Essen – Philharmonie (16th April 2011)

Synergy represented by:

L-R: Amanda Morrison, Alastair Putt, Gerard O’Beirne, Andrew Busher, Micaela Haslam

“Having spent the previous evening Photoshopping Alastair into our Three Tales publicity shots (see above), I headed off to Heathrow to meet him and Mandy.  We flew to Düsseldorf then took a train to Gelsenkirchen.  We couldn’t stay in Essen because there was no room at the proverbial inn.  Apparently, there was a big conference happening in Essen, so there weren’t enough hotel rooms for Ensemble Modern and us – or perhaps all these people had come into town to come to our concert.

Essen Philharmonie

Gerry and Andy were in Paris with the Monteverdi Choir and, for some weeks, had had a cunning plan to drive from Paris to Essen after their show on 15th, to arrive in the early hours of 16th April.  Our rehearsal was to be at 11am, so they should have been able to fit in a half-decent night’s sleep.  However, two days before this epic journey, I learned that Andy hadn’t brought his driving licence with him to Paris, so Gerry would have to do all the driving.  Added to that, Gerry had just spoken to someone in the know who told him that the journey by car would actually take about 3 hours longer than they had anticipated.  So, having put a deposit on a hire car in Paris, they had to book train tickets after all, at vastly inflated prices.  What a pair! – good job we love them.

Our hotel in Gelsenkirchen appeared to be in a 70’s time-warp, but fortunately the rooms were very comfortable, and there was a delightful park onto which our breakfast salon looked out.

You see why I call it a breakfast salon!

It was great to be singing Three Tales again.  We hadn’t done the piece in quite a while.  It’s rather expensive to put on, because there is lot of technical wizardry involved – projection, sound track, click tracks, lighting and of course amplification – but I think it’s worth it.  For me, the third section Dolly is a bit too long, but there is some wonderful music in the piece and I love the Gauguinesque images in the 2nd movement, Bikini.  The vibraphone parts in Dolly are truly virtuoso, and it’s a (loud!) thrill to hear them at such close range played by David Haller and Boris Müller.

Clockwise from left: David, Boris, Rumi, Alastair (behind Andy), Gerry

As you can see, Andy and Gerry made it to Essen just in time for the sound check and rehearsal.  The sound check took quite a long time as there were some technical issues to fix.  It’s rather ironic that the first words sung in Three Tales are “It could not have been a technical matter”.  I think those words have jinxed the piece.  The first time we performed it at the Barbican, we had to restart when the click-track cut out.  Anyway, I took the opportunity here to take an arty shot of Herman, hidden away at the back of the stage behind his piano.

Herman Kretzschmar

The Philharmonie is a huge hall.  It wasn’t full by any means, but I was reassured to learn that ours was as big an audience as they ever got for a classical concert.  So Three Tales is back up and running, and I’m pleased to say that it gets another outing later in the year.  See you in Krakow.”

L-R: Rainer, Boris and David - triumphant after our first Three Tales performance this year!


London – Queen Elizabeth Hall (14th April 2011)

Synergy represented by:

L-R: Micaela Haslam, Rowan Fenner, Amanda Morrison, Rachel Weston

“It was wonderful to have the chance to revisit De Staat by Louis Andriessen.  It’s a piece that I enjoy more each time I hear or sing it.  There is a fair bit of preparation in involved for the singers as the text is in ancient Greek – not a language many of us can say we’re familiar with.  Fortunately, my job-share partner at the BBC Singers (Alison Smart) studied classics at Oxford, and she very kindly made a recording of the text for us.  We would have been lost without her.

As usual, we got together before the tutti ensemble rehearsals.  The four female voice parts in De Staat work in pairs for much of the piece which includes a rather tricky and lengthy canon.  It’s easy to slip off the proverbial rails about three quarters of the way through, when your eyes and brain are beginning to tire, so it’s important to sing it all the way through when practising.  Towards the end of the piece, there is a fabulously dissonant chordal section where it must sound as though we’re just singing any old notes – but, honestly, we’re not!  Those clusters take some rehearsing, because there’s very little to latch on to tonally-speaking.  You just have to know where you’re starting, then hang on to your own line for grim death!!

Our first rehearsal with London Sinfonietta and David Atherton was a little strange in that, for the first half of the rehearsal, David didn’t have any foldback, which meant that he couldn’t hear a thing we were singing.  Not a great start – it didn’t exactly make us feel part of the team.  When he did finally get to hear us he was very kind about our efforts, but sadly we were left with the feeling that his attentions were elsewhere – largely with the brass and wind.

