Cheltenham – Town Hall (3rd July 2011)

Synergy represented by:

Caroline Jaya-Ratnam, Micaela Haslam

Rehearsing "Drumming" Part 4

“Nothing dramatic to report on this straightforward day trip to Cheltenham – except that Roland (piccolo) missed the train.  He had to take the tube back across London then drive.  Still, he made it in time for the rehearsal, so all was well.

Cheltenham Town Hall is very town-hally, set in lovely grounds.  It was a beautiful day so we could enjoy sitting out in the gardens during the rehearsal of Drumming Part 1 in which there is neither singing nor whistling.  The Festival looked very lively, with an impressive list of concerts and lots of art on display outside the Town Hall.  Here’s a little snippet of our rehearsal :

Plenty more Drumming gigs on the cards next year, so if you haven’t seen the Colin Currie Group in action yet, keep an eye on our “Performances” diary.”


Barcelona – L’Auditori (16th June 2011)

Synergy represented by:

Katy Hill, Micaela Haslam, Rachel Weston, Heather Cairncross

“This Music for 18 Musicians project had been on and off since the beginning of the year, but the shaky start was nothing compared to what Barcelona had in store for me in May and June. I was very concerned about the very limited amount of coaching time I had, particularly as Steve Reich was coming over to play piano with the ensemble. The three months leading up to the concert were so busy for me, it had proved impossible to schedule more than two consecutive days’ rehearsal, so I had taken time to send as much advance information as I possibly could.

Clockwise from back left: Micaela, Katy, Xavi, Naum

At the beginning of June, just before I left Paris to fly to Barcelona, I received the news that Steve had pulled out due to illness, so Madrid had cancelled their concert (this should have been on 14th June). Fortunately, the Barcelona concert had been rescued, but the promoters wanted “a name” to replace Steve. This, of course, was the last thing we needed, for a piece in which everyone is equal – there are no “star turns”. At this stage, all I could do was remain philosophical and hope for the best.

I have to admit that my heart sank at the first rehearsal. It was clear that some of the players weren’t entirely sure what they were supposed to play and we got off to a worryingly slow start. Still, we got our heads down and worked hard for the first day. Thankfully, the sound engineer, Carlos Gomez was absolutely brilliant. He was really quick to sort out the different mixes for each monitor, and that made all the difference. At the end of the first day, we managed to get through the piece (with a bit of prompting), so I knew we were in with a chance. Having won the players’ trust, they started to relax and the ensemble went from strength to strength.

L' Auditori, Barcelona

On the evening of my second day of coaching, I was due to fly back to Paris for our final performance of Rain Live with Ictus at the Opéra, but when I tried to check in, I realised that the promoters had booked my flight for the wrong month! Fortunately, they were able to book another one that evening, albeit rather late. So there I was at Barcelona airport with loads of time to spare. I noted the gate – M1 – and went off to potter around the nicer end of the airport.

Little did I know that, when I went back to gate M1, with nearly two hours to spare, I was actually at gate M0-1, which is somewhere else entirely. There was no clue at any of the gates as to where the flights were going so I didn’t know I was in the wrong place, and guess what? – I missed the flight! I couldn’t believe it. I’d been in the bleedin’ airport for three hours. There was no call and no final call. It turned out that my Paris flight was from gate M1 /14. M1 is an area of gates – not the “porta” that the sign had indicated.

Gate M1, my foot!

Still, I wasn’t alone. Three other girls suffered the same fate. They verified that there had been no call (and they were Spanish speakers) – don’t you just love EasyJet!? So there we were, stranded at Barcelona airport, and I had a soundcheck in Paris the following afternoon – eek!

