New York Polyphony & John Tavener

In 1990 I didn’t consider myself to be a proper composer. I sometimes dreamed that I would one day be able to have my works performed by groups other than my own, but I was also pretty realistic about my music. It didn’t appear to speak in the same language as my Irish contemporary music colleagues being seen as too tonal and accessible. Yet even at that early stage I was acutely aware that I was doing something quite different to other composers. Not better, just different.

I couldn’t work out whether it was sheer stubbornness or just lack of flexibility that kept me exploring the same ideas over and over – modality, melodic structure, cascading rhythms and drones. That year remains with me as a very important one. I submitted a piece called “Dirgidh bhar Sleagha Sealga” to the Séan O Riada Memorial Trophy competition in choral composition at that year’s Cork Choral Festival. I won, very unexpectedly, as the work was unlike anything else being written in the contemporary Irish music field and I had assumed that the adjudicators were my peers. I was wrong. One of them  was none other than John Tavener.

Being brash and young I sought him out as he wandered around Cork, surrounded by an entourage. I asked him if he had any comment to make on the work. Any feedback, good or bad, would be massively valuable. He was silent. He mused, he pondered. Then he said one word – “primordial” and walked on. Its amazing how one word can colour your views of what you do so profoundly. It literally means “existing at or from the beginning of time”, something I would have said about much of his own output.

I had begun to feel that some of what I write wasn’t written by me at all. I often didn’t know why all the bits ended up together on the page, and I could always clearly tell when I was, and am, forcing them together rather than letting them flow naturally into structures and forms. While I still explore the same ideas, I have learned to take it slower – put less ideas on the page and develop what I do put down further. Which brings me to “O pia virgo”.

In 2013 I connected with the group New York Polyphony. I’d managed to miss their one concert in Dublin many years ago and had been so disgusted with myself that I vowed that I would take the first opportunity to properly introduce myself. I was pretty familiar with their performances of the sublime motets of composer Andrew Smith but there is no substitute for hearing performers live. When I contacted them I was rather flattered that I appeared to be pushing an open door and we decided to make something happen, so I began work on a new motet for them for a new album project and for inclusion in their live repertoire.

New York Polyphony press photos, November, 2011.New York Polyphony [photo copyright Chris Owyoung]

New York Polyphony have a visceral sound capable of intense virtuosity. It is a dark, masculine timbre, trained vastly but also very unaffected. This gives them a powerful and rich tone which instantly appeals. Its unsurprising that their last disc Times Go By Turns has just been nominated for a Grammy Award. While time was very tight it was just enough to create something that was sympathetic to what this amazing group of singers do so naturally. Sometimes it is very hard to let go of something that I compose, but I knew that this one is in safe hands.

I never met John Tavener again, and now never will. He was a unique composer, a special artist and he uttered the right word into the ear of a young man who just needed something at that moment. Without doubt this piece was influenced by his own music that mattered so much to so many people. Sadly he is gone from us now and when he hears the song of the angels, it won’t be an altogether unfamiliar sound.

You can hear the piece below (may not be available in all territories).

“O pia virgo” was premiered at the SWACDA conference in Little Rock by NYP on March 19th 2014 and featured on the Grammy-nominated album “Sing Thee Nowell” by NYP in 2015.

Available as sheet music from HERE.

Dedicated to the Memory of Laura Kostyra Plimpton

 

“Omnis” and Riverdance, 1995-96.

This week sees the arrival of the new artwork for Anúna’s third/fourth album Omnis. The CD has had no less than five, yes, five separate covers and three released versions. You can see the original artwork at the bottom of this article. You may justifiably ask why have a sixth cover?

This new cover was actually intended to be the first one, and despite being pretty off-the-wall now, at the time it fitted into my own view of what Anúna was. In 1995 we were pretty cool, so creating an image such as this would have fitted very much into the ethos that I had created. Anything was possible. I can’t remember why I didn’t include it as I had planned, but I suspect it was because Omnis was created when Anúna were involved in Riverdance.

