entries (common) then the audience will hear the same piece 20 times!

The contest day begins very early for youth and lower section bands (the top section usually starts at a much more reasonable hour). The first thing that happens is the draw, which is often at 8 a.m., so a band may have had to set off at 6 a.m. if they have any distance to travel. At the draw, each band’s manager has to be present while a draw is made for the order of play. When this has been done, the band knows whether it has time to rehearse or whether it has to proceed directly to registration. The band drawn first also has to play the National Anthem (or “The Queen”, as they call it), so they will find a few minutes to practise it - they don’t get judged on it, in theory, but most conductors are of the opinion that it’s not a good idea to play it badly!

Even when the draw is known, there is not a fixed time at which the band knows it will be playing - they have to guess what time to tell the players to meet. Eventually, though, it will be their turn to “proceed to registration”. This takes place in a backstage room. The contest controllers sit at a desk. One has all the registration cards (which were handed in at the draw) and the other has the contest registration sheet. The players file past, and each one is compared with his/her photo on the card, and then signs the registration sheet (right next to where they signed it the first time). After this signature has been compared with the first signature, and both have been compared with the one on the card, the player is allowed to play - or not, if there are any discrepancies!

Now you may be thinking “this doesn’t sound much like any music I’ve ever taken part in!” - but bear with me! It gets even stranger! When the band, having passed through registration, finally get on stage, they will be announced simply as “Band number 5” (or whatever) and there will be two notice boards on the stage, saying something like “Draw number 5” and “Programme number 9”. Why? Because the adjudicator is not allowed to know which band is which! Before the contest began, he will have been taken to his “box” (and it usually is just that - a box (with sides but no roof) constructed right in the middle of the hall) by a steward who will have ensured that no-one speaks to him (they might tell him the results of the draw!) The adjudicator stays in this box all day - I believe there is a bucket in there in case he needs to relieve himself. (Seriously.)

The audience, however, know which band is which, because they’ve all bought a programme, in which the bands are listed in alphabetical order, and they’ve all written down the draw, which is posted outside the contest hall as soon as it’s known. In addition, the audience will quite happily sit through 20 or 30 performances of the same piece - some even take a score with them to follow. Most of these test pieces are especially written for this purpose and are fiendishly difficult (more so in higher sections!)

After all the bands have played, there will be a long, tense wait until the adjudicator blows his whistle for the last time. He will already have used it to let each band know he’s ready for them to start - now he uses it to say he’s ready to be let out of his box. He goes on stage and delivers some general comments, but nothing specific. Then there are lots more speeches in which everyone thanks everyone else. Eventually the contest controller reads out the results - usually only the top 3 or 4 places, and always in reverse order. Often the bands are only separated by one point - I’m not sure how the adjudicators fiddle it to be so cloands of pounds (e.g. area champions, for best average ranking over any 6 contests). A band that does well on Whit Friday can easily earn enough prize money to fund their activities for the whole of the rest of the year. Look at last year's prizes in the Saddleworth contests and the Tameside contests and you'll see what I mean.

The contests start at about 4.30 p.m. and run till 10 or 11 p.m. The bands play on a “first come, first served” basis - sections are irrelevant at this stage. They arrive on coaches, and as each coach arrives, the band’s “runner” (usually the band manager) leaps off while the coach is still moving and races to the registration point. The order of play is determined solely by the order of registration, regardless of where the coach is in the queue - this can make the traffic policeman’s job interesting! It is to the band’s advantage to play as soon as possible, because the sooner they play, the sooner they can leave to go somewhere elsone for the entertainment. At the end the marks from both sections are added together (usually the music is given marks out of 200 and the entertainment out of 100, or a similar ratio). The music adjudicator sits in a box and operates just as he would at a traditional contest. The entertainment adjudicator watches, however. But each band’s compère has strict instructions not to mention the name of the band, or indeed to say anything that could give a clue to which band is playing.

The instrumentation, by the way, is very specific. A standard brass band is only allowed to have 25 players plus drummers (although there may be more in concerts, particularly for youth bands). These will be: 1 soprano cornet, 9 cornets, 1 flugel horn, 3 tenor horns, 2 baritones, 2 euphoniums, 3 trombones, 4 tubas. There are no trumpets or French horns in a brass band, you may be surprised to learn.

Anyway, I’ll finish by telling you about Whit Friday. It’s the Friday after Whit Sunday each year (this year that means it's this Friday: 1st June 2012). On this day each year, bands from all over the country (and elsewhere too) converge on the Saddleworth area of Oldham, just to the east of Manchester. More than 100 bands take part, and each of the 20 or so villages involved basically stops work for the day (except the pubs!) Each village runs its own contest, and the prize money is not to be sniffed at - up to £1000 for the winner of each contest, plus many extra prizes worth hundreds of pounds each (e.g. 2nd place, 3rd place, 4th place, best cornet solo, best bass section, best deportment, best youth band, best local band) and several overall prizes worth thousands of pounds (e.g. area champions, for best average ranking over any 6 contests). A band that does well on Whit Friday can easily earn enough prize money to fund their activities for the whole of the rest of the year. Look at last year's prizes in the Saddleworth contests and the Tameside contests and you'll see what I mean.

The contests start at about 4.30 p.m. and run till 10 or 11 p.m. The bands play on a “first come, first served” basis - sections are irrelevant at this stage. They arrive on coaches, and as each coach arrives, the band’s “runner” (usually the band manager) leaps off while the coach is still moving and races to the registration point. The order of play is determined solely by the order of registration, regardless of where the coach is in the queue - this can make the traffic policeman’s job interesting! It is to the band’s advantage to play as soon as possible, because the sooner they play, the sooner they can leave to go somewhere else and enter another contest. Anyway, depending on how busy the contest is, the players may well have a 30-40 minute wait before they play, which they will usually spend in the pub. (Here's a video someone took last year, of coaches queuing for the Greenfield contest. The queues aren't always that long, but it's not uncommon!)

