St Mary’s Metropolitan Cathedral, Edinburgh

James MacMillan  Since It Was The Day of Preparation…
Hebrides Ensemble with Brindley Sherratt

November 2015


“a welcome re-performance from co-commissioners the Hebrides Ensemble plus Synergy Vocals… (Their) performance had clearly matured and bedded down beautifully since the premiere… The Synergy singers were on very fine form, intoning the gospel story with crystal-clear diction and a silky balance between their vocal lines….. Tenor Benedict Hymas was particularly effective in the work’s opening, chanting from behind the audience with the effect that his voice seemed to be coming from all parts of the cathedral’s huge interior… It felt like a wonderfully mature, thoughtful performance.”

CD (SFS Media) “Grand Pianola Music”

San Francisco Symphony conducted by John Adams


“a fantastic performance by all concerned, not least the wordless female vocal trio that Adams employs….a great disc for all Adams fans!”

Presto Classical


“Notable is Synergy Vocals, the trio of female voices (described by Adams as sirens), singing a wordless harmony and a rather scat-like vocal ….. Significantly adding to the overall effect of the piece is Synergy Vocals as ‘the sirens’ with their ethereal wordless harmonies …. Marvellously played and recorded this CD will unquestionably appeal to a much wider audience than John Adams devotees. This stunning album is a cast-iron certainty to be one of my Records of the Year

MusicWeb International (Michael Cookson)

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Anna Calvi (Meltdown Festival) 
a cappella choir conducted by Jules Buckley

August, 2015


(Sing to Me) “On the recording Calvi provided the spectral backing vocals. Tonight the choir take on that role brilliantly and all thirteen voices dovetail around each other, coiled in a beauteous web.”

(The Bridge) “The breath-taking choir build a mood of beautiful intensity and finally Calvi joins them. The song fades out into a filigree of hushed singing and they depart to another standing ovation.”

Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow

Steve Reich  Music for 18 Musicians
Colin Currie Group

May, 2015


“Synergy’s scat-like vocals were entrancing.  I highly recommend anyone and everyone to take any opportunity they might have to witness Reich live, as well as Synergy Vocals and the Colin Currie Group”


Davies Hall, San Francisco

John Adams  Grand Pianola Music
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra / John Adams

January, 2015


“a trio of plush-textured women’s voices (Micaela Haslam and Joanna Forbes L’Estrange, sopranos; Heather Cairncross, alto) brought a broad palette of colors and crisp rhythmic vitality”

Seen and Heard International


“the fine ensemble Synergy Vocals”

San Francisco Chronicle


“the performance was superb… the sirens Micaela Haslam, Joanna Forbes L’Estrange, and Heather Cairncross singing to utter perfection”

Civic Center, San Francisco


“Synergy Vocals…wonderfully ethereal, the three singers make for haunting sirens ”

The Opera Tattler

San Francisco (January 2015)

Synergy represented by

L-R: Joanna Forbes L’Estrange, Heather Cairncross, Micaela Haslam



“On arrival into San Fran, we were pleased to be taken to a hotel just a couple of blocks away from Davies Hall where our concerts were to be held.  It was a sweet little place, but a little noisy, and we were somewhat alarmed to come back to this one evening (below), but it was a really busy time in San Fran so there was no option to move.  Inn at the Opera is a lovely, quaint, historic hotel (and the cookies on the front desk are to die for), but thank goodness for silicone ear plugs!


Hotel fire

This series of Grand Pianola performances came about thanks to Michael Tilson Thomas, with whom we sang Berio’s Sinfonia last year in Miami.  He said then that we should work together again soon.  Clearly, he meant it, and we were delighted once again to be somewhere warm in the middle of our UK winter (I think we should make this an annual event).  We were also excited to be working once again with John Adams, and making a CD with the composer at the helm. John may not be the world’s greatest conductor, but he has a wonderful energy about him that really brings his music to life. Audiences love him too as he’s so interesting and funny when introducing his music.