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We had an ever increasing following in Ireland, building steadily for seven years when Riverdance catapulted the group forward onto an international stage in an unprecedented manner with all the commercial trappings attached. We migrated from audiences of 3-400 to 4000 seater venues performing as part the hottest show on the planet at the time in just a few months. In the middle of all this I hung doggedly to my own music, creating Omnis to keep my feet firmly planted on the ground. It was also created in a somewhat futile effort to bind the singers together.

Dúlamán and Geantraí were originally one single song, but the necessity for another up tempo number forced me to split it in half. Some of the material was way off the beaten track – O Viridissima was a cascade of falling silvery voices and Tenebrae III sounded like it had fallen off the soundtrack of a video game. For some reason the album worked very well. The 1995 release was very successful at home mainly on the back of massive over exposure the previous year. Its mix of traditional Irish songs on the same disc as works by Hildegard of Bingen was oddly persuasive too.

Anúna realistically couldn’t compete with the trappings of Riverdance so when the time came to take the choir association out of  the show most of the singers stayed with it. A handful of them tried to remain as part of both for a short while, but life is not about going backwards. They eventually went their own ways and new singers joined us. So Anúna was reborn, albeit tainted by a two edged celebrity status in Ireland, something I managed to shake off everywhere else except home.

The influx of new blood in 1996 resulted in what is arguably one of our finest recordings Deep Dead Blue, but at the time it was pretty hard going for me. By the time Omnis was hot off the presses it was a historical note, not a new album. I remember my mother saying to me after she first heard it that she couldn’t believe something so beautiful had been born out of so much trouble. In retrospect I can’t either. The beauty of it is in the music rather than the performances I believe. I am still proud of the compositions on that record. Dúlamán has become a choral mega-hit all over the world thanks to my friends in Chanticleer who included it on their album Wondrous Love in 1997.

The image was photographed by the photographer Nigel Brand who had taken many pictures of the first lineup of Anúna (circa 1991-3). I remember discussing the album with him, and giving him free reign to create a picture with an impact rather than something out of the “Celtic Mysts of Ancient Tyme” ethos.

The Beginning – An Uaithne to Anúna

Twenty five years of clutter. A quarter of a century of analogue VHS cassettes, silently gathering dust and deliberately avoided. I knew that hidden in the decades of material were things that I simply didn’t need to remember, but there were also things I had forgotten that maybe should be rediscovered. The cassettes were deteriorating too, so despite my reservations I decided to use this small gap in my Autumn schedule to complete the vast task of digitising the Anúna sound archive.

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A couple of things became apparent pretty quickly. From about 1991 until 1994 there are multiple appearances on panel discussions, reviews, opinion pieces and analysis. This was prior to Anúna’s appearance in Riverdance at the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest. Indeed many of the interviews directly after that mention it only in passing as we were already well known to most of the journalists for our work prior to then.

A few years ago Dr Stacie Rossow of Florida Atlantic University wrote her doctoral thesis on my work, and she insisted on interviewing me extensively. I thought that these interviews were full of fresh perspectives and insights that I had never expressed before publicly. Listening to these twenty year old cassettes proves me wrong. I had said most of what I wanted to say about choral music and my compositions by 1994. I’m amazed that I have actually stayed on message consistently for so long despite the decades and experiences that intervened.

Another feature of the interviews was how clear I was about Anúna’s direction. I wanted to define an Irish form of choral music. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, I had been putting together some eclectic concert programmes – Henry Purcell, Benjamin Britten mixed with Clannad, traditional Irish and medieval song combined with contemporary classical music. Out of this grew the eclectic repertoire of the group today.

I just listened back to our performances at the Cork Choral Festival of 1991. At the gala performance that year we sang three songs that really shone out – “Gól na dTrí Muire”, “Deus Meus” and “A Stór mo Chroí”. I had forgotten the silence that descended on the audience during the performance, and how the music held them so enthralled. I remember now that some of the international singers came up to me as we left the stage. They had been deeply effected by what they had heard. They described it as something they had never expected, something very different. The choir had grabbed a large audience for the first time and held it spellbound.

