Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Anton Bruckner Choir concert

I might be biased, in that I know a few of the singers in the Anton Bruckner Choir, but their concert on Saturday was excellent. The concert was held in St Giles Cripplegate, a stone-built church seemingly washed up within the concrete edifice that is the Barbican Centre. It's the first time I've visited the Barbican, and unfortunately I arrived after dark, so much of it remains a mystery to me. The fountains outside the Guildhall School of Music and Drama looked pretty, though. The more I wander through the City of London, the more I want to know what it might have looked like before WW2, before the rebuilding, when the old streets still existed. In fact, having read Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver recently, it would be fascinating to be able to go back in time just to see how different London was before the Great Fire.

The concert began with three unaccompanied motets by Bruckner: Locus iste; Os justi; and Christus factus est. These were beautifully and sensitively sung, particularly Locus iste, which because of its brevity and relative simplicity, can sometimes sound routine, the singers knowing it almost by heart. Certain moments in Christus factus est sent shivers down my spine. The singers then filed off-stage to reveal the orchestra, who played Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony. I think this was the first time I'd heard it in concert (compared to in recording), and was impressed. Pictures of storms at sea, rain on crops and other tempestuous imagery came to me during the performance: it definitely felt unfinished, unresolved, and one wonders what Schubert might have made of the final movement had he been allowed time (or cash) to complete it.

The interval provided an opportunity to quench one's thirst and chat to friends, generally about things completely unconnected with music. There was quite a good audience, with most of the pews being filled.

The main work, Brahms' Ein Deutsches Requiem, filled the rest of the concert. It sounded beautiful, the only flaws being that the choir was occasionally overwhelmed by the orchestra (the horns, in particular, were often a little too overpowering), and the cellos not always together. The second and fifth movements were very moving, the soprano soloist bringing both a sense of grief and comfort to her solos in the latter. The German texts were translated in the programme, and fully illustrated by Chris Dawe's notes, which indicated an eclectic choice on Brahms' part. It was interesting to see his choice of words, particularly when compared to the traditional Latin texts one usually hears.

All in all, rather a contrast to the "come and sing" Haydn's 'Nelson' Mass on Sunday evening (in which I sang). Obviously one wouldn't expect the same standards of musicianship from a bunch of singers who had come together on the night, but I did feel rather ashamed at the brevity of the concert - a mere fifty minutes. At least we didn't charge for tickets!


Friday, November 18, 2005

Ein deutsches requiem

It's the end of a busy week where I've not posted to this blog. Not that anyone's desperately waiting for my words of wisdom, of course. I'm going down to London tonight. This is becoming a weekly trip, and generally means that my social life is looking up. Tomorrow night I'll be going to a performance of Brahms' Ein deutsches requiem at St Giles Cripplegate, which I'm looking forward to. I've not been to an Anton Bruckner Choir concert before, despite having heard of them for years (they've recently had their 10 year anniversary) and a couple of my friends singing with the choir. It will be interesting to hear the requiem, which is unlike most other requiem masses in that it's all in German, and isn't based on the Latin Mass. Brahms took Luther's ideas about creating a vernacular liturgy and created his German requiem, using texts in German from various books of the Bible and Apocrypha.

There are a lot of requiem masses around - Verdi's is probably the one that most people think of: it's operatic, tremendous, and popularised by von Karajan's recording. My favourite is actually Durufle's. It's quite short, and doesn't include a setting of Dies irae, which most composers go to town on, and is based largely on plainsong. It's very beautiful, and works well in both small and large choir formats, though I'd recommend Westminster Cathedral Choir's recording. My other favourite is Britten's War Requiem, which is completely different. Britten set both the full text of the Latin mass, and interspersed poems and fragments by Wilfred Owen, sung in English. The conceit, of having these extremely pacifist and humanist poems written during a bloody war sung against a mass celebrating the dead, works very well, and is extremely moving. Having this year visited Coventry Cathedral for the first time, I can only imagine the effect of its first performance in that building after all that had gone before.

I wonder if I'll find Brahms' interpretation of the requiem so thought-provoking?

Monday, November 14, 2005

Schools as prisons

On my walk to work, I pass two schools, both of which are for under-11s (not sure if they're primary, infants or juniors). One of them has its playground adjacent to the footpath/cycleway. Up until a week or so ago, the playground used to be surrounded by a steel galvanised palisade fence. Okay, so probably it's to stop vandalism - the area isn't entirely free from grafitti, broken windows and the like - but a six-foot steel fence seems a bit over-the-top. No-one seems to have tried to damage the fence or spray paint all over it, though.