When it’s their turn to play, the band will get ready to march. Usually trombones are at the front (they need more room) and cornets at the back, with the bass drummer and one or two side drummers in the middle. Some bands also have a mace-bearer at the front. At a signal from the steward, the conductor (or band manager) will tell the band to “take the street”. At this point they line up in perfect order. In theory no-one speaks or moves, because from this moment on they are being judged on their “deportment” - uniform, discipline, straight lines etc. The youth bands are much better at this than the section bands, in my experience - the top bands don’t take it too seriously, because they know that the real money for them is in the music prizes.

Eventually the steward tells the band to march. The mace-bearer, if present, will do a complicated set of actions at this point. Then the bass drum does a two-bar rhythm, after which he is joined by the side drummers for two bars, and the band raise their instruments for the next two bars. Then they start to play, and after a fixed length of time (the first phrase, usually), they all start to march - left foot first. They march along the street, following someone (often a child) with a sign with the name of the band chalked on it. (Usually this will also have the title of the contest march the band will be playing on the bandstand.) He/she leads them to the bandstand or contest field or wherever. As soon as they are reasonably near to it they are given a signal, at which the bass drummer will do a “double tap”, and the band stops playing at the end of the phrase in which this occurs. (If they finish the piece before this signal, they start again at the beginning.) They continue to march until the side drummers do a two-beat roll to stop them. When they are told to leave the street, they are no longer being judged on deportment - they walk to the bandstand and play their contest march (this will be much more difficult than the street march). There are separate adjudicators for deportment and music, and the music adjudicator will be told nothing about the band; he will be somewhere from where he can hear them but not see them (often in a caravan, or an upstairs room of a nearby pub, with the window open but the curtains shut).

After the band has played its contest march, the players race back to the coach and set off for the next village. Ten contests during the course of the night is a reasonable average - many do more, many do fewer. The results of the contests are available the same night if you wait around till the end, or online or in the local newspaper over the next couple of days.

If you have never experienced Whit Friday, I feel that your life will be incomplete until you have - so do try to make it one year! There are only two good ways to “do” Whit Friday - either arrange to be on a coach with a band, or pick one spot and stay there all evening. Following a coach in a car doesn’t work very well, because the parking is horrendous and the roads frequently close while a band marches down them. But, assuming you don’t know any bands who’ll let you join them, a good first visit is to go to Greenfield or Uppermill and sit in front of one of the pubs on the High Street. Last year 65 bands went through Greenfield, including most of the top section bands. This page gives you an idea of the scale of the thing (and it only includes half the contests). (If you want somewhere a bit quieter than Uppermill, try Friezland (just down the hill from Greenfield station) - the top section bands don't go there because it's restricted to youth bands and lower sections, so it's a bit more laid back, and there are slightly fewer drunken people due to there not being an actual pub there. There is a beer stall, though - and a great barbecue!)

A couple of years I went to Delph with my family - I hadn't been there for quite some time (well, I had, but not on Whit Friday), but we fancied a change from Friezland. We saw some great bands - not all the top bands were out last year, but we did see Brighouse & Rastrick in their distinctive purple tunics, and Boobs and Brass (the all-female brass band in their pink uniforms, who marched to Here Come The Girls). The crowd's favourite, though, was the St Etienne Band, who dressed as England football fans and marched to Three Lions. Sadly we had to leave early and didn't see any of the Wardle bands, but helpfully there are loads of videos on YouTube of Whit Friday performances, so I can illustrate the event by using the bands from Wardle High School (where I teach part-time - they have five brass bands!) as examples.

Here's the Wardle Junior Band marching to a tune called Slaidburn (which you will hear a LOT on Whit Friday). These kids are all between 12 and 14 years old, and this was the first time they would have done Whit Friday. They do something here called countermarching, which isn't often done as it's so difficult! It's when the band turns and marches back through its own ranks. As you can see, they almost manage it perfectly, but by the time they've turned twice they're not quite so neat horizontally! They will have got points just for trying, though.

Here's the Wardle Youth Band marching to the same tune. These kids are between 15 and 18 years old and will have done this for several years. They try something even more difficult - countermarching with a twist - and it almost works! (What usually causes problems with countermarching is when the street is narrower than expected, often because spectators have spilled out into the road.) You can tell these kids are more experienced, though, from how much better they recover.

And here's the same band, at the same venue, playing their contest march (which is called O.R.B.) a few minutes later, on the bandstand.

A non-Wardle band, but from the same venue as the last couple of clips: this band is (I think) from the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester (at least, I saw a band tonight that was definitely from there, dressed very similarly) but they are a good example of the fact that many bands do Whit Friday just for the fun rather than the prize money. There are quite a few that wear silly outfits :-)

Another non-Wardle band: this is Brighouse & Rastrick, included so you can compare the other clips with a top-section band, both marching and on the bandstand. This band is ranked 7th in the world at the time of writing.

And another: Boobs and Brass, mentioned above, marching to Here Come the Girls.

And, finally, Wardle Anderson Brass marching to 76 Trombones. This band is for ex-Wardle pupils of ages 19 and upwards, although there's one very small girl in this clip who doesn't fit that rule! I assume she's someone's daughter. There's no countermarching in this clip, but I wanted to include it because the mace-bearer is brilliant. She twirls that thing with such ease, and at the end you can just see her throw it in the air and catch it - I love it when they do that!

If I've whetted your appetite, put a ring round 1st June 2012 on your calendar, and come and see the spectacle :-)


I told Paul Brennan, on Thursday night before Beethoven 9, that I was planning to finally update my blog on Friday, so I feel a bit guilty that it's now Monday morning and I'm only just getting round to it. But, better late than never!

Before I forget: it's Whit Friday this week (1st June), so in a minute I plan to repost my article about it (it's five years old so I've updated it slightly).

Did you all hear the news about our friend Petroc Trelawney, by the way? Hopefully it will all have been sorted out by the time you read this, but it's a bit alarming, especially with the extra details supplied by the Guardian.

