top of page

Tamesis Issue 197

January 2008

I’ve had a lot of emails and notes thanking me for the Christmas event, so I’d like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who contributed to what was a really memorable day. This isn’t just David Allinson who kept the day bubbling along with an amazing combination of scholarship and good humour, David Fletcher who didn’t just supply a lot of the music but also provided coffee and put out chairs, and Nancho Alvarez who came all the way from Malaga with his edition of the mass. It also includes everyone who took part, put out chairs, gave out labels, made drinks. cleared up, loaded the dishwasher, and most importantly everyone who brought the magnificent feast which we had for lunch. David Allinson will be a hard act to follow, but next Christmas we have Philip Thorby, and I’m pleased to say that David has said he is willing to run another Christmas workshop before too long.

Apart from David Fletcher’s renaissance day on Saturday, which I’m really looking forward to, our next event is a baroque orchestra day for strings in West Byfleet, directed by Peter Holman. There is still room for more players, so please get in touch with Simon Hill as soon as possible if you plan to go. West Byfleet is easy to reach by train from Waterloo and the school is near the station, but if you need a lift it’s quite likely that Simon may be able to put you in touch with someone who can help you.

Please note that the date for Michael Procter’s weekend at St Augustine’s, Kilburn, has had to be changed.

Happy New Year!
Victoria Helby

Chairman’s Chat
It seems a long time since my last Chat and there has been the inevitable gap in Forum activities over the holiday period. However I still have vivid memories of our Christmas event. I had a choice of three attractive events to attend that day - the others being a continuation of a musical weekend near Ipswich and a festive tennis tournament. In spite of having to leave Ipswich before breakfast it soon became clear that I had made the right choice, as we tackled the Victoria mass under David Allinson's enthusiastic direction. A formidable amount of music was provided, thanks to a marathon photocopying effort by David and an amazing amount of typesetting by Nancho Alvarez, which he makes freely available on his web site David sent an email asking if parts were available for the 12-part mass Laetatus Sum, to which the answer was no, but after a very considerable amount of work Nancho duly produced them. More surprising still, he decided to travel from Malaga to join us at the event in Amersham. It was really good to have his aid with pronunciation of the villancicos, and the large quantity of turrón that he brought was also much appreciated! I thought this was one of our best ever events, so many thanks to David, Nancho and Victoria for all their work.

As I write this I'm starting to contemplate the possible combinations for the 34 people who are coming to the Renaissance Day on Saturday - I calculate that it's a number with at least 25 digits so I may not consider them all! Indeed there is probably no entirely satisfactory set of groups but that won't stop us having a good time. On the 23rd of February we are privileged to use Eton College chapel to study music from the Eton Choirbook, the wonderful collection of Latin liturgical music from about 1500, under the guidance of Peter Syrus. I have rarely sung any of this music but know it to be rhythmically interesting and very rewarding. We shall require plenty of tenors, so please encourage any that you know.

On the 8th of March we have a workshop to study lute songs for Shakespeare's theatre with Gerald Place and Dorothy Linell. We shall need as many lutenists as we can muster, together with some bass viols and of course singers. This should be a really interesting event of a slightly different nature from our normal ones, and even those too nervous to participate are welcome to come as spectators. However there is no need to be afraid - this is not going to be a high-pressured affair, so just come along and enjoy it.

David Fletcher

¡Navidad Española!
Nicola and I would like to offer our warmest thanks to all who arranged, created and performed this day. It is amazing that that marvellous music was created for us by Nancho Alvarez and assimilated and mastered so quickly at such short notice by David Allinson. His firm but affectionate, enthusiastic and good-tempered handling of all ninety (about) of us and of all the complexities of three choir work with so many parts was a wonder to behold and a joy to work with. As for the astonishing repast, with so many varieties of tasty and filling dishes, we wish we could individually congratulate all those who purveyed! Instead we will have to cry a very loud Muchisimas Gracias!

from Charles Lewis and Nicola Williams

TVEMF Christmas meeting
9 December, Amersham Community Centre
It was indeed a Spanish Christmas! We had Victoria’s polychoral Mass [1600] – 12 parts in 3 choirs, the motet on which the Mass was based plus some `villancicos` - a poetic and musical form derived from the Spanish village where a `villano` [peasant] lived – so often simple, rustic themes. Many were written to celebrate Christmas. To help our authenticity, we had a pronunciation lesson in the old Spanish from Nancho Alvarez who had flown from Malaga to attend the day. Not only had he typeset the Mass for our tutor David Allinson, he brought Spanish `turron` and marzipan to add to our lunchtime feast which was as amazing as ever.

