A personal best

Libby Burgess and Clare McCaldin - Entente COrdialePreparing a solo recital is always a lot of work, so the chance to repeat a programme is a welcome opportunity. However, performing the same programme three times in three different counties in just over 24 hours demands a whole new level of stamina and focus, as Libby Burgess and I confirmed on our mini-tour for Concerts in the West. But there is simply no other way to discover how to do it other than by actually doing it. To sing the programme through three times without the presence of an audience wouldn’t achieve the same effect, such is the importance of the audience in the whole undertaking.

Although any programme becomes easier with familiarity, the physical toll of delivering three concerts so close together is not to be underestimated, for both singer and pianist. Clever programming and knowing how to pace oneself are essential, as is the art of cat-napping.

Being on tour is not only about the performing and, as in this case, journeys on winding country roads between venues can also take their toll. We were fortunate that with each passing concert the distance back ‘home’ became shorter, and we were glad to be driven than to be doing the driving as well.

As its name suggests, Concerts in the West is based in the South-West and covers venues in Devon, Somerset and Dorset. It’s always a pleasure to discover new places to perform and we were particularly delighted by Bridport Arts Centre, a lovely little space with a super acoustic, and Ilminster Arts Centre, run by volunteers and, I’m pleased to say, thriving.

Thank you to Catherine and her team at Concerts in the West for a very enjoyable flying visit.

 

Haydn’s London Ladies in London

mccaldin artsThe next performance of Haydn’s London Ladies, in which I am joined by Paul Turner (piano), will be at St Paul’s Church, Knightsbridge, on the evening of Tuesday 20th September at 7.30pm.

It’s three years since I first premiered the show at the Foundling Museum, since when it has developed from an hour-long experiment into a full-length concert. The original group of four ‘London Ladies’, whose stories interleave with Haydn’s own, has been increased with one new Lady, along with the music associated with her.

I am very excited to be performing the show in its new form in London for the first time and am already working on another show that uses a similar format to weave the musical items together around a central storyline.

Tickets for Haydn’s London Ladies will be available soon via the St Paul’s Church website. St Paul’s is at 32a Wilton Place, London SW1X 8SH

29 April launch date for Notes from the Asylum

notes from the asylum cdI’m delighted to announce that 29th April is the confirmed date for the release of my second CD, Notes from the Asylum, by Champs Hill Records. Pianist Libby Burgess and clarinettist Catriona Scott join me on the CD, which features songs by Purcell, Abrams, Brahms, Wolf and Rorem, chosen to complement the central themes in Stephen McNeff’s Vivienne, recorded here for the first time.

To read more about the recording project and watch the introductory video, follow this link.

Romantic words and music for Valentine’s Day

Download song text translations here

mccaldin artsMcCaldin Arts’ first performance of the year is at 3pm on Sunday 14 February. Created especially by writer Di Sherlock, this hour-long event combines poems by WB Yeats with the songs of Schumann and Wagner in a seamless conversation between words and music, performed by Clare McCaldin (mezzo) with Libby Burgess (piano) and Di Sherlock (reader).

2016 is the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising, so there’s likely to be much made this year of Yeats’ Irish nationalism. We wanted to explore something rather different with this programme, which reflects on nineteenth-century Romantic notions of Love and Beauty.

Frauenlieben und -leben and the Wesendonck Lieder are interleaved with poems from throughout Yeats’ life, including Prayer for my Daughter, Wild Swans at Coole and When You Are Old, plus sung settings of The Salley Gardens and The Cloths of Heaven.

The concert is at St Paul’s Church, 32a Wilton Pl, London SW1X 8SH.

Tickets £10 (£5 concessions) on the door.

Plans for 2016

The new year is starting with a buzz of activity at McCaldin Arts, dusting off existing projects for performance and preparing the ground for new work.

Haydn’s London Ladies has grown from an hour-long to a two-part presentation with interval and is getting a first performance in this new version at the Swindon Recital Series on 7 Feb. Enlarging the recital has enabled us to bring in a fifth Lady, Emma Hamilton, whose story justifies a whole show in itself, and to introduce some extra music. As well as excerpts from less-known pieces such as The Battle of the Nile, we will also perform the cantata Arianna a Naxos, a piece of which Emma Hamilton sang with Haydn at the keyboard.