Sorry to have been missing for a while. There's been all sorts of singing going on, though. We did The Apostles, which I enjoyed more than I'd expected to – I estimated that there was a total of about twenty minutes of it that I liked, by the time the performance came. It seems I was definitely in the minority, though – I kept overhearing choir members saying that they found it difficult to sing properly in a few places due to the overwhelming emotion that overcame them. I've had that experience in a few other pieces, but can't imagine having it in this one – still, it takes all sorts, doesn't it? Anyway, the reviews were really good: the Guardian and the Telegraph (both five stars!); Seen and Heard; Bachtrack; City Life (MEN); informal comments on the Radio 3 forum. Oh, and there was a feature about it in the MEN the day before the concert. (And, before I forget, another interview with our leader, this one from Seen and Heard a few months ago, but I hadn't seen it until recently, and it's very long and interesting.)

Did you watch Maestro at the Opera, by the way? I was pleased with the overall result - I thought Craig definitely deserved it - but I thought Marcus should have gone out before Josie. He was much too full of himself! I also really enjoyed the BBC Young Musician, although I was forced to record it all rather than watching it live, so that I could fast-forward through the ridiculously large proportion of each programme that wasn't the actual performances. Which would have been fine if they'd actually showed the whole of each performance, but they didn't! Who on earth decided that we'd rather see interviews with the parents than the ACTUAL PLAYING?!? Argh. But then I despair of any rational decisions in such things. As Norman Lebrecht pointed out, not one UK newspaper reported the result the next day. But they could possibly be forgiven for thinking it was a minor contest, when the winner only got £2000, yet the winner of Britain's Got Talent – a DANCING DOG, I am led to believe – got £500,000. *boggle*

Also, I liked the recorder player best. The cellist bored me. Sorry!

Anyway, then there was Beethoven 9 on Thursday, as previously mentioned, and I enjoyed that a lot more than The Apostles. (I don't think it was as good a performance, I hasten to add – I just like the piece a lot more!) It was the fastest Beethoven 9 I think I've ever done – especially the end bit – but I think we pulled it off. Here are reviews from the Guardian and Bachtrack – there may be more soon (some of the Apostles reviews took more than a week to appear!)

A couple of weeks before The Apostles, Amy got married, and several of us sang at her wedding. The videos have been on Facebook for a while, I believe, but if you (like me) choose not to use Facebook, here's a sample: The Frog Song. (We'd actually planned to record this in Albert Square beforehand, but had to go to Plan B due to the extremely loud generators being used by the damp squib of a St George's Day Festival.)

The next singing event is very soon, although it only involves a few of the choir (I'm disappointed at how few, actually, given that they asked everyone: what they actually got was one soprano, six altos, one tenor and no basses). It's Manchester Lines for the Library Theatre, which will be running at One First Street from 12th June to 7th July. We've memorised our song – it hardly took any memorising, actually, because it's very catchy. It's been stuck in my head for weeks. Not sure yet which nights we'll be performing, but it'll probably only be two or three shows a week – they plan to have a rotation system. I'm looking forward to it – do come and watch if you can!

After that it's the Tatton Park fireworks gig, of course, and then it's The Apostles again, this time at the Proms – the prospect does not fill me with joy, but at least a trip to London is always fun.

Speaking of the Proms, which we can now (at last! It seems like it was years that we had to keep our involvement a secret!), of course all the details are now public. I can't say there are any this year that made me go "oooh!" when I saw them, but maybe someone will surprise me. Roger Wright was correct in his prediction that all the headlines would be for the Wallace and Gromit Prom, but sadly Wallace and Gromit leave me totally unmoved. (Yes, yes, I know I'm a heathen! I suspect that people who like the Apostles also probably like Wallace and Gromit, but I like other things.) The Guardian has Mark Brown and Andrew Clements picking their highlights; the Telegraph lets Ivan Hewitt summarise them and pick his highlights. The best summary, though, comes as usual from Classical Iconoclast: part 1, part 2.

Non-Proms-related, but still with the BBC: did you hear this Radio 4 programme a few weeks ago, in which Christopher Maltman talks to lots of singers about the possible problems created by classical singers trying to sing folk songs? Fascinating, and still available on iPlayer via that link.

Via Classical Iconoclast, a very sensible post from Croce e Delizia al Cor regarding the attitude of some spectators to singers who cancel gigs.

And here's a great post from Stephen Fry in response to the death of Dietrich Fischer Dieskau (or, as he calls him, Dirty Fisher Dishcloth).

From A Cappella News: I never knew about this before, and it sounds amazing! It seems that Magdalen Choir in Oxford always sings in the month of May from the top of Magdalen Tower. I'd love to see that, one year!

Also via A Cappella News, there are people in Canada who are trying to change the law so that schoolkids actually sing their national anthem every morning rather than just listening to it. (Can you imagine if we did that here? I had to teach the British national anthem to my school choir last year, and was quite shocked that only two of them admitted to having heard it before!)

I thought I'd posted this before, but I can't find it if so: an old but good post by Peter Phillips regarding the issue of female altos in cathedral choirs. (Thanks to Caroline for reminding me of it.)

Here's a fun Telegraph article about the Parliamentary Choir. I love the idea of them dashing off to vote in the middle of rehearsals!

Interesting news on the choral director front (not ours, I hasten to add): Simon Halsey is leaving CBSO.

I love this story: at the trial of that Norwegian madman recently, there were singalong protests all over the country, including one in which 40,000 people gathered outside the court to sing a song he hated.

A fascinating New York Times article about the actual physical techniques used by conductors.

Also from the New York Times, news that standing ovations are so frequent on Broadway that staying seated is now the best way to show extreme approval!

From the Guardian, an explanation of what order the birds join in the dawn chorus.

Here's a blog post from Stephen Hough about Rachmaninov's piano concertos. I was particularly fascinated by the story behind the second concerto, which is not the version I'd always believed!

Tom Services attempts to debunk five myths about contemporary classical music (and isn't that a silly phrase, by the way? It makes no sense!)

This is much more fascinating than it may sound: a very in-depth article about the Texas accent.

Another TED talk I've recently enjoyed: Pamelia Kurstin plays the theremin. Amazing.