John’s pre-concert chat


In the same concerts, MTT was conducting Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale narrated by Elvis Costello (no less), and featuring Malcolm McDowell (no very less) as The Devil.  We don’t hang out with any old riff-raff you know!

















Our pianists were the brilliant Orli Shaham, wife of conductor David Robertson (Synergy Vocals’ “chief conductor”), and the equally brilliant Marc-André Hamelin, so this was one classy gig.

To add to all the fun, San Francisco Symphony put on a 70th birthday concert for MTT while we were in town – and kindly invited us.  The event also marked MTT’s 20th anniversary as music director of SFS, and it was the campest night ever.  Apart from the blue (his favourite colour) helium balloons, poodle-boys, and the glamour girl with a giant birthday cake on her head, Michael sported a new blue custom-made sports jacket with his initials emblazoned in sequins on the back, and the bass solo from the third movement of Mahler 1 embroidered down the sleeves.  The programme consisted of all sorts of crowd-pleasers, including Liszt’s Hexameron in which MTT played the part of Liszt with (count ‘em!) five other eminent pianists, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Marc-André Hamelin, Emmanuel Ax, Yuja Wang, and Jeremy Denk.  We were even treated to a few songs by a band consisting of Boz Scaggs, Elvis Costello, Phil Lesh (bass – The Grateful Dead) and Lars Ulrich (drummer – Metallica).  It was mental, but we did feel very privileged to be there.




Our schedule was dreamy, consisting first of morning rehearsals (when we were waking up ridiculously early anyway), then we had a free day, then three gigs in a row.  We made our pilgrimage to the Golden Gate bridge, obviously.  It was as glorious as ever.


Synergy on the beachJo & Mic by Golden Gate







Lombard Streethuge cappuccino


























It was lovely to have plenty of time for walking and cable-carring round the city, visiting the famous Lombard Street, and drinking cappuccinos as big as my head.

Finally it was show-time, and the concerts were a joy.  Happily, all our rehearsals had been held on the stage in Davies Hall, so we already felt comfortable in that magnificent venue.  So often you rehearse in another room/building with completely different acoustics, then you have only the shortest time to get used to a whole new set-up on the main stage.  We had three performances, all of which were recorded for a “live in concert” CD.  John Adams, the players, MTT and the audiences were all so lovely, we didn’t want to leave.  We can only hope they’ll invite us back!



Having flown all that way to the other side of the US, Will and I took the opportunity to hire a car and drive down the coast to visit friends in Santa Maria, stopping off in Carmel and paying a visit to the zillions of elephant seals at Piedras Blancas.  An amazing couple of weeks and the perfect start to 2015!”



BAM, New York

Steve Reich  Music for 18 Musicians
Steve Reich & Musicians

September 2014


“The first evening’s triumph was undoubtedly Music For 18 Musicians (1976) – a near perfect rendering of Reich’s breakout piece.”

The Guardian

“a monumental performance of Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians…calm, assured, and stunningly musical. There was an ineffable maturity—a tempo that was relaxed and ideal, a sense of phrasing that is not usually prevalent in minimalist music, and an eloquence equal to that of the greatest orchestral playing.”

New York Classical Review

“When played with the authority and beauty of this performance, the piece engages your musical intellect as you focus on wondrous musical details, while at the same time inviting you to turn off the part of your brain that wants to understand music that way. The ovation was enormous.”

The New York Times

“(The musicians’) love of the score was palpable. That sense of familial embrace was hugely present in this joyous performance — and that pleasure radiated back to the musicians when the piece concluded. For the first time all night, the audience broke into raucous cheers and an extended standing ovation.”


