2 December 2017

Question: What do you get if you bring together a choir, a conductor/composer, a church with a wonderful acoustic, and a brilliant recording engineer?

Answer: A recording of some fantastic music. Eventually.

Eventually was very much the operative word as we stood round in St Silas’s church. Located in Camden, the church proved to be a remarkable building; a little slice of Anglicanism where the Reformation appeared as an inconvenient and readily-ignorable footnote in British history. But no amount of thrones or statues could make up for the temperature. The radiators put in a valiant effort, but oh it was cold! And soon the realisation had dawned on us that we would be stuck there. All day.

‘We’ll need around 85 takes’, one of the sopranos confidently predicted, as we started recording the first piece. Based on the theory that it was better to seize the day and get the difficult stuff over with first, we kicked off our all-Salter session with Tim’s Invida Aetas, his wonderful setting of some of Horace’s Odes. Wonderful, but tricky to sing. The first of the five movements, Nunc est Bidendum, is notable for its constantly shifting time signature, 5/8 alternating with 3/4 and  4/4 to create a jerky syncopated rhythm that definitely could not be replicated by anyone who had imbibed a bit too much. Or certainly not replicated intentionally. We had performed the piece before, at our concert back in the spring, but with the recording we had the opportunity to get it absolutely perfect. Which, of course, meant several takes, particularly of the final few bars, which require fastidious counting. Remarkably, one of the tenors had only seen the score a couple of days earlier, having been asked to step in to replace one of our singers who had fallen ill. And yet we did it, thanks in no small part to the skills of recording engineer Annabel, who had the brilliant ability to pinpoint even the smallest error and make sure we corrected it. ‘Is that sounding all right now?’ Tim would ask her. ‘Yes-s-s-s-s-s’ would come the reply, and we soon came to learn when ‘yes’ actually meant ‘no’, and when words of encouragement would be followed by a ‘but…’

The rest of the morning was spent on the remaining four movements of Invida Aetas, none of them, fortunately, quite as difficult as the first. Eventually we were belting out carpe diem, singing lovingly of the garden and stream that we wished for, and being tossed with our ship on the turbulent seas, making for a safe harbour.

‘Maybe a few more than 85 takes’, some of the sopranos predicted, as we closed the morning having recorded several snippets again and again and again. This was not, it should be pointed out, all due to the singers. While St Silas’s has a lovely acoustic, it is not entirely soundproof. Throughout the day we were competing with the occasional plane, siren and lorry, all of which seemed keen to join in and make our music even more avant-garde than it already was. Not to mention the eager washing machine, whose spin cycle disrupted us more than once. At least, it sounded like a washing machine, although none of us was entirely sure why there was a washing machine in the church. Possibly it was just the sound of God moving in very mysterious ways.

The afternoon was given over to recording some of Tim’s folksong arrangements. As a result, on a cold winter’s day, we found ourselves singing about springtime cuckoos. The Ionians are nothing if not perverse. Wrapped in our coats and scarves, and in many cases trying desperately not to cough and sneeze, we got through The Cuckoo is a Pretty Bird and Fair are the Flowers in the Valley (the latter incorporating homages to Mahler and Beethoven, among others).

‘Maybe 95 takes?’ the sopranos predicted. ‘One hundred and twenty?’ (By this stage we were running a highly unofficial sweepstake).

By the time we completed our folksong session, which included our best saucy piratical rendition of Tim’s The Coasts of High Barbary (in which the only musical direction at the beginning of the piece is ‘nautically’), the number of takes had crept up to just under one hundred. A long and tiring day, but we’d made it! Exhausted as we were, there was only one thing we could do. Nicola, one of our sopranos, lived nearby and was luring us to her house with an offer of wine. Nunc was definitely the time to bibendum.

Elli Woollard

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Concert in All Saints Church, West Dulwich
25 November 2017

By late November, many other choirs are so satiated with carols or other seasonal favourites that they start to feel decidedly post-Christmas-dinner-ish.
But we are not other choirs, and so our concert in All Saints West Dulwich on November 25th was markedly different.
Not that we failed to give a passing nod to the season. Our opening number was I Sing of a Maiden by local Streatham boy Arnold Bax (1883-1953), a setting of a fifteenth century hymn to the Virgin Mary that deserves to be better known. After that, however, we tore up the Christmas rulebook and went for two distinctly non-seasonal pieces by Elgar. The first, Love’s Tempest, displayed a passion that might have horrified many buttoned-up Edwardians, love being described as a ‘tumult wilder than a storm at sea’. Then again, the words were originally written by a Russian (Apollon Maikov), so perhaps he could be excused for not hiding raw emotion under a stiff upper lip. And the second of the two songs, Go Song of Mine, spoke of a song to ‘break the hardness of the heart of man’, suggesting that music might have the capacity to chip away at British reserve, even if it all ended up very properly with meeting the ‘Maker at his heavenly shrine’.
Next up were two beautifully melodic songs by Debussy, originally written for solo voice but transcribed by our director, Timothy Salter, for the wonderful combination of chorus and harp. For this we were joined by the award-winning young harpist Oliver Wass, who provided the perfect accompaniment. Beau Soir started off as a song in praise of a beauteous evening, and finished with the cheerful reminder that we’re all going to our graves (thanks for that, Debussy), while Nuit d’Etoiles was a love song, albeit one reminiscing about love that had long been lost. For these we had worked hard on our French pronunciation, and managed to remember that champs de blé does not rhyme with ‘Theresa May’.
The remainder of the first half of the programme was taken up by instrumental music. Here Oliver Wass was joined by the brilliant young violist Luba Tunnicliffe, whose playing entranced the audience and provided ample proof that harp and viola are a winning combination. Very little original music for harp and viola exists, but fortunately our own Timothy Salter had stepped into the breach with a transcription of Elgar’s captivating piano piece In Smyrna. This was followed by a couple of movements from the Fantasy Sonata, an original harp/viola piece by Bax. The critic Stephen Moss once described Bax’s works as being “the promotional kiss of death”; given that we had two Bax pieces in one concert, we might be said to have embraced death with open arms.
Although as Debussy pointed out, that’s where we’re all headed anyway. And the audience certainly seemed to enjoy both I Sing of a Maiden and the Fantasy Sonata, with its lilting Irish-inspired melodies.
We opened the second half with Barber’s gorgeous Twelfth Night, a setting of poem by Laurie Lee. Then from the sublime to the downright dissolute, we moved to a setting by the US composer Argento of some doggerel verse by Keats. In Praise of Apollo, a paean to the joys of wine, started off with all four parts in unison, but by the end had descended into a raucous counterpoint that recalled the best sort of nights down the pub. Next up were more pieces for viola and harp, first Salter’s transcription of Rachmaninov’s Prelude Op.32 No.5, then a lvoely arrangement of some of Prokoviev’s Romeo and Juliet Suite transcribed by Oliver Wass. This was followed by two more of Salter’s transcriptions, of Debussy’s Pour Invoquer Pan, and the Prélude from the Suite Bergamasque, after which the chorus joined the instrumentalists for Salter’s otherworldly Nocturne, originally written for harp and chorus but here rewritten to include viola too.
At the end of the evening one of the audience members was heard remarking what a wonderfully diverse and unusual programme it was. And that, of course, is what makes us the choir we are.
Nearly Christmas, and not a carol in sight.