As I type I am listening to a performance we gave a year later in the Project Arts Centre in Dublin – what a concert! Medieval Irish songs [“Media Vita” and “Christus Resurgens”] combined with contemporary Irish works by various composers with effects that included screaming and whispering. There were movement pieces with tape and dry ice created around my arrangements. Our guests were a extraordinary group of musicians and included Aylish Kerrigan [mezzo],  Anne-Marie O Farrell [virtuoso Irish harp] mingled with the uileann pipes of Declan Masterson and the virtuosic percussion of Noel Eccles. I loved our performances of Seoirse Bodley‘s two works “Nocturne of the Self-Evident Presence” and “Homage to Marcel Proust”, an Irish classic of contemporary choral music.

There sitting in the middle of it is the end of An Uaithne and the start of Anúna.

I can now hear two types of singer on the recording. There are large, plummy voices favoured by the classically trained singers I had gathered around me for An Uaithne, sounding much older vocally than they were physically. I can hear other types of voice now – Early music singers, traditional singers and untrained singers. The performances are rough, but hugely energetic. Many of the performers are stuck to the inadequately learned sheet music, but some are singing without music and without affectation. And there at the end of the night is the first version of The Rising of the Sun – wow! It was specially commissioned for the Project’s 25th Anniversary and it is something else. Then the night was over. I remember my brother John, in his first year with the choir, asking for quiet in the dressing room and thanking me for giving him the opportunity to perform all this amazing music. There was silence in the dressing room, broken only by a few smirks from some of the singers, and then one group dies and another came into being.

So the archive hasn’t been so painful to transfer after all.

Requiem for the Lost Souls of the Titanic

Last year Belfast composer Philip Hammond was in a coffee shop in Belfast with me. He told me about this amazing piece he was writing. The title would be “Requiem for the Lost Souls of the Titanic” written in memory of those fallen to the dark depths of the ice cold ocean. His passion was infectious, so I jumped in and offered Anúna for whatever he wanted simply because the idea was so inspiring and so appropriate to the centennial of the loss of that great ship.

I am a composer, and Philip is one of the very few that I have any contact with on this island, and is the only one I ever talk about music and composing with. Indeed it was Philip who recommended me to the Ulster Orchestra as a composer way back in the mid 1990s. The recommendation eventually led to a commission and an album “Behind the Closed Eye”. He is a very modest man, a deep thinker with a wicked sense of humour and many genuine friends. So many of them were involved in this project.

I’ll let Philip introduce the piece himself :

Anúna’s contribution amounted to the Sanctus/Benedictus and a fantastical section at the end of the Lux Aeterna in Hebrew invoking the four Archangels. You can find a very good article about the performance here.

There were two performances – the first on the night of the 14th of April. Both concert was a spectacular success. St Anne’s Cathedral was beautiful, and the event became almost ritualistic. There was a bit of a media scrum to photograph Anúna entering with candles mid-way through the work, and I have to say that despite the unintentional humour generated by a camera being fired off six inches from my face while I was singing, we helped add to the overall drama and atmosphere of the night very fittingly.

The Titanic sank at 2am so after the performance we processed through the streets of a deserted city to Belfast City Hall where we we bowed our heads in silence for a moment to remember those who passed away in such terror. The atmospheric readings by Glenn Patterson, all related to the Titanic event, in combination with excellent playing by the Fidelio Piano Trio were very appropriate even inserted into the huge choral sections of the Requiem. However, the true stars of the night were the voices of the combined choirs – The Belfast Philharmonic Society, the Schola Cantorum of St Peter’s Cathedral and Cappella Caeciliana – and the brass ensemble The Downshire Brass Band.

