Oxford: Day 8

Well, here we are at the end.

Now brace yourselves for some major cheesiness, for there is no stopping me now.

What can I possibly say about the last day that hasn’t been said already by so many of us who have been touched by what has happened this past week?

Ladies and gentlemen, I am only one voice out of many, and I thank those of you who have patiently waited for and read my blog posts. It was honor to have been chosen to represent the choir I love in this way.

Well, let’s hop to it, shall we?

Perhaps it is wise to begin with the conductors. These 20 conductors were the brave inaugural members of this institution who were able to trust in Mr. Whitbourn, Dr. Jordan, and in their own instincts that this was going to be a program worth coming for. And let me tell you, it was awe-inspiring to see how all 20 conductors were transformed in just a week.

However, it is not all in the sense of conducting techniques. No, by the last rehearsal each and every one of them was able to become an integral part of the ensemble: breathing, feeling and making music with us. What was truly remarkable was how they were so open to instruction, suggestions, and change. I know the conductors marveled at our sparkling attitudes even after hours of singing the same repertoire. But, as a fellow Westminster Williamson Voices member has put it, it was because THEY were the ones who emanated positive auras throughout. We opened to them because they opened to us, for choirs are mirrors of the conductors themselves. Even now what I remember most about almost all of them is their smiles and how my cheekbones had a distinctive ache after each person stepped down from the podium.

Yep, they were definitely ready for their performance in the evening.

But before I talk about that, I think it is only proper that I get to indulge in addressing our two ‘Jameses.’

Both very different (especially in fashion), but both extremely dedicated to what they do. Indeed, we are lucky to know such great musicians who are also invested in being great teachers. I have known Dr. J for two years and boy, is he good at what he loves to do. I’d like to be like him someday, although with a little less of those colorful pants and neon shoes he likes to wear.

And also, Mr. Whitbourn. His music is truly beautiful, ladies and gentlemen. I know this word has been used way too much in the course of time, and has probably lost some of its significance. But I hope you know that whenever I did use it, I implied its full depth in meaning. Indeed, his music is the kind that resonates in your ears long after it has been sung. And he conducts and teaches both with passion and high expectations; two major characteristics of a great teacher.

Fun fact: he plays croquet like a BOSS. It’s to a point where he does this getting-on-all-fours-and-squinting-at-the-ball-analyzing-all-possible-angles-of-contact-with-the-mallet-which-would-send-the-ball-to-the-right-place sort of playing.

He’s legit, ya’ll.

And he even tried to teach me how to play. It didn’t really work; but hey, it wasn’t his fault.

What I loved about this trip was that it revealed just how much both Jameses would take the time and effort to reach out to us beyond the music. And that, to me, is something I deeply respect about both of them.

Well, now that I’m on a roll with addressing people, I’m going to talk a bit about our accompanist, Jonathan Lakeland. I know we thank him regularly after performances, but we don’t often truly listen to his playing during our countless rehearsals leading up to this institution, but you can always count on him to play musically.

Always.

Even when he’s just giving out pitches, he does it in style. I’ve never heard him just plunking notes for the sake of it. When he plays, the piano sings with energy and color. So, thank you Lakeland. Not often do choirs get accompanists who can sing with the choir through their playing.

So, with John at the piano and the two Jameses casting watchful eyes, the conductors’ concert began.

Despite the fact that they all did wonderfully, the performance of our last night in Oxford was tough to say the least. Not just because there were 20 pieces to sing, but because more than half the time many of my Williamson family were trying not to cry. I myself was hanging on to each note, because it was the last ones I would sing with this particular group I love so much.

After the concert when everybody had taken their bows, the conductors gave a spectacular surprise performance of an arrangement of “What I did for Love” from A Chorus Line. Well, our chances of shedding minimal tears flew out the window as many started to weep and laugh at the same time.

Then when we sang The Lord Bless You and Keep You at the very end, I was surprised to find that this piece meant more to me than it has ever before.

The funny thing is, it’s just two words repeated over and over again.

“Thank you.”