It seems to me that all the best tutors of amateurs paint word pictures for us to help improve the sound we make. Nicholas McGeegan and Philip Thorby have this ability. So too does David Allinson. Here are a few of his `bons mots:

During our warm-up exercises “Give yourselves a rub on the stomach and say aaaaaah – it has no musical purpose but its fun to watch.” Urging us to change the sound we made he asked us to “slick back the congregation’s hair with waves of sound”; “sing smeary quavers”. In one of the villancicos, he reminded us that as angels, we weren’t divebombing the manger.

The application form mentioned David’s ‘good humour’. My favourite was a description of the editing tool Lily Pond as “a woman standing around smoking long cigars”

David Fletcher said that he had never brought so much music to a TVEMF event. This obviously has implications for the organisation of the day. So thanks to everyone who helped – setting up chairs and tables, refreshments, music – but specially David and Victoria – a truly excellent Christmas celebration!
Norma Herdson

Norma also sent me a copy of her correspondence with Nancho Alvarez, which I hope will be interesting even if you didn’t come to the event. Norma’s words are in italics.

Hello Nancho,

Hello, sorry for the delay. I was a little bit sick, with temperature. I think I got cold in England. I thought that every place was as warm as Malaga :)

I am just starting to write a review of the day and would like to include something from you and also to publicise your website. I looked at your website last night. Are you happy for me to quote from it?

You can take anything from my web, with the exception of the pictures of the original manuscripts, I have not permission to allow re-distribution of them.

You asked me for questions - it would be interesting to know how you got in touch with David Allinson, what made you decide to come to Amersham for the day and of course what you thought of the day.

I started the Victoria web in 2003. It contains the score of all compositions by Victoria (at least the compositions that were printed in its time, there a few pieces that were never printed but I do not think them to be authentic). My scores are not top-quality, but I think that they are quite usable for amateur choirs. I copied most of them from a very old edition from the Spanish musicologist Felipe Pedrell.

I am not a musicologist, nor a musician, I am just a poor mathematics teacher, here at Malaga University. About a month ago Mr. Allinson contacted me by email because he wanted to use my version of the mass laetatus sum in a workshop. He asked me to make available the parts for the instruments as separate particellas. Usually I never accept these petitions, mainly because I am very busy. There was also a computer-related problem with the scores and that would make the task quite time- consuming for me. But looking at the information in the web page of the TVEMF I became quite curious. Also, although the mass laetatus sum is not one of my favourites masses by Victoria I have never sang anything with a 3 choirs setting, and it sounded like a new experience for me. Also I had never sang with ancient instruments.

I check the flights from Malaga to London and discovered that they are cheap. So I bought a ticket! Mr Allinson and Ms. Helby helped me a lot in the reservation of a B&B in Amersham and in explaining how to go from Luton airport to Amersham.

I started to work in the scores. I had to do a re-elaboration of all the material. But it was worth it. The new version was much better than my first version. With the indications of Mr. Allinson I raised the pitch one tone, and made separate scores for the instruments.

I am very happy with my travel to England: the flight, the trip from Luton to Amersham, the B&B (that was a lovely new experience to me), practicing the English language, meeting so nice people, the food, and of course, the workshop itself.

I felt very welcome in the workshop. Everybody was very friendly with me. I was very amazed because everybody was able to sightsinging (reading music at first sight). In Spain a workshop like this would be impossible because usually the amateur singers would require a whole month to just learn the notes. You have to be very proud of your musical education, I am impressed.

All the pieces of the workshop were lovely to sing. My favourite was the Morales one. I did not know it. I only regret that for my bad English I was not able to understand all the jokes that David Allinson made :(

After the workshop I had a great time with some of the organizers. In particular Mr. David Fletcher was very kind of showing me his amazing collection of scores of ancient music. That was almost the paradise:)

Now that I know that Malaga and England are very well communicated by plane, probably I will travel again just to make sightseeing, like a regular tourist. :)

I thought it was a wonderful day from all points of view, you being there made it a bit special I think, everyone was pleased to see you. I like the villancicos particularly but I didn’t see them on the website. Maybe they are very new. For me it was also, kind of a "magical" travel. Pity that it was so short.

The villancicos probably are in the "Guerrero" section of the web. The new version of the mass will be uploaded very soon.

