Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Kurt Weill The Seven Deadly Sins
BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by André de Ridder, with Shara Worden

March 2013


“Synergy Vocals, as the male barber-shoppish quartet representing Anna’s avaricious family, provided the bite.”

The Arts Desk

Berlin (March 2013)

Synergy represented by:


L-R:  Micaela Haslam, Andrew Busher (Sian Edwards - conductor),Gerard O'Beirne, Phillip Brown, Amanda Morrison

L-R: Micaela Haslam, Andrew Busher, (Sian Edwards – conductor),
Gerard O’Beirne, Phillip Brown, Amanda Morrison

“Mandy and I headed off to Berlin the night before the first rehearsal.  We can’t be doing with the Heathrow early starts – we’re much happier with a nice relaxing dinner, a chill-out evening and a leisurely morning.  As usual, the boys went for the early morning option, but then they’re used to getting up at the crack of dawn, having 9 children between them!  Our hotel was just down the road from the Konzerthaus in Berlin with plenty of swanky eateries nearby.  Mandy and I chose the least swanky (on financial grounds), but still had a really excellent steak and a fine glass of red wine.

I enjoyed a wander in the sunshine on our free morning.  Berlin is so smart and clean – at least in the area where we were staying.  It was a real pleasure to walk around.  At one point, I came across what was presumably a photo shoot for a bridal magazine or something.  I love the fact that this man just strolled along eating his sandwich as though a girl dressed like a meringue sitting in a doorway were the most normal thing in the world.


We hadn’t seen our friends at Ensemble Modern for quite a while so it was lovely to catch up with them at the rehearsal the following afternoon.  Our conductor for this concert was Sian Edwards and this was her first go at Three Tales.  It’s a deceptively difficult piece to conduct.  You’d think that a click track would make for an easy job, but not at all.

The sound track of the film is very loud, with many layers of rhythmic material and speech.  Added to that, you have 2 pianos, 4 percussionists, a string quartet and 5 singers to contend with.  Sometimes, it’s difficult to work out what’s live and what’s on the guide track – and it’s all too easy to “lose” the click in all the racket (wonderful racket though it is!).  Sian confessed that she was feeling somewhat daunted at the outset – understandable, being the “new girl” in front of a feisty bunch of musicians who have been playing/singing the piece for over 10 years – but she did brilliantly.  As I’ve said so many times, there is nothing better than working with musicians who are real team players, without big egos.  Sian definitely falls into that category, and I hope we’ll work with her again soon. She was delightful, well-prepared, technically proficient and great fun – my favourite combination.


Sian Edwards and the boys in action

The interior of the Konzerthaus is extraordinary – it felt a bit like being inside a giant wedding cake.  Looking at all the marble busts of the usual suspects – Bach, Beethoven, Schumann et al – around the room, I couldn’t help wondering whether, in a hundred years or so, those busts might be of Steve Reich, James MacMillan, John Adams, Louis Andriessen etc.  Who knows?


Konzerthaus interior


Berlin Konzerthaus
















We were only able to get into the main hall on the day of the concert, so Sian had one opportunity to go through the piece with the film running.  We were back up on our riser behind the string quartet and just in front of the percussion.  These two vibraphone players are my heroes of Three Tales.

David Haller & Boris Müller

In Part 3 (Dolly) the vibe parts are absolutely fiendish for pages and pages and pages.  It’s really thrilling (if quite loud!) to sit just in front of these guys.  I think we have the best seats in the house – even if we can’t see the film.

The performance was a triumph, worthy of celebration with several beers and some terrifyingly meaty German fare in a bar across the road.  More Ensemble Modern/Synergy Vocals gigs coming soon…”


Barbican, London

Luciano Berio Sinfonia
BBCSO conducted by Josep Pons

December 2012

“a resounding rendition of Berio’s Sinfonia….(Synergy Vocals) ably moved across a range of stylistic genres, from the operatic to folk-inspired patter”

Music OMH


“Synergy Vocals were at one with the BBC Symphony Orchestra … as a whole they were properly integrated within the instrumental texture to create an authentically symphonic argument, as intended. At times the vocalists’ style suggested that of the Swingle Singers, for whom the work was originally created, adding another stylistic ingredient into the diverse mix.”

