York Minster

York Minster

A few weekends ago I sang in York Minster. That’s the cathedral in the centre of York – and it is beautiful. I was part of the visiting choir The Howells Voices led by Sebastian Thomson,* singing in four services over the weekend. Sat in a pub with a view of the cathedral spire over our roast dinners we googled ‘Minster’ and found that it was an honorific title given to a church, but nobody could quite work out how one would qualify.**

We cut through some ace tunes – some Bairstow, Howells (of course!), Harris, to name a few, polished up some Psalms, and learnt a set of responses by composer Philip Moore – who happened to be in the congregation on the Sunday during Evensong. Evensong, for those of you who are unfamiliar, is like feeling the sun set in early winter. Everything seems to go cooler around you (especially in old, stone buildings!), the air is still and you find yourself listening for sound even in the silences. Can you tell I am a fan?

The highlight for me was singing the Psalms. There is something about this music that is slightly hypnotic. The four voices of the choir (soprano, alto, tenor and bass) sing the words in unison, and the notes in harmony. The rhythm is more like spoken words than sung music, the emphasis matches where you would have it in spoken language, and it is set to a very simple tune. Sometimes almost the whole line is sung on one note, only moving at the very end, sometimes the movement is elsewhere; there are vertical lines marked in the text so that you know when to move on. Every time the same tune comes around it sounds different. The knack is to get the hang of the notes quickly so that you can concentrate on the words, and when you need to move on to the next note – good multitasking practice.

And the best moment of all? Listening to the echo of the voices slide off the cathedral walls after the last note has been sung.
*Seb is a choral director, organist and teacher – you can find his website here
** Disclaimer: all information was gleaned from the internet and may or may not be super-accurate

Photographs used by permission

Firewood Island at the Birdcage

Firewood Island at the Birdcage

Not long ago I trooped down to TheBirdcage in the centre of Bristol for a drink with friends and a bit of live music. This is a gorgeous venue; vintage and chic with large chesterfield sofas, bikes hung high on the wall, and a plethora of lampshades bunched together to make an event of the light fittings. Incidentally, they do very good bacon sandwiches in the morning. The night began with duo Long for the Coast, who warmed up the crowd with their down to earth lyrics and debut ukele performance.  The p

erfect start for the nordic-indie-celtic-viking-welsh-folk band Firewoodisland to continue the evening. ‘What sort of music is that?!’ I hear you cry. Well,

it’s the kind of music to hum to, dance to or walk up a mountain to, but more so, if you see what I mean. They wore tribal stripes raised across their cheekbones, wielded strong lead vocals and sunk in their harmonies. No wonder some of the watching punters couldn’t help but get up out of their comfy chairs and dance. Their lyrics are clever, their tunes are catchy, and if you can listen to their EP without humming along I will eat my (metaphorical) hat. But don’t just take my word for it, head to their website to find out more about the band and their upcoming gigs, and watch a couple of their beautiful music videos.

Photographs used by permission.

A Night at the Theatre

A Night at the Theatre

About a month ago I had the privilege of watching one of my students perform in a production of Les Miserables at St Mary Redcliffe and Temple School.* For those who have not experienced this epic musical, it is set in the middle of the French Revolution and tends more towards the reality of war than towards happy endings. Amy played Fantine, a girl who seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and who has responsibility for a young daughter and some tricky songs. Whilst I had heard the song during lessons, I was not prepared for watching her sing ‘I dreamed a dream,’ and how she put what we’d worked on into practice even through scenes of tears and despair – no mean feat – try singing beautifully the next time you shed a few! Not only that, but Amy had her hair cut off live, on stage, to raise money for the Little Princess Trust. What impressed me overall was that, in a play that consisted entirely of singing (bar, possibly, two spoken lines), one school could find, nuture and present enough talented singers to pull it off. The cast consisted of over 40 students, and there was a choir of 45, semi-concealed behind a screen, that sung the French revolution into Bristol. The whole performance was of a high standard, the costumes were vibrant, the acting was brilliant and the stage set was cleverly constructed.** To mention a few favourite moments: the ‘master o’ the ‘ouse’ was so creepy that I deeply regretted making fleeting eye-contact with the seditious and over-eyebrowed character, Jean Valjean’s falsetto gave me goosebumps and, finally, Fantine’s (*spolier alert*) deathbed scene was so sad and so poignantly played I think it could be said that: of dry eyes in that place, there were none. Well done to everyone involved – truly a night to remember!  

* Interesting info: this musical play was created by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, based on the novel by Victor Hugo, written in the 1860s.

** Credit where credit is due – Stephanie Rees

Photograph used by permission.