Friend of the Choir, Jessica Smith, reviews our latest Cabaret evening held on Saturday 15 June to raise funds for our Lourdes & Paris Tour.
Despite having been to the cathedral many times before and hearing the fabulous music department perform in masses, services and concerts throughout the liturgical year, this was my first time at one of their famous cabarets. I had heard great things about it from previous years so I was greatly looking forward to the evening’s performances. They did not disappoint!
Tables and chairs were packed into the parish hall which still only just managed to hold the huge audience number. A free glass of bubbly waited for us by the door and a variety of nibbles were laid out on each of the tables. The front of the hall was lit beautifully and created a spotlight on the grand piano whose keys were being tinkled by Dave (who also later delighted us with two songs) as we all found our seats and waited for the singers to take to the stage.
The evening hosted an eclectic mix of vocal performances, each one wonderfully told and beautifully sung. Lots of show tunes made an appearance, from the well-known, such as ‘Something’s Coming’ from West Side Story and ‘There are worst things I could do’ from Grease, to the less familiar ‘Gorgeous’ from The Apple Tree and ‘Sunday in the Park with George’. Several timeless classics, a few film soundtracks and a moving arrangement of ‘Hallelujah’ by Leonard Cohen completed the line-up of solo and small ensemble pieces. We also had the pleasure of hearing from members of the brilliant Youth Choir who gave mature and sensitive renditions of ‘Rule the world’ and ‘Dream a little dream of me’. Interspersed between these acts were group numbers sung by the whole Choir which included a very lively version of ‘Old MacDonald’ and finished the evening with the serene ‘Close to you’.
Not only were the members of the Choir providing our entertainment for the evening, they also doubled up as our waiters and waitresses, topping up glasses and bringing out a selection of canapés including scones with jam and cream to finish! Every member of the choir was thoughtful and attentive while each taking their turn to give us a whole range of hilarious, touching, upbeat and thoughtful
One necessity for the evening was some musical accompaniment for all of the singers and the seemingly effortless skills of Alex Patterson and Nick Milburn brought the whole occasion together.
None of this would have been possible without Alex and Ellie who, alongside various members of the Choir, organised a spectacular event which ran smoothly and had an informal and relaxed atmosphere throughout. All in aid of the Choir’s recent trip to Lourdes, this magical evening was entertaining to watch and a joy to listen to. Thank you Alex, Ellie and the entire Choir, see you for the next one in February!
Local amateur singer Rik Ludlow takes a look back at our Hymnathon, which took place at the Cathedral on Saturday 18 May 2019 to raise funds for our tour to Lourdes.
As a young child, words meant little – I had scarcely started to talk before I started school. My earliest memories of church and Sunday Service were of sitting through seemingly endless periods of voices droning on…. and on….and on…. with endless dull, unintelligible and meaningless words. Ladies in large hats sat with glazed expressions clutching their even larger handbags whilst I tried to find interest in the wood-grain of the pews as I sat waiting for the 'good bits'. Eventually my patient purgatory period would be rewarded. The large hats would shuffle to their feet and I’d be left sat on the pew surrounded by a crush of bodies, ‘Sunday Best’ coats and handbags. The glorious sound of the church organ would start… Yes - a HIM! This was what made it worthwhile….all the grown ups would sing the same tune several times, and some of the men would sing a different tune that seemed to fit….I would sit and soak it up. Then on to more purgatory and voices droning. After the service, I’d be keen to get straight home and to the toy box. There, I had a dark brown and cream recorder….I could sit in the playroom and play the tunes I had just learned until called for dinner.
It was many years later that I learned that my pre-school apparent inability to talk but ability to play hymn tunes on my recorder was considered unusual – Hallelujah for the power of hymns! I remember working out that a HIM usually referred to a man called Jesus… but sometimes people sang about a 'Mary' but this was also a HIM, even though the Mary in my infant class at school was a 'HER'. This left me confused well into my infant school life. One day our teacher taught us that we must ask “Why” if unsure of anything. I am told that this prompted me to exit from my almost mute state and ask my first question. I asked about HIMs and HERs….to be told that the church HIM had a WHY in it. Hymns (with a y) it was, from then on, words started to make more sense, and the WHY helped me to think about the meanings of the words…. Quite a revelation!
My love of hymns has remained strong over the past six decades: As a church then Cathedral Chorister they became my 'bread and butter' (the anthems were the 'cake'!), and one of the few benefits of eventually losing my treble abilities was that I could at last sing “that other tune that the men sang” and I began to appreciate more fully the rich harmonies embedded in so many hymn tunes.
Now, the words of the Christian liturgy lend a therapeutic value in their regular and predictable repetition. The joy, however, comes from the HYMNS, just as it did 60 or so years on.
The opportunity to attend my first ever Hymnathon courtesy of Nottingham Cathedral was irresistible: 18th May 2019 is in my diary as a full day of joy, thinking about the ‘why’ in each hymn. Alex, Ellie and their relay teams of singers, organists and instrumentalists provided a fabulous ‘Cook’s Tour’ through hymns ancient, modern and revised, with most of the long-established favourites along with many (for me) new, previously undiscovered gems, such as ‘It is well with my soul’.
The selection ranged from the rich Victorian harmonies through to the rock’n’roll, ‘happy clappy’ modernist evangelical.
The format of the day was great: The daytime sessions consisted of several ‘Juke Box hymn collections’, where punters like myself were free to request their favourites for a suitable contribution to the Choir Lourdes fund, either at the time or via online ‘advanced sponsorship’. These were interspersed with related organ interludes from the organists including Robert Gower and Peter Siepmann, and some simply stunning a cappella quartet slots – ‘Amazing Grace’ sung by Alex, Ellie and two of their choir scholars was simply delicious!
The ‘a cappella’ treatment of several hymns, such as ‘Love Divine, all hopes excelling’ with just 4 singers, allowed the full richness of the 4-part harmony to be heard and appreciated. So much of this can be drowned when the organ is used to support, lead or deafen! ‘Panis Angelicus’ sung a cappella by the quartet was like liquid gold. Several of the choir slots included superb descant verses, with the final verse of ‘Crown Him with many crowns’ standing out. Ellie’s Youth Choir really proved their worth, with some very young children singing their hearts out and clearly uplifted by their immersive
experience. My only disappointment was that the Cathedral was not packed with hymn-lovers throughout the afternoon; the musicians and the music were worthy and deserving of more support.
