Benjamin Britten: Ceremony of Carols

Source: Benjamin Britten: Ceremony of Carols

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Surviving the End of the World

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‘Of course I’ll do it!’ I told maestro David Fallis. I remember the morning well, Sunday Dec 8, 2013 because it was the day after Cantores Celestes, the women`s choir that I direct, sang Vivaldi’s ‘Gloria‘ and R. Murray Schafer’s ‘Snowforms’. Murray was celebrating his 80th year and Cantores Celestes marked its 25th Anniversary.  Unbeknownst to me, David came to hear us because he was looking for a women`s choir to participate in the Luminato performance of Schafer`s `Apocalypsis`.  I loved performing Schafer`s music and also was taken with his biography and novel, so when David said he thought we`d be a good fit for a work that rivals the forces of a Mahler Symphony, and that I`d have a chance to join some of the best musicians in the city, I was giddy as a school girl. To me, it was a no brainer if there ever was one.

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Then the conductor’s score arrived.   My first thought was ‘This is gorgeous.  A work of art, and WOW what an honour to be involved with this epic production.’  But as I looked more closely, my heart raced, my chin dropped to my chest and my second thought was:  ‘Oh my.  I have no idea that these drawings mean.  Am I mad?’ Then, after counting over 13 high Bs scooping up past high Cs in a row, I also wondered.  `Can I do it?  Can my choir do it?`  Lots of sleepless nights ensued.
David Fallis joined Cantores Celestes in January for a workshop and gave the  `Women of the Apocalypsis` the guidance and assurances we needed that we could do it. As the pages of the calendar flipped forward, momentum started to build.
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 As we started memorizing our score and being fitted for costumes, it was becoming increasingly real. Then when we all joined forces at the end of May to begin our joint rehearsals in the COC rehearsal space, it finally started to make sense.
We learned how to walk on stage, how to act, and to be still. (Not an easy or natural state of being for women who like to share and laugh!)
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Deep down, I hoped that this would be a chance to fulfill a childhood dream of being on a world stage conducting in my finery and sparkles, looking quaffed and every bit as glamorous as a conductor should be.  The reality much more humbling – but still makes me laugh. In keeping with Lemi’s direction and vision, our outfits were black pants and jackets that were good-will specials. 11330030_10153195180751743_6126935420751271358_n
No make-up was to be worn, and hair was to be pulled back in a bun.  This was a big problem, because my naturally curly hair refused to be tamed into submission.  One day my hair was cut and gelled but before I could make it home Orphan Annie reappeared.  In the end, it was a fist full of bobby-pins that finally did the trick.
When I think about my Luminato experience, I feel honoured and privileged to have had an opportunity to work with such a great Luminato team that included Caroline Hollway, Naomi Campbell, and of course the upbeat and unfatigable Artistic Director Jorn Weisbrodt,  and visionary, Director Lemi Ponifasio. The friendships forged with working with all of the singers who were so giving of their time and the kindness and camaraderie of my fellow conductors of the first half – Stephanie Martin,  Christine Duncan, Zimfira Poloz, Anita McAlister, Dallas Bergen,  Richard Foty, Ryan Scott and Anastasia Tchernikova – will also stay with me for years to come.
Finally, I cannot say enough wonderful things about Maestro David Fallis.  I do not think there is anyone who could have been so focused, kind, smart and calm as the end of the World was drawing near.  Thank you David, Murray and Luminato for the gift you have given me and Cantores Celestes. 11406690_855139757910006_4654838607531797976_o (1)
Kelly Galbraith
Director of Cantores Celestes Women`s Choir

Performance Bloopers – by Not the Church Lady AKA Kelly Galbraith

“Don’t worry.  It always works out in performance.”  Nope.  Even as a child I knew that wasn’t true when a well-meaning adult would pat me on the head and offer up those comforting words. What I have learned through the passage of time is how to deal with situations that come up that are unexpected.  It can be distilled into 2 rules.  1) Always be prepared.  Know your music inside out so when Murphy’s Law pulls you over, you can deal with it.  2) Have a sense of humour.  Laughter can lighten many an awkward moment.

