Paris (25th February 2011)

Synergy represented by:

Rachel Weston, Micaela Haslam, Heather Cairncross, Amy Haworth

More pretty Paris

Pretty Paris

“Wonderful, as always, to be back with EIC in Paris and great to work with François-Xavier Roth for the first time. We had sung Tehillim in concert only a few days earlier on the South Bank (with London Sinfonietta), so we were ahead of the game, but every performance is different so you can never be complacent, no matter how well you know a piece.

Heather, Amy and Rachel hard at work!

I had enjoyed Tom Adès’ rhythmically precise, somewhat “vertical” version of Tehillim the previous week. Now, François had a much more linear approach, with more “bounce” to the dotted crotchets. Both versions have their place and it’s always really interesting to do the piece with a conductor who is new to the piece. This time, we had 3 rehearsals over 3 days, so the players had more time to get used to the very tricky rhythms of Tehillim. I wonder how many consecutive bars are in the same time signature. I’ll check it out next time – I bet there aren’t many!

A singer's view of "Tehillim"

The most difficult decision we had to make each day was where to have dinner. Eating out in Paris is never a problem, of course, though choices are somewhat limited in the Porte de Pantin area where the Cité de la Musique (and our hotel for the week) is located. Fortunately, the café attached to the Cité is very good, and we also managed to find a wonderful French restaurant called La Poule au Pot just down the road. It is delightfully French in an old-fashioned sort of way. Both service and food were excellent, and I hope it never changes.

Take your pick!

La Poule au Pot

The following evening, we got more adventurous and headed down to Le Marais, where you are spoilt for choice. It might sound somewhat disloyal to the city, but we ended up in a very nice Italian restaurant. There is, after all, a limit to the amount of steak/frites one can consume in a week – or so they tell me!

The concert day finally came around and we had a good run-through of Tehillim in the morning. They say that you should have a bad dress rehearsal in order to have a good concert, but I’m happy to report that on 25th February 2011 in Paris, this theory was disproved! The rehearsal went really well and the concert was even better – a really spirited performance of Tehillim, I thought – and the audience loved it! I lost count of how many times we had to return to the stage for bows. There were slow hand-claps – the whole works! Then, the perfect end to our week in Paris was a delightful dinner after the show with François, and the EIC team. Lots of wine, delicious food and much merriment was had by all, and we’re looking forward to our next visit already…!”

François with Rachel, Amy and Heather


London (18th February 2011)

Synergy represented by:

Rachel Weston, Micaela Haslam, Heather Cairncross, Amy Haworth

“We had just one day of rehearsal to put Tehillim together with London Sinfonietta. Thomas Adès knew the piece well, but hadn’t conducted it before. He was really up against it because there was barely enough scheduled rehearsal time. Fortunately for all concerned we also knew the piece well, Tom was extremely clear, and very efficient with the time he had. That said, Tehillim is best played in over about three days, so this was serious cramming!

Rehearsing in Warehouse, Waterloo

Lots of our Music for 18 colleagues were on the team – Laurent Quenelle, Lionel Handy, Sam Walton, John Constable, Aidy Spillett, Serge Vuille, David Hockings and of course the inimitable Tim Lines who I’m happy to say plays much of my line in unison. We’ve had past experiences of unintentional canons in the first section of Tehillim but we knew that the clarinet parts were in safe hands this time.

A very busy Thomas Adès at the helm

The second half of the programme featured Thomas Adès/Tal Rosner’s In Seven Days so this was a very popular concert. Quite a few of our friends and colleagues came along, including my BBC job-share partner Alison Smart, Caroline Jaya-Ratnam (who will be singing Amy’s part in Amsterdam with us next month) and Mark Rickerby, our loyal fan who had come all the way from Calgary with his delightful family to hear this concert. Now, is that dedication or what?