The evening event made up for this, with the Cathedral well-filled with an appreciative audience, the congregation swelling the sounds of the choir for the ‘participation’ hymns to make a glorious sound, supported by the addition of singers from local choirs. To hear many hundreds of voices uplifted in harmony to the glory of God, and be surrounded by that sea of sound, has to be one of the great experiences of Christian worship.
The end result – I understand the event raised a useful sum towards the Choir trip to Lourdes. My ‘discretionary spend’ budget for the quarter was exceeded and I was hoarse for at least a week (about the same recovery time as my legs needed from my last marathon). Many participants will, like myself, now be aware of other musical gems in the hymn repertoire, and I would like to think that the event allowed many participants to think about the meanings of the lyrics in many of the hymns – the ‘why’ we believe.
Download a copy of the Gala Concert Programme, which included music by W. A. Mozart, Alex Patterson, and Stormzy.
I remember a conversation a couple of years ago with our then Cathedral Dean, Canon Geoffrey Hunton, who admitted it was a dream of his that one year the Cathedral Choir would join the Diocesan Pilgrimage to Lourdes. I was very much interested in the idea and 2019 felt like the right time to do it – celebrating the joint 175th anniversaries of both our Cathedral Church and the birth of St Bernadette. Once Ellie Martin had joined the music department, it became clear that opening up the opportunity to our Youth Choir members was a vital part of the trip, and so began a long period of planning, organising and, ultimately, a huge amount of fundraising, in order to make the trip happen.
Followers of our work will be well aware of the range of events that have taken place specifically to raise funds for the trip – from our Hymnathon in May (a logistical minefield in itself!) and our Cabaret Evening in June, to a whole host of cake sales, tombolas, recitals, carolling, and more concerts. The support from the Cathedral community has been incredibly heart-warming, and knowing we had such support from the home team as we made our journey to Lourdes was a huge relief. We’d like to extend a huge thank you to all those who donated towards the costs of this trip and we hope that the accounts from those who were there and experienced it first hand will be a testament to how
important this trip was for so many people.
Putting a tour together like this doesn’t come without a lot of hard work, energy, patience and teamwork. The support of Pilgrimage Director, Fr Gregory Tobin, and Assistant Director, Fr Simon Gillespie, was integral to the success of the liturgies in Lourdes. I spent a lot of time with Fr Simon to work through the musical choices, compose new psalm settings, and select a huge variety of music. The support of the Diocesan Safeguarding Team and the tireless efforts of Ellie Martin in ensuring the safety of all on the trip cannot be overstated. We are grateful too for the support of Lisa Mackenzie and Hannah Whelan throughout the tour in helping to look after our tour members.
We are particularly grateful for the support of John-Charles Tanner, a relatively new parishioner to the Cathedral, who just happened to be close friends with Alain Cherel, the celebrated trumpeter of the Sanctuary at Lourdes. John-Charles was able to act as a conduit between Alex (who speaks very little French) and Alain (who speaks very little English), to facilitate showcasing the choir at the Marian Procession, Eucharistic Procession and International Mass. He was also responsible for arranging our concerts in Abbatiale de Saint-Savin and l'Eglise Saint Jean, Tarbes, for saving the day after hearing the news about Notre-Dame and enabling us to sing Mass at La Madeleine. His support and encouragement throughout the process (including shaking our blue donation buckets at Sunday Recitals) has been crucial to the tour and we are so grateful for all his help.
As Director of Music, it’s always good to see that the choir’s work is being recognised as an integral part of the Cathedral and wider Diocesan mission. The relationship between the two seemed to be so intrinsically linked throughout the Pilgrimage. To see members of the Cathedral congregation, wider Diocesan pilgrims, and pilgrims from all over the world visibly moved by what we were doing (such as singing hymns for pilgrims outside the Baths), beaming with pride (as we sang Bruckner’s Ave Maria at the Marian Procession, or singing throughout the International Mass), or in quiet contemplation (during the Reconciliation Service), felt like a huge validation for the work we do, not just as part of the Lourdes experience, but back at home on a weekly basis. The support of Bishop Patrick throughout the trip, alongside other Nottingham pilgrims, at our concert in l'Eglise Saint Jean, Tarbes, was a particular highlight.
We are blessed by such a wonderful community, which has been enriched, and relationships deepened, as a result of this experience. I cannot thank you all enough for the role you’ve played in making it happen.
Our son Benjamin is a new member of the Youth Choir, joining in January 2019. Everyone has been very welcoming, and we were really pleased when Benjamin was invited on the Lourdes-Paris trip. Benjamin was keen to go, as the choir were going to sing at Notre-Dame and we thought it would be a lovely opportunity for us to visit Paris ahead of the choir and do some sightseeing. Then on 15th April, we all received the tragic news that Notre-Dame was on fire. Singing in Notre-Dame was off, but the Choir would still sing in Paris.
The 14th July arrived quickly, and we waved the choir bon voyage on their journey to Lourdes. It was great to see and hear the choir on the Lourdes YouTube channel. They sounded fantastic. We arrived in Paris on 17th July. Our apartment was in the 5th Arondissement, near Rue Moffetard, which is full of food shops, cafes and restaurants.We bought a Paris museum pass and visited lots of art galleries. We love our son, but it was refreshing not to have a 15-year-old with us saying how bored he was!
The choir arrived on Friday 19th July. We had a couple of hours with Benjamin and heard all about singing in the International Mass in front of 5,000 people and how well the choir had been received at a couple of concerts outside of Lourdes. On the Saturday morning we met up with the choir near Notre-Dame. They may not have been able to sing in Notre-Dame, but they performed two songs outside it and were well received by all the tourists (including a good number of parents who had also decided to visit Paris).
The choir sang at two masses over the weekend, firstly, on Saturday evening at Saint Eustache, which is a very impressive gothic style church. It houses the largest organ in France and Mozart held his mother’s funeral here. The choir sang really well, but due to the height of the church their sound was slightly lost. The second mass, on Sunday morning, was at La Madeleine. This church was originally built as a temple of glory for Napoleon’s armies. At one point it was going to be a railway station and finally in 1842 it was consecrated as a church. The acoustics here were great and the choir sounded fantastic. They were accompanied by a countertenor cantor who had a very unique voice. La Madeleine also has a famous organ, and Gabriel Fauré was an organist here. The organ was very loud and electrifying.