Don't forget the singers at the back!

Still, Louis dropped by to say hello, which was nice.  As usual, his only instructions in respect of the vocals were, “Sing long quavers.  Apart from that, just shout!”.  Somehow, when we first sang De Staat with Sinfonietta some years ago, we had made the decision to do just that.  We’d never met Louis, but he heard our recording and, during the Radio 3 broadcast intermission, said that this was the first time he’d heard the vocals exactly the way he intended.  What a stroke of luck!  Basically, he likes the four women to sound like a bunch of fish-wives in an Athenian market during the time of Plato.  I’m not entirely sure whether we should be flattered by being “the best he’s ever heard…”!

A singer’s eye view of 'De Staat'

The concert day involved a lot of playing for the ensemble, as Sound Intermedia were recording both rehearsal and concert for an upcoming CD.  De Staat is fiendish for the players – loud, incessant, repetitive patterns that must be lip-wrecking for the wind and brass, not to mention the piano (and harp!) parts that fly by at a rate of knots.  The players did brilliantly, having to perform the whole piece at least twice during the rehearsal.  Somehow they still had something in reserve for the concert which went really well.  Once again, Clark Rundell came along for the gig, which was sweet of him.  Maybe we’ll get to do De Staat together some time – I hope so.

We were looking forward to hooking up with our friends from Amsterdam after the concert but, unfortunately, the QEH bar closed about fifteen minutes after the end of the concert.  It was somewhat embarrassing to see the expressions of disbelief on their faces.  Back in March, we’d all had such a lovely time in the Muziekgebouw foyer after our Steve Reich concert with Asko|Schönberg.  Here we were in one of the premier music venues in our capital city – and the bar was shut by 10pm!  I reckon the Muziekgebouw management could teach the South Bank a thing or two…”


London – Queen Elizabeth Hall (8th/9th April 2011)

Synergy represented by:

Micaela Haslam & Caroline Jaya-Ratnam

“Just over a week after our triumph in Amsterdam, it was nice to have a bit of personnel continuity for these two concerts.  Caroline and I met again – this time for her whistling debut!  Is there no end to this girl’s talents?

Drumming is impossible to rehearse alone.  It only starts to make sense when you hear all the mallet instruments live, throwing up the various combinations of notes that translate into our vocal patterns.  The other thing that comes to light only in situ is the level of foldback required.  It has to be pretty high otherwise we wouldn’t hear ourselves over the (up to) 9 people playing 3 marimbas at any one time, not to mention the final section when everyone is playing every instrument on stage!  As I know the piece very well, and Roland (the piccolo player) knows Section 3 – glockenspiels, piccolo & whistling – so well, I thought it would be easy for Caroline to slot into the proceedings.  What we hadn’t realised was that Roland was NA for these gigs, and his stand-in (Sandi Skipper) was also new to the piece.  Fortunately, Colin had allowed plenty of time at the soundcheck so everyone had time to make sure they knew what they were doing – more or less!

Joby, Richard & Sam in rehearsal

It’s always a thrill to hear the drummers rehearsing.  Colin, Sam, Joby and Richard have played the piece together a few times now, so they know it well.  It’s wonderful to see (and hear) the individual personalities coming to the fore as their confidence increases each time they play Part 1 in concert.  Quite honestly, I can’t imagine a better version of this piece now.  The Colin Currie Group plays with a wonderful vitality, which is still completely grounded and not flashy.  I hate watching performances of Drumming when you feel as though the players are just showing off.  Actually, I dislike performances of most things when that’s the case!

It was great to have Clark Rundell in the audience.  He was in town to conduct the premiere of James MacMillan’s new opera, so came along to support us, which was lovely.  He’s an old friend now, after our Asko collaboration last month.  Caroline and I thoroughly enjoyed a beer or two with him after the first show.  We even managed to sit outside, as it was so warm.  During the day, we’d had a coffee/chocolate/cake fair outside the artists’ entrance where I’d enjoyed “the best cappuccino in the world”.  Perfect day really!