And, finally, a few non-musical links. Here's a BBC News piece about the extensive testing done on the Olympic torches to ensure they don't go out if it rains. (Speaking of which, the torch passes through Manchester on 22nd and 23rd June, if you were wondering.)

A Telegraph article about something that drives me up the wall – the insistence of so many people on using "myself' and "yourself" instead of "me" and "you". ARGH.

I love this: icons that no longer make any sense, but we still use them anyway.

This is a bit technical, but very interesting nonetheless. It explains how Google searches actually work these days. (I say 'these days' because their methods have changed considerably over the past few years.)

And, last but not least, don't be put off by the URL of this article (or the title of its page) – it has nothing to do with sex. But it does have some very detailed advice for those of you who are keen to remain totally anonymous online. (Short version: it's much harder than you think!)

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Fish? Gesundheit!

I went to see Wonderful Town last night with my mum, and had such a good time. (I suspect I'm not the only member of the choir who got tickets as a direct result of last week's rehearsal!) The orchestra was the main thing that put the show in a different league to most shows, of course, but the cast and choreography were excellent too. I realised that actually, in a way, I probably didn't get the full impact of how good this production is, because I hear our orchestra so often that hearing them playing in a theatre pit just sounds normal, especially as I so rarely go to the theatre (it's several years since I was last in one). I had to keep reminding myself that theatre pit orchestras usually do not sound as good as that. (The sound of the strings, in particular, was a dead giveaway - pit bands often only have one violin. Last night there were 22, plus violas and cellos and double basses. The orchestra, in fact, had 67 players in the pit.) And it was lovely to see our fearless leader down there conducting. He even got a line in the script! (Something like "Sure! Let's get hip!" *giggle*)

I was surprised that there haven't been any reviews so far, but I found out today that the first three shows were actually officially previews, and the proper opening night (to which the press are invited) is tonight. So hopefully there'll be lots about the show in every paper tomorrow. It deserves it - it's really, really good. My mum and I both left the theatre with huge grins on our faces, having laughed out loud several times. She was particularly taken with the bit on the tram near the start. I think my favourite bit was the Irish policemen singing in lovely close harmony, but close runners-up would be the same guys being drunken Brazilian sailors doing the conga, or the rhythmic bit in the newspaper office, or the slow-motion bit in the football song. Or the Ohio duet near the start. Or… well, all of it, actually! I do hope they produce a DVD of it :-)

Most of my singing-related stuff since I last posted has been to do with my school choir. We had a stressful March, which featured two competitions two weeks apart, with a concert the night before the second one. They sang pretty well in the first competition, but unfortunately the adjudicator was unreasonably nasty to them, which meant they totally lost their confidence before the concert and the second competition. I managed to cheer them up enough that they were great in the concert, and that made them much more comfortable for the second competition. Not a pleasant couple of weeks, but they're over now - phew!

A bit of singing I did a while back, but it's only just been released: the Virtual Choir 3 video. I tried to persuade lots of choir friends to do this, but as far as I know the only one who did (apart from me) was Alison. I can't see either of us on the video, but we're both on the credits so we're definitely in the video somewhere! And it's much easier to see individual people than it was on the Virtual Choir 2 video. (If you really want to see everyone, there's a giant composite photo, and I'm definitely on that. I'm right near the start, row 2 column 10, and Alison (presumably because she recorded her video much later than I did) is row 26 column 6.)

Ooh, and another choral video for you... Josh Stutter's Spaghetti Mass in F minor. You will recognise many (if not all) of the people in this. And it's hilarious! I knew of the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but had forgotten everything else about it until the day we recorded this. (And, damn you, Josh - I've now got the Spaghetti in the Saucepan tune stuck in my head again!)

And I've just realised I haven't posted since our Holst concert (which was amazing - I haven't enjoyed being in a concert as much as that in years), so here are a couple of reviews: Telegraph and (in much more detail) Bachtrack.

Actually, although I did love the Holst concert, my favourite musical moment of the year so far was provided by my beloved McFly boys. They were in Manchester on 10th March (they're doing an extra date here at the end of the tour on 21st April, and I'd love to go again but Amy is getting married that day!) and were as stunning as usual. But my favourite bit was when they did an acoustic rendition of No Worries, singing in three-part harmony round a single mic. It's not a high-quality video - it's just one that someone recorded on their phone and put on YouTube - but you'll understand why I loved this performance, I think. Not just the vocal harmonies - I'm a sucker for them - but also the communication between them, especially when they do a dramatic speed increase and the drums join in. I could watch them do this stuff all day!

Sadly, not all musicians get to show what they can do live. It seems that for a while all the music in the Olympics opening and closing ceremonies was to be pre-recorded, but they've had a rethink and at least some of it will be live.

Maybe they don't want something like this to happen: the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's performance of Brahms 2 featured a fist fight in the audience. My favourite line is this: The concert never stopped, but Muti shot a glance over his left shoulder toward the box where the punches were thrown. One concert-goer described the look as “dagger eyes”. Hee!

I was very amused by this Telegraph article about Katherine Jenkins, with which I totally agree, although when I said so on Twitter I was called "elitist" and "snobbish" by a couple of people. Maybe I am... but I still agree with the writer, sorry :-)

I know that most of you already know about Maestro at the Opera, but here's a more detailed press release about it. It'll be on TV on three consecutive Friday nights, we've been told: 20th April, 27th April, 4th May.

The always-excellent Tom Service wrote an interesting article about accompanists. (I've done a lot of accompanying this year. Mostly fun, but I hope I won't have to play the Horovitz Euphonium Concerto again any time soon!)

Every so often there seems to be a news story about earworms (i.e. songs that stick in your head), but this one is more thoughtful than most. (Current things stuck in my head, since you ask: Ohio (the duet from Wonderful Town) and Plastic Sunlight (a song you won't know - it was written by a girl in my school choir and I love it!))

This is fascinating: via BoingBoing, a list of Nazi rules for jazz performers. For example: "so-called jazz compositions may contain at most 10% syncopation; the remainder must consist of a natural legato movement devoid of the hysterical rhythmic reverses characteristic of the barbarian races and conductive to dark instincts alien to the German people (so-called riffs)". *boggle*

Speaking of jazz, did you know that the word originated in baseball? Me neither!