Alison, Caroline, Micaela and Mark Rickerby

The sound on stage was great, thanks once again to Ian Dearden, and from what I gather, it was great out front too. I really enjoyed this performance. Tom got the speeds just right – 1st, 2nd and 4th movements fast enough to be interesting and exciting, without sacrificing the ensemble, and relaxed enough in the 3rd “slow” movement to provide the necessary contrast. I loved Tom’s attention to detail and hope we get to do Tehillim with him again. In fact, let’s record it! It’s about time we recorded this piece properly after fifteen years of singing it live. Anyone got any spare funds for such a project……?”

All smiles on stage


Glasgow (13th February 2011)

Synergy represented by:

Katy Hill, Amanda Morrison, Micaela Haslam, Julia Batchelor

L-R: Julia, Mandy and Katy in our new sparkly tops

“We had 2 days of Music for 18 rehearsals in London before going to Glasgow. Back to eighteen musicians for this concert, as opposed to the nineteen (including Steve Reich) that we had in October 2009, it was important to make sure that everyone knew exactly what they were doing, especially the three players who were completely new to the piece.

There are various options in terms of who plays what in Music for 18 Musicians, and a fair bit of swapping around to be done, so we spent some time sorting all that out. All was going well but, unfortunately, our new violinist Laurent was feeling increasingly unwell. On the 2nd day of rehearsals his doctor sent him off to A&E, so we spent a morning not knowing whether he’d even make the concert, and it was really too late to find someone else. Thankfully, he battled through and I’m very grateful that he did, because he is a very fine addition to the team.

Tim Lines – the undisputed "Music for 18" cue-giving champion

On a personal level, I was particularly excited to be doing Music for 18 in Glasgow because my sister and family live there, and it meant that my two nephews, Donald and Stuart, could come and hear the piece for the first time. I met the whole family for lunch, then the boys came with me to the rehearsal, and it was lovely to have them there.

City Halls was not the easiest place for Music for 18 as it’s so resonant, and there are no acoustic panels over the stage to push the sound forwards. The middle frequencies (of the marimbas in particular) swam around the hall, building up on stage as the monitor sound was re-amplified by all the microphones. Ian Dearden, our sound engineer, had quite a job trying to balance the instruments and voices. In the end, he more or less turned off the marimbas in the front of house speakers, as they were in danger of overpowering everything else.

Katy and Mandy revving up for the show

The very lovely Sam Walton – percussionist extraordinaire!

Always I find that the success of the ensemble in Music for 18 is down to how well the players can hear what they need to hear. In the end, I think we all did a really good job, though with hindsight perhaps I should have encouraged all the mallets and pianos to play more quietly. To be honest, the piece really needs a bigger hall (or drier acoustics), but I’m glad we went to Glasgow, especially as Donald was able to return that evening for the concert, with his friends (it’s very important to keep up one’s “Cool Aunty” status in this day and age!) and we had a wonderfully appreciative audience. Steve Reich was definitely a hit in Glasgow and I hope they’ll have us back soon.”


Royal Festival Hall, London

Steve Reich Tehillim
London Sinfonietta conducted by Thomas Adès
February 2011

“In one of the most refreshing, well-balanced and pioneering concerts of 2011 so far, Steve Reich’s Tehillim displayed the raw joyfulness that makes it still sound contemporary twenty years after its composition. Synergy Vocals’ strength, precision and technical accomplishment shone through. The delivery of the performers and Thomas Adès conducting made it absorbing and eminently satisfying to listen to.”

“(Tehillim) is very effective in its warmth and joyousness, well conveyed in the performance by the four women of Synergy Vocals who have often worked with Reich”

City Halls, Glasgow

Steve Reich Music for 18 Musicians
London Sinfonietta (rehearsals directed by Micaela Haslam)
February 2011

“Music for 18 Musicians is a total thrill when played this well”
The Guardian

“(Though) reproduced in countless great recordings, a really satisfying
live performance is not easy to come by.  Beyond the work’s
significant technical and organisational demands, performers must also
gain control over a certain relaxed ease which can hardly be articulated,
let alone mastered.  One thing’s for sure; (London Sinfonietta and Synergy
Vocals) had it.  The players smiled instinctively at the pleasure of
each change and it was through their total absorption in the sound that
the pulsing magic of Reich’s music was communicated”
The Scotsman

