Synergy represented by:

Micaela Haslam, Heather Cairncross, Andrew Busher, Tom Bullard

The whole team with James MacMillan (front). Clockwise from left: Gabriella Dall’Olio (harp), Andy Busher, Tom Bullard, Brindley Sherratt (solo bass), Will Conway (cello/Hebrides director), Yann Ghiro (clarinet), Elizabeth Kenny (theorbo), Steve Stirling (horn), Micaela Haslam, Heather Cairncross

“This was an incredibly exciting project for so many reasons, not least of which was that we were to be performing the world premiere of a very substantial piece by James MacMillan.  Our association with the Hebrides Ensemble was a new venture, and this was to be our first Edinburgh Festival concert with Synergy Vocals placed so prominently on the posters!

Added to all this was the fact that this was to be a non-amplified piece.  When we originally took on this project, I did wonder whether the absence of microphones might play havoc with our USP as a an experienced team of close-microphone singers.  Once Jimmy started sending me the music, however, it became clear that there was no issue here at all.  Since it was the Day of Preparation… is scored for the delightfully unusual combination of clarinet, horn, cello, theorbo and harp.  The Synergy team consists of a soprano, alto, tenor and baritone quartet, and the vocal writing is so intimate that it can be sung as though it were on close-microphone.  The instrumental writing is sometimes brutal and sometimes exquisitely delicate, and the whole piece is so well crafted that there are very few balance issues at all.  It’s wonderful to be able to sing at a volume where the words don’t have to be compromised.  I can’t tell you how thrilling it was to hear from a member of the audience that, although they had all the words printed in their programme, they didn’t look at them once as they could hear every word from every singer – even in the polyphonic sections.  The piece takes up the bible story where MacMillan’s St John Passion finished – the burial and resurrection of Christ, and his subsequent appearance to Mary Magdalene and the disciples.

To take the role of Christus, we drafted in the splendid Brindley Sherratt.  This bass/baritone part has an enormous range – hence the oblique rather than a dash between “bass” and “baritone” – this role needs both!  There are passages that descend to bottom E’s, then strings of sustained lines hanging around top D’s and E’s.  Brin rose spectacularly to the challenge and (with just the occasional octave transposition – cleared with Jimmy of course!) sang the role with all the stature and gravitas it required.

It was great to have a few days in Edinburgh, and we were in a hotel just round the corner from Grassmarket, so all the festival action was just 2 minutes walk away (any number of shows for our partners to check out while we were rehearsing).  Will (Priestman!) and I had a lovely view from our room on the top floor, but it was incredibly hot and the window would only open about 1 inch (health and safety, don’t you know).  It’s always a bad sign when you see a fan plugged into the wall of your hotel room! Still, it was wonderful to have the sunshine outside.

View from hotel window

Rehearsals were held in a church in Morningside.  It’s impossible to get into gig venues before the day during the Festival, as there’s so much else going on.  We were very pleased to have Jimmy around from the 2nd rehearsal, so that any changes could be made with time to sing/play them in.  There was no conductor for this project.  Will Conway played the cello from the full score, directed the rehearsals, and was really helpful in giving cues and keeping the ensemble rhythmically on track.  On the 3rd day we had our first run-through, and it was wonderful finally to hear the extraordinary instrumental cadenzas played by Hebrides.  Each player has an extended virtuoso solo passage between the fuller sections.  The piece begins with the theorbo solo, which is completely unexpected and utterly riveting.  In the first part, Andy and Tom each have an extended completely solo section, sung from half way down the church.  Theirs are the first words uttered in the piece, and the effect is to draw the audience right in to the narrative from its start.  In the concert, even though Andy’s first instruction was to sing “almost whispered”, you could hear every note and every word in every corner of Greyfriars Kirk – a really magical effect.

Rehearsing in Morningside

Some of the ensemble writing is heart-breakingly sublime.  Jimmy is the master of wringing the emotions out of an audience.  Actually, it was hard to believe how many colours and textures Jimmy had managed to get into this 80 minute piece, with just 5 players and 5 singers – oh, and a few hand-bells.  I have to say I thought we took to singing and playing bells at the same time remarkably well!

Greyfriars - a stage in waiting

The concert sold out weeks in advance.  Greyfriars was packed, in the middle, down both sides and at the back.  This was one of the hardest and most rewarding concerts we’ve done in recent years, and I was so pleased that all our efforts paid off.  The audience loved it, there were many excellent reviews (including 4* in The Times), and several international promoters took a keen interest in the piece.

View of the audience from the organ loft

This wonderful day was rounded off perfectly with – what else? – a curry, a few beers and a round of single malts back at our hotel!  Can’t wait for the rerun at King’s Place in London, just a few weeks away….”


Micaela & Jimmy enjoying a well-earned glass of wine!

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