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I was six years old when I began music lessons and started my life’s journey as a musician.  I hadn’t been playing very long at all when I entered my first and only music festival.  My instrument at the time was  a little 12 button bass piano accordion.  It was green, shiny and very pretty.  As I walked across the wooden church platform of  Saint Andrew and Saint David United Church in Saint John N.B., the click of my black patent leather shoes echoed throughout the sanctuary.  I wore my new festival-going frock and my curls were neatly combed into submission.  I plopped myself down on the chair, made sure my legs weren’t splayed in an un-lady like position, and calmly placed my sheet music on the stand.   I re-covered the music in tin foil so it was sparkly and would look what I thought to be appropriately professional and worthy of a festival.  My test piece was a jaunty little tune with the catching title, “Button Boogie”.  Before I started to play, I looked for my mom and grandmother sitting in the pew.  Once I caught their glance, I took a breath and began to play.  My attempt lasted about 6 secs. k11835485I forgot to undo the leather strap at the bottom which keeps the bellows together before your arm pumps air into them.   You can press a little white button on the side of the accordion to release the air.   It sounds like an inflated balloon with a hole in it.  But I was not a patient child – a places to go, things to do, kind of kid.  The air needed to escape FASTER so I pressed all of the buttons down that I could with my left hand and that made an ungodly racket that sounded like stepping on a lion’s tail.  There were gasps from the audience, mainly from my mom.  I began my tune again but the mood was shattered.  My score of 82 filled me with disgust because I knew I played well.  On the drive home, I told my mom I loved music, would keep playing and practicing but no more festivals for me!

Scoot ahead about 2 years – the scene Hillcrest Baptist Church,  Dec 24th, Sunday School Pageant.  I was a pretty decent alto for 8 years of age and so was my friend Bonnie.  Our assignment, was to be angels perched on the top rung of a ladder singing, “Angels we have heard on high”.  Angels-christmas-1a (1)   (I think the choir director gave it to us as a chance to redeem ourselves.  A month before, when singing in front of the church leading the children’s hymn, what started as snickers became of full fit of knee slapping complete with shaking hymn books when I noticed one of the parishioners, the lady who always pinched our cheeks, had fallen asleep.  Her head had fallen forward causing her wig to hang below her chin and was fastened to her short hair by only a bobby pin.  In retrospect, I am not proud of myself for my lack of self-control, but if it had been a Mr. Bean skit, it would have gone viral.)

Back to my duet.  I suddenly developed a fear of heights.  Hanging on to the ladder, silver garland as halos, cardboard angel wings dangerously drooping down our backs, not a sound was coming out of my mouth.  Except of course my laughter.  That was the first time I sang a duet in church.  The second and last time really didn’t end well either.  Good thing I moved onto playing the organ.

The first time I played the organ publicly in church was for a wedding in Sussex N.B.  The organ was a little pump organ with one manual.  I didn’t know the organ’s condition until I arrived 40 minutes before the wedding.  There weren’t enough keys to play the ‘Wedding March’ and the pump pedals stuck.  Sue, the soloist had to bend down in her taffeta dress and push them manually.  The bride was 40 minutes late.   Being 15 years old, my repertoire was slim pickings.  After exhausting my ‘party pieces’  and thumbing through the hymn book for anything that didn’t resemble a funeral hymn, I started to play theme and variations on ‘O Dear What can the Matter Be.”    Look-of-Horror (1)

A few months later I had my first opportunity to lead a church service from the organ bench.  This means playing a Prelude, Postlude, Offertory, Hymns, solo, anthem, and service music.  After the first hymn, the organ died.  Well, all the stops on the organ died but two – a 2 Foot and a 16 Foot.  (This sounds like a duet between a tuba and a ukulele.)  Not good for hymn singing, nor for the confidence of a 15 year old.  The hardest thing was calling the organist after the service to say the organ bit the dust on my watch.

After so many firsts going so horribly wrong, it is a wonder that I kept at music.  For my Senior Recital at Mount Allison University, I played my beloved instrument, the chapel organ.

Organ Web DSC_1583The repertoire was heavy and required much concentration – Louis Vierne, Bach, Dupre, Messiaen.  I was in full flight, feet and fingers flying when I made a registration change and pulled out one of the stops.  I yanked a little to hard.  It went flying over the balcony just missing knocking someone on the head.  I learned later that my professor sighed heavily and immediately lifted his hands to his face like Macaulay Culkin from the movie ‘Home Alone’. I just shrugged my shoulders, laughed and kept on playing.  Lesson I learned was that the show must go on and that if you can laugh about it, even better.