Elli Woollard

28 August 2017

The end of an Ionian year with many high moments, and a scary one! The scary one first was a concert venue where I was almost in complete darkness and couldn’t see the music. A possible contender for the high spot was our concert in the Danish Church. A full house (we didn’t print enough tickets or programmes!) and all the sweat and tears that went into learning the Danish & Swedish paid off as could be seen in the smiles of the audience. I don’t know what the words mean but I got great satisfaction from saying ‘skummende’ and ‘fjeldblokken’ – words that I feel could be well used in an altercation of road rage.
But, undoubtedly the highest spot for me was the very first rehearsal of the year when we were presented with a pile of music for the next concert and beyond. The conductor usually asks who is sight reading the piece and about 80% raise their hands. What happens next is pure magic. There is instant music, often note perfect. Wow there are some good sight- readers.

Gervais Sawyer

Concert in the Danish Church
24 June 2017

There are many reasons, of course, why a choir might induce weeping among its audience, not all of them positive. But when one member of the large audience at our concert at the Danish Church on June the 24th told us afterwards, ‘I cried’, we are confident that the sentiment was entirely complimentary.
Our programme began with Finzi’s Haste On, my joys, one of his beautiful settings of Roberts Bridges’ poems, followed by Rubbra’s woefully under-performed The Givers, composed to mark the 85th birthday of Vaughan Williams. Staying firmly in England, we then sang Parry’s What Voice of Gladness, another Robert Bridges setting.
But no concert in a Danish church would be complete without some Danish music, and so our next number was Lange-Müller’s Madonna over Bølgerne. It had taken us a while to get our tongues around the intricacies (and downright illogicalness) of Danish pronunciation, but either we made a very good attempt or our audience was far too polite to tell us otherwise.
We stayed with Danish for Grieg’s gorgeous Våren, for which we were joined by the soprano soloist Marianne Cotterill, a long-time collaborator with the Ionian Singers and a member of the ROH chorus. As the concert was only a couple of days away from midsummer it was perhaps slightly incongruous to be singing a song about spring, but the music was so lovely that it hardly seemed to matter.
Turning to Sweden, we then sang an arrangement of the folksong Värmeland, by our very own Timothy Salter. Once again Marianne sung the solo line beautifully. Following this were two of Tim’s English folksong arrangements, the first, The Bold Fisherman, about a fair maiden who suddenly changes her tune about marrying the ‘fisherman’ she has just met upon discovering that he is, in fact, rolling in money. We then went cuckoo, literally, with The Cuckoo is a Pretty Bird, after which we crossed back to Scandinavia for Alfvén’s Aftonen.
As we’d already sung about spring, we stayed with the season for Byrd’s This Sweet and Merry Month of May, thus proving that we are no respecter of calendars. Next came Greaves’ lovely madrigal Come Away, Sweet Love, with all its many ‘fa la la’s (at one point an entire page of them. Greaves possibly lacked imagination when it came to lyrics).
We finished with two more of Tim’s folksong arrangements, this time from Denmark: Jeg gik mig i lunden, and En yndig og frydefuld sommertid, with Marianne singing the beautiful solo lines on top.
Not that the evening ended there. The concert took place on Sankthansaften (St John’s Eve), a day in the Danish calendar that has as much to do with pagan celebrations as with religious observance. So afterwards we all filed out of the church to take part in the Danish garden party, with drizzle helpfully provided by the British climate. We all had great fun sitting round campfires and trying our hands at making Danish snobrød, much more delicious than its description – bread on a stick – would suggest. Those who stayed until the end witnessed the ceremonial burning of a witch (something that we should perhaps introduce at more of our concerts in the future).
We are extremely grateful to all those who came along to hear us, and, of course, to the wonderful Marianne Cotterill. ‘I was so delighted by the sound of the choir’, one audience member told us afterwards. ‘Tak for jeres dejlige koncert!’ Which, if our knowledge of Danish is correct, means that they rather liked us.

Elli Woollard