Saturday, 23 September 2017

Premiere!

This morning found me, once again, singing in a choir at New West End Synagogue. It was a four piece choir, one person per part, so there was a lot of pressure to get things right. I've actually worked really hard on the Shabbat repertoire, so very much felt on top of things. That said, there's still a sense that I've gatecrashed a party. There are all sorts of amens and little passages of text which everyone suddenly starts singing, none of which are written down. I think it's simply assumed that, as time goes on, I'll learn what's going on by some mystical oral folk-song-like tradition. I certainly wouldn't be allowed to sit and transcribe what's being sung, because I'm not allowed to use pen or pencils in the synagogue! I learn a new rule every week. Today I learned that, when making a cup of tea in shul, etiquette dictates that I pour water from the hot water vat into a little jug before I pour it into my cup. I haven't yet got to the bottom of why this intermediary receptacle is necessary, but it's something to do with mechanical devices and the preparation of food. Next weekend is Yom Kippur, which means I'm not allowed to wear leather shoes with my suit as it's deemed inappropriate to show dominance over an animal on this particular festival. Everyone therefore goes to synagogue wearing trainers. The more I learn about keeping kosher, the more I learn why so many Orthodox Jews are vegetarian!

Today witnessed the world premiere of my first ever musical setting of a religious Jewish text. It is now my ambition to become to Jewish sacred music what John Rutter is to Christmas carols! Michael commissioned me to write the piece back in June and has been waiting for the right moment to unleash it on the unsuspecting public. The choir themselves seemed to really like it. One of them, Joey, who sings tenor, and has basically sung in every synagogue in London, told me it was his favourite ever piece of synagogue music, which felt like high praise indeed. He has a fabulous voice.

I think we performed the piece really well. I got uncontrollably nervous half way through, which was a very strange sensation for me. I don't actually remember when I last went all trembly-voiced whilst singing. It was probably back in the days when I sang with the Northamptonshire Youth Choir... probably singing the Libera Me solo in the Faure Requiem. I suspect I suddenly became aware of the magnitude of the occasion: the fact that the congregation were listening intently and that most of them were standing because, never one to do things by halves, I'd chosen to set a text which takes place during the holiest moment of the service. I've also managed to write a really low bass line, which goes down to a bottom D, and, of course, when the nerves start to come in, the one thing you can't do is support the really low notes. There were a couple of moments when I realised I was beginning to sound like a distant nematic drill, so was forced to stop and take a deep breath!

Q: How do you get a viola player to play tremolando?
A: Write solo above the note.

Aside from a few moments of crashing nerves, I think the choir sang my piece very well. We certainly created a moment. It was an emotional and quite theatrical rendition, which didn't go down hugely well with the Rabbi, but a lot of key people in the synagogue were highly impressed and lavished praise on me and us afterwards. It's a shame that the Rabbi wasn't too keen, but when setting religious texts, you're always going to have the issue that some people don't want anything too fancy, or anything other than what they already know. Also, on first hearing, who can ever really know if a piece of music is going to get under their skin? My hope is that he'll have an epiphany next week. He's plainly a good and very learned man. He delivered a wonderful sermon today on the importance of failure. Recent psychological research suggests that people are more likely to succeed if they accept and, for a time, wallow in their failures. The feeling is that people who take failure to heart are more likely to learn from their mistakes and fight to succeed than those who allow it to be like water off a duck's back. Interesting philosophy.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Trinity

I am trolling home on the Northern Line from deepest, darkest Greenwich where I've been teaching at Trinity School. First up was a class with third year students where I heard twenty actors singing ninety seconds each of a song of their choice. My aim was to get to know them all as performers, so I asked them to prepare a passage which told me all I'd need to know about who they were. I also allowed them to tell me three sentences about themselves. It's fascinating to see what people choose to say and sing under these circumstances. By and large I think they all rose to the challenge. I was expecting all sorts of faffing, whinging and nervous behaviour, but I saw very little. They seemed very professional, highly unflappable, and when I started talking at the end, all the pads of paper came out and reams and reams of notes were taken. I hope I gave them good advice. I think they deserve it. There was a lot of talent in that room.