I have mentioned in previous postings that organs dying in the middle of a service is nothing new to me.  You make do or go to a piano.    cough

The other hat I wear is as a conductor.  Over 25 years now leading Cantores Celestes.  Have things gone not according to plan?  You bet yah!  One concert back in 1995 I had 22 people in the choir.  Our dress rehearsal was ticket-boo.  Night of the concert, I had 11 people sick, myself included.  Coughing, spewing, various states of dishevelledness.  I wish I could have run across the stage with a sign that said we sounded great 4 days ago.  I had a temperature,  ears were plugged and during the intermission I ran out the side door heaving in the bushes because I took so much cough medicine.  The next season I increased out membership to 33 and have kept it a healthy size ever since as there are usually 5 people sick or away from the first practise to performance date.

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Another Cantores Celestes concert ‘Adiemus’ goes down in my books for testing the patience of any conductor.  I had booked at least 13 musicians and we had visuals to accompany this New Age style music.  My first violinist ended up subbing in a concerto for the Symphony as their scheduled soloist was sick.  My violist ended up in the hospital for various complaints.  The cellist forgot her music.  My recorder player had a death in the family so I had to find someone new 2 days before.  Subway delays.  Highway closed.  And in the afternoon during the set-up the playback machine for the visuals didn’t work.  Adiemus is 45 minutes long and we sing most of it in the dark.   There are many passages repeated.  My choir sings from memory so I am the choir’s GPS.  To make a long story longer, I did manage to hire replacement musicians, and the  video play back co-operated at the last-minute.

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My brain though didn’t.  About 4 pages from the end of the work I felt a fuse blow inside my head.   It was the stress of the day and because I saw the double bar coming up I relaxed too soon.   It was an existential moment.  I read the music in advance of where we are.  There was a distraction in the audience and I couldn’t remember if I was in the moment or reading ahead.  Did I repeat this page 5 times or 4.  I guessed wrong and ended it to soon.  The musicians watched me and ended with me with a look of surprise clearly on their faces.  We winked and played the concluding short movement.

I have never had a costume mishap but Janet Jackson’s is probably the most famous.  It also happens in classical music. Baritone Louis Quilico was in Moscow singing Aida. It was his big aria and he was milking it. Suddenly, his costume fell down.  There he was, centre stage, in his briefs. And what did he do?  He just kept singing.  Meanwhile he tried unsuccessfully to pull up his pants.  By this time, the orchestra & chorus were doubled over in hysterics.  Ever the consummate performer, Quilico kept holding his final note as a dancer ran over and yanked up his costume. Quilico received a standing ovation after that!

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Then there is a wonderful mezzo-soprano who has a beautiful voice and stage presence like no one else I know.  She was singing solo in front of a packed house when her straps let go and there she was with the twins exposed for all to see.  What did she do?  She owned the song and the stage!  She just kept singing much to the delight of  her audience.

You just keep going.  Unless there is a fire alarm or someone is seriously ill, the ‘show must go on’  is the law that performers cleave to in response to Murphy’s.   And sometimes, all you can do is laugh and have a good bow.  Everyone makes mistakes and stuff happens.  It is how you handle it when your skill and character are tested.

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For Monica – Please sign up to become a donor – beadonor.ca

Please share this video to help others. Lives depend on it. YOU can make a difference. Thank you!

Themes & Variations by Musician & Producer Kelly Galbraith

Cantores Celestes Women’s Choir in Toronto directed by Kelly Galbraith
PLEASE, please SHARE! Help us get the word out how important it is to sign up to be a donor. 50 Cantores Celestes members sang on Sat Nov 23rd for their friend and chorister sister, Monica Parfitt who has been at the Toronto General Hospital for 6 months awaiting for a heart donation. I would so appreciate if you would share this video with your friends to help Cantores Celestes spread the word about organ donation. Our dear friend and singer has been on the transplant list for a very long time and is very ill. We sang for her and her family on Sat morning so she could be surrounded by our love and the music she loves. This audio was taken from a simple iphone but the message comes through none the less. Thank you from the bottom…

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Halloween – A Choral Music Scarefest!

This is fun music that will never make it into any church services that I’ll be playing at in the near future. I’ll post my musings on All Saints and All Souls shortly.

