August 19, 2010

Eton Choral Course: Oxford 2010

I woke early on my first full day at the Eton Choral course to join Ralph and some of the other singers I had met the previous afternoon for the daily morning run at 7am. We joined at the Merton College Quad and then set out towards the Christ Church College grounds. With a crisp summer morning, the green grounds of the grounds took an idyllic tinge, acting as the perfect distraction from the pounding of feet on the well-trodden path.

Coming back to Queens College for a shower, I was slowly getting used to the endless corridors, low doorways and staircases that make up Drawda Hall, the section of rooms in the college that I occupied. The trip to the showers was just as confusing since I had to enter a completely different part of the college in order to find the single shower to be shared by most of the people on our floor.

The day begins at 8am sharp where you are expected to arrive at breakfast, ready to sing at 8:45 for the morning vocal warm up. This began a regular morning routine that set up the beginning of a stringent weekly schedule, marked by the quarterly chiming of the Merton bell tower.

Rehearsals began without fuss and with a professional discipline of silence and timekeeping. We quickly began working together in full rehearsals with Ralph and then with our new consort groups where we aimed to put together a sung grace following a particular dinner in the week and also a lighter song to be sung off the page and with actions at a workshop later in the week.

A later rehearsal of Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb showed off the magnificent acoustic of the Merton chapel where the barely audible unison introduction glowed in the old cavernous building. When we approached a bass solo (“for H is a Spirit…”), Ralph was kind enough to grant me an opportunity to try it. This was a bit of a shock at the time because the solo sections will normally be skipped till after some audition process has taken place. Having done the piece twice before, hearing David and Robert do it at the cathedral and in Giovanni on separate occasions, I knew how it went and was happy to accept. It went very well and I was happy to have done the solo I had many a time wished I could have been doing. This really marked the beginning of a general domination of a lot of solo parts through the duration of the course.

After the evening coffee break, I met with my voice teacher for the course, John Bowley who had had my first lesson rescheduled to a slot earlier that day for some reason. I sang ‘Hai gia vinta la causa’ from the Marriage of Figaro for him, working primarily on the line and intent of the plot-filled phrases. At the conclusion of the lesson, he asked me to sing the following day in a master class given by Iris Dell'acqua. This was great news that was also coupled with a strange little sense of déjà vu having been asked to sing for the same person in the 2008 course I came on. This realization struck a little bit of fear in my heart as well because of her very high standards, especially in relation to the word for word meaning and conveyance of aria text. I wondered whether she would have me jumping across the room again like last time.

The following day brought new readings of the other pieces in the repertoire including the Eric Whitacre piece ‘I thank you god for most this amazing day’. When Ralph remembered that we would be going through this piece, he contacted the composer to see if he could come in and work with us. Unfortunately after a couple of hours, we were informed that he had only left England 2 days ago for Los Angeles. The day passed by with a relaxing lesson in Alexander technique, involving some good notes on posture and time for some proper stretching out.

Following a short rehearsal with David Goode on the Mozart, the master class began in Queen’s College chapel in the afternoon. The higher parts sang first, starting with Alicia, a native Swede from Stockholm who I had gotten to know earlier in the day. Alicia was followed by two other members of my consort group (alto and counter tenor) before I got my opportunity to sing. I got not more than 4 notes into the piece before she started to sink her teeth into the music. I’m glad I had a faint idea of what she was going to do before the master class as it gave me an opportunity to study my literal translation again before the performance. By the end of the 30 minute analysis, I had been coaxed into the character of the repugnant Count Alamaviva, pacing up the chapel into the audience, staring at them in the eyes with the all of the malice of a vengeful man. I was given many useful pointers which helped in bringing a perpetual interest to the sometimes repetitive phrases.

The next day posed another big day for solo performances. I was surprised at how little I was tiring after the past intense days of singing. Having paid very close attention to posture and technique for the maximum stamina required for 4 full weeks of singing, I was glad to see that I was on the right track for my voice to hold out until Sweden. The first event of the day apart from the regular rehearsals and meals took the form of an audition session for all of the different solos available in the repertoire. While most of those were for altos and sopranos, 4 basses turned up to give the Britten segment a shot. I sang it once after the other three contenders. Most of them were a little put off and discouraged from giving it a go since I had already sung it once in rehearsals. There were still a couple of strong contributions and I was relieved to find that I had been successful later in the day.

Having got wind that I was on the program for the solo songs concert that evening, I managed to squeeze in a short lesson with John to get some pointers on Der Lindenbaum from Winterreise by Schubert. With some work on characterization, I was much better suited in the concert to supply the contrast between the wistful memory of summer love and the harsh winter winds facing the battered traveller while passing the linden tree. It was a tremendous pleasure to sing in such a great acoustic that lets you feel so engrossed in the sound bouncing all around you.