Thank you Dr. Jordan and Mr. Whitbourn, for not only dreaming this dream, but for working hard to make it come true. Thank you to all 20 conductors who took a chance. Thank you Dr. Abrahams, Liz, Guisella, and every single body and soul involved in organizing and making things happen for this trip. I know there are many of you who are unnamed, and we are so blessed to have had your support. Thank you to all the speakers, many of whom shared valuable knowledge on early choral music. Thank you Oxford for opening the doors to the most glorious venues I have ever been in my entire life. Being in Oxford brought us closer to the roots of choral music than I have ever experienced before. Thank you to the donors who made coming to Oxford for so many of us possible. Thank you composers past and present for creating such wonderful music that brought us all together.

And finally, thank you Westminster Williamson Voices. I guess it’ll take time for us to overcome our Williamson withdrawal symptoms (heck, I’ve been listening to the recording of our O Magnum Mysterium and Verleih Uns Frieden on repeat for about 5 hours straight now). Graduates, now that this has ended, you have ahead of you whole new beginnings that will take you to so many other places in the world, maybe places even further and more wonderful than Oxford. Yes, even you Jake :)

Keep on singing ya’ll. We’ll keep things going here, I promise.

And you. Thank you so much for reading till the end.

I hope my posts have shed some light on the amazing experiences we’ve had in Oxford.

Who knows, perhaps you’ll care to join us next year?

Remember ladies and gentlemen, there’s tea-time! ♥

Love, 

Kirin

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Oxford: Day 7

Oh my goodness gracious, how shall I begin.

This day was full of sending-Kirin’s-jaw-to-the-floor moments, because after we said ‘bye to this friendly kitty,

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this is where we went.

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From inside the bus we saw it standing regally on the hilltop. Ladies and gentlemen, imagine our awe and our sparkling eyes as we gazed in marvel. Imagine the extreme inhalations of excitement as we entered its hollowed halls.

Ah, Lancing College Chapel. It was a castle. It was Hogwarts. It was magical.

So we did a lot of:

taking pictures.

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relaxing,

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 being very excited,

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and getting a lot of vitamin D.

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Oh and we ate a SPOT ON lunch of fish and chips. Outside.

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As Benjamin Britten so beautifully put it, the place gave us a “remarkable stillness and serenity of soul.” 

Speaking of Britten, that’s what we were there for! We were the closing act of the Shipley Arts Festival, 2013. The first half of our program involved a piece by our very own Westminster Williamson Voices bass member Thomas LaVoy. Indeed ladies and gentlemen, besides singing and being a genuinely kind human being, Tom is a composer. This night marked the European debut of his choral composition Alleluia. Alleluia has always been one of my favorite pieces, and my cheekbones hurt from beaming with pride for his accomplishment.

Oh but our pride did not end here. Another of our very own and a very good friend of mine, alto Mary Copeley, played the exquisite organ part for Rejoice in the Lamb. Indeed ladies and gentlemen, among the Westminster Williamson Voices we also have a fantastic organ player. 

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Those of you who know this masterpiece are well aware that this was no easy feat. But our Mary played it, and she played it well. She later told me that beyond playing the organ, it felt as if she was singing with the choir. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the mark that we (as conductor, choir, and organ) made music as a true ensemble. Indeed, our performance of Rejoice in the Lamb was hopefully one that would have made Britten proud if he had been there to listen to us.

Then, the second half. We began with the premiere of James Whitbourn’s The Voices Stilled: Agnus Dei, a piece that was composed, in Mr. Whitbourn’s words, “in commemoration of the myriad voices stilled in war.” Although we only had a very short time with this piece, it has quickly proven to be one that greatly pulled on my heartstrings. We sang this with choirs from West Sussex, accompanied by the Bernardi Chamber Orchestra with Mr. Whitbourn himself standing on the conducting podium.

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Ah, ladies and gentlemen, so much honest and soulful music was bestowed upon us by Britten, LaVoy, and Whitbourn that night. What more could there possibly be, you ask? Well, we had just one more Britten piece up our sleeves to close the night. I suppose it was only fitting, since we are approaching the centenary of Britten after all.

Yes, we performed Britten’s St. Nicolas, complete with a gallery choir, orchestra and tenor soloist. The tenor, Nick Pritchard, was wonderful to hear. He had a shiny and vibrant voice that floated effortlessly in the vast chapel. That, coupled with no small degree of attractiveness, sent many a Williamson woman swooning.

By now, we all realized how good a piece it was. Even after we returned to the U.S., I know for a fact that its melodies still circulate in many of our heads.