Classical Source (reviewed by Curtis Rogers)

Buenos Aires (October 2012)

Synergy represented by:

Amy Haworth, Micaela Haslam, Rachel Weston, Heather Cairncross, Andrew Busher, Gerard O’Beirne

Waiting for much needed gins and tonics: (L-R) Andy, Gerry, Heather, Amy, Rachel

I’m afraid I didn’t get to see a huge amount of Buenos Aires, as most of my days were spent trouble-shooting and dealing with the next batch of unscheduled admin, but here’s my diary in any case.  I must first of all send out a big thank you to the other 5 singers (and indeed my partner, Will, who came to BA for a birthday treat…!!) for their unending patience, support and tolerance as we stumbled from one crisis to another. I’ll try not to dwell on the lowlights, but suffice it to say that relatively little of what we were promised actually materialised, and if it weren’t for the British Council, we’d have been sleeping in the theatre!

We were in Buenos Aires for 11 days – doing schools’ workshops, composers’ workshops and 2 concerts.  The tenors in particular had ludicrous amounts of spare time.  Not their fault, of course – they were only required to attend a couple of workshops and sing one 20 minute piece in the first concert.  Fortunately, the tenors in question were Gerry O’Beirne and Andy Busher – the two most intrepid tenors in the contemporary music world.  Many tenors would have crumbled under the pressure of having to entertain themselves for so many days in such a crazy place, but these two filled their time effortlessly, walking the length and breadth of the city and visiting everything they could find listed on a map – and a few things that weren’t.  Apart from a slightly sticky moment in Boca (where they accidentally turned left instead of right and ended up in a street full of dodgy dwellings, swinging doors, filthy children and a very large free-range Alsatian), I think I can safely say that they made the most of the experience.

The first two crises (apart from flying with Iberia) came in the form of 5 of our suitcases being left in Madrid, and Will being left in Buenos Aires airport for 4 hours – but the first really big crisis was our accommodation.  We’d been promised the 5-star Panamericano Hotel, but we were taken from to the airport to a (2-star?) Aparthotel with dirty chairs in the foyer and the sort of lifts that bounce from floor to floor with concertina doors.  No way were we going to stay here for 10 nights!

Room with a view!

Glamorous bedroom

Thankfully, we had agreed to take a workshop with the girls’ choir at San Marcos school on our first morning.  Having agreed to stay one night only in the Aparthotel (because we were all so exhausted), Gerry and I were whisked off in a nice car with the lovely Agustina from the British Council.  Finally, we felt as though we had stepped back out of a parallel universe.  The girls and the staff at San Marcos were absolutely delightful.  We had great fun trying Clapping Music and learning all sorts of rounds and songs together.  Their English was excellent – putting us to shame in the language stakes, as usual.  We had quite a long drive to get there, passing the most enormous shanty town (which is home to over 1 million people), stretching around and underneath a big motorway, but this gave us the opportunity to explain our accommodation situation to Agustina.  Thanks to her, the wonderful British Council came to our rescue, taking over our battle and organising NH Hotel accommodation for us for the rest of our stay.  We were so relieved and grateful that we offered to do the next Argentinian British Council TV-ad backing-vocals for them free of charge!

‘Clapping Music’ with the girls at San Marcos

Our first few evenings were taken up with composers’ workshops led by the lovely Santiago Santero (a local composer/conductor).  A local group of singers were the guinea pigs for a dozen or so new pieces, and they did a very good job showcasing them.  There were some extremely interesting ideas on offer, but some of the usual practicality/singability issues cropped up and needed to be addressed.  We tried to be as constructive as possible and hope that our comments were helpful.  Thanks to Elena for helping to keep us abreast of all the in-depth discussions.  Translating at that speed, she could get a job at the United Nations!