“a sheer sense of joy accompanied the embodied exchanges between the
musicians throughout”

Stockholm (26th-30th January 2011)

Synergy represented by:

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

Reich fest at the Konserthus

“Initially a solo voyage to Stockholm, I had three days to coach the ensemble (members of the Stockholm Philharmonic) for Music for 18 Musicians, then a couple of free days before the other singers arrived.  It took me a while to get all the players’ names memorised (I’m hopeless at remembering names!), but we soon got to know each other as we worked our way through the piece together.  Unfortunately, the publishers had sent an old edition of the score and parts, so my newer score was unusable.  Music for 18 is unlike any other piece of music.  It works on a cue system, without conductor, and the amount of time spent on any given section is largely down to the players.  Stockholm Philharmonic had been sent a realised edition, with about 100 more “bars” than my modular score.  Anyway, we perservered with the parts we had and managed to “unrealise” it as we went along – and correct all the mistakes (I think we’ll have a big bonfire this year and get rid of the old edition once and for all!).

Rehearsing in Grünewaldsalen

What an inspirational team of players this was.  Writing this diary on the plane back to London (the concert was only two hours ago!), I am missing them all already.  This was an incredible first performance of Music for 18.  I hope the instrumentalists are all having many beers in the bar now because they throughly deserve a celebration!  There are several really tricky sections in this piece, but we’d worked hard on ensemble, tempo and balance, to the point where I knew that if anything went wrong in performance, it would something totally unforeseeable.

In rehearsal - stage left

In rehearsal - stage right

As long as Music for 18 is properly rehearsed and understood by all (as it was in this instance), a good performance is, to a great extent, down to the sound on stage (both acoustically and from the monitors).  Each section is “led” by a different pattern.  The players on the “pulses” have to stay in touch with this pattern, and the players at the front have to stay in touch with both.  We were quite spread out on the Stockholm Konserthus stage, so our fate was largely down to the sound guys – Sound Intermedia.  Fortunately, we couldn’t have been in safer hands.

Sound Intermedia backstage with Synergy Vocals

Apart from the other four concerts Sound Intermedia were engineering in this festival, this one involved setting up Music for 18 (including ten on-stage monitors) for the soundcheck, striking the stage, setting up for Sextet, then resetting the whole thing during the interval.  Added to this, the concert day was the first opportunity we’d all had to play the piece in the hall.  I know that Sound Intermedia have a digital desk, so they can preset levels, but believe me that isn’t always a guarantee that the sound will be the same in performance.  Anyway, we can’t thank them enough.  As soon as we started, I heaved a sigh of relief as I realised that everyone could hear what they needed to hear.  The speed was great, Alf (clarinet) got the pacing just right, and they nailed all the tricky bits.  I was so pleased for all concerned.  Their success was richly deserved, and a sold-out Konserthus, a delighted composer, and a standing ovation provided the icing on the proverbial cake.

Bows after Music for 18

During the week, several people asked me how many times Synergy Vocals had performed Music for 18.  I knew it was a lot but couldn’t remember, so I looked it up on the computer.  This was our 75th performance of the piece – and the first performance of the piece in the year of Steve Reich’s 75th birthday.  What were the chances of that?  It’s hard to believe that Steve will be 75 this year.  He looks amazing – in fact even better than he did at 70.  We’re so privileged to work with him, and of course we’re hoping that he’ll live to be at least 105!

A chilly Stockholm

Stockholm in the snow

Going back through the week, our “middle” concert was Proverb.  It’s such a beautiful, “simple”, Perotinesque piece, but blimey it’s a high-wire act!  Extremely exposed and dead straight, with phrases that get longer and longer, it’s a recipe for larynx melt-down.  Rachel had only sung the piece once a long time ago, and had had a nasty cough the previous week, but she did a great job.  Heather sat in the audience and said that, unless she looked up, she often couldn’t tell who was singing what.  The legend that is Andy Busher was brilliant on tenor 1, and he and Gerry are just the best tenor duet you could ask for.  They sound great, they’re utterly reliable, and they scrub up quite nicely in concert dress too!