But not only that. About 50 years ago in the same hall, Benjamin Britten premiered the exact same piece. Ladies and gentlemen, we were actually standing in the very hall of Lancing Chapel where he stood all those years ago.

Oh yes, and the Queen’s representative was there to hear our performance as well. She certainly sounded like she was pleased with it when she addressed us at the end.

SAY WHAAAAAAAT!?

See why I began with “Oh my goodness gracious?” Exactly. There was so much epic-ness going on, and it was an experience that I doubt any of us will ever forget.

We were all sorry to part with Lancing. But if this was hard for us, I knew Day 8 (our last day), would be harder. With a heavy heart I looked back on the chapel looming in the distance and thought to myself, “Man, I just really don’t want to leave Oxford.”

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You know what else scares human beings so darn much besides silence? Endings.

And ours was fast approaching.

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Oxford: Day 6

Our sixth day began with walking to New College to have our second intense part-reading session with Edward Higginbottom. This is the chapel where we had the session.

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And we enter.

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Ugh, take my breath away, will you.

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Or, take everybody else’s as well.

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The organ in all its glory.

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Hey, hey, hey — Look at who it is? Singing you on Day 7 “Rejoice in the Lamb.”

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Just beautiful.

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Edward Higgenbottom helps us part read. A lot.

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We get to sing here. No big deal….

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A page of our wondrous part book.

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The older stained glass. It’s lighter and somehow softer than the newer ones.

You see? A. Mazing. A lecture? In this place? Yes, it was absolutely unbelievable!

This chapel was originally built in 1379 to make good of what had happened in the wake of the Bubonic Plague. The stained glass in the back of the chapel was what was left of the original glass built in the time after the 17th-century Civil War and Reformation, which caused a lot of damage to many of the older church’s artifacts. And yet here was this chapel, still standing majestically with us basking in its beauty despite all it has been through over many years. Singing 16th-century vocal music here was eye-opening because it really gave us a sense of the lives of 16th-century choristers. I mean, such music was sung in chapels like this centuries ago, and yet both the building and the music are alive even today. I MEAN, HOW MIND-BLOWING IS THAT? That human beings can create and keep such beauty truly gives me hope for the future. We are not just creatures of destruction after all.

After the session, we were taken by Edward Higginbottom himself to the courtyard where we encountered a very familiar tree for many of us.

Oh. Yes.

It was the tree from the fourth movie of Harry Potter, most known for the particular scene in which bad boy Malfoy was turned into a ferret by Mad-Eye Moody. ALL the fan-girl screams. Of course, flashes from imaginary wands and real cameras ensued.

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DUELING!

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Underneath the Malfoy tree :D

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Pretty!

I mean, you can’t get more magical than that.

Well after this, my gorgeous friend Stephanie and I went on a field trip. Boy, did we walk a lot in the sweltering heat, but it was definitely worth it. Here is where we went and what we saw.

Oxford and all its wonders:

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Animals we saw chillin’ in the heat.

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Oh Oxford, you’re so beautiful!

Pretty neat, right?

Unfortunately, Steph and I traveled farther than we had planned and failed to return in time for Dean Abrahams’ session that afternoon. However, ladies and gentlemen, I have seen him teach many times before, and I know that he’s a great teacher. And those who know me understand that I don’t say this lightly. He has a lot to offer and he always makes sure to share 100 percent of his knowledge with his students. He was truly an integral part of making this entire trip possible as well. So of course his session was good.

The icing on the cake to this amazing day was the Britten recital, where I witnessed many of my Williamson family sing pieces composed and arranged by Benjamin Britten.  Ladies and gentlemen, let me tell you that the Westminster Williamson Voices are really jam packed full of talented singers and wonderful people. I dozed off to sleep that night practically bursting with happiness, awe, and pride. I mean, I of all people- from a random city in Japan, by some funny twist of destiny and fate- get to sing with these people! I really could not ask for more in my life, and I know I’m extremely blessed to be able to say that.