Rehearsing in St Anne’s Cathedral
Anúna with Philip Hammond, centre

The next day we were involved in the insertion of the Requiem into a Roman Catholic service at St Peter’s Cathedral off the Falls Road. Some of the highlights for me, besides the magnificent score, were the amazing combined choral and brass effects of the three other choirs. The boys of St. Peter’s Cathedral provided beautiful singing – spine-tingling is the appropriate description and we shared a very crowded balcony. I only regret that the size of the forces needed prohibits many repeated performances, but to actually perform the music as part of a Mass was both powerful and moving for all the performers involved.

The boys of St Peter’s Cathedral in St Peter’s.

The Belfast-born, now New York-based, mezzo soprano Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek was nothing short of spectacularly good in both perforamnces. Many of you may be familiar with her work with Anonymous 4, but nothing prepared me for the level of virtuosity that she exhibited for her very difficult solos. Jacqueline is a very elegant lady, and I very much hope the our paths cross again professionally in the near future!

Jacqueline, Philip and myself

I speak for all of Anúna when I say that we had a memorable weekend. It was particularly poignant for the seven members of our choir who come from Northern Ireland. Thank you Philip for giving us the opportunity to be part of this monumental and wonderful event. Your music was truly inspired.

For a very limited time you can hear the opening section of the Requiem streamed on the BBC website – you have 5 days left to listen HERE!

The Choir, the Violinist and True Love in Sweden

Sometimes my job can be simply magical. Maybe it is something to do with the music, or maybe it is the ambiance generated by the performance. Or maybe life is full of magic, and I have simply been lucky to see it more often than most people.

Yes. Thats it.

Last November Anúna gave two very special performances in Sweden. We have only performed once in Stockholm, so I was anxious to sing there again [our last visit being in 1996]. This time we had a very special friend with us, the violinist Linda Lampenius. Linda and I are friends since around 2007 when she recorded and toured with us as part of Celtic Origins.

She is a superlative musician. Her celebrity status in Finland is so great that she was a judge for The X Factor in 2010 where she invited me to help her with her adjudication. A memorable experience indeed.

That cold November night she looked radiant and played beautifully, as always. The next night was Annedalkyrka, Gothenburg one of my favourite places to perform in the world. My younger brother Tom lived there in the 1980s and my own attachment to the country is deep.

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Anúna perform in Sofia Kyrka, Stockholm with Linda Lampenius [pic. Tommy Wiberg]

In October a young man by the name of Kristian wrote to me to ask me for a favour. I’m usually not great at deviating off the focus of a performance I have to admit, but this was a very special request for a special person. The performance was technically so complex that I had put Kristian far to the back of my mind so, as I read down the programme, I noticed that there was one odd piece on it. Suddenly all that occupied my mind was Kristian… the song was “The Flower of Maherally”, one I don’t sing very often anymore, but I had been asked for a special love song.

You see, Kristian wanted to propose to his girlfriend Marijune who was visiting from the USA. He has been a long-time fan of Anúna and he wanted to ask her to marry him on the stage just after we sang a love song that was dedicated to her. He came on stage, I called her up from the audience and he got down on one knee and proposed. Sheer magic indeed.

Needless to say, the concert and the tour ended on a huge high for all of us.

My short story ends with a postscript. I wrote to Kristian to see if he would mind me posting a note about his proposal. It turned out that he was actually in the USA and that tomorrow, Tuesday April 3rd, Kristian and Marijune will become Mr and Mrs Lejsund. Long life and happiness to you both. Thank you for including us in this wonderful moment of your lives.

On Choral Music in Worship

I was brought up as a Roman Catholic. My parents endeavoured to give me every opportunity to be exposed to a vast range of music, strongly encouraging our explorations, be they rock or classical music. In school the main exposure to singing was musical drama in the form of Gilbert and Sullivan with a few hymns in unison at every church service. It is understandable, therefore, that when my first exposure to sacred choral music at last arrived at age nineteen in University College Dublin Chamber Choir, it was like being hit with a mallet on the head.