Our time in Paris was over. We said our goodbyes and raced back to Nottingham via the Eurostar ahead of the Choir. Huge thanks needs to be given to Alex, Ellie, Hannah and Lisa for leading the Choir and looking after everyone. I’m sure it was very tiring for them, but they enabled all the young people to have experiences that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. Benjamin had a great time and is still talking about the music, all the places where the choir performed and the people he sang with.
A reflection on the Cathedral Choirs' role on the Diocesan Pilgrimage to Lourdes from former Cathedral Dean, Canon Geoffrey Hunton
The annual pilgrimage to Lourdes is a significant event in the life of the Diocese of Nottingham.
This year as usual three hundred people from across the Diocese made the pilgrimage by air, coach and train.
Lourdes can and does evoke several emotions; this year was no exception.
Amidst the hustle and bustle of a busy five-day pilgrimage there was I felt amongst our pilgrims a great sense of calm and an entering into of the spirit of Lourdes – of oneness with each other, the Lord and his Blessed Mother.
Why was that? I will leave the reader to come to their own conclusion.
A reflection on the Cathedral Choirs' role on the Diocesan Pilgrimage to Lourdes from Pilgrimage Director, Fr Gregory Tobin
Music is vital in our lives.
It can set the mood, raise morale and draw people together. On our Diocesan Pilgrimage to Lourdes, we rely heavily on musicians to assist all pilgrims as we journey through life with the pains and loads that are ours.
This year we were blessed on our pilgrimage to have with us the Cathedral Choir of St Barnabas under the leadership of Alex Patterson.
During the preparation for this years pilgrimage Alex went to Lourdes with the Directorate to visit the Churches, Basilicas and the sacred Grotto where the choir would be singing. These few days during February, which coincided with the Feast day (February 11th) of Our Lady of Lourdes, also gave Alex the opportunity to meet the Sanctuary leads on liturgy and music, including the trumpet player who dovetails beautifully with the organ for the big occasions. In a previous life Fr Simon Gillespie spent a lot of time at the Cathedral, and so is very familiar with the personnel, including the Cathedral Choir. He was therefore able to co-ordinate the travel arrangements, accommodation and programme, together with the endless paperwork and T-shirts, which are a must for a journey of this kind.
Our first Mass was outside in the autel de l’esplanade adjacent to the rosary square, so very difficult with the acoustics, but we knew the choir would attract a lot of attention as people crossing the square were drawn over by the quality of the singing.
The following day (Tuesday) a certain sensitivity was needed with the anointing of the sick and the reconciliation service.
Every Wednesday in Lourdes we have an international Mass in the underground basilica (capacity 25,000) with all the pilgrimages in Lourdes at that time from the world over, coming together liturgically. The choir were resplendent as part of the larger Basilica choir and were given the opportunity to sing a motet. All 269 pilgrims from Nottingham were bursting with pride!
Each evening at 9pm there is torchlight procession for an hour. It is a spectacular occasion with the candles, thousands of people and of course the music, which is amplified around the domain. During our pilgrimage we participated twice in the torchlight procession and led it on the Wednesday. The choir took a lead with the Sanctuary leads, and again were give the opportunity to sing an impressive solo piece.
Our garden party gave everyone the opportunity to share their party piece in a sunny relaxed venue. How lovely to see and hear the choir sing some witty ditties to great effect. A nice change from the formal fare.
A concert in a local abbey was enjoyed by all who made the journey up the mountain and was an ideal foretaste for what was to come in Paris.
You expect the Cathedral Choir to be technically perfect and professional in their delivery. What I enjoyed was the moments between the musical performances when the members were just part of the Nottingham pilgrimage engaging with the sick and lifting their spirits.
Music is indeed vital to our lives. The presence of the Cathedral Choir on this year’s Diocesan pilgrimage to Lourdes brought musical perfection and beauty in a place that challenges us all to excel in all that we do.
Amy Summers discusses her Missa Brevis, written to celebrate the Cathedral’s 175th Anniversary.
Singing with the choir as a Choral Scholar, I developed some quite broad ideas about how I would personally set the text for each of the movements (Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, Agnus Dei) and so this commission ended up being my first go at letting them out. I knew I wanted the overall feel to be fairly ‘traditional’ and something that the congregation and choir would feel ‘at home’ with, but definitely with a couple of my own twists. Furthermore, my composition teacher in London, John Ashton Thomas, had started to introduce me to the wonderful world of jazz harmony. We found common ground in our interest in theory/the more mathematical side of music, and found ourselves discussing things like the octatonic scale and resulting polychords on manuscript paper and at the piano in great depths. I still feel very much a novice and am currently sketching a string quartet where I can explore this fully, but I can’t say that this didn’t have an influence on my mass - particularly the Gloria.
I had a rough idea for the atmospheres I wanted to create in each movement: a relatively upbeat, slightly mysterious Kyrie, a very lively and contrasting Gloria, a fairly swift, more relaxed Sanctus (with echoes of the Kyrie), and a very stripped-back Agnus Dei which could embody elements of each of the movements. Once I had this draft in place, ideas came fairly naturally. I drafted several completely different versions of the Kyrie over a few weeks and let them sit in my head for a while, before starting afresh and writing something that combined what I felt were the best elements of my sketches. After I composed the main melody in the tenor line, the Kyrie wrote itself, and fairly quickly. At the same time, I was sketching the Sanctus (knowing I wanted it to reflect elements of the Kyrie) and I had rough plans for the Gloria.
As for the Agnus Dei, I knew I wanted to trial something that I had accidentally created last summer: whilst stitching together audio files of a choral piece I’d recorded, I accidentally placed two different bits of the recording on top of each other. The way they happened to fall meant that when I played it as one, the choir was sustaining a chord and they were suddenly interrupted by a chunk of another section of the recording where the choir were singing an ever so lightly higher chord. The result was a clash, but it wasn’t too dissonant and somehow felt uplifting. So, I attempted to recreate this in the Agnus Dei (to the words ‘Dona nobis pacem’), dividing the voices so that it had the effect of splitting the choir in two. Additionally, like in my accidental creation, the first ‘choir’ then is cut off, leaving the second hanging. I had this idea, along with others for the Agnus Dei, floating in the back of my mind for a while and when I was supposed to be finishing the Kyrie one evening, I felt suddenly inspired and sat down and ended up writing the whole thing!