L-R: Ludivina, Alexandra, Patricia in Barcelona airport

One of the girls managed, via a friend and the internet, to find an affordable hotel online, so off we went on the airport bus. We seemed to drive for miles, then took another bus (the last one of the evening, apparently) to who knows where, got off at the hotel – but then no hotel. It turned out to be half a mile down another road, so we had to get another bus. Blimey – where on earth was I? Relieved to find our EXTREMELY basic Etap hotel, we asked the lady at the desk to print out our EasyJet boarding passes for early the next morning. Mine had been booked by the concert promoter, but the girls’ flights had been booked by a friend – on the wrong day! This was going from bad to worse. Thankfully, they managed to book more flights for the following morning. Without them, I don’t think I’d ever have made it back to the airport. I was in the middle of nowhere and couldn’t speak a word of Spanish.

Crisis averted, I surrendered to the evening and went to bed – only to be kept awake all night by the noise outside. It was like sleeping on the North Circular. Only in the morning did I realise that someone hadn’t quite shut the window properly and that if I’d got up to investigate and pulled the window handle down, I could have had complete silence in the room!

Anyway, after a 6am start, finally I made it back to Paris – absolutely knackered, £120 poorer, and just in time to pack up my room (where I’d been for three weeks) before our last show at the Opéra.

The concert in Barcelona was immediately after our Cologne Three Tales gig with Ensemble Modern, during which I had been in the audience because I’d completely lost my voice. Whilst in Cologne, I received the news that Steve’s replacement had also pulled out due to illness. Whatever next? I’m sure it was the stress of my last visit to Barcelona that had made me ill, and still the banana skins were coming at me! The good news was that we ended up having our stand-in pianist play in the concert. Miquel would have been my choice all along, because he’d been to all the rehearsals. The lovely Carlos (sound engineer) gave me a radio microphone in l’Auditori so that I didn’t have to shout to be heard, and we had an extra rehearsal in the hall – only because Madrid had been cancelled. This extra rehearsal in situ made all the difference, so everything turned out for the best.

Synergy with BCN216 in L’Auditori, Barcelona

I had just a few hours spare for sight-seeing. I’d never been to Barcelona before (perhaps one brief stop with The Swingles but I don’t remember seeing the city). Barcelona definitely seems worth exploring over a long weekend. During the short time I had, I chose to check out the famous Sagrada Familia and, although I did have to queue for ages, it was definitely worth it.

Gaudi's work in progress

What an extraordinary project. I love the fact that it’s pointlessly ornate – fantastically elaborately decorative just for the sake of it. People love to visit this place which, to me, demonstrates the importance of art in society. Religion aside, it’s so uplifting.

Check out that ceiling!

Inside the Sagrada Familia

Hurrah for Gaudi!

Intricate stonework

Katy, Heather and Rachel came out for the balance rehearsal on the day, and we did a bit of surreptitious part swapping so that I could sing as little as possible. Fortunately, I had just enough voice to get through the piece, and BCN216 did really well. In the end, I’m sorry that Steve wasn’t there, if only to hear their performance. I think he would have been delighted with it – and with the audience’s rapturous response.

Taking a bow

Rumour has it that Madrid might reschedule the piece next season, so here’s hoping. But no more banana skins, please!”


Royal Albert Hall, London (Proms)

Steve Reich Music for 18 Musicians
Ensemble Modern with Steve Reich
August 2011

“It was in Music for 18 Musicians – with Synergy Vocals and Ensemble Modern – that Reich’s quiet genius was most gloriously evident.  The whole experience felt oddly religious and deeply cleansing.”
The Guardian

“There are no better performers of the piece than Ensemble Modern and Synergy Vocals, veterans and authorities after years of service.  And so it was to prove tonight.  The music felt vibrant and full of beauty.”

“gemlike precision of Synergy Vocals”
The Guardian

Cologne – Philharmonie (13th June 2011)

Synergy represented by:

Amanda Morrison, (Micaela Haslam), Gerry O’Beirne, Andrew Busher, Alastair Putt

Synergy with Ensemble Modern and Brad Lubman

“Having met up at Heathrow airport, we headed off to Cologne and another 70’s time-warp Maritim Hotel.  I love these crazy places.  They’re so characterful, and I hope they don’t change.  Our “breakfast room” was actually a restaurant in the enclosed courtyard of the hotel, onto which half the rooms in the hotel looked, and the lifts were polished brass and glass affairs that went up the middle of the courtyard onto walkways that straddled the building – bizarre!