I clearly remember my first rehearsal. We sang two songs, “Christus Factus Est” by Anerio and “O Sacrum Convivium” by Messiaen. Suddenly much was made clear to me. Maybe this was why people still spoke fondly of the extinct Latin Mass, with its remote and mysterious ceremony? It also helped explain to me why services were structured as they are. Music wasn’t simply a chance for the congregation to sing together, rather it was a series of sonic sign-posts angled towards illumination of the underlying spiritual truth of the service.

The Latin language, with its soft and non-percussive sound, had a natural affinity to the music that it was carried by. Later I discovered the music of Tallis, Gibbons and Byrd, being struck by the beauty of the harmonic language and the mellifluous use of the less-musical English language. Simple, direct statements of belief were woven into a powerful lattice of spiritual affirmation. Exposure to more recent music written for the Church today plainly showed that composers were acutely aware of their musical ancestry and quite capable of working within the practical constraints of service structures and the capabilities of the performing groups that they composed for. Indeed, the love of singing contemporary music among the better choral groups was a great pleasure to behold, even if much of the music demanded skills that were just on the edge of what the singers were capable of.

With respect to my Roman Catholic upbringing, I had rarely understood how the odd hymn here or there and the simplistic one-line responses and calls in the vernacular could compare to the carefully constructed musical structures that I participated in while singing in my first Church of Ireland services.  It irritated me that much of what was musically beautiful in the pre-Vatican II church had simply been consigned to performance repertoire, rarely heard within its originally conceived context.

Sometimes I felt like a starved man who eats as much as possible very quickly, deputising and singing at the two major Church of Ireland Cathedrals in Dublin, St. Patrick’s and Christ Church Cathedrals as often as I could. I sang for free at weddings, funerals, services – anything I was asked to do simply to experience this music in the context of its original conception.

By this time I was beginning to compose on a regular basis. Although the main thrust of my composition was towards the development of a new form of Irish choral music, I was consistently drawn to spiritual texts. Two early efforts I wrote for competitions organised for use in the Church of Ireland service were “Codhlaim go Súan I’d Chroí” (I Sleep Softly in Your Heart) and the anthem “Come Let us Sing” the former for a competition to find an anthem in the Irish language and the latter a setting of a more traditional Church text. This work eventually gave rise to my “Celtic Mass”, a combination of texts in Latin and Irish on diverse texts. Latterly my spiritual output has included the four “Tenebrae Responsories”, a “Missa Brevis” for St David’s Cathedral in Wales and a diverse collection of individual sacred works that include my “Agnus Dei” which was commissioned by the American choir Chanticleer in 2006 for their five-composer project “And on Earth, Peace: a Chanticleer Mass”.

Despite it being nearly thirty years since I was so profoundly influenced by this music, it continues to be a part of my life. I attend regularly at Saint Bartholomew’s Church in Dublin which has a fine and ambitious musical programme. I believe that the power generated by community singing of good quality has a ripple effect on the entirety of society. This music and literature has survived because it is simultaneously functional and art. It is important to bear in mind that composers who have written this music for over a millennium have done so with a desire to articulate their own spiritual ideas while transmitting genuine and heart-felt insight to a congregation. I now realise why this music has influenced and affected me the way it has. Choral music in worship can bring congregation, singer and composer together in a unique and wonderful way. The power of this should never be underestimated.

This article appears in the magazine Soundboard, Winter 2011

Canticum Gaudium : Poznań 2011.

I am still buzzing. I have just returned from Poland, having been invited to adjudicate at the first International Early Music Vocal Competition and give a workshop in Poznań  at Canticum Gaudium. The competition was created under the auspices of one of the most famous and renowned European choirs, the Poznań Boys’ Choir.

Usually when I give workshops or masterclasses they are either technical singing classes or deal with the interpretation of my music. Rarely do they encompass both areas of my work simultaneously. The session lasted five hours. The attendees at the Academy of Music in Poznań were made up of children and adults – all of them accomplished choral singers. In total there were to be in excess of one hundred young singers attending the workshop.They came from a number of choral groups, but I had specifically been invited by the world-renowned Poznań Boys’ Choir, who had  conducted by composer Jacek Sykulski.