Having finished the outer movements, I completed the Sanctus quite quickly and ended up leaving the Gloria until last (which, as I mentioned, had not been my original intention) but it was somehow more rewarding to do it like this and in a way made more sense. Given the length of the text, I knew it was going to be the most time-consuming part of the mass to write, and the proportion of energy that its jubilant, celebratory nature demanded was certainly higher than the other movements. Leaving it until last meant that I could now give it my crystal-clear attention. I think I definitely had the most fun writing the Gloria. Stylistically it ended up sounding quite different from the other movements, but I felt I really had to go with my gut, perhaps because I was setting this text for the first time and the ideas felt fresh.
It was a real honour to write for the choir and for this event and, as always, I have a lot to thank Alex for. Just like with any other first performance, I know I have a lot of corners to now reflect on and revisit, but I am excited to keep writing and keep developing.
Thank you, Nottingham Cathedral Choir!
Overwhelming and unforgettable!
An evening of spine-tingling brilliance. Hearing Spem In Alium live and in the round would have been worth the ticket price all on its own, but nothing could have prepared me for quite how superb some of the other performances were too. The group of pieces including Tallis's O Nata Lux, sung by a small ensemble hidden from view behind the altar, was almost unbearably beautiful, with singing easily as good as anything I've ever heard from more well-known groups such as The Sixteen. What an extraordinary jewel in Nottingham's musical crown St Barnabas is!
Spem in Heaven! That was a landmark performance. Particularly good was the ‘sense surround’ of the singing circle. Coupled with a well-played Chacony from the band and vigorous rendition of the Dixit, all was well. The standing ovation was well deserved.
Spem in Alium last night - sublime! Thank you thank you thank you. My favourite piece of music which has been central in my life since the 80s, simply suffused my being. I was breathing the music deeply whilst quietly sobbing. I was privileged to be sitting in the centre and was delighted that you had set the choir in a circle. Perfect. Thank you again.
Thank you for the most wonderful evening. I thought I had died and gone to heaven as it sounded like angels singing. It was so nice to see a full Cathedral.
The Tallis motet was the most uplifting, amazing thing I’ve heard in a long time. Having a seat without a view might have actually contributed, because closing my eyes allowed the magical waves of sound to flow around me without visual interruption. Totally sublime.
The whole piece was a moving and profound experience.
Former Choral Scholar, Fiona Spencer, describes her experience returning to Nottingham to sing for Spem in Alium
There are few pieces as beautiful as Tallis’ spectacular 40-part motet, Spem in Alium. Written in the 17th century, for eight different choirs, performing Spem is a choral right of passage – not to mention a feat of counting and concentration! So, when Alex sent out a call for singers to bolster the ever fabulous Nottingham Cathedral Choir, I jumped at the chance.
Now living (and of course singing) in Bristol, I travelled up to Nottingham on the Friday evening, looking forward to catching up with old friends in what was sure to be another fantastic concert under Alex Patterson’s baton. Stepping into the Cathedral Hall, the buzz was already palpable. Familiar faces, choral scholars and choir members old and new were assembling in a large circle around the room, scores at the ready. Spem is a big sing. So after two hours of rehearsal, it was time for a quick round of refreshments at the pub, before a good night’s sleep, ready to return again at lunchtime on Saturday. Concert day nerves and excitement were in the air, and after a successful run through of the programme, including Handel’s epic Dixit Dominus, we were ready to welcome a very excited audience into the cathedral.
The concert started with three beautiful motets, carefully selected to compliment the main event. The full, beautiful breadth of the cathedral acoustic was used, with small groups performing in the Lady Chapel, the Blessed Sacrament chapel and on the Sanctuary itself. The fabulous Helix Ensemble gave the choir a short rest, performing Purcell’s Chacony in G minor, the beautiful melody floating around the cathedral as the choir readied themselves for the main event. For Spem in Alium itself, the eight choirs circled the audience for a true surround sound experience. The performance kicked off with the iconic motif which starts in choir one and travels throughout the eight choirs as the piece progresses. Every member of the choir was intent on Alex’s conducting, soaking up the energy he was giving and pouring it into every note and every word. The audience were transfixed throughout, and must have enjoyed what they heard, as they gave a standing ovation as the piece came to a close.
Buoyed by a brilliant first half performance, in the second half we were joined by the Helix Ensemble to perform Handel’s Dixit Dominus. A notoriously difficult piece to perform, the choir had clearly spent time committing the piece to memory. A confident, and moving performance ensued. My personal highlight of the concert was the outstanding performances from the soloists during the Handel. The Nottingham Cathedral choral scholarships have long been a platform for talented young people to share and hone their gift every Sunday morning. These solos gave them a chance to showcase this. The standard of singing was truly outstanding, particularly when you consider that many other choirs bring in professional soloists to cover this.
It was a fantastic performance, and I was so pleased to be a part of it, and hugely proud of the Cathedral Choir in both the standard of singing, and the ever welcoming, fun atmosphere that surrounds it. Well done everyone.
As I sat in the nave of the Cathedral listening appreciatively to Bach’s Mass in B minor in March 2018, I never imagined that I would be singing there in March 2019. Friends and former members returned to augment the cathedral choir for a performance of Tallis’s Spem in Alium. This unaccompanied motet is only about ten minutes long but, with its forty independent voice parts arranged in eight five-part choirs, it makes such demands on the singers that it does not often feature in choral concerts. Every live performance is a special experience, difficult to capture in sound recordings, and I couldn’t resist the invitation to take part.
In the second half of the concert, the augmented Cathedral Choir and the Helix Ensemble performed Handel’s Dixit Dominus, a lively five-part setting of Psalm 110. As part of our preparation for Dixit Dominus we joined the cathedral choir’s regular Friday evening rehearsals, and it was a pleasure to listen to them at work on the music for Sunday mass. But for Spem in Alium the singers could only be fully assembled on the evening before the concert, so everything had to come together in a remarkably short time. That this was possible is a testament to the skill of the singers and their director Alex Patterson.