Now, however, there has been a second fence, a wooden one, erected within the boundary of the steel fence. Tell me what this is for? The school is looking increasingly like a prison (I'm reminded of dialogue in "Out of Sight" before the attempted jail break), and I wonder whether it's to keep the kids in, or others unspecified, out. I attended a junior school in Chelmsford for about a term which was partly surrounded by a brick wall at least twenty feet high (that's how high it felt when I was seven, anyway), but it was next door to Chelmsford Prison; my primary school had only a chainlink fence around it. I don't know why it's felt necessary to have two fences, but it seems that it can't be just to protect the school from vandals: that's what the palisade fence is for. So it's to stop people looking in, presumably.

While I strongly agree that we have to protect children against those who would harm them, there are surely better ways to do so than by turning their school into a prison yard. Okay, so I'm not a parent, or perhaps I would be singing a different tune, but it does seem ridiculous that children are becoming so coddled and over-protected from possible harm. As I see it, the best protection a child can have is by being with a bunch of other children, their friends, and not by being carefully driven around in lonely state by Mum or Dad.

The other school, by the way, has not proceeded to such extremes - they have a chainlink fence around their playground, and that seems enough.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Silence is golden?

With the proliferation in late years of the minute's or even two minutes' silence to remember various tragedies, it occurs to me to wonder whether the silence on Remembrance Day is devalued as a result. As I sit in the office at eleven o'clock, the alarm sounds to mark the start of the silence, I turn off the CD playing in my computer and hope no-one calls. I don't stop working, though. One of my colleagues, V, who's Greek, asks what the poppy is for, and I try to explain. It makes me think about the vast number of people who have died in wars, and the utter senselessness of the world, where killing gets your point across so much more forcefully than talking.

I don't want to write about such concepts as war saving us from tyranny, as any analysis of the aftermath of WW2 will show how many people were then transported and exiled and later murdered without a finger being lifted to help. And injustice, oppression and outright genocide still go on today. I'm still torn, morally speaking, between the state's requirement to respect others' sovereignty, and yet a humane requirement to succour those in need of aid. P. J. O'Rourke can write amusingly about why war is good ("Give War A Chance"), but I'm not sure I agree with him. When war is waged on civilians, who merely want to get on with their lives and have done nothing to their neighbours except be born into a different ethnic group, that is unacceptable, and should not be tolerated.

I used to think of the poppy as being a symbol of our imperialist and warmongering past: now I'm not so sure. So I'm wearing mine in the hope of something better.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Being a pedestrian

I walk to work, normally, as the office is only about a mile from home. Not so bad during the summer, as there are trees and flowers bordering the footpath, and if any mad cyclists are approaching, there's time to dodge out of the way. In winter, or more specifically, during Greenwich Mean Time, it's dark when I walk home. Most of the footpath is lit, though lately several of the lights have been out, leading to occasional dark spots. That's bearable (except when the aforementioned mad cyclists who ride the footpaths without lights zoom out of the darkness). However, there's one bit of the walk home which skirts the local playing field and abuts onto back gardens, and is not lit at all. I can barely see my feet. No chance to avoid the dog poo and fallen leaves and dark clad people walking their dogs. So instead, once the clocks go back, I have to walk on the pavement beside the main road, and prolong my journey. This irritates me - should it? At least I live in a place where there are footpaths.

And don't even get me started on one of the subways beneath the main road - all the lights are missing, due to the habit of the local youth (at least, I assume they're youthful) to setting fire to cars and motorbikes in the underpass. As a result, all the lights have exploded or melted, and the roof is black with smoke. That must be fun to watch. I expect that fixing the lights is not Peterborough City Council's highest priority.

Perhaps I should just give up and cycle everywhere (once I get my bike fixed).

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Singing in the shrouds

This actually happens to be the title of a good book by Ngaio Marsh, but I thought I'd use it to start off my posting on this blog.

After a long fallow period of not singing much due to various reasons, the past few weeks have been quite busy - a friend's wedding, evensong at Ely Cathedral, a performance of Tallis' Spem in alium (amongst other works) - and to come, Haydn's Nelson Mass. It does make me aware of how poor my sight-reading is, and how I should practise more. But Sunday's concert made me realise how much I enjoy choral singing. Even though all three works were in languages other than English (Latin and Russian), and though most of the time I was unaware of the real meaning of what I was singing, it is very moving to be part of such a group. The combination of words and music together are perfect, and bring something to each other that they do not have alone.

The pieces performed at the weekend were Tallis's 40-part motet Spem in alium nunquam habui (to give its full title), Rachmaninov's All-Night Vigil, and Psalm 150 in Grandsire Triples by Finnish composer Jaako Mantyjaarvi. To be able to take part in the Tallis was a rare privilege - being in forty voice parts, it rarely gets performed.

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