Breakfast restaurant

You may have noticed my name in brackets above.  That’s because I didn’t actually sing a note in this concert, nor indeed in the rehearsal.  Dreamhouse in Salford was my last tuneful utterance before falling prey to a nasty throat lurgie and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.  It was too late to organise a replacement singer.  All I could do was sort out some re-voicing in order to cover the essential lines and harmonies, then sit back and watch the others.  I believe this is the first Synergy concert I have missed due to illness in 15 years, and it was very weird.

"He looked long through his binoculars..."

In rehearsal

Alastair came to my rescue.  Fortunately, Three Tales is scored so that Soprano 2 and Tenor 3 very rarely sing at the same time, so he was able to jump between parts filling in what he could.  Soprano 2 is relatively low so he could sing much of my part at pitch, but it was still very high for a tenor.  When Alastair was ill during our Barbican You Are (Variations) concert, I sang in a few high tenor lines for him, so it was rather ironic to find ourselves in this situation only a month or so later.  He definitely got the short straw, but did a great job.  Andy Busher threw in a couple of top C’s for good measure and all was well.

Andy sneaking a peek!

Being out front was ultimately a very positive experience.  It was great to hear Three Tales in concert, but it was also useful to watch the run-through.  I was able to make sure that everyone was standing and moving uniformly, and just tidy up the production side of things a bit.  It’s easy to slip into an attitude of invisibility when you know that the audience are all watching the screen, but it’s amazing how a lack of uniformity draws attention to itself.  Anyway, the singers looked really polished in concert, so it was a useful exercise!”


Salford – Media City (11th June 2011)

Synergy represented by:

Micaela Haslam, Heather Cairncross, Robert Kearley, Michael Dore

“Having just returned from Paris and with one day to turn around, I spent most of my “day off” unpacking and repacking.  I had to think ahead not only to Salford but also to Reading (where Caroline and Heather would be singing Drumming the following day), Cologne (for Three Tales) where I was heading straight from Salford, and Barcelona (for Music for 18 Musicians) which was immediately after that.  Apart from making sure everyone had all the right music and travel documents etc, I also had to bring costumes (all of which are in my loft), so there was quite a lot to think about.

Media City

Steve Mackey, sensibly, had suggested that the singers and guitarists (Catch) get together with him to go through Dreamhouse the night before the concert.  We had no tutti rehearsal scheduled before the balance on the day, so we were to hit the proverbial ground running.  Steve had conducted some of the guitar and vocal recording sessions on the (Grammy-winning!) Dreamhouse CD, but this was to be his Dreamhouse orchestral conducting debut.

Dalek on the loose in Salford

Heather, Mike, Rob and I arranged to meet in our hotel foyer in order to go over to the rehearsal together.  The Holiday Inn turned out to be right next door to Media City, so that couldn’t have been much easier.  What was less easy was finding the hotel in the first place, largely because there are no signs for it anywhere en route.  Apparently, Salford council will only let them put signs up at certain times of day, which obviously means they can’t put signs up at all – bonkers!  Anyway, it’s a lovely hotel when you do find it.

Catch in rehearsal. L-R: Wiek, Seth, Patricio, Mark

I’d spent the journey from London trying to ignore the fact that my throat wasn’t feeling quite right, but by the time I got to Salford, I knew that I was going down with some sort of lurgie.  Steve was very understanding, and I sat quietly through the rehearsal, just crooning a few passages here and there.  I knew that the following morning, I might be completely voiceless.  All I could do was take it easy, not talk and keep my fingers crossed.

Bird's eye view of studio during balance

The BBC Philharmonic did a grand job with the piece, which is by no means easy.  To be honest, we could have done with another rehearsal day all together.  It was a ludicrously tight schedule, but I guess these things always come down to budget.  Steve had imported Jason Treuting, the marvellous drummer from his and Rinde’s band “Big Farm”, to play at the back of the orchestra.  Absolutely rock solid, I’m sure Jason made a huge difference in keeping us all together.

