Winter Warmer Programme 2021: Derek Clark

Helensburgh Oratorio Choir

Winter Warmer Programme 2021

On Tuesday 2nd February, the second in our series of 6 ‘Winter Warmers’ featured Derek Clark. Once again we had a large audience of over 60 come and join us!

Conductor, accompanist, composer and arranger, Derek was born in Glasgow, and is an Honours graduate of the RSAMD and the University of Durham. He also studied at the London Opera Centre before joining Welsh National Opera as a repetiteur in 1977, making his professional conducting debut in 1981 with Handel’s Tamerlano. Now Head of Music at Scottish Opera and living in Helensburgh, we all know Derek as a great friend of Helensburgh Oratorio Choir as he has conducted us and arranged and written many a song for us to perform. His theme for the evening was ‘What makes a Good Sing’? or ‘Sing we merrily?

Taking us through a variety of choral pieces, he was able to show how the voice and the orchestration blend to produce the desired effect from the composer. Starting with Handel’s Messiah and selecting the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’, he demonstrated how the strings’ bright and brilliant sound is echoed in the high notes of the tenor entry. All the important words are sung in unison reinforced by the drums and trumpets. It was very interesting to delve into these technicalities and when he played the piece, we had the added benefit of being able to sing along! But not all music has to be loud and fast to be effective. Derek moved on to talk about the 46 bars which comprise Mozart’s ‘Ave Verum’. In this piece, the individual parts move more slowly and are closely blended with the accompaniment which doubles the choral parts. Again, we were able to sing along and take note of all which Derek had illustrated. We moved on to look at the ‘Confutatis’ from Mozart’s Requiem and the ‘Kyrie’ from Faure’s Requiem looking at the closeness of the harmonies and the rich vocal parts. Because many of these pieces were written in or around seminaries at the time, the tenor and bass parts could be more impactful as there were more male voices allowing these parts to be divided. Well, I didn’t know that! Derek is well known for concentrating on the words and meaning in songs. Knowing and understanding what the music is about goes a long way to ensure a better performance. But who do we sing for? Ourselves or the Audience? Derek suggested that sometimes it can be more satisfying for us to successfully negotiate a tricky or complex piece and gave the example of the Madrigal ‘Fair Phyllis I saw sitting all alone’. Unison singing, although unusual in the Oratorio repertoire, can also be extremely fulfilling as in the ‘Credo’ from Gounod’s Mass of St Cecilia. (HOC did this piece under the baton of Peter Christie). There is only one movement found in Bach’s over 200 Cantatas where we find unison singing. In the fourth movement of Cantata 80, Bach uses unison voices on the chorale tune, around which the orchestra weaves an elaborate texture. Another given example was from Britten’s Ceremony of Carols. ‘This little Babe’ with harp accompaniment, is sung like a canon as the female voices peel off through the three verses, like an echo. As Derek commented ‘Unison singing with bells on!’ Derek continued to give more examples of these ideas in practice as in Elgar’s ‘My Love Dwelt in a Northern Land’ where following a unison opening it then fans out into 4 parts reflecting lost love in the warmth of the chords. What makes a great sing? Something which touches the soul and combines wonderful music with words and voices. Derek completed his talk with the finale of Parry’s Blest Pair of Sirens. The choral writing here is in eight parts and abounds in contrapuntal devices. Parry marries the words ‘endless more of light’ by the delayed resolutions of chords and key changes as it races towards the climax. A wonderful climax to our evening, one of Martin Speller’s favourites and one which we have sung many times. There were a few questions from our audience at the end:

‘Do modern composers use the same techniques?’ Absolutely yes, the building blocks are there just the same as before. Just consider Will Todd’s Mass in Blue, Sir James McMillan’s Christmas Oratorio and Jonathon Dove. Although the musical language may change the rules still apply as in years gone by.

‘Favourite Music?’ Derek would appear to have a very catholic taste in music. He admitted to admiring early 20th century music - Holst, Elgar. Also, the choral works of Mozart and Hayden, and Bach, of course. Not so much pop music although he did admit to listening to 60s and 70s songs. He wasn’t into rap at all!

‘Why are the sea shanties so popular?’ Maybe something in our genetic code? More likely to be because of social media and lockdown!

‘Do you appreciate music more because you analyse it?’ Derek thought it was more of a gut reaction more than anything and he quoted his experience with the late, great Sir Peter Maxwell Davis when Derek was trying to analyse certain bits of a score and asking the composer about it, he got no answers at all. So, it may be dangerous to over-analyse! Just enjoy the music and sing!

Thank you very much Derek for a very enjoyable evening. We loved it!

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