 

Jacek had chosen two of my pieces for the workshop – “Pie Jesu” and “Heia Viri”.  “Heia Viri” is not an easy piece to sing. It has an alternating 10/8, 4/4, 7/8 rhythmic pattern, which many choirs find pretty daunting. Jacek conducted this piece, giving precise entries and eliciting quite a dynamic reaction from the singers. After a while I asked him to stop conducting and to leave them to continue undirected. We listened to the singers dealing with the complex rhythmic structures without guidance. They started to listen to each other. To be precise, the adults did.

What the children did was most illuminating. I clearly remember three little boys in the front row thumping each other as they sang “Heia Viri”. This in itself is to be expected with boys anywhere, but not while negotiating alternating complex choral rhythms unconducted. Another boy was rapidly beating his music against his arm which he had rolled up into a weapon. This in itself isn’t unusual, but he was beating rapidly in a different rhythmic pattern to any that I had written. Children don’t need to listen, or analyse – they just sing it as it is. At what precise moment is it that we lose large chunks of our natural common-sense when singing in choirs?

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Just listening…

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…and laughing. Pics T Semmler

Then there was “Pie Jesu” which begins with a suspended 4th that resolves onto a 3rd in the second bar in an F major tonality. I gave the notes of the opening chord at 11.15am. An hour later we sang  “Heia Viri”, which is in D flat, returning to “Pie Jesu” for the last hour of the workshop that ended at 3pm. What was somewhat revelatory was the simple fact that I blew the notes on my pitch-pipe only once for both pieces and I didn’t let the singers re-tune prior to singing. The assembled choirs were able to pitch the opening of both songs each time we restarted without any assistance. They held the F tonality perfectly in tune for at least four hours. What are keys and notes? Just ethereal ideas really. I’ve tried this trick all over the world, and it never ceases to amaze me how lazy we are about things like this as choral singers.

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Poznań is a beautiful city, particularly when bathed in the warm, autumnal glow of early November. I visited the city in 2000 with Anúna, and it has changed considerably since then. The central part is dotted with fashionable restaurants and beautiful ornate churches. I particularly love the atmospheric coffee shops where the day can slip away so easily. Coffee always seems to taste better on mainland Europe than it does at home for some mysterious reason. These peaceful places are almost empty in the daytime, and for me were an oasis to renew my love for Poland.

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I hear some of you ask – what is Early Music? Well, in a nutshell, it is a musical land where few singers and teachers tread comfortably. Singers must have formidable technique but also a genuine love of this special music. It involves the use of improvisation and ornamentation and requires a strong and supple vocal technique. In the early 1980s the pure sound of enthusiastic and almost vibrato-less English voices brought this forgotten era back into the public eye. Since then much has changed in the way this music is interpreted, which has led to a renewed appreciation for the genre and a widening interest in it among the musical fraternity. I was delighted that so many young singers had chosen to enter this competition, and more importantly, how many of them dealt so competently with the specific demands required by the repertoire.

Adjudication is a particular skill. Some adjudicators love emotional performance, some prefer accuracy and technique and some want raw talent recognised. I know that it is an important means for the transmission of my experiences and knowledge as a performer to the next generation. The organisers chose a very interesting line-up of adjudicators :  Eric Desnoues (France), soprano Olga Pasiecznik (Poland/Ukraine), bass-baritone Stephan MacLeod (Switzerland) and countertenor Roberto Balconi (Italy). There was some amusement among them when we met initially that my biography in the programme included mention of my involvement as a specialist adjudicator in the Finnish version of X Factor. Well, adjudication is adjudication, and seeing as the main aim of all singing competitions is appropriate transmission of information – about the song, about the text, about the composer and crucially, about the singer – I would say, hastily, that there isn’t that much difference between genres of music in the end when you are looking for that special element in a performer…the “x factor”…

I must state first of all that any opinions I give in this article are my own, based on my twenty five years in the music industry, and may not always reflect the views of my colleagues. Our deliberations were passionate: all of us have very strong ideas and opinions about this music that we love. We debated each singer at length in French and English. I was writing my notes in Irish, which got harder and harder for me as the week progressed, as I can’t seem to retain coherency in French and Irish simultaneously for no good reason. We may not have been unanimous in everything, but there was always a consistent thread running through our judgements which went beyond personal taste. My colleagues made the difficult experience of adjudication something which was full of stimulating debate, good-humour and passion.

