White Cranberry Bark and Advent Carols

We spent this afternoon catching the last performance of The Messiah for this season’s run. It was wonderfully done, with zest and energy even in the slower pieces. The orchestra had a light touch, and the highlight of the performance for us was the choir. (No, we’re not biased at all, why would you think that?) Their diction was good, their sound bright, and they were -oh rarity -always together. In a large choir, that’s no easy feat.

As ever with The Messiah there was a fair bit of elasticity, and pieces were sung by parts we normally associate with others. On that note, we wanted to give you this communion hymn that ambushed us the other week. We never expected to like anything with a tambourine (they’re too often used to soppy effect) but the jocundity here is contagious. You may or may not recognise the text as Comfort Ye My People. We associate it with Handel’s Messiah, but that’s about all they have in common -well, that, and as it happens, we love both arrangements. We hope you will too.


Now, the concert over, we’re drinking a tea billed as being White Cranberry Bark. It’s herbal, pink, and tastes tart -the cranberry, presumably. You have to let this one steep. Our first effort was impatient and it tasted mostly of hot water, but about ten minutes into brewing the cranberry came through, and the white chocolate is merely a culinary afterthought. So you see, we can like a tea with chocolate in it after all. Though we still think it’s a bit odd.

And on the subject of oddities, we’re taking a risk here and giving you a poem we haven’t made up our mind about. We first heard it two or three years ago when the St Salvator’s Chapel Choir, St Andrews, premiered a carol cycle arranged by a composer we now forget -possibly John MacMillan. It was interspersed with poetry, and we found this Advent Carol in verse. See what you make of it.

The Midwife’s Carol

Michael Symmons Roberts

Deserts freeze and oceans glaze,
The polar sun turns blue,
Then on winter’s whitened page
A single star prints through.

New-made maker, helpless king,
Born to joy and suffering,
Our rescuer, our child,
Our rescuer, our child.

I haul my catch into the world,
I shake him into breath,
His cry, so clear it splits the skies,
Could wake a man from death.

He cries for milk who gave it taste,
He aches for touch of skin,
Yet he spun every human hair,
And ushered love begin.

I count his fingers, wipe

his eyes,
Then whisper in each ear.
I wrap him in my thickest shawl,
Bound tight to keep him here.

My hands have cradled many heads,
Cut countless cords and cauls,
But never held eternity
Within such fragile walls.

The maker of all worlds is made,
Infinity becalms,
From speed of light to feet of clay,
My saviour in my arms.

For our money, if you’re interested, if that italicised bit is a chorus, it’s unnecessary. Strictly speaking, its superfluous anyway, but if it’s meant to repeat, well, look for us cowering in a corner somewhere waving a cross in the general direction of all things uncomfortably sentimental. And yes, there are probably quite a few Victorian hymns that fall under that description too, we include them here. But strange italics aside, there are some lines here that give us shivers even on the nth rereading. For years people have been trying to articulate the strange duality of the infant Christ, and for us this comes as close as anything to articulating His humanity and divinity simultaneously. If nothing else, it has nerve. That’s a great thing in poetry.

What do you think? Are we too hard on the italics? Is it altogether gloopy anyway? Let us know. We’re collecting opinions.

A Lyric Fairytale

On Thursday we went down to Edinburgh for Rusalka. In the event we’ve not said, this is we venture, our favourite of all opera ever. For skilfully rendered story and devastatingly good music it’s unmatched.

When Scottish Opera announced Rusalka for this season we determined to go. We’ve not seen it live since the COC took it on 7 (?) years ago, and we wanted to. Nothing conveys the vulnerability, the messiness, the sheer effort of singing like a live performance. But outings like this run the risk of ending with us spending the third act nervously watching the clock and calculating the distance back to Waverly Station to catch the 23:08 back to Leuchars. We love our grey town by the sea, but it’s not exactly easy to reach if you can’t drive.

We’re glad we made the effort though. We never noticed the time, and we did catch the train, but this was more than that. Rusalka is, as it says on its title page, a lyrical fairytale at it’s heart, and this production had taken the idea and run with it. All the women, from Rusalka to the witch Jezibaba were given dresses that tapered and flared like fishtails. The men were all in woodsy greens and browns. It was lovely to look at, lovely to listen to, and best of all this was a production that brought interesting and new interpretations to its characters.

Jezibaba especially stood out in this respect. Every previous iteration of the opera we’ve seen has rendered her cartoonish, warts, rags, stoop and all. It wasn’t only that Scottish Opera gave us an elegant woman who acted as well as she sang. There was a depth we’ve never seen in the part before. Straight-shouldered and graceful, Jezibaba was still terrifying when call upon. There was also great tenderness in her music. This was a woman who looked at the abandoned Rusalka and saw in her something of herself and seeing it, offered her empowerment the best way she understood it. More than that though, we believed it of her, not only because the musical cues, the darkening of Rusalka’s leitmotif, it’s adoption of aspects of Jezibaba’s reinforced it, but because the performance sold the interpretation. Blood vengeance was part of her, certainly, but not the only part. And there was something far more chilling about the woman who could move from cradling Rusalka like a child to wielding a knife with menace than there was in that cartoonish witch we so often think of.

Vodnik the water gnome was memorable too, and we don’t say that lightly. Years of singing and we still find ourselves in alien territory when we hear basses. It’s not that we dislike them, it’s that it’s a different kind of listening. We’re comfortable with high notes, we sing them often, so we listen with understanding to the soprano, and gravitate towards those high lines because we can appreciate them. We can spot when a tempo’s unsympathetically slow and necessitating extra breaths, we know when a high note has landed, and while we know we could never do half so well, we can understand the hurdles to be got over and the nuances in the singing.