Greetings from Malaga NANCHO

Fitzwilliam Chamber Opera
16th and 18th November 2007
Fitzwilliam College Auditorium, Cambridge
HANDEL: Xerxes (Serse)
Sung in English (Nicholas Hytner translation, ed. Sally Bradshaw)

“The contexture of this Drama is so very easy, that it wou’d be troubling the reader to give him a long argument to explain it. Some imbicilities, and the temerity of Xerxes (such as his being deeply enamour’d with a plane tree, and the building a bridge over the Hellespont to unite Asia to Europe) are the basis of the story; the rest is fiction.”

So reads the programme to the first performance of Hande l’s Xerxes at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket. Despite, or perhaps because of, all that, the newly-founded Fitzwilliam Chamber Opera made an unerring choice for their inaugural production at the college. In an opera dominated almost entirely by solo singers and the ever- changing relationships between the characters, it’s vital to use highly trained principals, and that’s exactly what we got. In this show the cast really knew their stuff. Although they weren’t all full-time singers, the principals were all vocally and dramatically secure in their respective roles, enabling the convoluted and preposterous ‘plot’ to evolve fluently in a way that was readily comprehensible. Comic and tragic scenes succeeded each other in a natural and unforced way, and the many moments of anguish or irony in the dialogue evoked a continual response from the knowledgeable audience.

But it was in the quality of the singing itself that the production really shone. It would be invidious (and in this case that’s no mere cliché) to single out any one singer. First up was mezzo-soprano Ruth Taylor in the title role, standing in for a castrato – you just can’t get them nowadays. Despite not being in the least bit overweight or of gigantic stature (castrati apparently often were) she managed the wide range of emotions demanded by the score with great versatility and sang with glorious tone. Romilda was portrayed winsomely by Suzana Ograjenšek, whose delightful soprano was matched by an English diction as good as any despite her Slovene origins. Particularly fine were her accompanied recitative and rage aria in Act III. Ben Williamson as Arsamenes was the male alto in the production and showed great vocal flexibility control in that register; he also managed to look sad and lovelorn throughout. His angry duet with Romilda was one of the highlights. Handel’s only comic role, the servant Elviro, was portrayed by accomplished baritone Thomas Faulkner, whose mood of fatigue was a little artificial in Act I, but he ‘blossomed’ as a flower seller in Act II, and he became agreeably drunk. As Romilda’s scheming sister Atalanta we had the irrepressible soprano Lotte Johnson whose firm singing and tomboyish ways stole the show at various points. Portraying the foreign princess Amastris in (transparent) disguise was mezzo Isabella Gage, who developed into a formidable personality. Sturdy bass Christopher Law sang the role of the sisters’ blundering father Ariodates (surely the youngest general ever to command the Persian Army) with warm tone and lots of presence, despite some fidgety movement. There was some initial nervousness generally, only to be expected on the first night, but spirits improved later. The chorus sang their minor musical contributions with energy and always looked well-drilled on stage.

The idea of using the Fitzwilliam String Quartet as the (modern pitch) orchestra was fully vindicated by their excellent playing, coupled with that of Francis Knights (harpsichord) and other selected musicians. Fergus Macleod conducted with great faithfulness to the details of Handel’s lively score and his tempi were ideal throughout.

The elegant sets by Claire V.S. Pike were all in good Baroque taste. In Act I the pastel-coloured Persian scenery was constructed so that ‘plane’ tree, throne room and lounge could be swiftly replaced by an outdoor feel for Act II. A backdrop collage of triangular sails in a watercolour palette represented the Bridge of Boats which collapsed satisfyingly at the right moment. In Act III a glowing pyramidal wedding altar took centre stage. The projected lighting effects were always appropriate.

For Claire Pike’s costume and other design work there can only be praise. The flowing gold robes and crown of Xerxes, Romilda’s simple blue shift with wedding veil later, Atalanta’s contrasting outfit with black waistcoat – all cleverly designed to harmonise well with the sets. The props were also of good qua lity, as was the glossy programme, worth the £2 charged. A vast amount of work must have gone into the production, and the large backstage and technical team under Andrew Booker and Mike Rudin can’t all be mentioned for space reasons, but most of them be long to the Penguin Club, an amateur theatrical support group operating in Cambridge and beyond. The project is the brainchild of Michael Downes (Music Director, Fitzwilliam College) and director Sally Bradshaw, for whose vision and expert tuition no praise is high enough. Easily the best evening’s entertainment in Cambridge, the production will be repeated at the Theatre Royal Bury, St. Edmunds, in April 2008.

Robert Johnson

bottom of page