gerontius newsletter - November 2014
Dear Gerontius subscriber,
Welcome to the November/December 2014 issue of our newsletter. We have six longer articles for you this time, all about commissioning new music. Four choirs share their experiences of the process, their do's and don'ts, and also their relief and elation at completing a successful performance! We've also got the composer's perspective, and information and guidance from Making Music.
It's a quiet time of year for most of our regular advertisers. Income from newsletter adverts is vital to Gerontius, and allows us to keep the site free of charge for choir members. So if you know of anyone who might be interested in advertising, please do forward them a copy of this newsletter and suggest they get in touch.
Next time, for the January/February edition, the topic will be choir tours. So, if you've been on a tour, or organised one, please do let us know about it. Where did you go, how did you organise travel and accommodation, did you pair up with a local choir, what worked, what didn't...
We hope you will find the newsletter interesting and useful. Do feel free to forward it on to friends and others in your choir, or just send them the link to the newsletter on-line:
With best wishes,
Tim and Denise Ault
Out of the Depths by Matthew King.
The North London Chorus comprises approximately 90 singers, usually performing three concerts a year. We sing a varied and challenging repertoire of sacred and secular music. In December 2012 we performed the specially commissioned Out of the Depths by Matthew King.
I was the Project Manager for the working group that oversaw the completion of the project. Looking back, there was a lot we learnt that I'm delighted to be able to share with others.
Base your commission on something the group feels an emotional connection with. For us, this was the sudden death, aged 61, of one of our basses, Bill Brown. Bill's wife Helen made a generous donation to the choir which, in addition to other funding, made it possible for us to make her idea a reality and commission a work in his memory
Delegate the project management and key decision making to a smaller group. The Project Manager role is critical as it's up to that person to ensure everyone does what he promised by the deadlines agreed.
Establish a way of working with your chosen composer that suits you both. We had worked with Matthew King before and the contract we engaged in specified agreed deadlines, which he met.
Set the parameters early on. Factors include duration of piece, pairing with other music for orchestration, as well as our own vocal limitations.
Mix the unknown with the familiar to draw the crowds in. We paired the piece with Mozart's Mass in C minor and ended up with a full house.
Understand your fund-raising needs and be tenacious. We made quite a few unsuccessful applications but the breakthrough finally came when we were granted the funding by the Ralph Vaughan Williams Trust for the recording of the commission and an extra orchestral rehearsal.
Build up steadily to a performance and engage your choir. Matthew held a workshop, which was the first "note bashing" session. It was exciting to hear from Matthew first hand about the process of composition.
Capture the moment. We made an archive recording, which was made available to everyone who was involved with the project. This needed to be factored in to the orchestral budget.
Enjoy the whole process! It was hard work getting there but infinitely rewarding and performing the commission for the first time was very special and quite emotional. That made it all worthwhile in the end.
Anyone who has experienced the buzz of sharing a performance premiere will know how exciting it can be to have a work written with you in mind. Commissioning can play to a choir's strengths, stretch its members, and offer new experiences.
At Making Music we know many of our members are keen to commission new works but the process itself can sometimes be daunting, for both the music groups and the composers themselves. Once the initial nerves are out the way, however, the results can be enormously rewarding. To quote composer Kerry Andrew: "Composing is a living, breathing art form, and there is no better way for voluntary ensembles to realise that than by performing something new - and even better if it's by a composer that they can meet!"
To help Making Music members bring new work into their repertoire at an affordable rate, we offer a range of schemes which Gerontius readers may find interesting.
This year we commissioned Jonathan Dove to write a new work especially for our members and we are delighted that it will become available for programming in the 2015-6 season. Titled Arion and the Dolphin, Dove's score has been written especially for amateur vocal choirs and is available to our members at a significantly reduced rate, along with a free download of Dove's Ah Sunflower.
This is a really exciting opportunity to bring in work from a very established composer, and interest from our groups has been extremely high. It would not have been possible without generous funding from the Nicholas Berwin Charitable Trust, which means Edition Peters are able to offer our members access to the piece at a subsidised price.
As well as this Jonathan Dove commission we have our Adopt a Composer scheme, which pairs amateur choirs, orchestras, and ensembles with a composer for one year. The scheme is currently in its 14th year and is run by Making Music in partnership with Sound and Music, in association with BBC Radio 3, and funded by the PRS For Music Foundation.
As the name would suggest, the Adopt a Composer programme works by enabling amateur music groups to 'adopt' a composer over the course of a year, with the composers each writing a new piece especially for their partnered group. It works exclusively with composers at the start of their careers, giving them crucial 'real world' compositional experience, as well as guidance from established mentors. In return, the voluntary music groups get the chance to have a piece of music composed around their own particular styles and abilities, and to get directly involved in the composition process.