Themes & Variations by Musician & Producer Kelly Galbraith

Come on, admit it.  You sometimes peek through your fingers when you watch a horror flick.  Don’t be embarrassed. Scientists say we are hard-wired  to need an adrenaline rush.  It’s part of our nature, that flight, fight or freeze response that according to Wikipedia is called ‘Adrenal medulla.’  I don’t know if it is because of this hormone, or if it is a response to it, that gives us a nature that is horrified but yet is titillated by the macabre.  I am one of these people that advert my eyes when driving past a grisly car accident. I do not watch slasher films but I did watch and enjoyed some delightfully twisted episodes in the iconic  ‘Breaking Bad’.

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The first song most of us hear as a babe in arms is sung by the ones we love and trust the most. The most famous lullaby written…

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 BITS OF USELESS INFORMATION

I have to stand on my soap box for this blog post.  Something has bugged me for more years than I can count & I’ve never had a chance to vent.

By the time I took a church music course at university I already had quite a few notches in my belt playing in various churches.  I was exposed to music from high Anglican psalmody and standard United church hymns to gospel tunes with lots of arpeggios.    I didn’t have opportunities to hear the gorgeous music of the Renaissance or some of the lush tunes of the late English Romantics.  Saint John wasn’t exactly a mecca of great liturgical music in the final decades of the 20th century.   But I did experience choirs, many choirs with all types of abilities.

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I was eager to discover and learn about the glorious world of sacred choral music.  So I signed up for the church music course at university.  It was for an entire year. From September to December we spent our hours examining in great detail the history of early chant. Pérotin and Léonin, two composers who worked and wrote for Notre Dame Cathedral in the late 12th and 13th centuries were my diet for almost three months.  We didn’t even look at Hildegard von Bingen.  We played drop the needle on LPR.  (Long play records for those young pups who have no idea what I am talking about.) So who wrote it? the prof asked. That’s easy! (Duh. only 2 composers to choose from!) Which chant?  Not hard either once you memorized the various texts.

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Do you want to know how many times I have conducted these composers in church?  NONE!  I’ve led chant in many churches where I’ve had to read chant notation.  I’ve improvised accompaniment for all types of plainsong when choristers and congregation needed support or the pitch would descend from d minor into a key that hasn’t been discovered yet.  But NEVER did  Pérotin and Léonin make it in the church bulletin.

The second half of the course was to be devoted to music from the Renaissance to the 20th Century.  I couldn’t wait!  Finally, music I could use. Nope!  We touched briefly on music by Thomas Tallis, like one tune. I think a piece by William Byrd also made its appearance and that was one movement from one of his masses.  Classical church music?  Forget that! We talked about Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis albeit briefly & Franz Joseph Haydn’s masses got a day.  But even these pieces are not really church music that you can programme, except of course in concert. Romantic music got a nod and then 20th century music came up.  Don’t get me wrong.  The concerts that I go to most often and the music that I love is by living composers.  I am interested in what they have to say and how they say it. But the pieces that we studied were not tunes that would ever be sung in any church that I played in or attended.   Gorecki, John Tavener, Arvo Part, even Ruth Watson Henderson and Stephen  Hatfield etc didn’t make the cut in this course.doh

I’m still standing on my soap box here people,  So a course of church music which I could never use!  I was 20 years old.  What I wanted to know was repertoire that worked in the church year.  What do you do if you gig in an evangelical church?  Who are the composers that are bearable with lyrics that aren’t too trite?  If you are lucky enough to get a good organ and a choir that really has the chops, what are the pieces that work?  What do you do if you have a bass that is tone deaf? An alto that IS deaf?  A soprano that is no where near the note but loves to sing?  What are pieces that work for kids as young as 3 and as old as 16?  How do you work with soloists that are at either end of the spectrum in ability and age?  I now know the answers to many of these questions.  It was through trial and error, reading, listening, asking questions to those that know much more than I do and attending some workshops.  But let’s give our students a bit of help here.  Introduce them to good music!  Put it in a historical context but also give them tools to survive in the reality of today’s church so they can hopefully flourish and build decent music programmes.  For many students, it is their one opportunity to get inspired in a rich repertoire. Teachers, give them a kick-start into their church music journey.

I’ll step down now.  Thank you for letting me vent.

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