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April 19 – Eric B

It is a lovely day. I actually quite like April today! +15 at best; almost summer-like.

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Today is the day the choir meets Eric Banks, the composer of the major cycle we will be doing the European premiere of on Saturday. This delicate universe consists of five movements, all scored for double choir (SATB+SATB). It is written to poems by Constantine Cavafy (1863 – 1933), an Alexandrian Greek poet, whose poetry remained quite little known during his lifetime. A major reason for this was that Cavafy preferred to publish his poems in newspapers and magazines instead of poem collections. In addition, he rarely left Alexandria, was something of a perfectionist, a very private man and openly homosexual. His fame only came posthumously.

Eric Banks has chosen five Cavafy poems and set them both in Greek and in English. In the first four movements the languages are heard consecutively. Most often, the Greek sections are set in an Arabic scale (suzidil) to place Cavafy in Alexandria, whereas the English translations (by the composer) are set to more classical Western music. Only in the last movement do the languages join hands (see picture).

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There are lots of other clever constructional elements. The first movement is in 3; the second in 4; the third in 5; and the last two mainly in 6. As in the picture above, one choir often sings in octave unison whilst the other has a clear accompanying texture. In many ways there is often an orchestral feeling to the way Banks writes, with gestures moving from one voice part to another. The music is still anything but cerebral and complex: there is a great Romantic breadth to it all and at times it can feel almost overpoweringly emotional.

How are we doing with it? Well, it is a half-hour symphony of sorts with half the text in Greek (rendered in IPA in the score). It stretches the choir in every possible way: the tessitura is huge for all the voice parts; the work is exceptionally demanding vocally in all the good ways; there is a massive amount of notes to master; the harmonies are very precise and need to be absolutely correct; and this is all before we can even speak of interpreting the poems and the music. In addition, it is one of the more demanding scores for a conductor I have come across for a while (irregular patterns, tempo changes, lots of overlaps from section to another…).

I didn’t sleep all that well.

And yet, I am confident our performance of the piece will be totally adequate to convey the beauties of the work. And we will definitely continue singing it. With time it could really develop into a magnificent showpiece for the choir. We have the voices to manage it and I think a few performances down the road will see us pull it off with aplomb.

***

The rehearsal was intense. Some movements were surprisingly nice straight off the bat and others less so. All improved with repetition. One movement is still a little shaky, but the other four are coming together well. To be honest, at times it sounded wonderful. Eric’s feedback was clear and constructive – and focused on the most important things. The work took a big leap forward. Oh, if only we had another couple of rehearsals (the choral conductor’s mantra). In any case, I will sleep a lot better this night.

 

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