After the class I dashed across the courtyard to run the show choir. It was a tough old space to rehearse in. There's something like 150 singers in the choir who sit in a long, thin room, with the basses and tenors sitting at the back, which means the men are a good twenty meters away from where I'm standing. An additional issue was the last-minute loss of a pianist for the rehearsal. One of the singers, a young chap called Bobby, stepped in and saved the day, manfully sight-reading the accompaniments. Note-bashing rehearsals are never much fun, but I think the choir is going to make a very wonderful sound which I'm rather excited about. I actually wish the rehearsal was an hour longer and that I got to run the choir all year round. It could be something very special indeed. We're singing Mr Blue Sky, Skid Row from Little Shop of Horrors and I Miss The Music from Brass.


Quizzing

I've just returned from marking a quiz in the City of London. It took place in an upstairs room at the Counting House on Cornhill, which has to be one of the most fabulous pubs in London, certainly in terms of its gaudy and opulent Victorian architecture. It was originally a banking hall and is lined with intriguing dark, wooden staircases and galleries. A huge domed atrium hovers over the bar.

The quiz went down very well. Abbie was quiz-mastering and got the teams feeling suitably competitive. There was a good level of knowledge in the room as well, which always makes for a nice atmosphere. There's nothing worse than running a quiz and having a drunken woman (and believe me, it's always a woman) kicking off because she thinks the questions (which she's not listening to) are too difficult. When men find something too hard they tend to fold their arms and go quiet, which can be equally challenging but fortunately less disruptive. The worst ones are the ones who say "who cares?" when you ask them a question they don't know the answer to. Like they are somehow the guardians of what makes for an interesting question. I personally know very little about sport or science but would certainly not dismiss a question about one of those subjects as being boring. Listen to the question and it's answer, and maybe, just maybe, the next time you go to a quiz you won't feel the need to kick off!

The quiz I ran two nights ago (also in the city) was designed to launch one particular legal firm's diversity week, and we were asked to pepper the quiz with a few appropriate questions. I was actually fairly horrified to discover that only one team knew which city the Stonewall riots had taken place in, that no one knew which country had been the first to give votes to women, and that very few people seemed to know who Rosa Parks was or which country Dana International was representing in Eurovision when she brought trans rights to the front of everyone's consciousness. I guess belonging to a minority group has made me more interested in knowing about equality and diversity right across the spectrum, but I'm all too aware that younger people don't seem to be that bothered about knowing how they got to where they are. There are huge numbers of young gay men who don't know a thing about the White Night Riots or Stonewall, and I think the concept of women's rights and the debts we owe to a whole host of pioneering females are entirely lost on many young women today. I think it's a terrible shame, and it worries me because it leads to a lack of respect for the older generation within our communities, and God knows, after Brexit, those blessed Baby Boomers aren't exactly riding high in their children and grand children's opinions!

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Apologia

I read today that Theresa May is waging war on modern slavery. "The world must act" she says, "to stamp it out." Lovely little smoke screen there to divert attention away from her government's catastrophic Brexit negotiations. Like any one is going to deny that modern day slavery doesn't need to be expunged. It's a bit like waging war on murder, and needs to be viewed as the cynical smoke screen that it is. What I also feel obliged to write is that, if the definition of modern day slavery is that a person's basic human rights have been removed, May needs to take a good hard look at her decision to get into bed with the DUP. She's such a ghastly, evil woman.

This evening we went to see Stockard Channing and Lady Edith from Downton Abbey in Apologia at the Trafalgar Studios. I don't actually know when I last went to see a piece of straight theatre, so it was quite a treat to get back into that particular saddle. So what can I say about the piece? The set design was exquisite. The lighting complimented the design perfectly. The writing was, in the main, good. I sometimes got a little tired of the somewhat transparent way in which monologue sequences were set up. The writing, in places was a little unconvincing, and I felt that one of the characters, a soap actress, had been handed a plethora of really dodgy lines. The writer had imbued that character with more cynicism and wisdom than her years would dictate, and a far fruitier vocabulary than I believe she would have had in real life. The result was a character with no redeeming features whatsoever, which felt lazy. The rest of the cast were lovely. Laura Carmichael had been handed the somewhat thankless task of playing a born again American Christian, but managed to make the character really very likeable, and Desmond Barrit played an ageing hippy homosexual with exquisite comic timing.