As we moved into the Cathedral on the day of the concert, we saw that the audience in the nave was to be surrounded by groups of singers in a horseshoe running from north to south. I realised that my allocated spot in choir four was to be due east, so I would not escape the gaze of the audience. But this turned out to be a good vantage point from which to appreciate the music. Out of the silence single alto and soprano voices emerged from the north side-aisle, soon joined by everyone in the first of the eight choirs, and a Mexican wave of singing passed clockwise then anticlockwise around the audience.
Although in theory I should have been able to sing at the right time just by counting beats, there are such long waits between some entries that I didn’t trust myself to rely on that alone. In most choral works the conductor can help cue the singers, but there are so many independent entries in Spem in Alium that this is not feasible much of the time. For me it was listening to the soprano singers in other choirs that helped me to keep my place in the intricate musical texture. So perhaps my years as a listener came in useful after all.
Our Director of Music, Alex Patterson, shares his thoughts on our recent concert of Spem in Alium / Dixit Dominus
Ellie Martin, Youth Choir Director, sat down with Alex Patterson to discuss the success of our recent Spem in Alium / Dixit Dominus concert on Saturday 2 March. Here is the interview transcript.
Why did you decide to do this concert programme?
The past two years, we’ve done a major work around the end of February / beginning of March time. As well as being very popular and successful with audiences, they work quite well for the choir; people seem to enjoy working on a big piece of music. But how do you top the Monteverdi Vespers and Bach’s Mass in B Minor? Spem in Alium by Tallis was the most obvious choice as it was a very different piece which could also be performed in an interesting way using the space in the Cathedral. Another good reason for doing Spem was that it needs lots of people, so it was a good opportunity for us to go back to our former scholars and cathedral choir members to see if they were interested in coming back to join us. It was also great to open the opportunity up to some of our older youth choir members, some of whom have been singing in mass with the Cathedral Choir regularly for a while now, and some of whom are fairly new to the Cathedral Choir experience.
Once we had settled on doing Spem as the climax of our first half, we had to figure out what to do alongside it. I didn’t want to do another piece in 40 parts as I’ve heard this done before and found it detracted a lot from Spem as a piece. I decided that we’d have some other music by Tallis, which we sing quite frequently at the Cathedral, but instead do it one per part. The Cathedral being ordered the way it is, if you’re sitting in the Nave watching a concert, you can only really see half the building, so having choirs singing from the Lady Chapel and from the Blessed Sacrament Chapel could potentially result in people being intrigued enough to have a wander down there. I was really happy to see people walking round the East End of the Cathedral during the interval, perhaps experiencing that part of the building for the first time.
You started the concert with plainsong. What was your thinking behind this?
Well, once I’d settled on doing Tallis, and thinking that the first half would showcase some more of Tallis’ music, I wanted to have a bit of a palette cleanser and go completely the opposite way of doing something in 40 parts, and just revert it down to one melody. I’m quite a passionate advocate of promoting female composers as well as music that generally isn’t as well-known as it probably should be, so I wanted to include some of the music of Hildegard of Bingen. It almost became like taking people on a journey, doing two pieces by Hildegard where it was just one melody, through to the full 40 parts of Spem. Her music has such a different colour and texture, particularly as we did it with just upper voices with a held pedal note (long note held underneath) in the altos, or with everyone in unison, which I thought would give a nice contrast to Tallis and all the English music.
And the plainsong is something you do every week at the Cathedral as well, so was that another reason to showcase it?
Yes, the style of it is quite up our street really, but what I love about the Hildegard is that it is quite different from the plainsong we normally do and the range can be quite extreme. It was the translation of O virtus sapientiae which really sparked my imagination, as it pre-empted how I saw the shape and spirituality of the first half:
O strength of Wisdom who, circling, circled,
enclosing all in one lifegiving path,
three wings you have:
one soars to the heights,
one distils its essence upon the earth,
and the third is everywhere.
Praise to you, as is fitting,
It was also important to have the strings perform just before we performed Spem, and the Chacony by Purcell (who was Tallis’ successor at the Chapel Royal) was perfect in setting the tone. It also ended in G, which is the starting note for Spem.
So lots of thinking behind the programme?
Yes, definitely. But it all goes beyond the programme of music too. I really wanted to tie it all in with the Cathedral’s 175th Anniversary this year too. It was clear that this would be a great opportunity to launch the celebrations and would also highlight the gems of the Cathedral, like the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, which still retains the original Pugin decoration. With the 1st March being Pugin’s birthday, it was nice to align our performance to the closest Saturday to it – 2nd March. The publicity is also Pugin-inspired - the ceiling of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, with its yellow stars on a blue sky, was a starting point for the flyer, which had yellow text on a blue sky background.
Tell us about Spem in Alium as a piece – why is it special?
It’s just quite a remarkable piece of Renaissance polyphony and a piece that I think begs a live performance. You need to be in the space with the performers. There’s a lot of ebb and flow, a real tug-of-war for the listener’s ear with some different antiphonal effects where the choirs are in constant dialogue with each other, but critically, he reserves all 40 parts singing together for key moments - the first one isn’t until bar 40. Later on in the piece there are also moments where he gives a beat’s rest for the entire choir before they’re all in again at the same time, but just for a few beats of the music. It’s exhilarating and full of such variety of emotion. There are times when the music is very still and so tender, but times where it’s incredibly syncopated and there are so many rhythmic ideas happening at the same time. It’s constantly changing and you just enter this different sound world – it’s got this magical quality, almost like you are swimming underwater.
Tell us a bit more about why you decided to do it with the eight choirs standing around the Cathedral, rather than just having everyone at the front in a traditional set-up. That will have affected how you heard the piece, depending on where you were sitting, so what was the thought process behind that?
One of the downsides we have at the Cathedral is that the nave is actually quite small, resulting in quite limited seating. You might end up stuck behind a pillar or in the side aisles without a good view. One of the things I wanted to make sure we did was to make sure that the people in the side aisles were close to something in the concert, which is another reason why we did different motets around the cathedral, in the chapels and behind the altar. We knew that it was going to be a sell-out concert, so we wanted the 100 people sitting in the transepts to be able to have a unique view of the choir.
Spem is one of those pieces that, as a conductor it’s quite an amazing experience conducting it, because you feel everything, all the choirs pulling against each other or handing musical ideas over to each other. To be in the middle of that is something quite special, so to be able to share that with other members of the audience was a really lovely experience. I wanted them to feel part of it, almost participating in it, despite not singing it.