Pairings for 2014 were announced in September and applications for next year's scheme will launch early in 2015. If Gerontius readers want to keep up to date with how each commission is coming along, they can follow the Adopt a Composer blog which gives an interesting insider's view on the commissioning process: www.makingmusic.org.uk/our-work/projects/adopt-a-composer/adopt-a-composer-blog/
If your choir would like to join Making Music's vibrant, dynamic and diverse membership, and get access to similar new commissions, visit our website at www.makingmusic.org.uk/join-us, or give our Membership Services Team a ring on 020 7422 8280.
Karuṇā by Andrew Wilson-Dickson
The Welsh Camerata choir is ten years old this year - so we decided we needed something different to celebrate! As our musical director, Andrew Wilson-Dickson, is a well-known Welsh composer it seemed logical to commission a choral piece from him. We didn't give him any conditions at the beginning, but envisaged a piece of about 15 minutes in length, accompanied by a small string group and which we could sing in the 2nd half of one of our concerts...
That was about two years ago. As time passed, it became clear that Andrew had something much more ambitious in his mind. Would we mind awfully if he wrote a full scale oratorio, about an hour and ten minutes in length with an orchestra of 32 and 3 professional soloists? Oh, and if funding was a problem Andrew would underwrite the first performance… He could think of no better way of using some of the money his mother had left him. So, of course, we said yes!
Andrew imagined music to challenge a turbulent world, selecting texts in many languages and from many civilisations and religions. With increasing demands on the planet's resources, the challenge is severe - the music would emphasise the urgent need for solutions to racism, xenophobia and religious division. The result was Karuṇā - the word meaning the Buddhist concept of compassion.
Rehearsals began in earnest in September 2014, and the choir was well and truly shaken out of its comfort zone! As one of our members said to Andrew after a Saturday workshop: "This is really good for us!" This is because the music and texts are supremely challenging, easily the hardest stuff we've ever had to sing! We have to count like fury, pluck notes out of nowhere, in several languages and none. Slowly we have managed to breathe musical life into the texts Andrew has chosen, which include Rumi, Auden, Desmond Tutu, Hedd Wyn, and Judith Hill.
The concert is to be held on November 8th in the Dora Stoutzker Hall in Cardiff. We have never done a concert on quite this scale before and as this a world premiere, filling the 450 seat concert hall is a huge challenge. Our plans received a huge boost when Andrew managed to secure the services of Emma Kirkby, as well as Ian Yemm, tenor and Paul Carey Jones, baritone. As well as falling back on our regular fans we have offered heavily discounted tickets to music students from the local Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, and also invited many of Wales' foremost composers.
And finally this is how one of our soprano's has described Karuṇā for our concert programme:
"Singing Karuṇā is an exercise in trust. Working on it as a choir we remain essentially in the dark. Karuṇā exists as a vision in one man's mind. Like you, the audience, we will not know its full scale, its full impact, until we discover it together on premiere night. In rehearsal we grapple with it, reach for it, imagine it - much like the bridge builders and peacemakers of the world strive for a place which as yet exists only in God's dreams."
A composer's-eye view of commissioning
When a composer is approached for a commission, the first reaction is usually elation – I can't speak for all composers, but commissions are what make it all worthwhile for me. It's not because of the money – it's the knowledge that a performer loves your music enough to want to do whatever you come up with for them. (The money is rather helpful though – most composers do have bills to pay, and commissions are usually our biggest single source of income.)
Moving from "we'd like to commission you" to "here's a completed piece" takes several steps though. A commission is a contract, which brings responsibilities on both sides. Some of the composer's responsibilities are clear: write a piece of an appropriate length that the group can perform, produce the commission on time (or before!), be willing to make some changes if necessary, produce clear scores and parts, and don't make it unnecessarily difficult for the performers.
The performers have responsibilities too. Not just to perform the piece well when it arrives – but to give the composer the help and information that they will need to write a good piece for you. If you want a vocal piece, either suggest a text or give the composer some ideas of what would work. For all commissions, you'll need to give the instruments and voices you have, vocal ranges, some idea of the difficulty level you can cope with if applicable (it's helpful if you can give a few examples of difficult pieces that you can do, and some that you've decided were too difficult), unusual techniques you'd like to include, any soloists and their capabilities... One of the most controversial instructions I've been given is "we want something that sounds nothing like John Rutter". (Sorry John.)
Try to aim for multiple performances (a series of your own concerts, or performances by other groups in the area who could co-commission with you). This improves exposure for the piece and the composer, and it's a very good way of attracting funding from arts councils or funding bodies, several of whom state a preference for funding commissions with more than one planned performance.
I would recommend meeting with the composer as often and early as possible. Ideally, bring them to a rehearsal just after you've agreed the commission – or even before, so that they can hear the group before they start writing. They should also meet or correspond with your conductor, and any soloists.
If you possibly can, devote an hour of rehearsal time to holding a workshop on the partially completed piece. This should be about halfway through the commissioning period, and will help your composer immensely. They can bring along a few completed sections, and/or try out rough drafts if they're not sure something is going to work with your performers. Without this, you run the risk of getting "safe" but perhaps boring music that the composer is sure you can do well, or getting "unsafe" music that will be more difficult than you anticipated – but an early workshop will give your composer a chance to find the middle ground where a piece is challenging but approachable.