Watching Stockard Channing on stage was a deep, deep thrill. Of course the auditorium was full of gay men. She is unbelievably popular with my sort on account of having played Rizzo in Grease. Don't ask me what it is about sassy characters like Rizzo that the gays like so much, but I'm sure a great deal of it was due to the genius of Channing who was actually 33 when she played the teenaged role.

Her performance tonight was honest, understated, psychological, intelligent, and, right at the end, heart-breaking. From the moment she walked on stage you somehow knew you were in the presence of greatness. It was a mammoth role, but you instantly knew you were in a safe pair of hands. She played a highly complex character: a woman who had been engulfed by sixties radicalism to the extent that she had possibly chosen that world over the happiness of her children, who, as grown men, were taking pot shots at her left, right and centre. It was a testament to Channing's remarkable acting skills that the audience were able to remain on her side throughout. As she took her bow, obviously exhausted, I realised how lucky I was to have seen acting royalty in such a tiny theatre. It was a hugely thought-provoking and magical evening.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Jewish new year

I was back at the synagogue yesterday for another rehearsal. We're entering a really important and holy period in the Jewish calendar, namely the Jewish New Year, and there are myriad services of atonement and celebration, all of which require music. One of the big complications is that, although Jewish religious services are built on a foundation of song, on Shabbat, if you're orthodox, you're not actually allowed to play instruments, so everything has to be sung unaccompanied. Perhaps because of this, and because Judaism is a dwindling religion, very few composers and music makers have paid a great deal of attention to this issue and this means the music which IS there is often barely fit for purpose. There's the "Blue Book", which is a Victorian creation filled with psalms and such. It has not been updated, so all the music is written in ancient Hebrew which means a modern day singer is constantly having to change vowel sounds and exchange s's for t's. It's also written for mixed male and female voices, which means, in a modern day orthodox context where all choirs are male-only, singers are forced to change keys and octaves left right and centre, and this can lead to a fair amount of sonic muddiness. To make matters worse, the original compilers' desire to save paper, has meant that the music is a confusing mass of tonic-sol-fah notation with the lyrics to different verses, none of which have the same metre, crammed underneath the soprano line. All of this makes sight reading almost impossible. My heart sinks when I see something which has been photocopied from the Blue Book. What should be a walk in the park is destined to become a traumatic crawl across No Man's Land!

There was an open day going on at the synagogue when we arrived yesterday and a few people were milling about looking at the building's beautiful Victorian architecture. For me the greatest sadness is that every time I show up to a synagogue, a huge number of security people are standing outside, checking bags, asking questions and generally converting what should be a warm and inviting experience into something which is laced with suspicion. It's a reminder of how many people out there have issues with Jewish people and how unsafe the community has been made to feel in recent years. I could be wrong, but I'm really not sure I've ever seen security people outside a church, or indeed, a mosque. How awful that this very small, totally unthreatening community is forced to worship under such extreme circumstances.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Costwolds for five hours

Yesterday started very early indeed with a 8.45am rehearsal at shul. I bought a bottle of water from a corner shop en route and was asked by the man behind the counter if I wanted a bag. Surely the point of a bag is to carry more than one object? Water bottles aren't exactly hard objects to hold! In a different corner shop, on the same street, earlier in the week, under remarkably similar circumstances, I was asked if I wanted a "small bag." What? As opposed to a bin liner? Surely I can rely on a shop keeper's wisdom to offer a bag which is the right size for my purchase? He or she doesn't really need to bring me into the decision process about the size of bag I'm getting. Or perhaps she was trying to tell me that my purchase wasn't worthy of anything other than a small bag and therefore, if I was hankering for a bag which I'd also be able to put my music folder into, I was going to be sorely disappointed? These thoughts troubled me as I walked to the shul.

Yesterday was the first time I was due to sing as part of a quartet with only one person singing each line. There was therefore a lot of pressure on my shoulders. The last time I'd sung in shul there were two of us on each part so I was able to coast a bit and rely on the other bass, James, to pitch the odd crazy interval or sing the more tongue-twistery lyrics!