So you mentioned people coming back to sing in Spem. How did you go about getting at least 40 singers on board?
We’re in regular contact with our alumni due to some of the long-standing friendships that have developed, so there are people who do regularly come back and sing. It was about trying to piece everything together in a spreadsheet and figure out where the blanks were. As well as the alumni, we also brought on board some friends of the choir who sing with other choirs in the city.
Why do you think people were so keen to take part?
For some people, I think it was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I know quite a few singers wanted to do it because they’d never done Spem before. I think the reputation of the Cathedral Choir has also grown quite considerably over recent years and given its wonderful acoustic, the opportunity to sing in the Cathedral is really appealing for a lot of singers.
Let’s talk about Dixit Dominus. You worked with the Helix Ensemble for this piece. Can you tell me about the group and your experience working with them?
We worked with the Helix Ensemble for the first time in the B Minor Mass concert last year, and they seemed to really enjoy it. They seemed to get a lot out of working with us as a Cathedral Choir and some of the players who joined us for Tobias and the Angel last June were still buzzing about the Bach. For this concert I wanted to make sure that we did a piece where they could come back and be a part of it, which is why we included Handel’s Dixit Dominus. They are a wonderful group of people to work with. There’s no sense of snobbishness or elitism with that group, it’s just about music and trying to make the music as good as possible whilst also being supportive of each other and enjoying themselves. It was great to be joined once again by John Keys (Director of Music at St Mary’s Church, in the Lace Market) on the chamber organ. We’ve worked with him quite a lot and maintain a very positive relationship with St Mary’s, which goes back to my predecessor Neil Page.
What was the thinking behind having step-out soloists from the choir for Dixit, rather than bringing soloists in like for the Bach?
Well one of the key things about the Cathedral Choir is that it’s a developing choir and we want to give our singers platforms and opportunities for them to develop as musicians. With the nature of Dixit Dominus, I thought it would be good to offer those solos to members of the choir who were singing in the concert. I was really blown away by the dedication to learning the music and wanting to work on the music before the concert to get it completely right and to do it justice. I think it’s quite nice that it’s not about ‘I’m the soloist’…there’s no ego there and we’re all working towards the same goal. I think that’s quite a nice thing and it seemed to work well with the piece because the number of solo arias is quite small.
The concert was a sell-out with lots of people buying tickets on the door for seats with no view of the choir. Why do you think people were willing to buy a ticket even though they wouldn’t necessarily see the performers?
I know just from anecdotal feedback that we had before and after the concert, that people wanted to hear Spem in Alium live, so that was quite a huge draw. I do think the reputation of the Cathedral Choir has grown quite considerably and that people thought, ‘Oh, the Cathedral Choir are doing something, let’s go and support that because it’ll be good’. I’ve seen that with a lot of the events we’ve done over the past year, like with the Cabaret, which is something completely different. But people seem to sort of trust the Cathedral Choir brand now, and know that they’re going to be in for a good evening of music, whether it be jazz and barbershop, Carols by Candlelight, which was also very busy, or this concert.
What was the biggest challenge about the whole concert?
Definitely getting Spem together. As we had people coming from all over the UK to sing in it, we couldn’t have a proper rehearsal with all 40 parts until the evening before the concert so it was quite unknown as to how it might come together, never mind whether it would work with the choirs spread around the Cathedral.
So you weren’t sure if that layout you wanted would work until you actually rehearsed it the night before the concert?
I had no idea. We had a Plan B, which I was reluctant to do, but luckily we didn’t need it!
What were the highlights of the concert for you?
The response to Spem was incredible. The applause went on for quite a long time. You could see that people were visibly moved, and then they gave us a standing ovation. It was overwhelming really, when you think, actually yeah that was something quite special. You could sense, from where I was anyway, that people were transported and were having a very rich experience, be that spiritual, musical, religious…there was a lot going on, and it reminded me why I do live music, and why I enjoy working with choirs in that building.
I was also very proud of the soloists in Dixit, particularly with some of the soloists who had come on quite a long journey in the 3-4 weeks beforehand in developing their performances and then knocking it out the park in the concert. That was really great.
The concert as a whole seemed to have quite a profound impact on people in a variety of ways. It reminded me that what we do as a Cathedral Choir is actually quite important and reaches way beyond the 11.15 Mass.
So what would you like to do next?
That would be telling! I don’t want to fall into the trap of what a lot of other choirs do and just keep doing the same standard repertoire. I’m always trying to think of new ways to do things, so if we’re going to do a standard piece of music, can we do it in a new way or can we present it in such a way that it’s giving opportunities to other people. We’ve built up some great relationships over the past few years, most notably the Nottingham Music Hub, so perhaps we can develop opportunities for young players to sit side by side with the adults, replicating what we already do with our singers in the Youth Choir. We’re in regular contact with them about how we can develop projects for the future and create further opportunities for children and young people, regardless of background, and I see our concerts playing a big role here.
Do you think that you wanting to do things in a new and interesting way, or involving other organisations, comes from your experience working for the Arts Council, or do you think it’s a more personal thing?
I think it’s always been a personal thing. I’ve always felt like an outsider when it comes to classical music, because I came to classical music via film music, which I know is frown upon by some people. I’m just passionate about music, be that film music, plainsong, Benjamin Britten, 80s pop, whatever, and I love working with people to try and make music with them, regardless of background of training. I think it’s very easy to be bogged down in the way things ‘should’ be – be that the actual music theory or the sort of social construct of concerts, which I’m quite keen to break. For me, the music is not what’s on the page but what happens in the room between people.
What are the best things about being Director of Music at Nottingham Cathedral?
To be able to work with such a wide range of people and to see how they develop over time, and to see them go off and do a varied range of things and come back to sing with us. It’s about the people. That’s at the heart of what I want to do. The set-up that we’ve got here provides a nurturing environment for people to develop as musicians and grow in confidence, and I like that we can do that whilst maintaining quite a high standard of music-making so that Masses are well served musically.
How and when did you become composer-in-residence?
I’d been previously commissioned to write a setting of the Salve Regina for the Cathedral Choir in October 2016 which was recorded as part of the choir CD of Marian music last year. Upon graduating in music from University of Nottingham in July 2017, I was keen to start out as a composer and write as much music as possible for live performers. As a composer himself and having been the Cathedral’s Composer-in-Residence before he became Director of Music, Alex was extremely mindful and suggested I write some more things for the choir. I was thrilled when he offered me the official position of Composer-in-residence!