New York (September 2014)

Synergy represented by

L-R: Amy Haworth, Heather Cairncross, (Steve Reich), Micaela Haslam, Amanda Morrison


“It was a few months ago now, but I feel as though this project is one that should be noted in our diary because it was part of such an extraordinary event. Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the record label Nonesuch, the Brooklyn Academy of Music put on a series of concerts featuring their top artists. Three of the opening concerts were to feature both Steve Reich and Philip Glass, sharing a stage together for the first time in around 40 years. In their New York student days, Steve and Phil were close friends. They both drove taxis to make ends meet, and even (briefly) set up a removal business together. Then they famously fell out (though neither would discuss the specifics) and now, in their 70s, they were to be reunited. Not only that, but Steve and Phil were to perform as members of each other’s ensembles – so Steve was to play Music in Similar Motion with the Philip Glass Ensemble, and Phil was to play Four Organs with Steve, Nico Muhly and Timo Andres (with David Cossin on maracas).


The High Line

Original tracks on the High Line






It is a very rare occasion these days that Steve Reich & Musicians gets together, so imagine what a thrill it was for us to be copied in to Steve’s invitation to his ensemble. Synergy Vocals and Steve Reich have collaborated regularly for almost 20 years now, but that is nothing compared to how long these guys have all worked together, so this invitation felt like a real badge of honour. The last time we all got together was for a European tour in 2006, celebrating Steve’s 70th birthday. Who could forget the infamous tour bus with its leather seats and a sort of cocktail lounge at the back? Sadly, the said lounge soon turned into a sick-bay, as more and more members of the ensemble took ill with a sickness bug. Poor old Jim Preiss was the first to succumb to the illness in Paris, then it seemed to spread like wildfire. Some members of the ensemble even went so far as to book their own train tickets from city to city, to avoid the sick bus! Most stuck it out, however and thankfully a few of us (including Steve) were spared, and we did manage to complete the tour.

Very sadly, early in 2014, we lost the inimitable Jim Preiss, and it was strange to perform Music for 18 Musicians without him playing vibes and generally keeping everyone in order. For this performance in BAM, the brilliant David Cossin (a former pupil of Jim’s) was taking his place.


Music for 18 dress rehearsal with David Cossin on vibraphone


So there we were in New York, and our old stomping ground – the wonderful Brooklyn Marriott. It’s a myth that you need to stay in the centre of Manhattan in order to get the best out of New York. Brooklyn is the key. It’s so easy (and quick) to get to just about anywhere on Manhattan; Brooklyn itself is really vibrant; Brooklyn Heights is gorgeous, and teeming with eateries; the view across to Manhattan is stunning, and the walk across Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan is simply one of the best things to do in the city. We also re-discovered the High Line, the amazing urban park on an elevated walkway, previously a disused spur of New York Railroad’s West Side Line.

Another thing we love about the Marriott is that it has a fabulous pool and gym. Very annoyingly for me, I’d done my back in the previous week and even swimming was painful. I did try. The completely deserted full-length lanes of clear blue water looked so enticing, but after half a length I had to surrender to the pain – gutted! Never mind, Macy’s was still round the corner! There’s another tip for you. Don’t bother with the mid-town enormous Macy’s – too big! Head to Brooklyn and enjoy a nice leisurely peruse round the store.

Post-concert speeches

Steve and Phil












It was so good to see the gang again – Bob Becker, Russ Hartenberger, Garry Schall, Garry Kvistad, Thad Wheeler, Ed Niemann, Lisa Moore, Phillip Bush, Jeanne LeBlanc, Liz Lim and Todd Reynolds – not to mention the super-efficient Steve Ehrenberg, making sure everything was set up as is should be. It seemed like only yesterday.

Our first rehearsal in BAM was for Drumming, so Heather and I toddled along with our activity packs, expecting to be twiddling our thumbs for the first 20 minutes of Section 1. Almost as soon as they started, however, it dawned on me that this really was an historic event. Here were Russ and Bob – the masters of Drumming, without whom the piece would never have materialised – playing Section 1 with the wonderful Garry Kvistad and Steve Reich himself. This is no longer a common occurrence – these musicians are now in their 70s, living very separate lives –  and who’s to say when, or indeed if, this might happen again. It is wonderful that there are so many fabulous groups around the world playing Steve’s music nowadays, but still Russ and Bob play Drumming unlike anyone else.