As Synergy Vocals had done in Amsterdam, Colin’s agents took this opportunity to take some group shots for future publicity.  It’s a nightmare taking photos of this many people all together.  There’s always someone with their eyes shut, or pulling a daft face.  Can’t wait to see the pictures.  I think I know who the culprits might be…

Both shows were delightfully well-attended and mostly well-reviewed.  I took issue with one reviewer who said that the singers were a bit timid.  I don’t mind getting duff reviews if we’ve done a duff show (well actually I would mind, because I’d be gutted if we ever did a duff show!), but I wasn’t prepared to take the flack because we couldn’t be heard.  The sound in the front-of-house speakers (what the audience hears) is entirely down to the sound engineer.  We can’t begin to compete acoustically with the amount of noise on stage, so the volume out front is out of our hands.  I think our engineer had gone for the subtle approach, which is one way of doing of it.  I’m happy to report that, after an exchange of emails, the online reviewer revised his copy, which was good of him.  Next time, let’s jack it up – we’ll show ‘em!”


Eindhoven/Amsterdam (30th/31st March 2011)

Synergy represented by:

Clockwise from left: Heather Cairncross, Micaela Haslam, Rachel Weston, Caroline Jaya-Ratnam

“This was to be Caroline Jaya-Ratnam’s first project with Synergy Vocals – as a singer, that is. Caroline was recommended to me as being a very brilliant pianist (which she is) who would be able to sight-read just about anything in auditions (which she could). What none of us realised was that she also has a lovely singing voice, perfect pitch and high notes that only dogs can hear! This was discovered by accident during recent Synergy auditions when Caroline was accompanying. She was given a piece to play which had an obbligato flute part. It wasn’t physically possible to play both accompaniment and flute part, so she sang the flute part quietly – in a lovely straight, easy tone – just what I was looking for. We ended that day with a singing audition for Caroline and she got the job!

The only thing that we (Caroline included) couldn’t be sure of was her vocal stamina, as she hadn’t really sung in public since her university days. Tehillim is quite a relentless sing and, for these two concerts, we also had a new piece of transcribed Cameroon music – very high and very repetitive. It’s not just a question of doing the concerts, either. There were many hours of rehearsal involved for the whole ensemble, which meant that we had to sing the pieces through time and time again, over several days. Added to all that, about a week or so before we went to Amsterdam, we discovered that Steve Reich was going to be there. No pressure then! What can I say? Caroline did brilliantly. I don’t think she put a note wrong during the entire week, and she was a delight to have on tour.

Rachel & Caroline in our Eindhoven dressing room

This was also the first time we’d worked with Clark Rundell, who is just adorable. He couldn’t have been more charming and thoughtful. Added to this, he was totally prepared, delightfully accurate, clear, consistent, and enthusiastic. Tehillim is a notoriously terrifying piece to conduct, but Clark’s performances exuded enjoyment and energy. We’re already looking forward to singing You Are (Variations) with him (and Britten Sinfonia) at the Barbican in May.

Clark introduces 'Monts Mandara' to the audience

Clark Rundell and the team

Coincidentally, Julia Wolfe was also in town for her new piece Combat de Boxe – music to a silent film by Charles Dekeukeleire about a boxing match. For years, I’ve felt as though I’ve known Julia, through hearing Steve Reich talk about her (and her husband, Michael Gordon), and having sung Shelter – the piece she wrote with Michael and David Lang. She clearly felt the same way, and we really enjoyed catching up properly – a kindred spirit, I felt.

Muziekgebouw & Movenpick Hotel

As usual, we were staying at the Mövenpick, next door to the Muziekgebouw. It’s a wonderful hotel (best breakfast in town!) with amazing views, and the walk to the venue is approximately 30 seconds! This quiet part of town with such a variety of unusual backdrops, indoors and out, was the ideal place to take some group photos. It’s always a nightmare trying to get people together in London for photo shoots, so whenever possible we try to organise them on tour. We spent a very useful hour or so taking a zillion pics for perusal and editing at a later date. Where would we be without digital photography?

Working with Asko feels like coming home. As usual, the percussionists are the people we know best (we’re usually on a riser at the back of the stage and the percussionists are often just in front of us), and they’re all adorable. In Monts Mandara (the Cameroon piece), many of our complicated rhythmic patterns were doubled on mallet instruments and we had great fun with our little “duets”.

Screen on a stage on a screen

Our first concert was in Eindhoven. We’d been given train tickets from Amsterdam, but none of us knew about the new rule whereby you have to have photo ID on trains. Fortunately, we managed to blag our way out of the situation on the way there, but we made sure we sat close to Rogier on the way back. If only all producers were like Rogier van Splunder – equal parts personable and professional – perfectly efficient, with a delightful lack of pretentiousness or self-importance. I say this mostly because he organised the most delicious Indonesian buffet between rehearsal and concert in Eindhoven. How to keep a bunch of musicians happy! At the same time as our concert in Eindhoven, Steve Reich was making an appearance in Amsterdam in a programme that started with Clapping Music. His performance was relayed onto a screen at the back of our stage, so that both concerts could start the same way. It was a good idea and worked well.