The composer is as keen as you are to produce a really good piece that will meet your requirements, and hopefully be performed again. You, the performers and commissioners, can do as much as the composer can to bring about an excellent result.
If you're interested in discussing a commission with Chris directly, please see details on his website, including feedback from previous commissioning groups: www.hutchingsmusic.co.uk/commission/. Recordings of Chris' work are at www.soundcloud.com/hutchingsmusic, and scores at www.hutchingsmusic.co.uk.
Eventide (In Memoriam Edith Cavell) by Patrick Hawes
In the summer of 2012 Sheringham and Cromer Choral Society were considering what we could do to celebrate 80 years of choral music making in north Norfolk the following year.
Just at that time our musical director received an approach from the internationally renowned composer, Patrick Hawes, who happens to live nearby and wished to explore possible ways of working with a local choral society. He approached us because he was interested in composing music which involved children's as well as adult voices and he was aware that we had recently worked with a children's choir to sing pieces such as Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, Karl Jenkin's The Armed Man and Benjamin Britten's St Nicolas.
He offered to compose a major new choral and orchestral work to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of WW1 in 2014. Just one or two snags:
We were fortunate to have already retained the services of a highly competent fund raiser but this project was on a scale far greater than anything attempted before. Without her skills we would have not even started. We firstly negotiated a substantial discount of the composer's "usual" fee – effectively a contribution "in kind" which stood us in good stead when we approached Arts Council England for a grant for the arts. They agreed to a grant in excess of £30,000 which got us started but there then followed a gruelling and nerve wracking succession of grant applications over several months many of which were declined. However perseverance paid off and the combination of several smaller grants and a significant "balancing" grant from our local Big Society Fund enabled us to proceed.
As a registered charity we received useful discounts from various parties together with very many hours of unpaid work from a hard-working steering group of Trustees all of which added up to further significant Contributions in Kind.
We are fortunate that, from the start, everyone with whom we have shared this project has caught our enthusiasm and supported our vision. Very early on in the project we approached the Dean and Precentor at Norwich Cathedral, where we wished to stage the premiere performance, and their interest, encouragement and wise advice proved invaluable.
We have learned as we have gone along. One key major learning curve was that of Contract law. Signing what for us, as a small local charity, were significant contracts with the composer, publishers, orchestras as well as agreements with funding bodies took us well outside our personal comfort zones. We were assisted through all of this by a splendid organisation, Lawyers Volunteering for the Arts, who provided us with pro bono legal services throughout all the complex contract processes. What stars!
Learning a piece of music which no-one has ever heard before (not even the Composer!) is a very interesting process. We were hugely fortunate to work with a composer who stayed with us throughout the process, attending workshops, rehearsals etc. and providing learning CD's from his own composition archive.
Eventide (In Memoriam Edith Cavell) received its premiere performance in a packed Norwich Cathedral on 12 July 2014 to wide acclaim accompanied by the English Chamber Orchestra with soprano Elin Manahan Thomas and a semi-chorus of unbroken voices provided by the Gresham's international Britten Music Course.
It has been an exciting – sometimes exhausting – journey, but one no-one in the choir would have missed it for the world. If we, as a rural community choir, can break into new territory in this way we very much hope others will follow suit and that our project will have a lasting legacy as it goes on to be performed by many other choirs over the 4 years of the Great War centenary.
A new choral symphony
The World Premiere of this new choral symphony, Unfinished Remembering was performed by Paul Spicer's Birmingham chamber choir: Birmingham Bach Choir, with Orchestra of the Swan, Birmingham Consort and soloists: Johane Ansell William Dazeley.
It marked the start of the commemoration of WW1 in Symphony Hall Birmingham, on September 13 2014.
This extraordinary work by Paul Spicer (libretto : Euan Tait), which took four years to complete, made a huge impact on the large audience of invited dignitaries, musicians, choir guests and the general public who described it as "deeply moving"," powerful" and "inspiring". A survey of the audience revealed that the vast majority were 'very interested' to 'hear the work again in the future' and many present felt it a very significant new work which should go into the choral repertoire.
Paul constructed his symphony in four long movements for full choir, semi-chorus, and large orchestra with baritone and soprano soloists. He was inspired by Euan's text saying " whilst taking the First World War commemoration as its starting point it moves to cover intolerances, prejudices and persecutions (and) .these things spoke very strongly to me….This work is completely different from anything I have attempted to write before"
Euan Tait was moved to write Unfinished Remembering after watching the processions at Wootton Bassett where he lived.
"...the work of the war in us cannot be finished, and we, the living, cannot let it go"
(Final movement : Libera Me)
The work was commissioned by John Feeney Charitable Trust and this first performance was supported by Arts Council England (Lottery Funded) and a number of other Trusts and private donations.
For information about obtaining Unfinished Remembering scores, or to hear the world premiere recording please contact Boszko@Blueyonder.co.uk.
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Tim and Denise Ault