The masters at work, L-R: Russ, Garry, Steve, Bob


I’m sure I’ve said this before, but I sincerely believe that all would-be Drummers should witness Russ and Bob playing the first phase – at close range. They take SO long over it (Steve would probably say too long!), but watching the process is a lesson in itself. They play with such stillness and poise, combined with extraordinary power and energy.  I suggested that they should make an archive (educational) video of Drumming Part 1, shot from several angles. Don’t get me wrong, I love the young flashy players too, but there is something SO cool about these two – something which I think should somehow be preserved.


Russ Hartenberger and Garry Kvistad


The build-up to the event was enormous, as you might imagine. The press had a field day discussing “long-feuding composers” and “minimal awkwardness” etc. There was quite an atmosphere backstage too, with both ensembles milling around the green room, waiting to witness the non-public reunion. I have to say that Steve and Phil were incredibly dignified about the whole thing. Beryl Korot (Steve’s wife) described their response as “graceful”, and I knew exactly what she meant. They were polite, quietly friendly, and very respectful towards each other – and they’d done their homework. I knew that Steve had been struggling with a bad wrist, but it clearly hadn’t stopped him practising the piano. I thought Steve was particularly gracious in his donning of a dark jacket to play with Phil’s ensemble, conforming to their “uniform” (Steve Reich & Musicians always wear white shirts and black trousers, which looks good – and it’s about the only time you’ll ever see Steve in a white shirt!).


Four Organs in concert from stage right


I sat in the wings to watch Four Organs, as I wanted to be as close as possible to this historic event. It’s always entertaining to hear Michael Tilson Thomas describing the Carnegie Hall performance of the piece back in 1973 (for which MTT was responsible) when there was a Rite of Spring-esque riot with audience members booing and shouting at the players to stop, whilst other punters shouted back at them to shut up because they couldn’t hear the music. And here we were in Brooklyn with a well-behaved attentive audience, enjoying the piece as though it were a Beethoven string quartet.


Brooklyn Academy of Music


Our contributions to the three-evening event were Music for 18 Musicians in the first concert, then Drumming in the second.  We weren’t involved in the third concert (we nearly got to sing Proverb but then the programme was changed – sorry tenors!), but I stayed on to hear it. This one featured the quartet from Steve’s ensemble playing his WTC 911.  I confess I didn’t know the piece at all, but I couldn’t have chosen a more fitting time or place to hear it for the first time. In the sky over lower Manhattan, there were lasers showing where the twin towers had stood, as this was the anniversary of 911, and sitting in the audience with me was Francesca Vanasco (married to Thad Wheeler – a long-time member of Steve Reich & Musicians), who lost nearly all her colleagues in one of the towers (Fran had stayed at home to work that morning).  Fran’s voice is one of those featured in the WTC 911 backing track – “I knew it wasn’t an accident”. This was an incredibly passionate and moving rendition of a superb piece of music. Steve had initially said “how do you write a piece about 911?”. “Just like that”, I would answer. I haven’t witnessed such a long respectful silence at the end of a performance in a very long time. If the stage manager hadn’t started clapping, I think we would all have got up and left in silence. I was almost disappointed that that hadn’t been allowed to happen, but the players did deserve the hearty applause they finally got.