We eagerly anticipate the release of Clare’s new solo CD with Libby BurgessNotes from the Asylum – which is due out any day now. Read more about the project here.

New songs are in the pipeline from Rob Keeley and Toby Young, as well as longer-term projects in development with Martin Ward and Martin Bussey.

We are also pleased to announce our involvement with a new charitable organisation – New Notes & Noises – which will be helping us to develop and present new work in the future. There will be more information on this over the next few weeks.

Happy Christmas

clare mccaldin

Clare performing at a Christmas concert at Leighton House earlier this month

Thank you for following me and my work both here and on my personal website. It’s been a busy year of new and exciting work. The promise of 2016 is, if anything, even exotic and demanding.

You can read back over my previous Newsletters by going to the dedicated page.

Have a peaceful Christmas break and a prosperous New Year.

A London plaque for Joseph Haydn

plaqueFINALThis autumn I have been fronting the campaign to put up a plaque in London to the composer Joseph Haydn. Despite his enormous contribution to London’s musical life and two long visits to the city at the end of the eighteenth century, there is no permanent memorial to him here.

As there is no original building that can support a plaque (and thus qualify for English Heritage consideration), a small team from the Haydn Society of Great Britain has worked to obtain the required permissions relating to the building that now stands at 18 Great Pulteney St. This is the site where Haydn lived when he first arrived in London in January 1791, as recorded in a letter he wrote to Maria Anna von Genzinger.

We have exceeded our crowdfunding target for the costs of the plaque’s manufacture and installation and, in the process of fundraising, we have also opened a wonderful dialogue with Haydn fans across the world. We have talked to people from as far afield as the USA and Japan about their favourite works by Haydn and why they feel he is still not as popular as his contemporaries Mozart and Beethoven. This highly unscientific survey will be summarised next year in an article for the Haydn Society.

The exact date of the plaque unveiling has yet to be confirmed. The hope is that the plaque will be in place in Spring 2015 and London will finally have its first memorial to a composer who was such an important part of its cultural heritage.

For more information about the campaign and research into the plaque’s position, go to The Haydn Society of Great Britain and Kickstarter.

Haydn better than paracetamol – it’s official!

imagesThis week Radio 3’s breakfast show quoted a recent poll of 1,000 people, in which nearly 90% of respondents agreed that listening to music can make them “feel perkier when they are sick or faced with hard times”. Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody was the winner in the original poll, which makes a certain amount of sense. However Radio 3 listeners called in with their own classical suggestions and I was delighted to find that Haydn is cited by many as their favourite musical ‘pick-me-up’.

It’s hardly surprising, considering the energy of so many of his symphonies and string quartets, as well as the sheer joyfulness of his music. But, in the week that the Haydn Society of Great Britain launches a fundraising campaign to put up a plaque to Haydn in London, it’s reassuring to be reminded that his music is still cherished by music-lovers across the country.

It’s something of a surprise that there isn’t already a plaque, given the extent of Haydn’s celebrity when he was here in the 1790s and the quality of the music specifically written for the London audience. Charles Burney, the great critic of the day, recorded the excitement surrounding composer’s first public appearance:

“Haydn himself presided at the piano-forte; and the sight of that renowned composer so electrified the audience, as to excite an attention and a pleasure superior to any that had ever been caused by instrumental music in England.”

How can such a man not deserve to be commemorated?

Haydn Plaque gif

If you want to get involved with the Haydn Society’s plaque campaign or donate online, click here

More information about the campaign is available on the Haydn Society’s website.

Do Androids dream of electric pianos?

In what is threatening to become a series on the subject, I have felt moved to write some more about the work of the classical accompanist. Specifically, about playing an electric piano, which I am sure is a pleasure many pianists have endured at some point, but which I guess most would prefer to avoid.