While I have worked as an adjudicator before, this experience was unique in one particular way: we interacted with the singers directly, discussing their performances with them individually and in small groups. I believe that being open and honest with young singers is hugely valuable to both yourself and the performer. You have to make your comments clearly, answering direct questions with direct answers. You also have to justify why you feel a certain way about something, and that can be a challenge. Through these interactions we learned much from the singers about their lives and their ambitions for the future. I wish I had had access to something like this when I was starting, rather than cold written statements, if any were given at all, that could easily be misunderstood.

What were we looking for? Was it simply the voice combined with passion, communication and intellect? Many of these singers had all of these traits. However, lurking beneath all these things lies the need for a strong bedrock of vocal technique. Text must also be very clear, and the meaning of the words transmitted. But the thing that I was looking for most of all was that the singer must attempt to bring this music to life in today’s world, which is so alien to the one in which the words and music were originally conceived.

Most of the performers sang Lute Song from England, particularly the works of the great John Dowland. These are deceptive songs, superficially easy to sing but difficult to perform with conviction. I was the only native English speaker on the panel. I don’t have problems with people singing in accented English. If you are Polish or French then it is pretty likely that you will sing with a Polish or French accent, but the accent should never obscure the meaning of the words. All I want, and I am sure the same applies to all languages, is that the words are coherent and it is obvious to the listener that the singer understands them.  I have serious problems with affected English pronunciation. By this I mean English being distorted for obscure and often ridiculous reasons. I must state here that many of the worst offenders in this area are native English speakers. No, I don’t agree that “r” should be rolled, but tolerate it because most singers do it. It is infinitely harder to not roll the “r”… No, the word “Spring” is not pronounced “Sprrrreeeeng”. Distortion is distortion, no matter how accepted such odd practices have become.

There were some good performances given by the singers in the lute song genre, particularly by the baritone Romain Bockler from France, who eventually came fifth in the competition. He gave a delicate reading of Trombocino’s “O mia cieca e dua sorte” in the semi-final. This was matched by the young Polish singers Maria Rozynek and Bartosz Rajpold who both sang moving renditions of Dowland’s “Flow my teares”. Hanna Różankiewicz, the youngest performer in the competition, performed one of the best-known Dowland songs “Come again, sweet love” with a moving sensitivity. Samitra Suwannarit-Grabowska from Thailand sang a heart-stopping rendition of Dowland’s “Sorrow, Stay”. I don’t believe that Samitra performed as well as she could have in this competition. She is a fine artist and her performance particularly touched me.

There were three very good Polish countertenors in the competition. Roberto’s opinions and knowledge were particularly helpful to me, as he is a countertenor, and he explained the different features of this unusual and increasingly popular singing voice for men. All three singers were young. Marcin Liweń has a powerful voice and fine musicality and shows great promise for the future, while Bartosz Rajpold sang with intensity and passion, even at this early stage of his career. He was particularly good in his performance of Handel’s “Su, Magera”. The youngest of them was Jakub Orlińsk, also Polish. We recognised his performances with a special award of Merit.

I should point out how well the singers got on together. When we met them face-to-face it was disarming to see how young they all were, despite the intensity of some of their performances.

