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Boris Godunov (excerpts), Philharmonia, Hrusa

The Philharmonia are doing a series on Russian composers and on Thursday I am taking part in a concert which includes semi-staged excerpts of Mussorgsky’s great opera Boris Godunov. I was lucky enough to take part in a fully staged production of this work with Nationale Reisopera of The Netherlands in 2007 and remember well the weight, sadness and beauty of the music.

This semi-staging of four parts of the opera looks to incorporate the drama and grand scale of the work. Jakub Hrůša conducts this performance and I am appearing as part of Philharmonia Voices.

A Plaque for Haydn

haydn plaque crowd

A panoramic image of the crowd gathered in Soho to see Haydn’s plaque unveiled. Image: Ben Palmer

Earlier this week I joined a team from the Haydn Society of Great Britain in putting up a commemorative plaque to Joseph Haydn. I have been project-managing the campaign to have a plaque to the composer installed on the site of the place where he lodged on his first visit to London in 1791. The plaque was unveiled on Tuesday (24 March) by Sir Neville Marriner, following a speech by the Austrian Ambassador and was heard by a crowd that eclipsed our projections two or three-fold (above). BBC Radio 3 In Tune recorded the event and broadcast a clip with an interview with Sir Neville on the same afternoon’s programme.

More details of the campaign and the unveiling can be read here, at the Society’s website. The plaque itself can be seen at 18 Great Pulteney Street, London W1.

40 part motets, BBC Singers, Milton Court

Milton CourtLast night I was involved in a concert of multiple part choral music with the BBC Singers. I was taking part in Ecce beatam lucem by Striggio, the inevitable (and wonderful) Spem in alium by Thomas Tallis and also a super piece by Gabriel Jackson, Sanctum is verum lucem, a 40 part work the first performance of which I was lucky enough to sing in at the Lichfield Festival 9 years ago.

This concert was held at Milton Court opposite the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and broadcast live on BBC Radio 3. As a bonus I helped in an educational project immediately before the concert, making some multiple-part music with a group of children from a local school (who stayed to hear the concert proper).

The Girl of the Golden West, ENO

Photo: Tristram Kenton for The Guardian

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Tonight I am involved in the first performance of a new production of Puccini’s ‘La Fanciulla del West’ or The Girl of the Golden West for ENO. The opera was written immediately after Madame Butterfly and is clearly a work of a high period of compositional production featuring fine, dramatic music with traces of the vernacular that one can recognise in any of the later iconic scores of spaghetti western composer Ennio Morricone. Director Richard Jones has conceived a really super production that follows the score closely in all its wit, drama, sentiment and all-out wistfulness.


Bach Cantata 138, Sweelinck Ensemble, St Mary-at-hill


This weekend I am performing in a Bach cantata, once again within the service of Lutheran vespers with the Sweelinck Ensemble. BWV 138 is an unusual piece. The opening chorus comprises almost half the work. It is a long, truncated chorus, through-composed from one recit to the next chorale to the next chorus. There is only one formal aria, for the bass: a lively, affirmative, coloratura-spattered D major, a violent contrast to the foggy introspection that precedes it. But, of course, this is echt-Lutheran breast-beating in music and the one element of this piece consistent with the rest of Bach’s oeuvre.

The St. Anne’s Music Society, who arrange these monthly, professional performances of Bach’s cantatas and associated music in the service of Lutheran vespers always require support. Indeed, I am taking part in a special fundraising performance of a pair of cantatas in November to help raise funds for future performances. You can help by following the link at the bottom of this website page.

Benvenuto Cellini, English National Opera


Photo: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

Last night I performed in the second of the run of shows with which ENO is making a triumphant end to its 2012-13 season. Terry Gilliam’s production of Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini has gone down very well with the early audiences and critics alike, with the latter even finding space (in increasingly constricted columns) to mention the work of the chorus, of which I am an extra member.

The director has himself readily identified complexities and problems in bringing his unique vision of this idiosyncratic opera to the stage. In addition, my colleagues in the chorus were working on no fewer than three other productions simultaneously. The aggregated professionalism of all the performers, crew and assorted backstage staff has been of the essence in midwifing this project to its performance run. It has been a tremendous experience, opera in its literal, multifaceted sense. I’m looking forward to the cinema relay of the show on 17th June – not least as re-runs of this will give me the opportunity to see all the bits I simply haven’t had the opportunity to see for myself.

Strauss Die Fledermaus, Philharmonia, John Wilson

If there’s one thing that conductor John Wilson knows how to do, it’s a matinée. Now fêted for his re-constructed scores to golden age musicals and Hollywood films, this is the second time that he has come to the RFH to perform a much-loved staple of the ‘light’ operatic repertoire. Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus was a perfect vehicle for the high-performance warmth and verve of the Philharmonia and the semi-staging freed up the concert to make the most of its fun and fizz. I was performing with Philharmonia Voices.

Media-Assisting The Singing Entrepreneur in Belgrade

The Singing Entrepreneur

This week I have been doing some alternative work. I travelled with a coaching group called The Singing Entrepreneur to provide media recording and logistical support during two days of seminars given to the Operosa company based in Belgrade, Serbia.