'Tehillim' in concert

The second concert (in Amsterdam) was the more high-profile event. All the composers were there, and Tehillim was to be accompanied by a light show by Carel Kuitenbrouwer (you can see/hear the concert on You Tube – type in “Tehillim + Muziekgebouw” or click on the link on our “Breaking News” page). Steve, happily, was delighted with our performance and Caroline was given the seal of approval.

A nice hug from Steve

One thing I’m always aware of in Amsterdam is the generosity of colleagues. Reinbert de Leeuw (conductor) was in the audience. Claron McFadden (my favourite soprano) and Louis Andriessen’s assistant, Mirjam, were also there to support us. I know that Louis would have come too but he was away collecting his Grawemeyer award. After the concert, many of the players stayed behind for a drink in the bar, and we had a great time.

Apart from playing brilliantly, Asko were an absolutely joy to work with. It seems to me that they have got their music-making environment just right. There is a real pride and enthusiasm in their work. It’s such a shame that professional music-making in Holland has this dark financial cloud hovering overhead at the moment. We can only hope that the powers that be see sense and make sure that ensembles such as Asko continue long into the future. They are an inspiration.”


Dreamhouse CD

(Grammy winner)

Steven Mackey, with Rinde Eckert, BMOP and Catch Electric Guitar Quartet

“The performances are stunning.  Synergy Vocals specializes in new music and performs this score with energy, responding well to the need for extended ranges, fast, not all together convenient, text phrasing and exaggerated timbres with ease.”

Audiophile Audition


“Rinde Eckert’s account of (the architect) is simply dazzling.  Quartet Synergy Vocals is hardly less spectacular in its virtuosity and commitment.”


“… a performance of volatile and luminous beauty”


Philharmonie, Essen

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

“the fantastic Synergy Vocals”

Recklinghäufer Zeitung

Birmingham (11th March 2011)

Synergy represented by:

Amanda Morrison, Julia Batchelor, Katy Hill, Micaela Haslam

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

“After one “brush-up” rehearsal in London a couple of days before the concert, we headed to Birmingham for London Sinfonietta’s second 2011 performance of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians.  I received a call from London Sinfonietta the day before the concert to say that they were short of a speaker at the pre-concert talk in Symphony Hall.  Tal Rosner had been asked to discuss his collaboration with Thomas Adès in In Seven Days, but it turned out that he wouldn’t be at this concert after all.  Understandably, the piano soloist Nicholas Hodges wanted the time before the concert to prepare for the performance, which was being recorded for a CD – so, would I mind discussing the Reich?  Delighted, of course!

The piece is about this long!

Having coached the piece several times now, with a variety of ensembles, and having performed it around 80 times in concert (many with Steve Reich in the ensemble, and even more with Steve Reich on the sound desk), I like to think that I know the piece just about as well as anybody could, and I really enjoyed the opportunity to share some of my knowledge and enthusiasm with the audience.  I hope those who came to the talk enjoyed the performance more as a result.  I have to say, it is sometimes nice to be given some pointers in respect of how to listen to a piece.  Music for 18 is perfectly accessible without a pre-concert talk, of course, but I do think that a little insight can enhance the experience of a live performance.  Anyway, I really enjoyed tackling Andrew Burke’s questions, and some from the audience, and I was really touched by all the generous feedback.

The whole team in concert

Stage right

Symphony Hall was quite different from Glasgow City Halls.  It was probably a more suitable venue for this piece, as the huge sound needs a lot of space.  Every venue has its own challenges, both for the players and for the sound engineer.  To my ears, the biggest problem is always getting enough of the front octet in the mix.  The bass clarinets shouldn’t really sound like bass clarinets – more like a train coming through a tunnel!  Still, the concert was really well received and it feels as though the Sinfonietta players are becoming more and more “at home” with the piece.  Rumour has it that we might have another Music for 18 in the pipeline with LS later this year.  Watch this space….”


Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Steve Reich Drumming
The Colin Currie Group
April 2011

“mention should be made of the members of Synergy Vocals, whose plaintive vocalise was deftly interwoven into the overall texture to highlight ‘principal’ lines”

Classical Source