When we first arrived in Buenos Aires it was warm and raining, but then the temperature soared to a sweltering 34 degrees centigrade.  Lovely by the seaside, but not so comfortable in a city teeming with cars, buses and motorbikes, all driving at breakneck speeds.  I’m amazed we only witnessed 2 accidents.  And I’m not sure that the government is all that strict about MOTs, or whatever the Argentinian equivalent is.  Gerry, Andy and Rachel almost didn’t get to our first concert as their taxi had a completely knackered clutch and gearbox.  Andy gives a hilarious (after the event!) account of sitting in a stalled car half way across a major road, with 4 lanes of cars lined up, engines revving, ready to take them out!

As recommended in all the guide books, we sampled a great many steaks in order to find the best one in town.  NH Hotel buffet breakfasts, empanadas for lunch, then huge steaks for dinner meant that we all felt rather sausage-like in our concert trousers, but sometimes you have to suffer for your art!

Street market

Tango in San Telmo square

We enjoyed some live tango one evening in a square in San Telmo.  It was weird but lovely to be sitting outside for dinner in November.  Even at 11pm it was still well over 20 degrees.  The only downside was the mosquitoes.  Poor Amy had about 35 bites by the end of the first week and, having been fine for whole trip, felt really ill on our concert day.  She obviously had a lurgie, but I’m sure all those bites and the heat didn’t help.  It was really hot on stage at Teatro San Martin too, and she did brilliantly in the circumstances.  I’m sure many singers would have given their proverbial right arm to be able to sing that well even when feeling fine!

Gerry and Andy’s contribution to the concerts was about 10 minutes of singing in Proverb.  It was an extremely worthwhile contribution though – beautifully sung, as always, and their unison page-turning was exemplary – not to mention their immaculately ironed black shirts!

Rehearsals for the two concerts were spread out over several days.  Pablo Druker, our conductor, was delightful and very good.  We love working with musicians like him.  He knew the pieces really well, but was completely open to discussion in respect of tempi and style etc.  The percussion players from Uruguay (Ensamble Perceum) were equally lovely and we sincerely hope to work with them again.  Steve Reich came over for both concerts – which is just as well, otherwise he wouldn’t have believed the story of the Drumming gig….

Taking a bow for ‘Tehillim’

On the afternoon of said Drumming gig (having been to a rehearsal that was put back by 2 hours and nobody had told us!), Will and I were just about to pop out for a pre-concert bite to eat (in the now very short gap between rehearsal and concert) when the hotel lights went out – not just in our hotel as it turned out, but across half the city.  There were no street lights, no traffic lights, the underground was halted, air-conditioning was no more, and shops and restaurants were plunged into darkness.  We walked for several blocks, finally found a cafe with the lights on, and sat down to order a salad – then those lights went out!  We did get our salad, but had to use up all our remaining cash to pay for it (the credit card machine being out of action).

As the concert time was looming, we rushed back to the hotel and up 18 flights of stairs to our room (the lights were on – presumably down to an emergency generator – but the lifts weren’t working).  After a rapid change into concert gear, and with half-made-up eyes, I received a call from our co-ordinator to say that the electricity was also out in the theatre, that the technical staff had gone home, and that there was no chance of the concert going ahead.  With a sneaky sigh of a relief, after what had already felt like a long day, we headed downstairs to the hotel bar to meet Heather for a drink.  One hour and one large G&T later, a man came over from the desk – “phone call for Micaela”.  You guessed it – the concert was back on.  Could we be at the theatre in half an hour?  So, back upstairs to change again into concert gear.   Heather had already ordered a burger, requested it “to go” – then promptly dropped it on the pavement round the corner from the hotel.

Have you ever tried hailing a cab dressed in black, on a street with no lights?  It’s not easy, but we did finally manage to get to the theatre.  The electricity was back on but all the technical staff had indeed gone home, so a plucky member of the team set to work rigging up 2 rock n’ roll amplifiers for the marimbas, voices and piccolo.   The drums and glockenspiels would have to play acoustically.