Just before the performance, we had a photo shoot, with all the audience there.  At least we were all looking fresh.  So many pictures are taken after gigs when everyone’s knackered and a bit sweaty (conductors, especially).  It did feel rather odd, though.  Our minds were firmly fixed on the task ahead, rather than on the camera lens, and we just wanted to get on with the concert.

Pre-concert photo shoot

In the end, everyone did a great job and I hope the recording has come out well.  Rinde, as ever, was incredible.  He is truly a wonder of the modern vocal world.  No-one I know can do what Rinde can do.  He has an unbelievable range, a great voice, and he acts and writes as well.  Some people are just too talented for their own good!  Anyway, he definitely earned his holiday in the Cotswolds with his lovely wife Ellen and I hope they found the pub we recommended.

Best of all – fortune was on my side!  My voice held out for the concert and I was so thankful.  This performance was a “live recording” for broadcast the following week.  No-one else has ever sung the soprano part in Dreamhouse so we didn’t have a Plan B (actually, I don’t think he would have been able to sing it either – ha!).  I have never been so relieved to sing a string of top A’s in my life (the end of Dreamhouse).  And sure enough, the following morning, I was completely voiceless.  The lurgie had landed!


We made it through!

Rob and Micaela with Steve Mackey

Paris (25th May – 7th June 2011)

Synergy represented by:

L-R: Amanda Morrison, Julia Batchelor, Micaela Haslam, Katy Hill

“Paris in June – and how lovely to be in the same place for the best part of three weeks. We could unpack properly and make little homes of our studio apartments. Our hotel was in Bercy, to the south east of the centre, but it couldn’t have been easier to get into town and to the incredibly glamorous Opéra Garnier where we had twelve performances of Rain Live (Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians with choreography by Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker). Dream gig!

L’Opéra Garnier
L’Opéra Garnier

We’d performed the piece many times before with Ictus, but always with Anne Teresa’s own dance company, Rosas. This time we were working with the dancers of the Opéra de Paris, and they’d been learning the piece for several months (coached by four members of Rosas) before we arrived. A veritable tour de force, Rain Live is physically very demanding, very tricky to remember, and particularly challenging for these classical dancers (who renamed the piece “Brain!”). Rain Live is danced bare-foot, and involves a lot of lifting, running, braking, falling, hand-stands and what we decided was basically “advanced gym”. As the performances approached, we noticed more and more bandaged feet on stage as the hard skin on the dancers’ feet started to split – argh! They may look graceful, beautiful and serene, but there’s an awful lot of pain involved in their business.

“Rain” in rehearsal
“Rain” in rehearsal
“Rain” in rehearsal
Rehearsing in the pit

The four women of Synergy Vocals were seated in the pit with the Ictus players, and the sides of the pit were raised with the singers on the tallest risers. We could see the whole auditorium as well as the stage – probably the best view in the house.

The Opéra Auditorium

Ceiling painted by Chagall
Mandy’s moves!

Some of the dancers would give us a wink when they came towards the front of the stage, which was fun. Backstage, they’d sing snippets of our vocal lines when we passed them in the corridors. We offered to swap roles obviously, but this is about as far as we got with the dancing.

Over the course of the run, we all had family and friends to stay. It was lovely to have Will with me for a couple of weeks. Mandy’s husband, Nev, and her sister, Claire, popped over for a holiday, as did Chris Hill (Katy’s husband and bass player with Jamie Cullum, no less). Julia’s husband, David, joined us for the whole project, and their son, Sebastian, was as usual the star of the show for the duration of his stay. He was totally at home in Paris – late night dinners with the team, a bit of sight-seeing, enjoying the parks, swimming in the outdoor pool at Bercy, and of course taking pictures for the family album.