To complete the Nonesuch-Reich-Glass-New York experience, I stayed for the second half of the concert, which featured (quite a lot of) Phil Glass’s music. Whilst I appreciated the technical prowess and sheer stamina of the players and singer, I confess I didn’t love it. It’s just incessant for the wind players and singer, with absolutely nowhere to breathe. They did brilliantly, but I found it really stressful and I couldn’t help feeling annoyed with the composer for putting them through it! I know Steve’s music is repetitive too, but to my mind it’s much more human and linear – and uplifting. With some exceptions, Glass’s music makes me feel as though I’m being bashed around the head, on beats 1 and 3. Steve’s music is definitely on the proverbial 2 and 4, and feels more like surfing. Now there’s a discussion for an A level music essay if ever there was one!


taking a bow


Suffice to say, we all felt really privileged and proud to be part of this amazing event. It’s one I’m sure we won’t forget.”



Glastonbury (June 2014)

Synergy represented by:

L-R: Micaela Haslam, Amanda Morrison, Joanna L’Estrange, Heather Cairncross


“Two years ago, just after we’d performed at the Open’er Festival in Gdynia with Steve Reich and Ensemble Modern, Steve mentioned that that had been his first pop festival gig – at the age of 75.  I suggested that 75 was the perfect age to start doing pop festivals and that we should aim for Glastonbury next, perhaps supporting Radiohead.  Happily, Jonny Greenwood was on the Gdynia bill with us, playing Electric Counterpoint, so I asked him to put in a good word – and here we were, on our way to the biggest pop festival in the world!  Actually, I take no credit for the practicalities whatsoever, because it was the administrative team at London Sinfonietta that made this happen (rounding up sponsors in a very short space of time to make our appearance possible), but I like to think that I put the idea out into the universe!  Steve Reich wasn’t joining us on this occasion, but we did have Jonny Greenwood on the bill again, providing the Glastonbury kudos.


Rehearsing in Waterloo

Everyone on the London Sinfonietta/Synergy team had played Music for 18 before, so we just needed one refresher rehearsal in London.  That worked out well in that some of the sponsors who were unable to get to Glastonbury could have their very own private performance.

On the evening before our gig, we all headed down to a Salisbury hotel.  That was the only way we were going to be able to manage the early get-in for our midday slot on the West Holts stage.  We couldn’t risk having anyone stuck in traffic, or missing a train.  Music for 18 is so called because 18 is the absolute minimum number of musicians you need to play the piece.  It’s often played as Music for 19  – or even 20 – but Music for 17 simply wasn’t an option.  Most of the ensemble came by coach, but I (with Will) opted to drive so that we could stay another night and have an extra day at the festival. Dutifully displaying our windscreen pass “within 10 miles of the site”(10 miles!), we followed the coach to the Blue Gate, then we all transferred to a couple of mini-vans to take us down to the stage.  The security was (understandably) very tight. Getting in to Glastonbury was a bit like crossing an Eastern European border, with its heavily guarded perimeter. It’s hard to conceive of the amount of fencing required to contain a festival of over 1300 acres – 6 miles of it, 15 feet high, dug 3 feet into the ground – but there are already SO many ticket holders and artists at the festival that a flood of fence-scaling/tunnel-digging gate-crashers would be a health and safety nightmare.

I have since discovered a few more impressive statistics about Glastonbury:

It is the world’s largest open air musical festival (180,000 people).

The electricity usage is the same as that of the city of Bath.

The Pyramid Stage alone has over 250 speakers.


Stage door

Artists’ area of the West Holts stage










As we were performing in the middle of the first day, the back-stage area of the West Holts stage was still immaculate – and so beautifully decorated, it was a veritable work of art.

Regular black concert dress seemed a bit formal for this occasion, so we had decided on “trendy black” instead.  We got changed on arrival, while they were still setting up.  Then, as it was just starting to rain, we donned our wellies to get across to the stage.  After the rehearsal, the gals (4 Synergites + Shelagh Sutherland) decided that our wellies were so comfy, we’d keep them on for the gig as well.