Finally, the audience (still waiting patiently in the foyer) was ushered back in and the piece started.  Section 1 of Drumming involves 4 pairs of tuned bongos and Ensamble Perceum managed the phasing and patterns really well.  Then it was the turn of the marimbas, with female voices.  Heather and I belted out our marimba patterns, as requested – then all the lights went out!  Green emergency exit lights went on over the doors as the marimbas faded out, and we all wondered what would happen next.  Those plucky percussionists were not to be defeated, however, and simply carried on into Section 3 (glockenspiels, whistling and piccolo).  Even though they’d learned Drumming from memory, they still needed to see the instruments they were playing.  As if by magic, a couple of stage-hands raced on to the stage with Mag-lites, and the piece went on by the light of these tiny torches and the emergency exit lights.  Then the emergency lights went out and we were plunged into a complete black-out – but still the players continued.  They even managed to finish the piece together, despite the fact that they couldn’t see each other – amazing.  Needless to say, the crowd went wild, there were tears on stage, and Steve was amazed, grateful and I think genuinely moved by the tenacity and commitment of this amazing ensemble.  Then the lights came back on!

…and then there was light!

View of the proceedings by the light of a camera flash

Needless to say, all the luggage got left behind in Madrid on the way home.  Honestly, you couldn’t make it up!”


Amsterdam/Rotterdam/The Hague (Sept/Oct 2012)

Synergy represented by:

(clockwise from left) Gerry O’Beirne, Phill Brown, Rachel Weston, (Etienne Siebens – conductor), Wendy Nieper, Simon Grant, Amanda Morrison, Mike Dore, Joanna L’Estrange

This trip involved concerts in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, then a return trip a week later to repeat the programme in The Hague.  Three performances of Berio’s Sinfonia – with a student orchestra and a conductor we hadn’t worked with before. How would they all fare, we wondered?  With its quotations of Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Berlioz, Strauss, Ravel, Debussy, Schoenberg, Hindemith, Berg, Pousseur, Boulez, Webern and Stockhausen – not to mention Berio’s own contributions – the work ain’t exactly a walk in the park!

Well, we needn’t have worried.  The players were well on for the challenge, and this turned out to be exciting and energised music-making.  Conductor Etienne Siebens encouraged everybody constantly to listen to what was going on around us.  It might sound like obvious advice, but I guess when the music is complex for each individual, it’s easy to concentrate so much on your own part and almost to block out the surrounding sounds.  I couldn’t help noting a few of Mr Siebens’ choice phrases during rehearsal.  For instance, while rehearsing movement 3: “Open your ears – big surprises!  Did you hear the harp in bar 5?” At another point, “There are vocals here – open your ears like elephant!”  In fact, although the members of the Synergy team had done this piece many times, we heard passages within the orchestra we’d never heard before, like the harp part beneath the gorgeous trumpet solo we always savour in movement 3.  But Siebens wasn’t just talking about the sounds we were producing.  As he put it, “My friends – what’s music without silence?  It’s NOTHING!”

Incidentally, Maestro Siebens told us he’d been wanting to conduct Berio’s Sinfonia since his own student days.  Surely these students in Rotterdam and The Hague could have had no better guide for their first encounter with the piece.

Etienne Siebens chats with Gerry after rehearsal

Happily, the thorough rehearsals gave rise to good performances of Sinfonia in Amsterdam and Rotterdam.

How’s that for a view from a dressing room?! Wendy and I were tempted to hop on this cruise ship in Amsterdam after the gig...

And speaking of views, here’s the one from my 14th-floor hotel room in The Hague, looking over towards Rotterdam.