Seb orders the wine
Julia & Seb on the Metro

A new David Bailey in the making

Both Mandy and I celebrated our birthdays whilst in Paris – a good excuse for several rounds of Kir Royale (as if we needed one!). There was also plenty of time for sight-seeing. I particularly enjoyed the Jacquemart-André house which I’d never visited before. I could quite happily live in this property. It has funky walls in this reception room that can be lowered hydraulically into the basement in order to open the space up into a grand function room.

Reception room at Jacquemart André Museum

There’s also a stunning pair of spiral staircases that were designed by the bloke who lost the Opéra contract to Mr. Garnier. He must have been gutted to lose the Opéra gig, but his staircases are beautiful!

Jacquemart André staircase

Notre Dame was looking particularly gorgeous. This was the first time in living memory that I’d seen it sans scaffolding. Will and I found a lovely restaurant on the Left Bank where we could sit and enjoy the view of the cathedral by night. Lovely!

Notre Dame at night
Notre Dame

We had glorious sunshine every day for the first two weeks, so all the famous sites were looking their best.

Sacre Coeur
Pretty streets of Montmartre

Busker on the Ile

And the busking prize goes to this man on the Ile de la Cité. His piano was really rubbishly honky-tonk, but he played it so well and with such panache. I loved it! Do they have a “France’s Got Talent” show? Here’s your winner!

My only disappointment on this trip was that I just couldn’t find a decent cup of coffee. Whatever happened to those delicious milky coffees that you used to get in bowls, into which you dipped your morning croissant? Having tried about six cafes and six nasty, bitter concoctions topped with watery shaving foam, I asked precisely this question. The cafe owner said “you mean café grand’mère?”. Blimey, I’m not that old! Still – yes, that sounded promising. So, he poured the nasty bitter coffee into a bowl – ah, me! Finally, after about ten days we stumbled across this place in Le Marais – decent coffee at last, hurrah!

Strong and smooth without any bitterness, and the coffee wasn’t bad either – ha!

My only other disappointment was that I couldn’t sit out front at the Opéra and watch the show. All twelve performances were sold out and the audiences absolutely loved it. Music for 18 Musicians is a piece that can vary hugely in speed and duration, so Anne Teresa had cleverly designed her choreography round one specific performance, which we more or less repeated each evening with the help of a stock clock. The dancers take their cues both from the music and from the clock, and the music changes at specific times (but not so that anyone in the audience would notice). The good news was that every show lasted exactly one hour, 8 minutes and 47 seconds (or thereabouts – I can’t remember the exact number), so following a 7.30pm show, we could always be ensconced in a restaurant by 9pm – very civilised.

“Rain Live” set from back of stage

Towards the end of the run, we had two whole days off – or rather, the others did. I headed off to Barcelona to coach another ensemble who were putting Music for 18 together for the first time. It should have been so simple, but blimey, what an adventure that turned out to be. More about that in the next instalment….

Back just in time for the final performance and fond farewells to the dancers and to our old friends at Ictus, and of course to each other. What a lovely time we’d had in Paris!”


Town Hall, Cheltenham

Steve Reich Drumming
The Colin Currie Group
July 2011

“Steve Reich’s Drumming becomes ever more rewarding with repeated hearings, especially when played by The Colin Currie Group and Synergy Vocals…..(it’s the) sense of spontaneity between instrumentalists and singers that makes this work so compelling.  An uninterrupted hour of music simply flies by leaving the full-house audience – Colin Currie Group concerts are invariably sell-outs – wanting more and applauding wildly.”

Seen and Heard International

Bristol – Colston Hall (11th May 2011)

Synergy represented by:

L-R: Micaela Haslam, Caroline Jaya-Ratnam

“My journey to Bristol took much of the morning as I was coming from Yorkshire. Sadly, my virtual mother-in-law (mother of my boyfriend of 10 years) had passed away the previous week, and 10th May had been chosen as the day for us to say our official farewells. Evelyn was a wonderful woman and we miss her very much. She was huge fun, even down to her funeral at which she had insisted we play “The Blue Danube”, which of course we did.

Anyway, off I headed to Bristol, via Sheffield. I had a little while to wait for a connection in Sheffield, so I popped out to admire this rather marvellous fountain just outside the main door of the station.