Singing in shul is a really lovely experience. I spend so much of my creative time in high-pressure environments, with one hand on a stop clock or frantically orchestrating under headphones whilst people are enjoying the bonding sensation of rehearsing and performing. It's a genuine pleasure to have no other task than simply to sing and to know you're well-prepared enough to be able to relax and have a cup of tea instead of panicking between numbers. The other singers are friendly and great fun to be around, and one of them, Gabriel, was an absolute godsend, keeping me on track and whispering things in my ear like "there's a perfect cadence sung to Amen coming up" and "now we all face the wall..." Gabriel and I know each other of old. He was the boyfriend of my dear friend Hilary back in the day.

I felt as though I held my own throughout the service and was secretly rather pleased with myself. A bar mitzvah was happening as part of the proceedings which meant we got to witness the curious and wonderful sight of the entire congregation lobbing hard-boiled sweets at the lad who was entering adulthood. It's quite a hard core moment. The lad was forced to duck and protect his head as the sweets flew at him, with force, in their hundreds.

After the service, Michael and I went along the Portobello Road. It was my brother's birthday yesterday and I wanted to get him something nice. Michael had spoken highly about a little boutique where they sell all sorts of quirky glass and ceramic statement pieces. My brother has a fabulous collection of colourful glass, and I found him a bright orange decanter to add to it. Portobello Road, as you might expect, was buzzing with excited tourists having their pictures taken in front of street signs and the colourful houses down there. I wondered how many of them were fans of Bedknobs and Broomsticks... or Notting Hill come to think of it. The whole place is highly chi-chi these days with artisan bakeries and coffee shops on every corner, a far cry from the grotty street market we visited as children where I bought a scarf with piano keys on it as an ode to Bruno from Fame, and my brother got mugged!

Hovering over the district, Grenfell Tower reminds us that there's more to the area than this new influx of yuppies and yummy mummy. My heart still sinks when it looms into view, particularly at night time, when it becomes a pitch black, bleak silhouette against the sky.

I jumped in a car in the early afternoon and drove to a little Oxfordshire town called Burford, or more specifically a tiny village on the outskirts of said town called Little Barrington, which I think is over the border in Gloucestershire. I haven't really spent a great deal of time in the Cotswolds although my mother tells me we went there often as children. It's a stunningly beautiful part of the world. The landscape undulates with little villages and towns sitting neatly in the dells. Little Barrington itself is very charming and rather ancient, and filled with rows of 18th Century stone cottages which surround a winter-born stream and a rather "moundy" village green.

The parents and Edward and Sascha had hired a little cottage with Sascha's parents, Hans and Joey, who were over from South Africa. It was lovely to finally meet them and they seemed incredibly charming. Hans had brought some very classy bottles of wine to England with him which everyone but Joey and me polished off with great alacrity, purring and cooing like fans of wine tend to. I was surprised to hear them describing the wine as "crisp" and "fruity" rather than as "stomach bile" which is how we all secretly know it tastes. We ate in a lovely gastro pub before returning to the little cottage for Dutch hot chocolate. By the end of the night my brother and my Mum were decidedly tipsy. My brother became obsessed with linguistics, which is his drunken default, and my Mum was telling stories about her own mother.

I drove back to London late at night, stopping, as I love to do, at a service station which, as usual, made me feel very happy!

Friday, 15 September 2017

Flash fires

London appears to be quaking in the wake of yet another dreadful attack. This one, fortunately, has killed no one. We're told that the home-made bomb, planted on a District Line tube train, didn't detonate properly and caused a flash fire instead of an explosion, which means most of the victims have superficial burns. Had the bomb gone off as intended, many would have died. The police have defined it as a terrorist attack. I don't know how they can be so sure. It could simply be the work of some nut job jumping on the current bandwagon. For something to be defined as terrorism, an ideology needs to be established. Terrorism shouldn't be lazily defined as "that which causes terror." Until police can establish who did this, and why, they have no right to call it an act of terrorism.

London, of course, keeps calm and carries on. I don't get a sense of any degree of rising panic. The media are doing their best to whip us up, but I think we've all decided to be stoic instead. Stoic and a bit bored of it all. As Andy Hamilton said on the news quiz tonight, "I think we're all outraged-out."

I was rather touched to hear stories on the news about those who'd witnessed the attack providing support for one another. Strangers in London very rarely so much as acknowledge one another, let alone go out of their way to look after each other. I'm beginning to think that the terrorists are doing us a massive favour and bringing us all closer together. How ironic!