By the 4th morning I had realized that my morning had become so regulated that I knew where I should be at what time in order to not be late to the morning warm up to a scary precision. This resulted in the following ridiculously accurate procedure:
6:45 Wake
6:58 Leave College
7:00 Start run from Merton Front Quad
7:18 Back to Queens after run
7:31 Finish shower
7:53 Leave Queens for breakfast
8:31 Leave breakfast to get ready at Queens
8:41 Leave College (3 minute and 30 second walk from my room to the Merton Chapel)
8:45 Morning warm-up starts

This plan also allowed for a bit of time to indulge in some morning communications. After getting the useful advice on the bus from Heathrow that room based internet was often accessible from unsecured network ports, I bought a network cable from the porter and logged in. This was very useful as it allowed me to call home a couple of times in the mornings to Mum and Ariel, and show them around the room and through the window onto High street via Skype call.

After the first main rehearsal for the morning, David Goode approached me to ask if I could sing two pieces with the organists in order to help them work on their accompanying skills. I was told that two of the players would be accompanying a couple of singers in the solo songs concert in the evening. In the 10 minutes spare time I had before the accompanists rehearsal, with the help of a piano playing singer and also a girl who had done both of the songs before, I had time to run through both ‘Du Bist Du Ruh’ by Schubert and ‘Music for a While’ by Purcell. After this hour long workshop, I had got some good tips for the pieces and also had two new pieces under my belt having negotiated the high F and German in the Lieder and having figured out the tricky little baroque flourishes in the Purcell.

Recording Links to come.

With the informal concert looming, a group of 8 of us were picked out one night at dinner time. Having been asked to sing the barber shop number ‘My Evaline’, we got on to rehearsals, quickly picking up the music and starting to add some amusing actions. After auditioning for the concert the day after, we continued rehearsing in the Christ Church grounds, presenting our performance to passing tourists.

Monday was tour day where the full choir would be performing in evensong at St Alban’s Abbey. For this evensong we first rehearsed for a couple of hours under the cathedral with Owen Rees from Queens College who would be conducting us in the evensong. This service made for great concert practise and a chance to soak up the broad acoustic of the longest cathedral in England. On the way back to Oxford and with travel in mind, I met another member of the National Youth Choir of Great Britain called Beky. After having this revelation dawn on us we made sure to coordinate our travel plans up to Banbury.

Following our arrival at Oxford we had dinner, performing our grace piece (Exultate Deo by Palestrina) and then moving into the chapel to sing our consort group numbers. Group G performed ‘The Bear Necessities’ from The Jungle Book. It was really great fun after all of our rehearsing and provided some great relief to the rather serious mood of the other musical endeavours of the day. After some notes from Giles (a staff member), we retried the opening and then went back to our seats to listen to all of the other wonderful show pieces.

Recording Links to come.

With the final recital looming, we all knuckled down for the last rehearsals of the course, making sure the finest possible sound would be coming out only hours later. The concert time came lightning fast with people streaming into the anti-chapel where we performed our first concert segment of organ accompanied works (using the organ students who were also on the course). The audience of about 90 then followed us into the main chapel stalls for the unaccompanied works. After doing my solo in the Britten, I could relax a little and enjoy the amazing sounds bouncing back and forth across the chapel walls.

Recording Links to come.

Promptly after the main recital, we moved over to Queens chapel where we would have the informal concert. There were many good items on the list including some instrumental groups, some soloists and of course our humble barbershop octet. We put ‘My Evaline’ across in true close harmony tradition with a couple of anecdotal additions to the music that made it a real crowd pleaser. With everyone on high in the wake of two successful concerts, we all took the 20 minute walk over to the Merton playing fields where we had a little post course celebration.

Recording Links to come.

The next morning, much against my better judgement, I got myself up after the late night out to go for the regular morning run that I had done for every morning prior. That morning there were only two of us, a major diminution of the regular 10-12 that normally showed up. The night before, we were instructed that we should be packed and out of the room by breakfast at 8am the next morning. This didn’t quite leave enough time for me to pack my endless baggage into the 25kg suitcase, cramming everything in in order to make breakfast.

After Ralph had given his final reports, the singers began culminating in the front quad, saying goodbye to their new found friends. Once most people had left, a small group of us went out to get some coffee before we were due to leave for our next destinations. I was introduced to some staple shopping points in Oxford including Jack Wills (motto: “Fabulously British”). Following this little Oxford city expedition, we all peeled off to go our separate ways. Beky and I picked up our luggage from Merton and began our short trip up to Banbury.

Having completed this wonderful course, I get a chance to reflect on all of the things that have occurred and just how lucky I am to have become a part of all of this. I have come to England and have been greeted with nothing but kindness and opportunity from the word go. I have been lucky enough to sing in all of the solo passages possible and have generally been able to extract as much new knowledge as possible from all of the choral (and academic) wisdom surrounding me. I have been able to discuss future singing plans and toy with the possibilities of choral scholarships to Oxbridge universities following the conclusion of my studies in Perth. To think that only one week has passed and I can already be completely dazzled by the immensity of musical activities that one can strive for. Things will only get better though, with NYC and Rodolfus events in rapid succession over the next 3 weeks, I am sure to be further amazed by a depth of music I have never known before.

1 comment:

  1. That was a great entry. It sound fantastic and I am very pleased everything is working out over there (I'm not surprised though!)

    Can't wait to see the photos and listen to the recordings.

    Take care and have a fantastic time working with Mike again!