You may have seen the recent BBC programme in which an EastEnders actress (I forget her name, I don't watch it) was investigating the options for her daughter, who is losing her hearing. Since working for RNID a few years ago I've been fascinated by many aspects of deafness, but this was the first time I'd heard what a piece of classical music would sound like to someone with a cochlear implant. I had no idea it was that bad. Anyway, a recent TED talk explores this issue, and gives further examples. I was interested to note that a piece of rap music (at least, the one they played) sounds quite a lot closer to how it's supposed to sound than the classical pieces did.

From the "why do composers write things that need these forces?!?" department: Stockhausen wrote an opera that requires, amongst other things, a string quartet to play live from four separate helicopters. Unsurprisingly it's never actually been performed (!) but this summer it will be, and in the UK to boot.

Another piece that's probably rarely performed, but is probably a bit more tuneful than Stockhausen (on the grounds that most things are!): a piece for 12 solo violas. It'll be on the radio soon - must listen out for it.

Here's an interesting BBC news article about Theremin (the man and the instrument).

Stephen Hough's latest piano practice tip: sometimes you have to use your knees!

For reasons I won't go into, recently I needed to come up with songs that have seven beats to the bar. Needless to say, Wikipedia came to my rescue; even more intriguing, though, is this list, which I found en route, of "musical works in unusual time signatures". And to think we were all bemused by the 3/1 at the end of VW's Fantasia on Christmas Carols! This list is much weirder.

You'll no doubt be aware of Radio 3's recent Schubert marathon. As part of that, the BBC Music Magazine team tried to decide on their favourite Schubert works. What's yours? I decided that mine is probably the Arpeggione Sonata, although Du bist die Ruh and Ständchen are close runners-up.

Manchester United are considering having a singing section. This won't interest most of you, but I'm intrigued by the claim that the south-east quadrant (where the away fans currently sit) "offers the best acoustics within Old Trafford due to its location and the proximity of the East/South Stand quadrant roof." I've been to Old Trafford many times and can't see any reason why that quadrant would be better than any other - is it just me?

I haven't been to Jamie Oliver's new restaurant yet (although I'd love to, because it's getting great reviews), but I was intrigued to see that he has "music bread" on the menu. I had no idea what that was, so I looked it up, and found that it's this, and is also known as carta di musica.

This amused me: the New York Times explaining London to Americans in time for the Olympics.

Also London-related: via Londonist, where the main roads actually lead to. And, via the Guardian, did you know that there are now surprisingly popular coach tours of the M25?

From Today I Learned: in France, it seems that pink toilet paper is more popular than any other colour. I did not know this.

And, finally, three things that made me giggle: what happens when you finally reply to all your email; if dogs could text; and the blonde meaning of 'mph'.

Monday, February 27, 2012

It's PROPH-IT, and we're going to take a quaver OFF IT

I think we've done the whole of The Apostles now, although I don't remember much of it because it's so long! But I'm pleased to report that I do actually like the end bit. There are some really lovely chords. Also, Rachel pointed out that one of the recurring Alleluia phrases is a bit like the "Optimistic Voices" chorus from The Wizard of Oz, which is a nice thought! No more Elgar for the next month, though, because the Holst concert is in a couple of weeks' time. I'm so looking forward to that.

Most of my singing lately has been with my school choir (who are almost ready for their two festival performances in March) and my band (who had great fun at the Valentine's Day gig, and got paid as well!) But I've spent most of this weekend arranging songs for a group of us to sing at Amy's wedding. This is at Manchester Town Hall in April, and it's going to be lovely. She's chosen some really interesting songs, and I can't wait to see what people think of them!

From the Telegraph: news that there are now lots of Military Wives' Choirs! And, also from the Telegraph, the story about how an opera singer had to drop out, and they found a replacement who could sing it but not act it, so the director did the acting...

Stephen Hough writes about whether or not it's necessary for singers to believe the words they're singing; he also has another practice tip, this time about not always sitting in the centre of the piano stool. (Which reminds me: I watched a TV programme earlier today, in which a woman sat down at a piano and began to play some Mozart; then she switched to some boogie woogie stuff and (while still playing) invited another character to join her so they could play a duet. She then moved to the left of the stool to make room for him, while still playing the high-pitched boogie woogie stuff, yet her body was oddly uncontorted. ARGH. Is it so hard to get these details correct?!?)

Via A Cappella News, a great article about whistling. (This article caused me a great deal of distraction, because after reading it I couldn't rest until I'd created an iTunes playlist of whistling songs...) Also, I learned a new term: puccalo! Isn't that a great word?

EDIT: I should have included my list, shouldn't I? Here it is:

Always Look On the Bright Side of Life - from Monty Python's Life of Brian
Centerfold - J Geils Band
Daydream - The Lovin' Spoonful
Don't worry, be happy - Bobby McFerrin
Dream a Little Dream of Me - Mama Cass
A Fistful Of Dollars - Ennio Morricone
Games Without Frontiers - Peter Gabriel
Give A Little Whistle - from Pinocchio
Golden Years - David Bowie
The Good, The Bad And The Ugly - Ennio Morricone
Goodbye Stranger - Supertramp
Hocus Pocus - Focus
I Was Kaiser Bill's Batman - Whistling Jack Smith
Jealous Guy - John Lennon/Bryan Ferry & Roxy Music
The Lazy Song - Bruno Mars
Magic Moments - Perry Como
Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard - Paul Simon
Moves Like Jagger - Maroon 5 ft. Christina Aguilera
River Kwai March & Colonel Bogey March - from Bridge on the River Kwai
Singing The Blues - Guy Mitchell
(Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay - Otis Redding
A Spoonful of Sugar - from Mary Poppins
The Stranger - Billy Joel
Sweet Georgia Brown - Brother Bones
Walk Like An Egyptian - Puppini Sisters
Whistle For The Choir - The Fratellis
Whistle While You Work - from Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs
White Christmas - Bing Crosby
Wind Of Change - Scorpions

Via BoingBoing, an interview with Alan Parsons, who has some interesting views about audiophiles and their priorities.