We were delighted to award the first prize of five thousand euro to the American soprano Estelí Gomez. She gave a number of immaculate performances. Purcell’s “O lead me to some peaceful gloom” was like a crystal stream of sound, while Rameau’s “Du pouvoir de l’Amour / Jeux et ris qui suivez mes traces” was simply, and I hesitate to use the description because it has become almost a cliché, ravishingly beautiful. In this recit/aria she used Baroque gesture [try here for further info], a form of hand movement that historically would have been used in contemporary perfromance of this time, in such a natural way that it just looked right. Personally, I was hugely impressed by her technique, particularly her support which was almost invisible to my eye. I was delighted that she participated in my choral workshops the next day, but more of that in a later article.

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She has a very engaging and bright personality and I spoke to Esteli about what winning this competition meant to her :

How are you feeling now after your victory? What do you think winning this competition will mean for you in the short term?

“The two strong feelings that come to mind are appreciative, and inspired. This was my first vocal competition and first time singing solo in Europe, as it were, and I was delighted at the high caliber of musicality of the contestants and judges, as well as the attentive organizational efforts that held the festival together so well; also, the kindness that the hosts and judges showed us, and that the contestants showed one another, was an amazing blessing and inspiration throughout and in retrospect.

That being said, I think a common misconception, when a singer wins a competition (or important role or gig), is that he or she has achieved some sort of untouchable state of arrival. While I can absolutely describe the Poznań competition experience and environment as one which, for me, really encouraged and celebrated that which I have been striving towards in my music-making, I do recognize that a competition win does not a “finished” singer make. I am hopeful that such a win will provide me with musical exposure in Europe, yet in a sense I have already gained a great measure as such, having been myself exposed to competitors’ varied styles and judges’ diverse tastes during the competition week itself. Ideally, I intend to continue exploring these performance practices and preferences on both sides of the pond, and I am very glad and grateful that my first efforts to do so were encouraged”

Why do you like singing this unusual repertoire particularly considering your own musical background?

“I grew up in a family that strongly values music – my parents met in a folk/bluegrass group, and all our extended family holidays involved singing, instruments, harmonizing. But, even more strongly, they emphasized the joy of personal expression within art (visual art too…my brother is an animator!), and that’s what drew me first to jazz, then early music. I loved singing solo and small ensemble jazz repertoire in high school, before I’d begun to dabble in solo classical singing, because it involved not just freedom of expression, but requirement of expression – the idea that on a basic level one must constantly engage in a composition and make personal, committed decisions, connecting to text and phrase structure with enough conviction and confidence to be able to improvise…! All exciting elements that jazz and early music performance share. The performance of early music requires a special and wonderful balance of academic/historical context, or engaging one’s brain, and then this intensely courageous improvisatory/creative element, or engaging one’s soul. For me, this is an incredibly satisfying combination!”

What are your memories of Canticum Gaudium and Poznań that you think will stay with you?

“I would say that the amazing friendliness of our Polish hosts – those affiliated with the competition, as well as perfect strangers – was particularly special and memorable. Before and after the competition I travelled to a few other cities in Europe for more concert performances, but no public was friendlier or more generous than that which I found in Poland. Otherwise, I would say that the experience of traveling so far and investing so much time, effort, and money to sing just thirty minutes of music in the semi-final round… that was definitely an experience and level of investment I won’t forget any time soon!”

What do you think that this competition has to offer young singers who might be interested in attending in 2013?

“The spirit of this competition was so rich with positive, healthy energy, that I came away with not just a better idea of how Renaissance and Baroque music is sung in different circles today, but feeling truly inspired by the approaches of the performers and honest, helpful commentary of our judges. I would highly recommend the experience as a whole to any dedicated early music singer, looking not just to show off or win prizes, but to invigorate his or her musical agenda and encourage fluency in different repertoires, presented to a unique and appreciative audience.”

I want to wish Estelí and all the competitors well-deserved success for the future. I know I will be returning to Poznań, and I won’t wait eleven years next time. Finally I want to extend my personal thanks to all those who gave their time and energy to the organisation of this competition. There wasn’t a single glitch, just goodwill and positivity. I particular want to thank Joanna Theuss and Jacek for making the entire experience one I will always remember and treasure.

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The winners: Romain, Estelí, Maria, Aleksandra and Julia