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Nigel's Blog

Nigel’s Blog: August 2023

Posted on 23 August 2023

Another year is racing away, and I am grasping every opportunity for a rest these days between the many engagements our brilliant team manages to organise for us! At the end of May we were finally able to record some of the great motets by J. S. Bach, alongside some wonderfully dramatic and intense works from Sir James MacMillan. After several performances spread out over the previous two months – including a live broadcast on BBC Four for Easter Day – we arrived at Snape Maltings to perform and record live in concert.

Rehearsing on stage at Snape Maltings

The singers and I have performed this programme over several years, and bit by bit we’ve honed the repertoire and worked out how much can realistically be achieved in one concert performance. We’ve learned that it’s an immensely demanding evening, requiring considerable vocal stamina and huge flexibility between the musical styles of the two composers – which is not surprising given they are some 350 years apart. However, by the time we arrived in Snape and began our afternoon rehearsal to set the microphones and balance everything, we were familiar with every twist and turn, and comfortable that we could do what was needed at every point. Some of the pieces were performed by a small consort of just 10 singers, so they had the biggest share of the vocal duties. It’s always a reassuring sign that, even though it’s incredibly hard work, the singers don’t seem to flag when the artistic rewards of singing this music are so consistently high.

Tenebrae at Snape Maltings

As this was a live recording, there was very little that could be done in terms of post-production, which meant that it took hardly any time at all to have the finished product land on my desk! We were very lucky to have such a quiet and focused audience, but even then the thing that caused our editors and engineers the biggest problems were the noises from the venue and coughs and sneezes from the hall. I’ve no idea how this is done, but various bits of technical software are used and did the trick. Where once there was a huge sneeze just before Singet dem Herrn, it’s now beautifully quiet and serene, and the scene is set perfectly for us to launch into the final piece of the concert! Anyway, I hope everyone enjoys this recording which has taken us years to put together, and would not have been possible at all without the support and generosity of many kind donors via our crowdfunding campaign. Thank you again to everyone who supported us.

Bach and MacMillan recording team at Snape Maltings

Already this summer we’ve been to several countries, and two concerts stand out as particular highlights. The first was a performance of Path of Miracles in the vast medieval Cistercian Abbey of Kloster Eberbach. This is one of my favourite buildings in the whole world so to go there, have the choir give such a stunning performance of one of my all-time favourite choral works, and be presented with the Rheingau Musik Preis for 2023 meant this was a day to remember.

The second highlight came soon after this in Souillac, performing our programme Russian Treasures. This church has the most astonishing acoustic I think I’ve ever worked in. It doesn’t matter which part you are singing or where you are standing; the acoustic picks up the sound, even if it’s quiet and hushed, and pings it around the whole church. The lowest notes – even the ones sung by our fab profundo team that are lower than what’s written in the scores – could be heard from anywhere. It was really fun to introduce lots of this obscure repertoire to some of our younger singers, who of course loved it all and sang it beautifully. It was immediately obvious when some of the super low notes were being sung because the sopranos standing just in front of the low basses looked as if they were stifling giggles…. I think a low F sharp was the lowest I heard that evening – thanks Jimmy! We have been invited back to sing in both of these extraordinary venues next year, and if there is any way you can make the journey then I promise it will be worth the effort!

Earlier in the year our amazing manager Alex took a well-earned sabbatical of six weeks, and we were delighted to have Lydia Brookes standing in to make sure everything went as it should and keep the show on the road. I would like to thank Lydia in particular for helping me get on stage when, 20 minutes before the start of a concert, I managed to fall over playing cricket. I didn’t realise at the time, but it later turned out that I’d broken my collar bone! Special thanks also to our wonderful mezzo Hannah King, who took charge and made sure I was did all the right things to stay alive and upright. Path of Miracles that night was perhaps a tiny bit steadier than it has been on some other occasions, because I could only use one arm!

We now look forward to a busy autumn season, and hope we can survive the month of September when we are performing concerts in no less than six different countries (the UK, Germany, Switzerland, France, Norway and the Netherlands), singing in two different recording projects, and giving the first performance in St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, of a new programme that will include music by Cecilia McDowall, Caroline Shaw, and the UK premiere of an astounding new work from American composer Joel Thompson called A Prayer for Deliverance. Look out for this guy. He’s something very special.

I can’t even begin to think what lies ahead in December, but I know it’s going to be a very busy time. We’re particularly looking forward to performing our new Christmas programme with a script written by Garth Bardsley and acted by… wait and see!