You'll be well aware that Whitney Houston died a couple of weeks ago. BBC News had an interesting article about the way she sang - I was quite amused, when I first read it, at the thought that they were suggesting that she was the first singer to perform a melisma, but when I read it again I realised they didn't quite say that! I do tend to read too fast :-) Also, via A Cappella News, a Discovery Channel article that discusses the natural lifespan of a singer's voice.

Monday, February 06, 2012

And what's wrong with that? I'd like to know!

I am very much looking forward to this week's choir rehearsal, because there is NO ELGAR scheduled \o/ Please don't think that I don't like any of it, though - there was a bar a couple of weeks ago that I thought was lovely, and then another one last week. I was just hoping for more than two good bars in a piece that's over two hours long!

I've been very busy with my school choir lately. We have two competitions coming up in March. I'm not a fan of music competitions, but since the powers that be expect us to enter, I'm keen for us to do as well as possible. The kids are great, but the problem is that they're all the sort of kids who do everything, plus they all keep getting ill lately, so we rarely have much more than 50% of the choir in any given rehearsal, and this makes it hard to learn the parts. But I think we'll be ready in time. Their strength is that they are all very musical, so they can sing in 4-part a cappella and still be in tune at the end. I'm hoping this will impress the judges! (I strongly suspect that the other school choirs in the competition will not attempt a cappella, and will not split into more than two parts.)

And that's not the end of the current singing. My band is providing the entertainment at a Valentine's Day event at the Summit Inn near Littleborough (on Todmorden Road), so we had a rehearsal for that on Thursday. Such fun! It's always difficult when you're rehearsing for a gig that involves two 40-minute sets, when you only have one possible rehearsal and it's two hours long! We had 32 songs on the agenda (lots of our songs are from the 50s/60s and are very short!) and 29 of them made it onto the final set list... and we did sing almost all of them last Thursday (some of them twice!) There were a few that we all agreed we know so well that we didn't need to rehearse them. It was a very satisfying evening, though - lots of our songs are a cappella, and time and time again I played the chord on the piano after we'd got to the end of the song, and found that we were perfectly in tune every time \o/

Paul Mealor (the guy who wrote Wherever You Are for the Military Wives) has written a new piece which includes a bass note that is believed to have never been sung before. It's certainly got him some publicity, but I'm a bit baffled about why he'd write something that will probably never be performed again! It's not even as if they've got a bass in mind that they know can sing it - they're searching for one (details on the BBC Music Magazine article if you think you can sing that low!)

I hadn't actually realised that Philip Glass had written nine symphonies - I was only aware of one! - but he has, it seems, and the Guardian has an article about the curse of the ninth symphony.

Stephen Hough likes to break the rules: here he wonders why the standard concert formula of overture/concerto/interval/symphony is so invariable.

The BBC has announced the finalists of this year's Young Musician competition. No oboes! Also no violas, no double basses and no euphoniums. But I'm intrigued by the fact that - unless it's a huge coincidence - there appear to be two brothers competing against each other in the percussion section!

This seems amazing to me, but apparently audiences for 'weird modern stuff' are increasing.

In a similar vein, an OAE player writes about the recent gigs they've been doing in pubs.

Some Manchester news: a bizarre decision by the city council to close one end of Deansgate to traffic. I think there'll be chaos!

I like this idea, though: in Bristol, they've launched their own currency.

You couldn't make it up: here is a list of wartime golf rules.

And, for those who have had a stressful day and want to blow things up: this website gives you the chance. (It's not the same explosion every time - keep pressing the button!)

Monday, January 30, 2012

Goodbye Piccadilly, farewell Leicester Square

More Holst and Elgar this week. The Holst is as fabulous as ever, and I wish it was that we'll be singing for months and months and months. But sadly it's the Elgar, which I'm no more enthusiastic about than last time we tried it. This week we actually rehearsed a lively bit - the only one in the piece, I suspect - and it transpired that there had been a suggestion of the Youth Choir doing that bit, but it was decided that it was inappropriate due to the lyrics (which are about wine). I think I would really have lost the will to live if we'd had the only non-funereal bit taken from us! Oh well, no doubt it will get more likeable. (I should confess at this point that I never really liked The Kingdom, even in the performance - I haven't even listened to our recording of it yet - and The Apostles just feels like more of the same, but longer and with fewer lively bits. *sigh*)

I have all sorts of other singing going on at the moment, but I'm in a hurry so maybe I'll tell you about that next time. I mainly wanted to post before my collection of links got out of hand again!

The reason for the title of this post is that I've just discovered that Tuesday is the centenary of the song It's a Long Way to Tipperary, and there is to be a celebration at 11am at Stalybridge Civic Hall - what, you didn't know that the song was written and first performed in Stalybridge? Neither did I until recently!

I forgot to post this at Christmas - I remembered it the other day when I was telling a friend about it. Via Stephen Hough's blog, here's the organist Cameron Carpenter playing the campest version of Sleigh Ride you're ever likely to see!

Also via Stephen Hough, a term I've never encountered before: the Russian crescendo.

Rupert Christiansen, in the Telegraph, is unimpressed with Alfie Boe.

Something I found on Wikipedia while looking for something else (this happens a lot!) - a list of list songs.

A thoughtful article on the BBC News site about unwelcome noise, by historian Lisa Jardine.

Also from BBC News, a fascinating article by Kevin Connolly about water shortage in the Middle East. I hadn't realised, in particular, that the River Jordan has hardly any water in it these days. That's an oddly upsetting thought, in view of the number of times I've sung about that river.

Details are starting to emerge about the Olympic opening ceremony. It will have The Tempest as its theme (particularly Caliban's line "Be not afeared, the isle is full of noises") and it will feature Europe's largest bell, which is being cast specially.

Manchester Confidential has a load of fascinating photos of the current state of the inside of the Central Library.

Last Wednesday was St Dwynwen's Day, which I'd never heard of before. It seems that St Dwynwen is the Welsh patron saint of lovers, so the day is sort of like an extra Welsh Valentine's Day.