We can’t say that about the lower registers of the voice, which is why whenever we hear an especially good singer traverse those places -as happened the other evening – we can only listen with a certain amount of awe. We think of low notes and we think of falling (with a fair amount of control) down a well. It never sounds like that. This sounded like it rose up out of the floor, out of the space beneath the floor, possibly from somewhere dark and rich and warm deep in the earth itself. Think about what red velvet cake might sound like if it could sing. The really impressive thing though, is that a voice like that came out of a man submerged in the scenery. It turns out that if you literally make your water gnome, well, a water-gnome, complete with tail, free movement is sacrificed somewhat. It made it all the more effective when he did break free of the set. Power radiated off of him in waves, and we’ve never seen anything like that. It was awful in that old, archaic sense of the word, full of awe and wonderment.

It wouldn’t be Rusalka though without a mention of the Song to the Moon. We could rave about it forever –it’s our favourite aria if we have to choose –but we won’t. We can’t say anything meaningful that hasn’t been already. Suffice it to say it sounded like liquid gold, that those harps felt like coming home.

We’ll leave you with those harps. They say it best after all. And while this isn’t the performance we heard, it’s still a favourite.

On Reading Well

Today has been a very long sort of day. It began with forgetting to put the tea in the pot before the hot water (we appear at six in the morning to have harboured the delusion that we did not need tea to make tea), and went on to involve narrowly dodging a lorry as we went to work. We have made a mental note that the symbol cane ought to come to work with us; the lorry in question made no noise and was on the side we couldn’t see. We stopped purely because the cyclist (who we also couldn’t hear but could see) stopped. As the rector stressed anxiously at Mass afterwards, the first disaster was correctable, the latter was not.

That rather set the tone for the rest of the day. It ended with a carol concert in which we sang perhaps six carols but which inexplicably lasted 2 ½ hours. We blame the half hour on the interval, which was itself that long. The rest we blame on the conductor, and we like to think we have the manners not to berate the conductor –not our usual one –here. We shan’t bother you about tonight’s concert then.

But we did want to mention a rather good book we’ve stumbled across. In fact, having ended it has perhaps added to the flatness of today. Never mind that, while we were reading it, we quite literally could not put it down, and there are very few books we’ve been able to say that about. In fact, I venture I can count them on one hand beginning with Persuasion, going on to Gaudy Night. We would now add Magic Most Deadly to that list.

It’s a murder mystery, a genre in which we are thoroughly at home, but as the title suggests, with magic thrown in for good measure. We think we put off reading it because we don’t usually go in for fantasy novels, but this is a mystery first and foremost, and before even that it’s about characters. They are characters we loved at once.

We suspect this is because we find much to relate to in Maia, her self-sufficiency, the ease with which she seems to be overlooked, her ability to go on quietly doing what needs doing exactly because it needs doing. We confess, we rather envy her deadly sharp wit, and we would most certainly like to sit down and have a cup of tea with her. Would that we could.

Len, who made up the other half of this detective partnership, won us at once too; he would be at home we feel in Piccadilly, at 110A or perhaps 17 Bottle Street. There are any number of comparisons we could make of Len, and none of them would be quite fair, because he is so completely himself. But he does put us in mind of Campion and Lord Peter, and as far as we’re concerned, there is no better way to be.

As a book it sparkled. We were once told while studying crime fiction that the trick to a successful murder mystery was to try something as yet undone, usually by finding a place where no-one had written of a murder and setting one there. The combination of Golden Age style with magic can only be called a triumph. It swept over us as a warm cup of tea, a nice touch of lightness in an otherwise dreich month, and we are glad. Also, we are now rather eagerly watching for the next instalment. Maia and Len were very much alive to us –we’re not ready to give their company up just yet.


A New Created World

The heavens were telling the glory of God –or at any rate we were on Saturday, singing Hayden’s The Creation. Coming on the heels of a performance of Elgar’s mammoth work The Apostles, this really did feel heaven-sent. The music was intuitive, the quaver runs instinctive and best of all, the tessitura –that is the median range of the voice –lay comfortably for all of us.

Better than that, because the music suited the choir so well we were able to really enjoy this performance; we had fun singing it, and from talking with audience members afterwards, we’re left with the impression they had as much fun listening. There was a good deal of laughter from them anyway, and we’re taking that as a good thing.

Certainly our great discovery in the event of the performance was the realisation at the sheer amount of humour embedded in The Creation. Having never heard it sung through continuously until Saturday evening, we had failed to notice this before. The one difficulty was trying not to laugh ourselves while sitting in the balcony as we listened to the archangels (all right, the soloists then) run through what seemed a never-ending list of the animals created. Whales were a surprise, and not the only one.

All in all it was successful evening, the music growing into one great triumphal and tuneful shout to close it. As ever in the aftermath of a concert, we feel a bit bereft without our routine of Friday night rehearsals and building practice into the week. Don’t feel too badly though; we’ve an Advent Carol Service looming on Sunday with unsingable chant that needs to be taken to task, and the music for Monica’s Waltz arrived this morning. We shall certainly be grappling with that while anxiously waiting for The Trees on the Mountain to follow it. And in the New Year it’s Brahm’s Requiem, supposing we’re still here and haven’t moved on. In many ways we hope we are, and as the small issue of the language of the German Requiem is undecided, let it be known our vote is for German. We valiantly relearned The Heavens are Telling to gratify the conductor, but we don’t think we’d be able to do it again if asked to translate Wei Lieblich sind Deine Wohnungen.

We’ll be sure to let you know the outcome anyway. Meanwhile, there’s been a glut of good music this week, and we still haven’t quite come back to earth after all that time singing the world into being for an evening.