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Singing for the first time in four months

The strangeness of boarding a plane struck me four weeks ago.

Of course, it’s actually perfectly normal (once you get beyond the obvious weirdness of being in a big metal can in the air). But after four months of being grounded, it sure felt strange to be in such close proximity to so many people. It wasn’t a comfortable feeling.

But the temptation of an actual concert, on a stage with real, live musicians, in front of a visible, breathing (shhh…say it quietly) audience, was too much to resist. Oh yes. And a fee.

I sang very little between March 13 and July 8. Having two school-aged children kept me busy, and anyway, I found it either upsetting or frustrating. I would look at my scores and have no idea where to start. I had no motivation, and I felt as though there was nothing I wanted to sing; and what was the point anyway?

Then came the offer from Pascal Rophé and his Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire of this socially-distanced chamber version of Mahler’s 4th Symphony, originally planned with no audience at all. I hardly dared to believe that I had work. And until we landed in France, I didn’t believe that I would be allowed to travel there and do it.

But arrive I did, and sing I did.

I had imagined it would be incredibly emotional and that I would be moved to tears just to make music with others after so long.

In the event, I was too distracted by such novelties as the etiquette of when and where to wear my mask (concert make-up = smudge); whether I really needed to disinfect my hands at the lift, approximately 3 paces away from the previous disinfection at the entrance to the building (I did. More is more.); and wondering whether the orchestral musicians would mind if I sang to them at first, or whether I should face away.

The funny thing was that it also felt very normal to be on a stage, singing, making music. It’s what I do, it’s where I’m comfortable, and it feels right. I’m one of the lucky ones who’s been given the chance to work again.

My emotions finally got the better of me during the performance, towards the end of the third movement. In fact, they always do – that slow movement just gets me. But as I stood there waiting to sing, and took in the small audience, I was acutely aware of the privilege of being there, and of the beauty and importance of what we do, and I did fight back some tears.

I’m very grateful to Pascal and the ONPL for inviting me (see a link to the performance below), and I hope very much that more and more orchestras and halls can find ways to perform for audiences as much as possible. In the meantime, I look forward to a couple more streamed performances at Wigmore Hall in September and for Oxford Lieder in October, and I have my fingers crossed for our future. 

As a final note, I’d like to acknowledge that I am among a small number of musicians that have been lucky enough to pick up a little bit of work.

May I humbly suggest that if you see an unfamiliar name putting a performance out there on social media, perhaps on their own channel, that you give them a few minutes of your time and have a listen?

There is very little work around right now, and I worry that there will be a generation of relative newcomers that will fall by the wayside. We’re all struggling, and competition is fierce.

Ways to help all musicians are by buying/downloading CDs (rather than streaming), looking for ticketed online performances (meaning hopefully that the musicians receive a small fee), and by donating to charities such as Help Musicians UK (https://www.helpmusicians.org.uk).

Watch the performance on YouTube.

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Drum roll, please …

It gives me great pleasure to announce that – in fact, it arrived back in March – the first song is already with me!

So, huge thanks to Stephen Hough for opening this project with a wistful-but-warm Fairest Isle.

I’ve been a fan of Stephen’s artistry as a pianist for many years, but I’m embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t aware until recently that he’s also a prolific composer.

Until I came across ‘Hallowed’.

This piece, for mixed choir, was premiered by The Sixteen and Harry Christophers in March 2018. 

I was immediately drawn to his harmonic language, with its rich textures and wide-set chords, using the full ranges of the voices.

The various texts – from the Old Testament, through Chinese and Navajo poetry, culminate in a moving setting of the Lord’s Prayer.
I can imagine each of us finding our own particular route into Stephen’s compositional output, so do explore for yourself on his website http://www.stephenhough.com/compositions.php 

My next treat to myself is his ‘Dream Album’, which I’ve just ordered. 

Needless to say, I was delighted when Stephen said he would write me a song. And, given that I’ve asked the composers to aim for a Summer 2021 submission, I was amazed when he emailed in February to say that his piece was at the printers!

It’s incredibly exciting to receive a new piece of music, as yet unperformed. And when I began this commissioning process, I didn’t really know what sort of music I would get.

As I said to the composers:

I am looking for songs that take Purcell as their starting point. I want you to feel free to write your music – I am not asking composers whose work I greatly admire to do a keyboard harmony exercise! – so that could mean anything from keeping the melody and/or bass line, or elements of the harmony or… I don’t know really. My imagination doesn’t work like yours…! I think Britten did a great job of bringing Purcell into the 20th century with his realisations, and I suppose we could think of this as taking it a step further for the 21st Century?

Stephen’s setting of ‘Fairest Isle’ is fresh and thoughtful; it’s use of the keyboard feels to me as though it opens up the song, and its harmony feels generous.

Joseph and I haven’t yet been able to play the song together, but I can’t wait to start absorbing it. It has already been interesting for me to shake myself out of my ‘usual’ way of thinking about these words and this melody.

I realise as I write, that I’m not very good at articulating my responses to music, so I won’t dwell on that sort of thing!

So. Stephen Hough. Pianist, composer… and, of course, author. I’m not going to present a critique of his excellent book ‘Rough Ideas’, but will share with you a sentence from the end of a musing that I found particularly comforting, as someone who recently had a first experience of the extreme stress of performance anxiety:

I don’t think any musician, unlike a trapeze artist, strikes the wires of a piano or draws the bow across a violin’s strings primarily for the kick of an adrenalin fix but if ‘ecstasy’ means to stand outside ourselves, then what better ambition can there be as we stand in the wings of a concert hall than to leave self-obsession behind and take the audience on a journey across the high wire of Beethoven or the flying trapeze of Liszt.

Stephen Hough

So, I will leave the obsessive nature of this project for a few days, and allow you to have a gentle Stephen Hough Obsession.

By the way, his recent Brahms recording is really rather exquisite…

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Wait. What? 100?

Wait… what… HOW MANY?!

100.

Yes, one hundred.

Assuming we survive Coronavirus, Brexit, Climate Crisis and any number of other obstacles. (And, well, things have changed since I first wrote this text a few weeks ago, so no guarantees.) But, if/when we return to…well…a new normal…in 2/3 years I will have made 100 recordings as a soloist. 

This seems like something worth celebrating with a special 100th release. Various ideas went through my head, and always there,  was the desire to commission something; rather than a “Carolyn Sings Her Favourite Songs’ album (because ALL my albums are my favourite songs), this is a wonderful opportunity to contribute to the repertoire and support new music.

Chatting to my friend and duo partner Joseph Middleton, he suggested that as Henry Purcell has played an important role in my career, both on record and on stage, I could ask composers to take a Purcell song as a starting point and write something new.

Performing Purcell with piano nearly always involves using the (very fine) realisations* by Benjamin Britten or Michael Tippett. There are a few more contemporary settings, for example, those by Thomas Adès, but not many. So, the idea is to reimagine some songs and create new possibilities to programme Purcell in recitals. After all, Henry himself would have expected his music to sound different in every performance.

So. I wasn’t expecting us all to be in lockdown as I announced this project publicly. But here we are. Stay tuned to hear how it develops. I’m thrilled to say that I’ve got some wonderful composers on board, and I look forward to introducing them.

(UPDATE: the first song has landed, so Blog 2 will feature my first reveal…). I’ll also be sharing the list of the recordings I’ve made to date, so we can complete a sort of slow motion countdown to the Big 100!

*piano parts. More about this terminology in a future blog.