Ah, I’m just so happy :)

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Oxford: Day 5

On the morning of our fifth day at Oxford, we were finally able to meet our gracious host, the principal of St. Stephen’s House, Robin Ward. He talked to us about the history of the church in St. Stephen’s (yes, the very building we were sitting in!), and about the crucial role liturgical music played in rediscovering the older church traditions after the Reformation. An interesting point he made was about active participation. In the Catholic Church, the Latin Mass was changed into the more the accessible vernacular text. Apparently at one point the dominant opinion in the Catholic Church was that everybody in the congregation needed to participate in the music-making in order for it to be meaningful. Robin Ward pointed out that he believed that everybody actually “making noise” was not the only way to be engaged in what was spiritually occurring during the service.  As one of the participants said, this is exactly like conducting. Just because you’re waving your hands around, doesn’t mean you’re doing anything useful. Sometimes minimal movement and maximum trust is all you need to make the most beautiful music with an ensemble.

Like so: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p5elg-JOZQE

Well, this is a little extreme. But you get the idea.

It’s finally getting to me just how much English music, especially choral music itself, is deeply rooted in church music. Indeed, we owe it to them for creating and developing much of this art form that we love.

Afterwards, our very own Dr. Pilkington also gave a session, and it was awesome.

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Sarah Mae Lagasca and THE James Whitbourn

 Then we had a rehearsal with Mr. Whitbourn on Britten’s St. Nicolas. As I’ve mentioned before, Britten knew how to write music that was … manageable, while still sounding rhythmic and harmonically complex. Yeah, it’s complicated. But day-by-day I love the St. Nicolas more and more.

It’s melodically interesting, rhythmically exciting, and just all around an extremely theatrical account of Santa Claus’ life.

 

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Mary practices for Rejoice in the Lamb before St. Nicolas. Britten for days! 

After a shortened conducting class, we pampered up for the Williamson Voice’s European debut concert.

Let me repeat: European debut concert.  Chills, ladies and gentlemen. Chills.

Oh and what a concert it was. We all sang our hearts out. But then again, Westminster Williamson Voices always does because that is the Westminster Williamson Way, and that’s what I love about us. I will never forget our voices that night.

I swear. It’s still echoing in my ears :)

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An In Between

Ladies and gentlemen, I apologize for the delay with the blog posts.

This week has been both extremely exhilarating and blessedly busy, and I have not had the time to sit down to organize pictures and to write. When I do sit down with the good intentions of doing so, my brain switches off and my eyes pulls its shutters down.

Indeed, the posts are coming. I will write on the bus and on the plane and once we get back to the large land mass with the Jersey that is New.

For now, all I can say is that it has been an absolutely breath-taking experience and I am so grateful for what has taken place this past week.

But we’ll keep all the sentimental mumbo jumbo for later. Until the next post then, my friends (which WILL come, I promise!).

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Oxford: Day 4

We began the fourth day by taking a leisurely stroll to the Bodleian Library.

Just because we can.

But indeed, it was a bookworm’s dream-come-true. You know that scene in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast where the Beast gives Belle the entirety of his jaw-dropping gorgeous library? Well, that scene’s soundtrack was definitely on repeat in my head as we toured around the Bodleian.

But not only did we get to see old books and buildings. We saw manuscripts of choral music written by great British composers from Thomas Tallis to Howard Goodall. Several of the pieces that were laid out for us made me swoon: Tallis’ If ye love me, Handel’s Messiah, and Mendelssohn’s Elijah, the piece Westminster Symphonic Choir did at the end of last semester. To be assured, there were spurts of major fan-girl moments, and I barely suppressed my screams of excitement. But THIS, ladies and gentlemen, was the moment when it finally hit me that these were REAL PEOPLE who did ordinary people activities while also nonchalantly writing epic music with their own hands. Oh, but you might be interested to know that Handel’s handwriting was just as scraggly as my little brother’s.

Don’t tell him I said that.

Anyway, after our epic morning we each went on our separate ways with permission to be full-out tourists. A couple of my friends and I ventured to the pub where none other than C.S. Lewis and J.R. Tolkien had a pint at the same table. Unfortunately, we couldn’t secure a table and had to leave to have lunch at the cafe next door (which had marvelous sandwiches by the way). But we were there, and that’s what mattered. Tummies satisfied, we walked through Oxford city and marveled at how beautiful it is with old buildings standing regally beside their newer descendants.

After we got back to St. Stephen’s, I was sorely disappointed to be reminded that tea-time was cancelled. But it was for a greater good. (Yea I know. Who would’ve thought there’s anything “gooder” then tea?!)

Extra rehearsal for St. Nicolas.