You'll be aware that both United and City are now out of the FA Cup, I'm sure, but this still seems wrong: it is very likely that the cup final kickoff time will be moved from the traditional 3pm to 5.15pm. IS NOTHING SACRED?!?

YouTube has long been one of the world's biggest websites, but did you know that currently there is a total of one hour's worth of video uploaded to it every second?

The mathematics of Sudoku: it's recently been proved that there have to be at least 17 digits given at the start of the puzzle. If there are any fewer, there will be more than one possible solution.

It would be hard for anyone to miss the fact that we've just had the Chinese New Year and are now in the Year of the Dragon. I'm a dragon myself (which has always pleased me, because it's clearly the best one!), so this is a bit depressing, because the mathematical part of me keeps reminding me that this means my age this year must be a multiple of 12, and that reminds me that I'll be 48 in October, and I don't feel a day over 24! However, I had never previously realised that there are different types of dragon: this year it's a Water Dragon, and I'm a Wood Dragon. (You'd think the fire-breathing aspect would make this a bit of a problem, but what do I know?!?) Anyway, if you want to know what your element is as well as your animal, Wikipedia has a handy list.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Fain would I be eaten

I enjoyed last night's rehearsal far more than last week's, because it involved singing The Hymn of Jesus for a large part of it, a bit of Beethoven, and no Elgar (I've listened to The Apostles all the way through now, and I can't see myself becoming unbored with it any time soon!) I've done Beethoven 9 several times before from memory, so it's quite firmly ingrained, and I was a bit put off to discover that there's one bar in the edition that is being used this time (Bärenreiter) that's DIFFERENT to the edition I've got (Novello). It's not very different - just the underlay of the words - but I don't think I'll ever remember to do the new version!

I was telling Fanny about The Hymn of Jesus being my very favourite piece, and she told me that the recording she's been listening to has at least one glaring mistake on it. I realised that I've never actually heard a commercial recording of the piece, because I have a live recording of my last ever Chet's concert (in which The Hymn of Jesus was the finale), so I always just listen to that! If you want to hear it, there's a link on my mp3 page. This performance took place in the RNCM concert hall on 9th July 1982, and involves the Chetham's School of Music Symphony Orchestra and Senior Choir, with the Manchester Cathedral Choristers doing the boys' choir bits. I think the conductor must have been Mike Brewer, because he was certainly Director of Music throughout my time at Chet's, and usually conducted the choral parts of the end-of-year concerts.

Manchester Cathedral also played a major part in my memories of leaving Chet's, so I was sad to learn that not only did they have a valuable silver cross stolen the other day, but they have been burgled so many times that they can no longer claim on their insurance.

Here's a lovely Telegraph article about Kathleen Ferrier. (Although, it says that the contralto voice is 'out of fashion'. I think it's more accurate to say that fewer singers seem to be referring to themselves as that - they all seem to want to be mezzo-sopranos!)

The Guardian tells us what it's like to be in an opera chorus.

Have you recorded your Virtual Choir submission yet? I did mine tonight. I do hope that his next project involves a fast piece though - all the three Virtual Choir pieces so far have been very slow, and this is not good with my breathing!

Eric Whitacre mentioned online the other day how much he liked the music of John Williams, and - predictably - some people told him that John Williams is a hack. So Eric posted a defence of him, which I think is great. It really irritates me when people make sweepingly condescending statements like this, regarding popular composers such as John Williams or Andrew Lloyd Webber or John Rutter. There's a reason they're popular!

Did you know that there's going to be a thousand-boat flotilla on the Thames on 3rd June, for the Queen's diamond jubilee? And there's new music being composed specially for it, a la Water Music. Should be fun!

Via the Guardian: the fifty most quoted lines of poetry. I was trying to think what mine would be, and realised that I don't actually quote poetry regularly - must rectify that :-)

And finally... my favourite new word: skeuomorph.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Ye who dance not know not what we are knowing

I haven't updated here for a while – I kept meaning to, but since I haven't had any comments since August, I didn't think anyone was reading anything I wrote, so I couldn't get motivated! But my blog was mentioned in last night's choir rehearsal, so I thought I'd better update on the offchance that anyone actually came to investigate :-)

We are learning three works over the rest of this season: two that I know very well indeed, and one that I've never done before. (The title of this post is taken from one of them - guess which one!) The two I know very well are Holst's The Hymn of Jesus (which was the finale of my last ever concert as a Chetham's pupil) and Beethoven 9. The one that's new to me is Elgar's The Apostles, which seems very boring so far, but maybe it will grow on me! Currently the main thing that's interesting me about it is that it features a shofar. When this was mentioned at last night's rehearsal, it seemed that most of the choir had never heard of a shofar. Wikipedia has a particularly interesting (and thorough) article which tells you everything you need to know.

I'd better do a recap, though, hadn't I? December was the usual musical madness. This year my tally was 15 performances in an 18-day period, which I think might be a personal best. Several of those were with my band (pictured below at the annual Shouting in the Library gig).

I enjoyed those more than any of the choir ones, but the choir gigs had their moments too. Messiah was the one that started the 18 days of madness, and I enjoyed it even more than last year's. We even had a female alto instead of a countertenor! I was beginning to think we never would again. And the conductor did not ruin the Hallelujah Chorus, as so many of them do (including last year's) by their attitudes to standing audiences. I've heard recently that our 2012 Messiah will be conducted by our 2010 conductor, so I will have to prepare myself for disappointment. Maybe this will be the year I can finally find some cast-iron reason not to sing.

The carol concerts – all five of them – were fun (nowhere as good as last year's, but a million times better than the previous year's), although it felt very odd having Sleigh Ride as a regular programme item rather than an encore. Still, at least they did play it. Remember the year the powers that be decided not to include it? I still haven't recovered from the trauma!

Picture below is courtesy of one of the orchestra's horns on Twitter. Oh, and you may have missed this MEN article about our compere, or this Oldham Chronicle review of the concerts.

