London – Barbican (6th November 2011)

Synergy represented by:

L-R:  Tom Bullard, Olivia Robinson, Joanna Forbes L’Estrange, (Marin Alsop), Micaela Haslam, Heather Cairncross, Andrew Busher

Voices of Light was a new piece for us and we always love a new project!  The music by Richard Einhorn was inspired by and designed to run alongside the famous 1928 silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer.  Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s performance of Joan is astonishing and the whole is extremely moving, indeed harrowing at times.

The piece is scored for strings, wind, a synthesiser (for church bells), chorus, SATB soli, and “the voice of Joan” which can be sung by four early music female voices (Anonymous 4 on the CD – mostly doubling two to a part), or two voices, or the S and A soli could sing these sections in straighter tones.  We opted for the second version.  I was very keen to have these passages sounding completely different from the rest of the ensemble, giving a “churchy” feel to the chant-like simple lines of music.

Much of the piece is in ancient French, so we called upon the services of Michel Vallat to help us with the text.  We were given a pronunciation guide, made by one of the Anon 4 singers, which was extremely helpful up to a point, but the American accent gave the words a bit of a twang which we wanted to extract for our London performance.  You never know how many “experts” you’re going to have in your audience!

It was great to have Olivia Robinson on the team for the first time.  There is very little I have come across that she can’t sing, but having recently attended one of our Steve Reich events (straight, repetitive singing on close microphone), Olivia had requested that I never ask her to do a Synergy gig!  So how could I resist?  Although we were being amplified for this project, the quartet needed to be much more soloistic than for a Steve Reich concert.  When I heard the soprano solos on the Einhorn CD, I immediately thought of Olivia – and she was definitely the right choice. The quiet sections were absolutely stunning, then when she had a string of fortissimo top C’s, they were even more impressive!

The team with Richard Einhorn

Heather, Andy and Tom also had their fair share of pearly solo moments, and they all sang brilliantly.  Joanna L’Estrange and I sang “as one”, providing the voice of Joan.  It was lovely to hear from members of the choir, orchestra and audience that we sounded exactly the same, and that you couldn’t tell when we were singing in unison until the parts diverged.  It’s lovely to hear comments like that, because we really do care about getting the right voices for each piece we sing.  There is no such thing as a “soprano” or an “alto” beyond a vague notion of range.  Every singer sounds completely different from the next, and some are more able than others to modify the way they sing in order to find the “right” sound in any given situation.

We had our lovely friend Ian Dearden (Sound Intermedia) on the desk, so we knew we were in safe hands.  The monitor sound for Jo and I was critical in helping us create the right mood for our “Joan” sections.  A higher mix than usual, with some added reverb, ended up being just the thing to persuade us that we were in a big church, rather than on the dry Barbican stage.

Our conductor, Marin Alsop, was absolutely delightful, extremely efficient and wonderfully clear.  It was a real pleasure to work with her, and I sincerely hope that our paths cross again.  We have another LSO project coming soon (January and February 2012 – Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins) so, happily, we know it won’t be too long before we see our player friends again.

Voices of Light was our final big concert of 2011 and it was a great way to end an amazing season of exciting projects.  Who knows what 2012 and 2013 will bring…..I love my job!”


Munich – Residenz (28th October 2011)

Synergy represented by:

L-R: Andrew Busher, (Simon Stockhausen), Heather Cairncross, (David Robertson), Gerry O’Beirne, Micaela Haslam, Simon Grant, Amanda Morrison, Mike Dore, Rachel Weston

“Here we all are on a balcony just outside the concert hall of the magnificent Residenz of Munich.  Simon Stockhausen was our sound engineer for this concert, having done a marvellous job for our Sinfonia with LSO in Berlin last year, and it was wonderful to be working with David Robertson again.  We like to think of David as our founding conductor as he was at the helm for our first ever concert of Tehillim in 1996 – for Steve Reich’s 60th birthday.

We were staying at the Hotel an der Oper, which was perfectly situated for the concert hall and the centre of town. There is also a really excellent, and reasonably priced, Italian restaurant on the ground floor – hurrah!

English Garden

With only one rehearsal per day, there was plenty of time for us to enjoy this beautiful city.  I loved these treble clef railings in the “English Garden” next to the Residenz.  Gerry’s wife (Ju) was with us for a couple of days and, while we were rehearsing, took herself off to visit the Neuschwanstein Castle, of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang fame.

