Category Archives: New Dublin Voices and other choral singing


Up early this morning and off into St Ann’s to assist with the music. Charles is playing a ‘Fugue, Canzone, and Epilogue’ by German composer Sigfrid Karg-Elert. He played a bit of it for me yesterday and I’m looking forward to hearing it again. After the organ opening (in what *looks like* F# major…), there comes a part for violin and also female chorus. They sing the last line of the creed, “I believe in the life everlasting”. I’ll be turning pages.

I’m going to be having another crack at leading the congregation in a hymn, too: the mighty ‘Finlandia’ by Jean Sibelius. It’s a poignant hymn and its stoic words are very fitting for Remembrance Sunday. One of the most prominent features of St Ann’s is its memorial to those who died in The Great War – the names flank the altar. I often look at them as I sit up beside the organ console. One is a Wilson, one is a Dobbin (my step-father’s name).

The memorial in St Stephen’s church (which lost as many of its young men) is to the side of the church. Consider the painful discussions that must have gone on in churches all over these islands.

Be still, my soul…

You must remember this…

I’m in Spain with New Dublin Voices – we’re staying in a lovely town by the sea called Garautz, and the competition is taking place in a town about 45 mins south, Tolosa. It’s the first time I’ve visited Euskadia, ‘the Basque country’.

Two of the pieces we performed yesterday in the ‘folk’ competition were in the Basque language – one of them based on folk rhythms and which proved very tough to learn by heart. The music was easy enough, and it helped to have a strong ‘earworm’ to hang the words on.

It’s funny how memorization happens. Most of the task is repetition and using as many tricks as possible to come at it from different angles, because it’s obviously necessary to do most of the learning outside the precious rehearsal time. I found the input from other choir members really useful in the past few days. Not even ‘input’, more a shared concentration – literally going over the words beside someone else doing the same thing. Sharing little ways to link phrases in the memory. There’s something about the ‘hothouse’ environment of a competition that focuses everyone.
We’ve one more rehearsal now, for a gig tonight (the competition performances are over now…results tonight).

Addendum: we got 3rd prize! 1st was a choir from Ukraine, 2nd was a French choir. Next thing on the horizon, our concert in Christ Church Cathedral on the 18th.

New Dublin Voices doing ‘Lady Madonna’

My friend Fionnuala, who sings with New Dublin Voices, got married at the weekend and a group of us sang at the wedding ceremony. It was a truly lovely event with many delightful details. Needless to say, we broke out some NDV favourites in the bar afterwards. Like, *very* much afterwards. We always do this — doubtless a bewildering spectacle for those in the vicinity…!

Anyway, one of the ones we like to do in these musically-dodgy situations is a cool arrangement (by Carol Canning, for The Swingle Singers) of ‘Lady Madonna’ by The Beatles. Here’s a video of us performing it at a competition in Marktoberdorf, Germany in 2009. I sing the verses 🙂


'Called' - Bruce Herman (click for article about the artist)

Last night was the performance of Bach’s Magnificat and it was such fun. We met at the concert hall at 4.15 and went through the programme with the organist and the orchestra. We stood on the stage (five rows, I think it was, of about twenty-four singers each). In front of us were the orchestra — it’s quite a small band: double bass, cello, bassoon, chamber organ continuo, oboe/cor anglais, two flutes, triple strings (as far as I can recall) and timpani. Also not forgetting the trumpets that play such a great part in the outer movements. The choir is in five parts and there are five soloists, too, each of whom gets a solo aria.

The instruments are all given a moment to shine, too. I love the ‘Esurientes implevit bonis’ (the text of which translates as “he has filled the hungry with good things and has sent the rich away empty”) — it features a flute duet obbligato (music-speak for the fact that they play all the way through, as importantly as the vocalist) that at times trips along in thirds or sixths, and at times has the two lines tumbling over each other. Bach plays a little joke with the words at the end: the flutes stop short of the final note, leaving it to the bass instruments. Sending us away empty.

Bach dissects the text of the Magnificat (the song that the writer of Luke’s gospel ascribes to the awestruck teenage mother of God), making twelve separate movements. I was at a talk during the week by theologian Terry Eagleton and he mentioned that the lines I quoted above sound like a political chant — the sort of thing that crowds would’ve shouted in protest against a corrupt and oppressive ruling class, say.

Another musical joke (a traditional one — Durrante does the same thing in his setting of the Magnificat, which we also sang in the concert) is the use of the same music at the end of the piece as the start. The last line of the doxology (Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. AS IT WAS IN THE BEGINNING, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, Amen.) lends itself nicely to the musical task of recapitulation (music-speak for having the first tune come back at the end). And what an ending it is! All trumpets (one of them a wee piccolo trumpet, playing gloriously high, piercing through the bustling music with a high, descending chromatic line. It’s as if, for a moment, we catch sight of something amazing before getting on with the business of jubilation.

Notes tremendous thundered out

Today is St Cecilia’s Day, the patron saint of music. It’s also the day Benjamin Britten was born. One of his compositions, the ‘Ode To Saint Cecilia’ (from whence comes the title of this blog post), is a setting for unaccompanied choir of a poem that his friend WH Auden dedicated to him. We sang it in New Dublin Voices a couple of years ago and it is included on our CD, ‘Something Beginning With B’.

(The album is available to buy from the website,, or on iTunes…)

Tonight I’m going to attend the rehearsal of the Goethe-Institut Choir. Hopefully they’ll let me sing with them in their forthcoming concert on 5 December in The National Concert Hall. They’ll be singing Bach’s setting of the Magnificat, which I fell in love with as a student in university. In the first term we (the fifty or so students in the first and second years of the BMus course) did the piece in a scratch performance just for ourselves. Our tutors told us about the various little compositional signals that Bach uses in his setting of the words of Mary’s song, and I’ll blog more about it another time. Right now I have to go and get ready. Have to make a good impression if I’m to convince them I’m up to the task!