I have been producing promotional videos for friends and colleagues for a few years now. The Singing Entrepreneur approached me to record their work both for their own internal assessment and also to promote their fledgling business on their various online platforms. I recorded three two-hour seminars on two HD digital camcorders and a voice recorder, taking additional footage on a digital compact camera equipped for short spans of HD video.

It was a good experiment from my perspective in managing the equipment over two flights, managing all the recording units as simultaneously as possible without remote control of any of them (!) and dealing with the material as it was being produced. As a performing musician used to coming into a performing space after the logistical temas have already spent time setting it up I gained useful practical experience in mapping out the way in which the times of a working day have to be compartmentalised and managed.

My colleagues had some great feedback from their talks and discussions. I know that my media record of their work will be of great use in refining their work and presenting it to a future audience.

A Typical Day

Well, first of all there really isn’t a typical day. I work as a session musician, which means I rely on other people calling me, often at short notice, to do one off jobs that last a couple of hours. So ‘A Typical Day’ is a way of trying to tie down the unusual.

On Wednesday I did four separate jobs in London. The ‘in London’ bit is rather important. Not only is this the place where there is a the greatest concentration of work for a session musician but – crucially – it has sufficiently good public transport (and the contingency of a ready supply of taxis!) to let you get from one job to the next in a reasonably short time.

My first was at a church (much of my work comes from singing in London churches, which have an unrivaled musical reputation). I had responded to a call two days previously from a colleague who was feeling unwell. He had decided to pass on the work for which he had been booked to someone else, known as a deputy. Singing in session in London has certain advantages: with my instrument in my throat I can accept work immediately. However, there are other issues to do with presentation so it’s often useful (for a man) to wear a suit & tie and black shoes. As for the music itself, well this is supplied (as sheet music) and session musicians such as myself are expected to interpret the music from the notes of the page immediately, idiomatically and to a high stylistic and aesthetic standard. Church work is easier if you have a sense of what happens in the liturgy (what happens when, which bits are sung and how one should behave).

On this occasion I was stepping in to assist a school choir. This is specific form of session work known as ‘bumping’, ‘stiffening’ or ‘stuffing’, when the singers of an amateur choir need support. The occasion was a school assembly and the music included Allegri’s Miserere, a famous piece of church music often heard on this particular day in the church calendar, Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent, the period in the run-up to Easter).

This is a point worth making, as certain days are hot spots in the calendar. Indeed this first job started at 9am (rehearsal) and finished with the end of the service at 11.30, before I had to get on a tube and move on to the next.

The second job was another in a church, singing a lunchtime service in the City. Again I arrived at the church knowing only what time I am expected and the fee I am to be paid. Many people who know a little music speak wistfully of what a wonderful life the working musician must have: for all the privations of a hand-to-mouth freelance existence, it must be said that there are perks to be found, especially when working with good colleagues (singers tend to know each other, even if they don’t all meet regularly) on really good music. This was the case for this second job, singing English polyphony by William Byrd and the Italian Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, all aided and abetted by sunshine mediated only by the lattice of the church windows,

I left this church service with the City workers returning from their lunch hour at about 2pm and got on a bus for the West End. My third session of the day was at the London Coliseum, where I have started work on the music for a new production for English National Opera. The ‘music calls’ are the process by which the chorus learns the music prior to ‘production calls’ where the director puts the opera on to the stage. The performances are scheduled for June but a long lead-in time is necessary, not only for a large project but also as part of a jigsaw of productions that make up the working season of a full-time operatic institution.

Finally, leaving the session at 6pm, I took a tube to Fulham. At 7.30 that morning I had responded to an email asking if I could come and sing another church service that same evening. Within reason, it’s important to try and work when it’s possible as the workflow for a freelancer can be erratic so I had accepted – despite knowing that I would be rather tired. Tired? Well, I worry less about being sharp enough to make music than making unrealistic demands on my voice. The operation of singing is a intensely (and carefully balanced) physical activity and too much can produce strains and chafes that can be detrimental in the long term. Part of singing is to know what one’s limits are and to work within them.

This final service was unusual in that the church (and its musical director) had recently finished putting on a production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. The church was littered with the fall-out from the ambitious undertaking. We, the choir, used music stands with the filter gels still on the lamps. Otherwise, the job was as expected. A second outing for Allegri’s Miserere and then across the road to the pub for a restorative pint and the chance to catch up with familiar colleagues and new faces. And exchanging details about where to send the invoice, because at the end of the day, it’s still a job.

Great Ormond St., Music Of Life Foundation

goshThis morning I took part in another Music Of Life Foundation workshop, on this occasion hosted by Great Ormond Street Hospital. Tucked away in the Lagoon wing of the hospital we performed some choral music and then involved all participants – children and adults alike! – in warm up exercises and learning songs to sing together. The remit of the charity to to offer music making opportunities for children with disabilities or special needs. Whatever those privations were they were by no means immediately apparent in a group that participated willingly, constructively and to a high standard throughout the morning, making the experience thoroughly enjoyable both socially and musically. The perfect combination.