Concert hall

Back in the Residenz, our concert hall looked lovely but was worryingly resonant.  With a wooden stage like a giant sounding board, this was going to be a tricky gig for Simon Stockhausen.  We started rehearsals sitting right in front of David in a semi-circle, as we’ve done so many times before, but in this hall he found it very difficult to hear the orchestra with our monitors right under his nose.  So we spread out and moved back into the body of the orchestra.  This was much better for David but more difficult for us singers to stay in touch with each other.  This picture will give you an idea of how far apart we were from each other.

View from my chair

Simon was getting very good at riding the monitor levels during the piece, so that the levels came right down in the particularly quiet sections.  One of these moments is the beginning of the 4th movement, which involves only the singers, muttering and singing as quietly as humanly possible.  Sitting at the front, we had agreed with Simon that he’d turn the monitors off completely because the acoustic sound was loud enough, but in these new positions it was most unnerving as we each felt as though we were each singing a complete solo.  We decided on a bit of level after all!

The concert went really well, and David managed to draw out yet more detail from this incredible piece of music.  I wonder whether there is another conductor who knows Sinfonia as well as he does.  Every time we sing the piece with David, we discover things in the orchestral parts that we’ve never heard before.  I love the fact that his interpretation of the piece never seems to be pre-conceived; it always sounds spontaneous.

After the concert

These few days in Munich were over all too quickly.  After the concert, drinks were laid on in the foyer for performers and audience alike.  We enjoyed a glass or two then rounded the evening off in a fabulous all-night burger place right opposite our hotel.

Munich airport was a complete nightmare on the way home, and gets the prize for the longest check-in queue I’ve ever encountered.  It took about 40 minutes to get near a desk!  But the good news is that, weeks later, my roses are still going strong – so I’m very glad I made the effort to bring them home!”


Barbican, London

Richard Einhorn Voices of Light
LSO conducted by Marin Alsop
November 2011

“… the singing by Synergy Vocals was glorious”

Behind the scenes…

Take a peek behind the scenes at the recording of vocals for the track ‘Raider II’ at Angel Studios in February 2011, for Steven Wilson’s album “Grace For Drowning”.

London – Barbican (15th October 2011)

Synergy represented by:

L-R: Andrew Busher, Amy Haworth, Phillip Conway Brown, Rachel Weston, Simon Grant, Heather Cairncross, Tom Bullard, Micaela Haslam, Claire Underwood, Amanda Morrison

“It’s always a real treat to work with the LSO, so we’d been looking forward to this project for a while. The Desert Music doesn’t come up very often. It’s a big piece to put on, but so exhilarating to play and listen to, I wish more orchestras would give it a go. It may also be that programmers look at the score and worry that they’ll need a massive orchestra and a huge chorus. In Synergy, we use ten individual amplified singers, which works equally well with the full orchestral version and the reduced version (more manageable for smaller orchestras) – and we take up hardly any room on stage!

Our first rehearsal with the orchestra and the conductor Kristjan Järvi was at St Luke’s – the LSO’s current base. With all the extra percussion, keyboards and brass involved in this full version, we were completed packed in there – singers right at back, miles away from the conductor.

The difficulty for us was that we couldn’t hear the six marimba players who were right at the front, under the conductor’s nose. Steve Reich puts them there for a good reason – they are the rhythmic “engine” of the piece. Keeping such a large body of players together, ticking along at the same speed is no mean feat, and Kristjan clearly felt the need to beat ahead some of the time, in an effort to stop the piece from slowing down. The problem for us was that we couldn’t hear anything rhythmic (apart from ourselves in our monitors), so the only tempo we could take was Kristjan’s literal beat. That meant that our supposedly constant rhythmic patterns got a little bit sea-sick! In the end, we managed to persuade our lovely sound engineer, Ian Dearden, to put microphones on a couple of the marimbas – not for amplification, but simply to relay their sound into our monitors, thereby putting us in touch with the front of the stage. That was very helpful for us, but the poor keyboard players were still out on a limb. They needed to keep in time with us and the marimbas, but didn’t have monitors, so could hear neither. It must have been very frustrating for them – but they did brilliantly in the circumstances.

Waiting for the conductor

We were hoping that the Barbican might prove easier than St Luke’s, acoustically speaking, and indeed the morning rehearsal did feel a lot safer. By this stage we were feeling quite self-sufficient, having realised that we were pretty much on our own at the back! Kristjan referred to us as “the chorus”, which was mildly irritating – because we’re not a chorus, and we do have a name – but I decided to forgive him as he had recorded the piece recently with another orchestra and chorus, and apparently he wasn’t feeling very well.

The Barbican was packed for this Reich-fest and of course the great man himself was there, starting the concert with Clapping Music, ably assisted by Neil Percy.