Proverb bows

Our first concert, and indeed the first concert of the festival, was You Are (Variations) and Tehillim.  This is a big concert for any conductor –  B. Tommy Andersson stepped up brilliantly to the plate.  He declared (as others have declared before him) that conducting Tehillim is more difficult than conducting The Rite of Spring.  I’m sure he’s right.  One false move and the whole ensemble goes over the cliff!  Once again, rehearsals were an absolute pleasure.  Tommy was delightful, well-prepared, good-humoured and absolutely committed to giving the best performance we could possibly give.

High 5 for a great concert!

The performance almost didn’t happen at all, however.  The concert was scheduled for 18.00 with a rehearsal from 10.00-13.00.  We played through You Are (Variations) at 10.00, retired to our dressing room for coffee then all the lights went out.  There was a major power cut due to a basement fire a few blocks away and a thick band of central Stockholm was completely without power.  What to do?  The management dealt brilliantly with the crisis, I have to say.  Direct lines of communication were set up between the electricity board and Konserthus, and we were told that they hoped to have power back on at 14.30.  A meeting was called for 15.00, flyers were printed saying that the concert was postponed / cancelled, and we discussed the possibility of rescheduling the concert over the weekend.  Still no electricity at 15.00, so a final meeting was called for 16.00 – last chance to make an 18.00 concert possible – and on came the lights!  We managed to rehearse Tehillim between 16.15 and 17.10, rushed off to get changed and made up, then headed straight back to the stage for the concert!

The players involved in this concert were quietly industrious and phenomenally talented.  I still fail to understand how some percussionists can play Tehillim without a single triangle or a line written over the printed bars.  From where I was standing, they seemed to be reading wall-paper.  I like to think I’m pretty good at rhythm, but I’m sure that my brain would melt down after about 16 bars of one of those clapping or drumming parts.

... and there it goes!

Ice heading for the weir

Music aside, Stockholm was (as to be expected in January) extremely cold.  Check out the chunks of ice in the river.  I was mesmerised by the ice pushing its way under the bridge and rushing down the weir on the other side.  It was like playing iceberg Pooh-sticks!

We were busy with rehearsals on most days, but managed a group outing to the incredible Vasa Museum.  I’m so glad that I knew nothing about this glorious ship before entering the museum – you get such a “wow factor”.  It’s the most remarkable salvage project you’re ever likely to encounter.  If you go to Stockholm, don’t miss it.  It’s hard to believe that 95% of this ship (which sank after sailing less than one nautical mile on her maiden voyage in 1628), is original.  You could be forgiven for thinking it was a film set for Pirates of the Caribbean.

Group outing to Vasa (L-R: Gerry, Heather, Andy, Amy, Micaela)

The Vasa

Apart from the Vasa Museum, I managed to enjoy a couple of days staying with my partner Will at the apartment of my good friend Kimberley Akester (another ex-Swingle) who now lives in Stockholm and runs SITS (Stockholm International Theatre School).  It was a bit chilly for aimless wandering, but we managed several trips to Wayne’s coffee shop in the market square which, apart from a very good mocha, offered a fine view of our musical home for the week – the Konserthus.

View of Konserthus from Wayne's Coffee!

Huge thanks to everyone at Konserthus for looking after us so well.  We really do appreciate all the lengths you went to to make us feel as comfortable and welcome as possible (though we’re not entirely convinced about your choice of hotels…).  We’re absolutely thrilled that plans are already afoot to work together again, and we look forward to our next visit already.”