Indeed it was a fruitful hour of drilling notes and rhythms to solidify our understanding of the music. Then, we straight away went to the third conducting session of this week. These sessions are one of my favorite parts of the day because, 1) we get to sing, and 2) we get to see just how much these passionate and dedicated conductors improve each day. This particular session proved to be a really emotional one for many of us. My group was lucky enough to have witnessed the magical moment when one of the participants truly opened up to everything in front of her: the music, the choir and herself. It was a transformation that took my breath away and was enough to make a third of the choir tear up. Oh music. Why you so good to us?

And theeeennnnn our first dinner at St. Stephen’s (until now we’ve always been eating out)! It was, of course, nothing less than delicious. After dinner, I visited the indoor “courtyard” where my friends were casually having their first game of croquet and were engaged in general frolicking.

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Tom and Brianne

 

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Um Will? I think that’s the wrong game…

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Chris Fillice does a beautiful high kick. Don’t be jealous.

Last on our schedules was the Compline rehearsal, followed by a second go at the Compline itself. Ahhh remember what I said? Well, it was true, and we were more attuned to everything. As Mr. Whitbourn has said, it really is about coming together in body, mind and spirit to reach this sort of tranquility and peace.

Ah yes, it was a looong day. But it proved to be one of the most musically satisfying days I’ve had so far. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what I call a great day :)

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Oxford: Day 3

Ladies and gentlemen, I begin with a heartfelt apology for not being able to write consistently on a daily basis. Well, what are we waitin’ for? Here are the last 2 days comin’ atcha boom Boom BOOM!  Day 5 will… follow shortly after :p

On our third day, we had the honor of seeing Edward Higgenbottom in two workshops. With him, we sang through a rather thick booklet called “Reading from Part Books: The practice of reading 16th -century vocal music from part books.” Those cool ladies and gentlemen out there who have been in bands and orchestras are probably familiar with seeing music that only has their respective parts written down. Well, choral musicians are not. Ya know, we like to be extra aware of what everybody else is singing ‘cause that’s just how we roll. Oh and also, the music was mostly in cubic notation with no bar lines. Let me tell you, it was a pure 16th century choral workout that was challenging for sight-singing but was very invigorating. I mean when we got it right, the harmonies and suspensions were just mmhmmm~ ♪. Someday I’ll be able to sight-read this like a BOSS. You’ll see.

Unfortunately, due to an emergency extra rehearsal, I couldn’t fully attend Dr. Higgenbottom’s second workshop that day, which was to be about Benjamin Britten and his choral works, focusing on Rejoice in the Lamb. From the time that I was able to participate, I learned that Britten was a shrewd man who was radical in his composing, had mad good composing techniques up his sleeve, and knew how to show it off effectively. Although he mostly wrote for amateur choirs, he was a master at weaving ease into rhythmic and harmonic complexity… Which is true, because once you find the patterns in his music, you can pretty much sing the whole thing… But I say it’s still rather difficult! When I heard that his St. Nicholas was composed for a boy choir, I questioned my musicianship skills in general. But I guess if they can do it, we can do it too. No fear, we have more rehearsals, AND we have another opportunity to see Dr. Higgenbottom on Day 6. So stay tuned for that ‘cause he’s truly awesome!

Before we move on, here are your tea pictures for the day.

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After tea, we had our second conducting session of the week. This time, we changed chorus groups, and my group was put into the church where we sang all the accompanied pieces. I was really excited to see how the rest of the conducting members would do. As it turned out, each person was so different with such a unique style of conducting. However, what always shines through is that all of them are here to pursue a deeper understanding in the art of conducting, and that is truly admirable indeed. Conducting is difficult yo! It’s not easy to stand in front of a choir you don’t know and to trust each other to make music. So bravo to all of them. and I can’t wait to see what they’ll take from this experience.

Then, oh then, ladies and gentlemen, the Westminster Williamson Voices finally had a full-choir open rehearsal of all the repertoire for the upcoming concert with none other than our very own, Dr. Jordan!!!!!!!!  It felt so good to be singing with everyone again, and this turned out to be the highlight of my day.

Yes, by the end my voice was rather tired, but I wouldn’t have spent the evening in any other way. The concert was going to be epic, and it was. But that is for another day (Day #5, in fact) coming soon, I promise. Until then, cheerio!

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