What have you been writing for us as Composer-in-Residence?
My first commission was an unaccompanied Asperges me performed in November 2017, followed by my Advent carol I sing of a maiden for soprano soloist, choir and organ accompaniment. This was the first time I’d ever written for organ so I was very grateful to have the support of our organist, Robert Gower, who gave me full feedback and answered all of my questions about pedaling! I started off 2018 with a Nunc Dimittis and shortly after chose the text Salvator Mundi to set for Passiontide. I was honoured to write not only for the main Cathedral Choir but also the Youth Choir in my Gracious Spirit, Holy Ghost for Pentecost, and then to set Rupert Brooke’s text The Soldier to music and have it performed in the Festival Mass during the Nottingham Cathedral Music Festival as part of the WW1 Centenary.
What did you get out of the Composer-in-Residence experience?
Having a choir whose sound and voices I know so well allowed me to experiment a lot. The longer-term nature of my post meant I could do more than just trial and error things in a one-off project; I could develop skills I wanted to improve on, such as working on my part writing. This has definitely enhanced the context for singers who’ve generously offered me feedback; all of which has been extensively valuable.
As a composer it’s also vital to be able to write for specific conditions, so writing for live services and real performers is an unquestionably useful skill and something I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to do. For example, composing Asperges me was a very attractive exercise as I had to incorporate optional restricted length and repeats into the music in accordance with its function and place in the service.
Are you writing for other choirs and ensembles outside of the Cathedral?
This year I’ve written several pieces for the City of Bristol Choir including a piece for male voice choir, organ and harp and a Christmas carol which was accompanied by the Bristol Ensemble. I was also honoured to write a couple of pieces for the University of Nottingham’s Viva Voce and Tour Choir. More recently I’ve had a commission from the RSCM which will be featured in their 2018 Anthems for Choirs book!
What have been your musical highlights with performances of your music over the past year?
Being able to sing my Salvator Mundi and Alex’s Missa Brevis with the Cathedral Choir as part of our trip to Westminster Cathedral in July was a real privilege this year, and I was also delighted to have the Cathedral Choir’s recording of my Salve Regina played on BBC Radio 3 as part of International Women’s Day back in March. That said, I’ve been so pleased with and so grateful for every performance and rehearsal of my music this year by Alex and the choir.
What does the future hold?
In September I’ll be starting an MMus in Composition at Trinity College of Music in London where I hope to specialise in choral writing, so I’m very grateful to have had this head start as Composer-in-Residence. Moreover, I’m excited to be writing my first Missa Brevis for Nottingham Cathedral Choir, which has been commissioned specially for the 175th Anniversary of the Cathedral and will be premiered in 2019!
On Saturday 21 July 2018, a selection of both current and former members of the Cathedral Choir gathered in Central London (coping marvellously well with the difficult heatwave conditions) to sing the 6pm Mass at Wesminster Cathedral.
As this was the choir’s first visit to Wesminster, we wanted to bring a flavour of Nottingham with us, so the music included parts of the Missa Brevis by Alex (not Paul) Patterson (written for our Cathedral Flower and Music Festival in 2010) and Salvator Mundi by our Composer-in-Residence Amy Summers (premiered by the choir earlier this year).
The Mass was celebrated by Fr Christopher Thomas, one-time curate at Nottingham and now General
Secretary for the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, who continues to be a strong advocate for the music here at Nottingham Cathedral.
The Cathedral Choir has a long history of joining up with the Anglican Choir of St Mary’s in the Lacemarket. We have fond memories of performing major works like the Brahms’ Requiem (2010), Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius (2012), and more recently, the Monteverdi Vespers (2017).
As our respective Directors of Music (John Keys and Alex Patterson) both serve as Trustees of the Albert Hall’s Binns Organ, the choirs collaborated once more in a rousing programme of music to celebrate the centenaries of two composer’s deaths - that of Hubert Parry and Lili Boulanger - and also to commemorate the end of the First World War.
The programme included a wealth of music by Parry - I was glad, Blest pair of sirens, Jerusalem (with audience participation) and extracts from his Songs of Farewell: ‘My soul, there is a country’, ‘Never, weather-beaten sail’ and ‘There is an old belief’. Choral Scholar Grace Bale gave a performance of Pie Jesu by Lili Boulanger and the choir performed lesser known works by George Dyson and Roger Quilter.
Dave Pitt, one of our Basses in the Cathedral Choir, and keen cyclist, looks back at our most recent excursion.
There’s something very wonderful about travelling alone when you know you will be among friends when you reach your destination. So it was for me as I cycled the last few uphill miles to the highest point in Cambridgeshire on the first Saturday after Easter, to join other Cathedral Choir members past and present, together with other friends, for a weekend of singing. You may well imagine that, following the musical demands of Holy Week, the Cathedral Choir would be putting its collective feet up for a well-earned rest, but it seems we just can’t get enough of what we love doing!
The village of Great Chishill, just east of Royston and close to the ancient Icknield Way, happens to be the home of Lisa Mackenzie, our first ever Choral Scholar, who has stayed in touch and sung with us many times since leaving Nottingham. The 13th century St Swithun’s church, with its flint walls so typical of the East Anglian region, is undergoing major repair work, and Lisa had invited us to perform a concert to help with the community’s fundraising efforts. In return we were treated to the warmest hospitality and were delighted to join the parishioners again for their Sunday morning family worship.
Whether in the UK or abroad, I have always found it a special experience to sing for communities where live choral music doesn’t often happen. The depth of appreciation expressed by our hosts was very moving and quite humbling, and as I set off on my (rather wet) ride home I felt happy that we had once again been able to enjoy ourselves while bringing enjoyment to others. I can think of few more worthwhile pursuits.
To be honest, we only came along to the concert to be polite, but were genuinely moved by your performance and even shed a few tears. You have definitely converted us to choral appreciation and we look forward to the choir's next visit
My husband doesn't really like classical music and I assumed he would just fall asleep in a corner, but we both loved every minute, thank you.
‘A performance which stared death in the face whilst energetically asserting the joy of being alive'
William Ruff (Nottingham Post) reviews our performance of J. S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor which took place on Saturday 10 March 2018 in the Cathedral.