Jonny & John

Sound check





Our time was very limited for the sound check, so there was no way we’d be able to play through the piece, which is an hour long. That said, it was imperative that we sorted out the foldback so that everyone could hear what they needed to hear.  Fortunately, we had the marvellous Ian Dearden (Sound Intermedia) on stage with us, monitoring the monitors, leaving the inimitable David Sheppard on front of house.  I know what a sacrifice this was for Ian because he really wanted to be out front too (“Hello Glastonbury!” and all that), but we were very grateful to have him close by in case of any on-stage crises.


Synergy girls with the lovely Ian Dearden – check out those funky wellies!

Monitor levels (and indeed sight-lines) can make or break a performance of Music for 18. The piece depends entirely on visual and aural cues between all the musicians, so a break-down in either form of communication can be disastrous.  Fortunately, all was sorted in relatively good time, while Jonny waited patiently for his chance to sound check Electric Counterpoint.


Jonny’s guitar ready and waiting

During the short space of our sound check, the audience went from this:


to this:

… and then there were five

to this:



Jonny was up first (immediately after his sound check) and put in an excellent performance of Electric Counterpoint. He has performed the piece several times since that first time in Gdynia, and was noticeably more relaxed and “in the zone”.


Under starter’s orders

Jonny in action










Then, on we went for the Glastonbury premiere of Music for 18 Musicians.  It was great to have such a chilled-out, open-minded, enthusiastic audience.  Some people had come specifically to hear the performance, and some had just taken a punt and thought they’d give it a try.  Happily, there was lots of smiling and jigging along to the music, and everyone seemed to enjoy it.


Spot the trolls

My favourite moment was in section 111a when the trolls turned up, bearing signs saying “hug a troll” whilst dancing exuberantly to the music.  Ian Dearden was creased up with laughter in the wings, and Heather and I just couldn’t help smiling.  Sadly for Jo and Mandy, it was all going on behind them so they were blissfully unaware.


Stage left

Heather, Micaela & Jonathan Morton


It was wonderful to be a part of such a special event, and it’s certainly a gig we won’t forget in a hurry.

… and from the back

“Music for 18” bows


After the performance, lunch was laid on in the artists’ tent, then the coach headed back to London to deliver the players to the Royal Opera House for an opera performance that same night.

Will and I (armed with our camping chairs, waterproof trousers, jackets and brollies) then headed out into the delightful madness that is Glastonbury.  Fortunately, the skies had brightened up, so we made our way to the Pyramid Stage for a chill-out on the grass during Rodriguez y Gabriela’s set. Then we went for a wander – and the heavens opened!!


A spot of camping, anyone?


Thank goodness for the artists’ tent, where we took cover from the torrential storm.  It was so bad that they had to shut down all the electricity at the stages – which meant that all the sets were put back and/or curtailed.  One band at the West Holts stage lost their set completely – I was gutted for them.  They went on stage, huddled at the front, and played a few acoustic numbers, but that was their lot.  The next band was already raring to go when the electricity came back on.

The skies cleared for Lily Allen, who I thought was great – an excellent performer and a very pithy song writer.


Lily Allen on the Pyramid Stage

I was delighted to see the trolls popping up at all sorts of other gigs around the site.  They made me smile every time.  I have to say that, for me, it was all the little random acts that I enjoyed the most.  There were some young girls dressed as old ladies (hankies on heads / fake fags in mouths) pushing a tea-trolley around; a gang of be-stilted copper coloured people dressed like a gang from a dark sci-fi movie; Professor Twitchit with Tallulah the Psychic Midget; Captain Robert Scott covered in snow, roped to a fellow explorer, looking for the Antarctic.  They were all crazy – but utterly delightful.


Captain Scott

I can’t say I’ll be rushing back to camp at Glastonbury next year (nothing would persuade me to use the cattle-stall loos, for starters), but I’m so grateful to have performed there and to have enjoyed the Glastonbury experience in both sunshine and ankle-deep mud.  I hope it’s not the last time we perform at Glastonbury.  In the meantime, we shall treasure our 2014 memories, performer’s passes and wrist bands.”