The other big choir-related news story of December was undoubtedly the Military Wives and their quest for the Christmas number one single (in which they were successful). I enjoyed the Military Wives TV programme much more than I expected to (I cried my eyes out several times!), but even if I hadn't it would have been great to see a choir in the charts. There have been loads of great stories in the media, but here are some of my favourites: a Guardian editorial in praise of Gareth Malone; a Telegraph article about the series (I was very disappointed to find that Keep the Home Fires Burning, described in this article, never made it into the finished series, though. I love that song. Perhaps it was too emotional?); and another Telegraph article which features Gareth explaining to the writer how to sing better and talking about why carol-singing is so great; a Guardian article about the feelgood factor of the series in general; and, finally, yet another Telegraph article, this time listing a few other choirs that have been in the pop charts (I didn't know about lots of these!)

Actually, there was one little thing that fascinated me about the Military Wives song after I saw the sheet music. Here's the first page. Here's the recording. What the soloist sings in the third bar isn't quite what the music says, is it? The same thing happens on the last page, and she does it differently then too. This creates a dilemma for choirs who've bought the sheet music in order to perform the song: do they do what the composer actually wants, or do they copy the recording? If they do the former, everyone will think it's them that are wrong! And I felt particularly sorry for the deputy soloist that the Military Wives had when their usual one was on holiday, because she did it perfectly correctly (i.e. she sang what the music says) but I bet most people think she didn't!

I think it might have been on Strictly Come Dancing that I saw the Military Wives with their stand-in soloist. I mention this mainly so I can point out that my beloved McFly are finally starting to conquer the world: Harry won Strictly, and Dougie won I'm a Celebrity. And they're just the drummer and the bass player! Who knows what Tom and Danny have in store for us?

I have quite a few other links I've been saving - I think I'll use the remaining seasonal ones first. Here's one: hands up who knew that the original lyrics of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas were really morbid and depressing? It starts: "Have yourself a merry little Christmas - it may be your last" and gets worse from there! The whole story of the song's evolution surprised me greatly when I read about it a few weeks ago.

Here's a Telegraph article about John Rutter, in which we learn a bit more about him, including his favourite Christmas songs. (Coincidentally, one of them is Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, and it sounds as if he's well aware of the original version. Another is O Magnum Mysterium, which we sang in our carol concerts this year, but I don't share his enthusiasm for it - sorry, John!)

The Boston Globe had an article explaining why we're all confused about how to pronounce 2012.

The ever-wonderful Neil Gaiman always has wise words to bring in the new year, but I particularly liked his message this year.

Not seasonal as such, but timely: Eric Whitacre is running another Virtual Choir project (his third), and you have until the end of January to become part of it. The song this time is Water Night, and full details are on his website. I think I was the only member of my choir to be in the last video - I'm hoping there'll be a few more of us this time!

I hope lots of you saw a programme that was on last month, called Come Bell Ringing with Charles Hazlewood. It's no longer on iPlayer, but if they repeat it (which I'm sure they will), do watch it if you missed it. It's mainly the last ten minutes of the programme that I fell in love with: they had all the church towers around Cambridge, plus a load of handbell ringers in the market square, all performing together in an arrangement of Greensleeves for bells only. It was absolutely magical. I'm wondering whether or not there'll be a similarly magical effect on the morning the Olympics start (Friday 27th July)... in theory, all the bells in the country (yes, I said ALL THE BELLS IN THE COUNTRY) are going to ring nonstop for three minutes, starting at 8am. It might work... but already there have been arguments about it, and only yesterday another group of bell-ringers announced that it isn't very practical! I can see their point, but I do sort of hope it works anyway :-)

This is great: 11 sounds that your kids have probably never heard. There are one or two of them I haven't heard, which reassures me that I can't be quite as old as I thought I was!

A while back, I heard a very excited Radio 3 presenter talking about how fragments of a possible 8th symphony by Sibelius have been discovered and played. But I think I'm in agreement with the viewpoint of On An Overgrown Path - it seems very sad that we're doing exactly what Sibelius clearly didn't want us to.

I'm a big fan of TED talks, and this is a particularly interesting one: David Byrne talks about how music is shaped by architecture. Summary: "Does the venue make the music? From outdoor drumming to Wagnerian operas to arena rock, he explores how context has pushed musical innovation."

This is a bit scary: would I survive a nuke?

In November, the London Philharmonic Orchestra did a concert featuring Bruckner and Tchaikovsky. The Guardian review mentioned that a member of the audience stormed out, yelling criticism as he did so. Norman Lebrecht received an eye-witness account of what happened, but the most unbelievable part is that the culprit then wrote to Norman Lebrecht to explain why he believed he was in the right... and then argued with everyone in the comments!

I can't decide whether this is more or less offensive: this week, the New York Phil had to stop a performance during the last few minutes of a Mahler symphony because someone's phone was ringing (in the FRONT ROW!) and they didn't do anything about it until the conductor stopped, turned and looked at them.

Speaking of conductors, this is interesting: a New York music critic decided to try to learn how to conduct.

I love this: these people went round the world and filmed buskers and other street performers everywhere they went. The results are fabulous.

Here's a great BBC news feature about illnesses that exist only in Italy.

Have you heard of the vocal fry register? I hadn't either. But apparently it's the latest American language fad.

Normally I think Tom Service is great, but I have to disagree with him here: in his post about the 21st anniversary of Symphony Hall, he says it's "the country's best, big acoustic for orchestral music" and that it "shames any other big hall in the country". Shame on you, Tom! I actually have proof (well, sort of!) that the Bridgewater Hall is better. One of my best friends used to play in the Royal Opera House orchestra, and years ago they went on a tour round the country, while the ROH was being refurbished or something. Anyway, they happened to play the same programme in Symphony Hall and the Bridgewater Hall on consecutive nights, and they all agreed (she said) that the Bridgewater Hall was superior. So there :-)

(Although, I will admit that Symphony Hall has better paintings!)

And finally: the unreasonably amusing Norwegian butter crisis! I first read about this in the Vancouver Sun, but there was an update in the Guardian a few days later, and - also in the Guardian - a Swedish writer explaining how delighted her country is about the whole thing!