Neil Percy with Steve Reich

Though I say it myself, we all did really well in the performance – particularly Amy and Mandy on the horrendously high top soprano line. We managed to keep together, though the first few bars of the piece were a bit of a surprise. It started well, the tempo was good, the keyboards were on track, then Kristjan seemed to speed up almost instantly. A bit of adrenalin is good for a live performance, but there was a bit too much of it on page one for my liking! Still, the LSO was marvellous, we all made it to the end in one piece, the audience was happy, and so was Steve – which is the main thing.

Kristjan Järvi with Steve Reich

The LSO is one of our favourite orchestras to work with. We always have fun in rehearsals, and we have many good friends among the players. Roll on next month when we have another project with them – accompanying a famous old silent film – very exciting!”


Dresden – Hellerau (12th & 13th October 2011)

Synergy represented by:

L-R:  Alastair Putt, Joanna Forbes L’Estrange, (Steve Reich), Micaela Haslam, Tom Bullard

'The Cave' team with Steve

“After a 4.45am check-out of our Paris hotel (aagh!), Jo and I flew back to Dresden via Düsseldorf with Ensemble Modern.  At Dresden airport, a bus was waiting to take us straight to the Festspielhaus for our dress rehearsal of The Cave.

Our weary spirits were lifted hugely by the most delicious brunch waiting for us in the restaurant there.  As we tucked into our scrambled eggs, fresh fruit, Parma ham, and all sorts of other deliciousnesses, the hideously early start faded into a distant memory – probably because it was a distant memory, six hours to be precise!

Pretty Dresden

Tom and Al had flown out the night before, so at least two people were fresh for the run-through which went surprisingly well, all things considered.  About half way through the rehearsal, I resorted to handing out 80% Belgian mini-chocolates to keep everyone awake.  Fortunately, I had a bag of these in my case that I’d bought in Monoprix the previous day.

We had about three hours recovery time back at the hotel before the performance, but I didn’t get any sleep.  It’s really difficult to sleep when you know it’s your only opportunity and you need to do it NOW.  My brain was thoroughly rebellious, so I had to make do with a lie-down and several cups of tea.

View of Dresden from my hotel window

We were all slightly apprehensive before the concert.  Although we had performed The Cave once before in Strasbourg, this was to be Steve Reich’s first hearing of our rendition.  I had made various executive decisions about the way we would deliver the vocals, somewhat different from the recording, but fortunately Steve was utterly delighted.  I was especially pleased for the other singers who are relatively new to Synergy but who had totally committed themselves to this project.  Their hard work really paid off.

Rehearsing 'The Cave' - Photo (c) Klaus Gigga

The previous week when I was in Dresden for Tehillim, I was still recovering from a sickness bug I’d had two weeks earlier, but now the time had come to get back on the Prosecco!  There was a great atmosphere in the bar after the concert.  Jo, Alastair and I did very well in outstaying our welcome and being the last to leave – an old Synergy motto.  Actually, we didn’t outstay our welcome.  The very nice man at the bar was delighted that we were there.  He took our photo (apparently he has a whole string of photos of “last to leave-ers”) and even gave us the remainder of the most delicious cake.

Back to London for me the following morning (rehearsals for The Desert Music with LSO), while Jo stayed on for Synergy’s final Music for 18 of the year – joined by Julia Batchelor, Caroline Jaya-Ratnam and Jenny Bacon.  I saw Jenny for the sum total of five minutes at the hotel lift in Dresden, but I heard that their Music for 18 went swimmingly well and that they had a good knees-up afterwards.  Many thanks to all concerned.  Dresden was quite a team effort!”


Paris – Cité de la Musique (11th October 2011)

Synergy represented by:

L-R: Julia Batchelor, Joanna Forbes L’Estrange, Caroline Jaya-Ratnam, Micaela Haslam

“Following our Tehillim triumph in Dresden, Caroline and I flew to Paris via Munich. Just as we were waiting to take off in Munich, the captain apologised for the delay and explained that this was due to there being no-one to load the luggage onto the plane (some dispute or other) – so he was going to take off anyway – oh marvellous! This of course meant that we would land in Paris without any bags (mine containing concert clothes for all the singers the following evening) and no way of knowing when we might see them again. So, there we were in Charles de Gaulle, a planeful of passengers queuing up at the Lufthansa desk, like an army of Oliver Twists, waiting to be given a measly bag of overnight toiletries and a t-shirt made of such poor quality cotton that you could see your hand through it. But not to worry – we were assured that we could sleep soundly in the knowledge that our bags would be delivered safely to the Holiday Inn during the night, ready for us in the morning – yeah, right!