Fountain at Sheffield station

Colston Hall is an interesting venue. The main hall and dressing rooms could do with a refurb, if I’m completely honest, but the main entrance and bar is quite smart. The auditorium is one big reflective surface, which can be a bit of a nightmare for Drumming when all the mallet strikes “slap back” from the walls.

Fortunately, we had a couple of hours between rehearsal and concert. I say fortunately because I’d forgotten to bring a blue top for Caroline. I’d kept mine after the QEH concert, and for some reason had it in mind that she’d also kept hers – wrong! So off we headed into Bristol to buy yet more Synergy tops. I seem to have a loft full of them now. Anyway, we managed to find some red drapey jacketty things that we thought would do the job nicely, courtesy of Primark, at the princely sum of £15 each.

When the drummers started the concert, the sound did indeed bounce around all over the place but, actually I thought it sounded great. In fact I think this Drumming gig was the best one we’ve done so far – pretty noisy, but full of energy and enthusiasm.

Taxis had been booked after the concert to take us to Bristol Parkway in good time for our train back to London. We had all come in to Bristol Temple Meads that afternoon, so didn’t realise that Parkway was in the a*** end of nowhere and that there wouldn’t be a single bar or shop open, or even a beer vending machine – misery! So we twiddled our thumbs for half an hour in the very empty station, leapt on the train and headed straight for the buffet. All’s well that ends well!”


Philharmonie, Cologne

Steve Reich Three Tales
Ensemble Modern conducted by Brad Lubman
June 2011

“The Cologne premiere was performed by the best combination – Ensemble Modern with Synergy Vocals”

Kölner Stadt Anzeiger

London – Barbican (8th May 2011)

Synergy represented by:

Amy Haworth, Micaela Haslam, Amanda Morrison, Rachel Weston, Alastair Putt, Phillip Conway-Brown

“We were delighted to have another project with Clark Rundell, and we hadn’t worked with Britten Sinfonia for some time, so all good so far!  Steve Reich mentioned to me some weeks ago that he was delighted we were doing You Are (Variations) in London.  We agree that it’s a piece that isn’t aired enough.  The Desert Music is another one.  I still don’t understand why we haven’t performed it at the Proms in recent years, but I digress.  This concert was to be part of a big Reich-fest, featuring not only works by Steve Reich (and indeed Steve Reich himself) but also some of his contemporaries, and more recent works by younger composers.  The Barbican had packed as many concerts as possible into a long weekend, so it was a complex project, but we didn’t realise quite how much we’d be up against it on the day.

Getting dressed during the rehearsal

Fortunately, we’d had a good rehearsal at BBC Maida Vale studios the previous day.  When it came to rehearsing at the Barbican, however, the band before us was running so far behind schedule that we barely even had time for a sound check.  The concert was due to start at 6pm, and we didn’t get onto the stage until about 5.30.  We had expected to rehearse at around 4.30.  That clearly wasn’t going to happen, so we twiddled our thumbs back-stage and wondered whether to dress for the concert.  Finally, we decided to get changed and made-up, then of course we were called onto the stage.  At this point, we had no microphones set up, no monitors and no music stands, so there was nothing much we could do except stand around and wait.

Rehearsal set up in progress

Our first tenor, Alastair Putt, was singing this piece with us for the first time and unfortunately hadn’t been well.  He really needed this time to check whether or not his voice would work, but in the end he just had to go for it in the concert.  We did a bit of surreptitious covering in the concert, as the tenor 1 part is relentlessly high, and I’m sure no-one even noticed.

Owen Gunnell on marimba

Amazingly, the performance went really well, and the stress on stage wasn’t transferred to the audience, or indeed Steve Reich who was at the sound desk.  I thought we all did brilliantly in the circumstances.  Fortunately, I had the lovely Owen Gunnell playing marimba just in front of me – always a smile in a crisis.  During the applause, he turned to me and said “So, that was the rehearsal.  Shall we do the concert now?””