View from our hotel

The third concert, for which we returned to The Hague a week later, was part of ‘Together Now’, a special festival of many kinds of musical and dance events, all going on – some simultaneously – in a rolling schedule during one evening.  For Sinfonia, audience members were able to come and go during the performance if they wished, and all the stalls seating of the Dr Anton Philipzaal had been removed.  But most dramatically, no sooner had we taken our bows after the performance, but the stage lights went to black, the stalls doors were thrown open, loud drumming began, and beautifully-dressed African women sashayed into the hall singing and dancing.  Fantastic!  One of the girls in the orchestra took this photo just before she left the stage – perhaps you can just make out the African women, along with some of the audience – in the stalls area of the hall behind us.

Anyway, the drumming and singing and dancing clearly put us all in a good mood, as you can see from our broad smiles and from the ‘team pic’ at the top of this diary which was taken a few minutes later.  We’d spied the ‘photo opportunity’ on the stairs as we were making our way back to our make-do dressing rooms which were in fact the offices of the hall administrators.  With hundreds of performers taking part in the Together Now Festival, dressing room space was stretched to the max!  It was a fun event, though, and interesting to perform Sinfonia in a less formal context.

Next morning Simon and Gerry left for a super-early flight back to London.  They hadn’t been thrilled to be told, when we’d checked in at 11.30pm the previous night after our concert, that breakfast started at 8am because it was a weekend, and that as the kitchen staff had already left for the day there wasn’t a lot that could be done!  Nevertheless, the boys made their train to Schipol and their flight home, and they found food on the way, I’m sure.  The rest of us followed a little later, so we had a few minutes to enjoy breakfast before dragging our wheelie bags to the train station.  We did arrive at Schipol with loads of time to spare, tho’.  For me that was a wonderful chance to visit ‘Back to life’ for a back, neck, shoulder and head massage.  Bliss.  Half way through it I heard a familiar voice saying ‘Ah it’s Rachel!’  Philip had had the same idea, and he too settled into a massage chair.

Barbie à la Van Gogh!

Another of Schipol’s little delights was found on a shelf at the airport’s Rijksmuseum shop.  A Barbie doll in a Van Gogh dress.  Now there’s a costume idea for us – how about it, gals?!”

Rachel Weston

Edinburgh Festival – Greyfriars Kirk (22nd August 2012)

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!

Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh

James MacMillan Since it was the Day of Preparation…
World Premiere) with Hebrides Ensemble and Brindley Sherratt
August 2012

“exquisite performance”

Financial Times

“the best new work that I’ve heard from MacMillan for a while…superb performances all round too”

The Times (****)

“The four individual members of Synergy Vocals featured in many extended and unaccompanied solo passages. (They) were required, often in the interest of word painting, to reach into the far corners of tonality. This produced some very exciting and emotive listening. In many such forays, their final note was required to match the re-entering instrumentalists. The pitch was spot on every time. I found this performance completely engaging …. in fact, I would love to have heard the piece again upon returning home.”


“Synergy Vocals (sang) with rich beauty as required, and articulated with admirable clarity at every turn”


“(MacMillan’s vocal writing) includes unaccompanied solos, duets, and quartets as well as full-blown, instrumentally-accompanied numbers in an indescribably pluralistic display that features plainchant-style, chorales, hymns and irresistible folk-tinged melodies and harmonies. The music ranges in mood from austere to warm and tender. The performance was broad, blazing and stunning.”


Dublin, Ireland

Steve Reich Drumming
The Colin Currie Group
June 2012

“Drumming, written in 1971, is a classic, pure and simple … a visceral, ritualistic, unbroken lattice of sound … Sunday’s performance, by the Colin Currie Group with Synergy Vocals, Rowland Sutherland on piccolo and Dave Sheppard at the mixing desk, was intentionally virtuosic… and seems to have brought in a fresh and much younger audience (to the KBC Great Music in Irish Houses festival)”

Irish Times

Barbican, London

Kurt Weill The Seven Deadly Sins
LSO conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas
February 2012

“The gentlemen of Synergy Vocals were on form.  (They) added an edge quite lacking elsewhere, rendering the Family’s hypocrital bourgeois morality all the more repellent”