You may not be surprised to hear that our bags did not in fact turn up that night. Fearing the worst, I’d called down to reception at midnight, again at 5.30am (having been woken by noisy neighbours), and finally at 9am – at which point I hurriedly showered, got dressed and headed down to reception to start the bag chase. I got through to the Lufthansa desk at CDG who said that the bags were with the delivery company. So I called the delivery company. They said that they should have the bags by 11am, and hoped to get them to us by 5pm. Our concert was at 7.30 that evening, we were leaving Paris the next morning at 5am to fly back to Dresden, and at the moment our cases were apparently nowhere at all. All I could do was call the delivery company every hour or so, in the hope of news – and then keep everything crossed. The worst bit, as ever in these situations, was not knowing. Already feeling very tired, having had only four or five hours sleep, would I now have to head into central Paris to buy another set of concert outfits, or would our cases actually show up? To cut a very long morning short, the cases did finally show up at around noon – though no-one at the hotel thought to let us know. Only when I checked again with reception at 12.30 did they mention that the cases had arrived half an hour ago. Anyway, my only thought at this point was – phew!!!

Joanna Forbes L’Estrange

Julia Batchelor

We four singers had individual star dressing rooms at the Cité – naturally! We love this concert hall and have performed here many times. Earlier this year, we sang Tehillim with Ensemble InterContemporain, but I think the last time we sang Music for 18 in this hall was in 2006 with Steve Reich & Musicians, in celebration of Steve’s 70th birthday. Here we were again for his 75th. In my opinion, the Cité is one of the best halls in the world for Music for 18. The acoustics are just right – both in the auditorium and on stage. The piece sounds vibrant and powerful, but the volume is not overwhelming and you can hear everything.

Caroline & Jagdish

Rumi, Wolfram, Nina & Steve

Although Synergy had one more Music for 18 to go in Dresden, this was to be my last one of the year (singing at least – still some coaching to do). The Ensemble Modern players not involved in The Cave were heading back to Frankfurt the following morning, so I had to say a few sad farewells. We’ve had such an amazing season of concerts with EM, it was strange not being able to say “see you in …. (wherever it might be)”.

We all had to sign an agreement in respect of a recording that was being made of the concert. Julia was thrilled to see that she’d been listed as the conductor (chef) – albeit briefly!

The concert was a veritable triumph. Apparently, people were talking about it for days afterwards, but there were no after-show drinkies for Jo and me, sensible souls that we are. We were leaving for Dresden the following morning at the crack of dawn for a VERY long day of The Cave – but at least we had our suitcases with us!!”


Dresden, Hellerau – (9th October 2011)

Synergy represented by:

top L-R: Rachel Weston, Micaela Haslam, Heather Cairncross, Caroline Jaya-Ratnam

“This concert was the first of three in Dresden – Tehillim, The Cave and Music for 18 – all with different teams of singers. Rachel, Caroline and I flew out for the first rehearsal which we did without Heather, who had another commitment in London. Fortunately, the sections that usually need the most rehearsal are the ones that Rachel and I sing with the clarinets, so we knew this wouldn’t be a problem. Also, we had our old friend Brad Lubman at the helm, so we didn’t need to convince him that Heather could easily slot into the proceedings at the dress rehearsal. She knows Tehillim quite well now, having sung every performance of the piece with Synergy since our first concert in 1996!

We were pleased to be at the Holiday Inn situated half way between the old town and Hellerau. The rooms were very comfortable, there was a gym, a pool, free Wi-fi, and a fabulous breakfast. They really had thought of everything….

What can I say?!

It was surprisingly cold in Dresden, so I was forced to buy a nice new jumper from C&A. Now that you can’t get them in the UK, C&A clothes are the new designer wear!

Dress rehearsal

The Festspielhaus at Hellerau looks brand new but has actually had a long and interesting history. First opened in 1911, it played an important role in cutting edge theatre and dance until it was commandeered by the Nazis, and then the Soviet Union. Only released from its military shackles in the 1990s, the building is still being refurbished, but is already re-established as a dynamic contemporary arts centre.

Unusually, our dress rehearsal was on the day before the concert – in concert dress, so that the in-house photographer could take some pictures for the archives. It feels slightly odd to us doing a concert without any sort of play through on the day, but we have come across this preferred schedule a few times now. The plus side is that you can have a nice relaxing day before the concert, but the danger is that you relax too much – or exhaust yourself sight-seeing and shopping!