Bach's B Minor Mass is the Everest of choral works. Where some performances make you only too aware of the huff and puff needed to reach the summit, conductor Alex Patterson and his forces seemed to defy gravity, flying above the many obstacles which the score places in the way of the unwary. Of course, this sense of effortlessness can only be generated by meticulous preparation.
The 31 members of the Cathedral Choir pack a powerful punch. The 'k' which kick-started the Kyrie eleison was explosive, heralding a performance which gleamed brightly and had a strong sense of purposeful conviction throughout. The way the opening was moulded also boded well, the sound allowed to swell towards the ends of phrases like buds opening to full ripeness.
In fact it was the subtle control of dynamics which gave the performance so much of its 3D effect. Other notable features included the fearlessly fast speeds which Alex Patterson adopted for the end of the Gloria and for the Hosanna , the Choir clearly relishing the chance to release all those notes stored in their bloodstream. The Sanctus was allowed to float heavenwards whilst moments such as the Gratias agimus and the Pleni sunt coeli had a much earthier, dance-like quality.
The soloists (Charlotte Brosnan, Roderick Morris, James Lister and Alistair Ollerenshaw) brought style, agility, eloquence, beauty of tone and a dramatic approach to storytelling to their demanding roles.
And the accompanying Helix Ensemble shone too, both collectively and in their tricky solos (for violin, flute, oboe and horn). Those wonderfully resplendent moments when the orchestra proclaims full-throated joy - with high trumpets and exuberant drums - were amongst the most memorable in a performance which stared death in the face whilst joyfully and energetically asserting the joy of being alive.
It was a great privilege to welcome conductor Paul Spicer to the Cathedral on Saturday 17 February to work with the Cathedral Choir ahead of their performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor. Paul is widely known for his work with a range of choral establishments including the Birmingham Bach Choir, the Finzi Singers, and for his teaching at the Royal College of Music and Royal Birmingham Conservatoire.
It was an inspiring afternoon spent getting under the skin of Bach’s wonderful music and exploring the range of styles and intricacies the work demands.
A reflection by Hannah Whelan, Cathedral Choir Soprano:
It’s probably quite rare to find someone of my generation who grew up listening to Daniel O’Donnell, but that I did. I am half Irish and visited my grandparents in Tipperary a few times every year. When Nanny died in 2009 there were three things at her bedside: my Granddad, a picture of Our Lady, and a Daniel O’Donnell cassette. She was a big fan. Pretty much everyone in Ireland is.
So, in December when Daniel asked if the Cathedral Choir would perform with him at the Theatre Royal, I couldn’t say no!
We were performing in a Christmas show, full of all the old hits from home and Christmas carols, complete with ‘snow’ and Daniel and his family dressed up in Dickensian costumes. Really, we were there as backing singers and were needed too ‘oooooh’ and ‘ahhhhh’ in all the right places (a bit different from our usual Palestrina) but the audience seemed as thrilled to have us as we were to be there. We received a huge round of applause each time we were introduced and the audience participation was much higher on the agenda than when we are singing Bach at the Cathedral, complete with flashing headbands and feather boas (The audience. Not us. Unfortunately).
They say you should never meet your idols, but everyone should meet Daniel O’Donnell. He has a dedicated fan base and is well known for his generosity and kindness but one never knows quite how much of that is for publicity. I was pleased that what we found in Daniel was a warm and welcoming family man. He was so grateful that we could help him. He addressed us all by our first names, taking the time to speak to each of us individually during rehearsals. It really was impressive as sometimes even Alex forgets our names!
After the show, still covered in fake snow, Daniel again encouraged us to meet him backstage where he signed autographs and we took photos with him. It’s hard not to get giddy when meeting someone famous but I had one very special message for Daniel, a decade in the making. I wanted to say thank you, for when my aunty was dying of cancer, she couldn’t go to his concert so he rang her and sang down the phone to her. There was no publicity about it. He didn’t do it for his public image. He did it for her. Luckily(!) Alex was there to video my stumbling, star-struck moment where I gave him an embarrassingly long hug... but he remembered her and I will remember this.
The Cathedral Music Department does so much for the Cathedral community, some of our work you will be aware of but some you won’t. But whatever we do and wherever we go, we are publicising St Barnabas Cathedral and putting it on the map.
I’m not a student, I worship at the Cathedral and I volunteer in the Choir. Some opportunities are par for the course, the fantastic music, the friendships; but some are God given and surprising. I will forever be thankful that I met Daniel O’Donnell and could help him, in return for what he did for my family.
And in turn, we also brought the Cathedral to a whole new group of people, and who knows whether they will be inspired to come along one day to hear us again. Of course, they’ll have to leave their light-up deely bobbers at the door, at least during Lent.
The Cathedral Diary during December is full of a whole range of organisations who have chosen to hold their annual Christmas Services and Concerts in our Cathedral Church. 2017 was no different
with the Cathedral supporting charities such as the Alzheimer's Society, Rainbows, and Maggie’s.
This year our Youth Choir contributed carols to Maggie’s ‘Carols by Candlelight’ Concert on
Thursday 7 December alongside the Trent Brass Quintet and Southwell Choral Society.
2017 also saw the return of the BBC Radio Nottingham Carol Service, last held here in 2013. It is always a pleasure to welcome BBC Radio Nottingham to the Cathedral and we have it on good authority that they enjoy working in the lovely acoustic.
The Carol Service featured a range of traditional carols including one particular request from the BBC, Neil Page’s arrangement of ‘While Shepherds Watched’ to the tune ‘Cranbrook’, commonly used for the Yorkshire folksong ‘On Ilkla Moor Baht 'At’. The Cathedral Choirs gave performances of John Rutter’s ‘The Colours of Christmas’ and Bob Chilcott’s ‘Where Riches Is Everlastingly’, also accompanying soloist Emma Browne in Adolphe Adam’s ‘O Holy Night’. No carol service is ever complete without a touch of brass and we were delighted to welcome back the members of Essentially Brass who performed ‘I Wonder As I Wander’ with soloist Emma Browne and also ‘Gaudete’ and a lively festive medley ‘The Many Sounds of Christmas’. Members of the Bestwood Male Voice Choir and the Linby and Papplewick WI (LAPWINGS) rounded off the service which was later broadcast on BBC Radio Nottingham on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.