Oh yes, and I found this charming video by the Anderson & Roe piano duo (whom I’ve written about before on this blog). Vivaldi was a near contemporary of Bach and would have probably *loved* to play a grand piano, had it been invented. Anderson & Roe achieve a delicate sound, more akin to the Baroque keyboard instrument sound, by dampening the strings of Ms Roe’s piano. Mr Anderson’s uneffected (but wonderfully affected) playing allows the piano to sing the melody as only a grand piano can. A beautiful effect from a continually interesting musical partnership.

Grace and poise

This weekend, New Dublin Voices took part in a production of ‘Singin’ In The Rain’ at the National Concert Hall. It was a full week of rehearsals starting with the conductor, John Wilson, putting us through our paces on Monday evening before we went along to the full orchestral rehearsals during the week. It was a wonderful experience—I really enjoyed sitting beside the bass clarinet player, having done a lot of orchestral clarinet playing in university. Being inside the orchestra was great. John Wilson reconstructed the score, the original having been tragically consigned to landfill many years ago. (In an article I read in Classic FM magazine with John, he also sadly notes that a lot of the music libraries of the big studios were destroyed. There was nothing for it but to literally write it all out again. It must’ve been a mammoth task!) The RTÉ Concert Orchestra were augmented with a rhythm section (piano, guitar, bass, drums) and, behind us on stage, a full saxophone section. They had some really lovely moments in the score, providing that close-harmony sound that only saxes can do. Seriously, it was a real treat sitting in the middle of it all and watching the realisation of this sublime music.

Here’s the sequence from the film for ‘Moses Supposes’, which the amazing dancers did pretty much step-for-step at the NCH:

A couple of my friends posted links to this video, too. Jaw-droppingly good. Danny Macaskill is to a trail bike what Gene Kelly is to tap shoes.

I *Was* Glad…

Today I sang Hubert Parry’s anthem, ‘I Was Glad’, with St Ann’s choir for a service to mark the commencement of the newly-elected Irish parliament (Dáil Éireann). Parry was born in 1848, an explosive year in Europe, not least in Ireland. He died in 1918, just a few months before the first Irish parliament convened.

This paragraph, from the Wikipedia article on Parry, is a bleak reminder of the cost of freedom:

In the words of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: “During the war he watched a life’s work of progress and education being wiped away as the male population—particularly the new fertile generation of composing talent—of the Royal College dwindled.”

‘I Was Glad’ is justifiably one of Parry’s best known works, and was written for the coronation of Edward VII, revised for that of George V, and performed again at Elizabeth II’s crowning ceremony. (An upside to the abdication debacle—for Parry, at least—must have been the opportunity to hear his work performed at two coronations!). It’s a great piece and brilliantly written. Listen to the lovely word setting of the central section (“O pray for the peace of Jerusalem…”) and the wonderfully expansive climax on the word ‘plenteousness’ at the end.

(PS this isn’t us—it’s St Paul’s in London on the Queen’s golden jubilee)

Today is Ash Wednesday, so it didn’t go unnoticed among the choir that ‘I Was Glad’ is rather a joyous piece for the first day of Lent. Quick as a flash, one of our number, a Finnish girl called Tuula, said, “Well, it is past tense: ‘I Was Glad’…”.

World premiere

At the beginning of this year, NDV were recording some Christmas music for a proposed CD release. In between takes I wandered over to the upright piano in St Ann’s church and quietly played some chords – the first comprised two Bb triads in second inversion either side of middle-C, the second was formed by shifting the lower three notes to an Eb triad in first inversion. The effect was lovely to my ears and I expanded the idea a little before we left and then more when I got home.

I have almost entirely reworked the piece since the choir sang through the first draft in February. I listened to a recording of them singing through it and felt it needed to resonate more: it was too chordy, too blocky.

On Saturday – in the very church where it had its genesis – my finished piece, ‘Confession’, will be performed for the very first time…

The Mornington Singers

I went to a concert last night by our choral neighbours, The Mornington Singers. They are conducted by the lovely Orla Flanagan and sang in the marvellous Pro-Cathedral in Dublin.

It was my first time in the cathedral (the Catholic one…not sure why it gets the positivity prefix…) and it really is quite nice indeed. Not too over-the-top in terms of gold and such, but there are two domes in the roof and a large area around the altar that lended itself perfectly to the choir’s arched formation. (Note to self: do I mean ‘arced’? Looks wrong.) The building reminded me of St Cecilia’s Hall in Edinburgh, one of the concert rooms built in Georgian times. Of course, the cathedral is bigger and more, well, ‘churchy’, but it did seem to yearn for ancient Greece or Rome in the way that the Georgian architects favoured.

The programme for the evening was titled ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ but, apart from Veljo Tormis’s ‘St John’s Day Songs’, this was less a theme and more an apt description of the evening’s experience.

The concert opened with two pieces by James MacMillan: ‘A Child’s Prayer’ and ‘The Gallant Weaver’. I wondered about opening with the first of these. It does begin with the word “welcome” but it is an intense piece and I wasn’t sure I was ready to hear it straight off. It’s a great sing for the two soprano soloists, whose intertwining lines gracefully float over the sonorous repeated chords of the choir. The middle section flickers with ornamented notes in all parts on the word “joy” and propels the music upward to the final, heart-breaking duet.