AMSTERDAM (9th/10th December 2010)

Synergy represented by:

Micaela Haslam, Amanda Morrison, Rachel Weston, Heather Cairncross
Andrew Busher, Gerard O’Beirne, Michael Dore, Simon Grant

Our poster

“For the second time this year, the weather scuppered our travel plans (though not as drastically as in April).   Most of us flew out to Amsterdam the night before our first rehearsal, and all our various flights were delayed due to fog.  Inconvenient, but not a problem.  However, Andy and Gerry’s delay the following morning put paid to our singers’ rehearsal with the conductor, Ed Spanjaard.  We agreed that singing through Sinfonia with only 6 singers and a piano wouldn’t have achieved very much, so it was cancelled.


Instead, I went up to the Concertgebouw alone to meet Ed who, happily, turned out to be absolutely charming, well-prepared and delightfully accommodating.  We talked through the score and soon realised that we trusted each other implicitly.

Ed Spanjaard

Our first foray into Sinfonia with the Concertgebouworkest turned out to be somewhat unusual in that we had no microphones for the first half of the rehearsal.  Our chairs were all there at the front of the stage, but no sound equipment (nor even music stands for a little while).  So we sat rather sheepishly humming and chatting our way through the massive score, smiling all the way!  With hindsight it was probably quite useful for Ed.  Never having conducted the piece before, he was “broken in” gently to all the goings-on on the front row.  The lack of mics had not been a deliberate ploy, however  – just a timing issue – and all was in place after the break.  We’d set aside an extra hour after this rehearsal for the singers alone (making up for the previous morning), but Ed cancelled this when it was clear that we all knew what we were doing.

A cold and frosty Amsterdam from our hotel window

As in the UK, Amsterdam was bitterly cold in December, so outdoor wandering wasn’t as attractive a prospect as it usually is in this beautiful city.  We settled for a bit of Christmas shopping and some fine dining instead.  We had an especially successful group dinner at L’Express on Utrechtstraat.  Lovely (inexpensive) meal, good service and very pleasant surroundings – everybody happy.

Stage set for Sinfonia

We had two concerts on consecutive nights.  It’s great to do a piece more than once on tour, particularly when it’s new to an orchestra and/or conductor.  The performing relationship has a chance to grow and the piece often feels completely different on a second night.  The first concert went extremely well, though I accidentally inhaled some saliva as I breathed in for the first (incredibly quiet and exposed) first note.  I’m not sure how I kept going, but I did, and I’m delighted to report that the incident is completely inaudible on the recording!

Meet and Greet

After the concert, there was a “Meet and Greet” in one of the grand salons of the Concertgebouw with Joel Fried (Director of Artistic Administration), Ed Spanjaard, one of the bassoonists, and me.  Kind words were exchanged, a few questions were asked and answered, then we retired to a local pub with our good friend Mark Haanstra (bass player on Steven Mackey’s Dreamhouse, member of the electric guitar quartet Catch, and bass player in Steve Mackey’s band)  and his gorgeous wife Aziza, who live in Amsterdam.

The second concert was relayed (sound and vision) on a live webstream for AVRO (now available on YouTube), so it’s just as well we saved our red sparkly tops for this gig – to match the Concertgebouw interior!  This performance was even better than the first.  All was going swimmingly well when suddenly Ed Spanjaard (in the final section of the final movement), accidentally turned two pages of the score at once.  Poor Ed – it could happen to any of us at any time.  Thankfully, he recovered brilliantly and though the singers all later reported a brief slow-motion-life-flashing-before-your-eyes moment, I don’t think the audience even noticed!  We were all glowing with professional pride at the end of the show.  Crisis averted as a result of team-work and experience – or was it because we all took on board the oft-repeated line from Sinfonia, “KEEP GOING!”.  Perhaps the piece saved itself…

Standing ovation

I do hope we get to collaborate with Ed Spanjaard and the Concertgebouworkest again soon.  We had a very happy few days working together, and two excellent concerts.”


Utada album released

Utada Hikaru’s Singles Collection Vol 2 is available on import in the UK.  Synergy Vocals are singing backing on this video of Goodbye Happiness.