Frauenkirche, Dresden – completely rebuilt after being fire-bombed in WW11

The Dresden Philharmonie played really well. Tehillim isn’t terribly strings-friendly – there’s a lot of hanging around on long chords and quick rhythmic changes, so much of it must feel like an exercise in counting. The players had had a rehearsal before we arrived, and it was nice to hear from them that the piece immediately made sense once the voices were added. The maracas player deserves a particular mention, though I’m afraid I don’t know his name. He played wonderfully accurately on bijoux maracas. I think they worked extremely well – perfectly loud enough and with plenty of clarity. In my experience, the role of the maracas can cause all sorts of hang-ups in this piece. My view is that the conductor simply sets a clear tempo for the canons, we all get into the groove, and the canons sing themselves. As soon as anyone starts worrying about who is following whom, the rhythm starts to wobble. Fortunately, in Dresden, none of this was an issue, so we could all just enjoy the music – hurrah!

I’m pleased to say that the audience enjoyed it too, though we weren’t sure for a moment! Tehillim is in four sections, but there is only one short break in the middle of the piece. It ends with a fast, joyous “Hallelujah”, but clearly the audience wasn’t sure whether we’d finished. At the end, after what felt like ages, the silence was finally broken by a smattering of unsure hand claps, so we thought “what the hell” and took a bow! Rapturous applause followed (thankfully!) and all was well.

Rachel and Heather flew back to London the following morning, while Caroline and I headed up to Paris to meet Julia Batchelor and Joanna L’Estrange for two performances of Music for 18 Musicians with Ensemble Modern and Steve Reich.”


Strasbourg, Palais de la Musique – (23rd September 2011)

Synergy represented by:

Joanna Forbes L’Estrange, Micaela Haslam, Alastair Putt, Tom Bullard

“We were really excited to be performing The Cave – the one remaining vocal piece of Steve Reich’s that we hadn’t sung to date.  This was also to be the première of the slightly pared down version (pared down in terms of staging and technology – though the piece is still run by 10 computers, and is well over 2 hours long!).

Rhein Main Theater

In order to put the project together, Ensemble Modern had hired a theatre in Niedernhausen, in the middle of nowhere, for a week in August.  We stayed in the Ramada hotel next door, which couldn’t have been more convenient, and had the theatre to ourselves for five days.  The Cave had only ever been performed by Steve Reich’s US ensemble, so we had a couple of the American tech team with us to help the EM crew get to grips with all the lighting, video and midi cues.  We had a really lovely week in Niedernhausen.  Most mornings were free for the musicians (for technical rehearsals), the hotel breakfast was a veritable banquet, and it was really hot and sunny outside.  There was a supermarket and two really excellent restaurants at the bottom of the hill – Italian and Thai – so we wanted for very little!

Rehearsing in Niedernhausen

Jonathan Stockhammer in action

The conductor, Jonathan Stockhammer, was new to us, but he turned out to be delightfully easy going and a pleasure to work with.  We four singers had rehearsed a little bit in London, so our ensemble was in pretty good shape.  Most of the really tricky stuff in the piece goes on between the string quartet (particularly the viola and cello) and the pianos.  They have to play along with spoken text, which can only be notated approximately.  So it was a case of running the video a few times, listening to the speech, then just playing along with it over and over again until it felt natural.

The Cave quartet

The trickiest job of all in The Cave is definitely the conductor’s.  He has a whole array of aural cues that must be obeyed – midis, clicks, count-offs etc – and the piece changes speed a zillion times, according to the speed of the speech in the video at any given time.  For us and the players, there is the added joy of the piece changing key all over the place, sometimes every four bars, and the vocals lines (particularly in the duets) are by no means predictable.

The piano parts are pretty hellish but, as usual, the legendary Ueli and Hermann had them nailed in a couple of days.  These guys work so hard, without complaint – and just keep at it until they get it right.  I love their attitude.  I am a big fan of these two!

Ueli Wiget

Hermann Kretzschmar

One month later, we met up in Strasbourg with just a day’s rehearsal before our first performance – hence all the work in Niedernhausen.  I’d been looking forward to this so much, but the headaches I’d been suffering in Düsseldorf and Bonn had turned into something more sinister.  I couldn’t tame them with painkillers, and I became more and more nauseous.  In the end, I missed the dress rehearsal, because I simply couldn’t get out of bed.  The lovely Kathrin from EM went off to the pharmacy to get more painkillers and some anti-emetics, and somehow I managed to get through our first performance of The Cave, though I can’t say I was in best form.  Everyone else did marvellously well, as far as I could make out, and I’m glad I didn’t miss it.

Micaela & Alastair’s Act 1 duet - Photo (c) Philippe Stirnweiss

I’m really looking forward to our next performance in Dresden, when Steve will be there.  Hopefully, I’ll be able to enjoy that one considerably more!”