Few classical singers would choose to be accompanied by synthetic sound, any more than a classical pianist would choose to play an electric piano (untuned pub upright notwithstanding). However, if a venue doesn’t have a piano of its own and is unable to afford hire costs, an electric piano is often the only alternative. It can allow us to take a performance to audiences in new or unusual venues, which is surely a good thing. The instruments are improving in quality and touch, but if the piano usually spends its life in a school hall, the chances are it isn’t from the upper end of the quality scale. It’s often impossible to double-guess this in advance, so it’s a case of turning up and doing battle with whatever is there.

5265543390_b83d8c5570_zWhat does it mean for a professional pianist to try to make music with an electric instrument? If it’s for a rehearsal it doesn’t matter too much, but it’s not so much fun if it’s a song recital. I’ll tell you about a concert I did recently, in which most of the things that can hamper a pianist were in evidence.

We narrowly missed having no electricity supply at all (due to admin confusion) which would have killed off the concert there and then; the sustain pedal (usually a good sign in an electric piano) refused to work at all for the first half hour, then perked up intermittently and inconsistently; the aforementioned pedal didn’t want to stay in one place on a shiny, stone floor, and slowly migrated away from the pianist, who had to stop between songs to retrieve it.

Most challengingly, the piano had no touch sensitivity, so we could equalise the balance of sound between top and bottom of the keyboard, but not the volume of the sound. As it turned out, this was controlled by a slider, obliging my pianist to grow a third hand at critical moments, in order to control the dynamics. And of course, constructing a seat of the appropriate height out of uncomfortable, stacking bucket chairs is an art that has to be honed over many years.

It was not anyone’s fault that it was not a great piano, but it fell to my pianist to perform some kind of magic trick. Of course I was absolutely aware of every phrase and adjustment that she was making (and am still filled with admiration at her creativity) but there’s only so much you can do with no sustain function at all.

imagesMy good taste in accompanists is evidenced by the fact that I have only ever worked with people who, despite deserving Steinways, are game for an electric piano anyway. As I described in my previous piano-related blog-post, it can be pretty stressful for singer and pianist when the instrument has to be tamed under the nose of the audience, but our job requires us to conceal that fact. The reassuring truth is that the performance won’t have been significantly diminished for many of the audience members on account of the piano being electric. Indeed it shouldn’t be about us, but about whether the audience has had a good experience. We aspire to a high and consistent standard, but there are many factors beside the piano that can compromise the result and thankfully, sometimes, the audience doesn’t know the half of it.

So, once again, I raise a grateful toast to my accompanist. Thank you, Libby Burgess.

TS Eliot’s Margate

Yesterday I took a trip down to the coast of northern Kent to visit Margate. The town is on the cusp of a remarkable regeneration. There is a great deal of wonderful heritage both clearly extant and being gradually re-discovered. A new art gallery, Turner Contemporary, bears the name of one sometime resident and frequent visitor, JMW Turner. This and the recently introduced HighSpeed rail link to St Pancras International offer the possibility of fresh prospects.

TS Eliot shelter MargateThis may well have been the same sort of Margate that the convalescent TS Eliot and his first wife Vivienne visited in 1921. Alone at first, Eliot stayed at a hotel on one side of the old town (Cliftonville) and took a daily tram to the other where he would sit in a Victorian shelter and write. This regimen was to midwife part three of The Waste Land, subtitled The Fire Sermon. The shelter still stands. Indeed it has recently been awarded Grade II listed status although it bears no notice of this. Rather it remains a stoic, practical edifice at the central point of the town, halfway between the station and the beach, next to a bunker of a public convenience (“TOILETS” a single word shouts at both road and sea). Cheap hotels or abandoned amusements stand at a self-consciously dissociated distance either side along the promenade.

‘On Margate Sands.
I can connect
Nothing with nothing.
The broken fingernails of dirty hands.
My people humble people who expect
Nothing.’

wrote Eliot in the poem, neatly surmising the Margate of nearly a century later, with the strong brine air the pungent equivalent of the conversations held by happy street drinkers on promenade and street alike. The anonymity of this proud but unrevered shelter is another ‘nothing’ for passing locals or tourists.

mandolineIn a letter dated 4 November 1921, Eliot wrote

I have written only some fifty lines, and have read nothing, literally – I sketch the people, after a fashion, and practice scales on the mandoline.

Margate seems always to have been a place for cure or entertainment. Eliot tried to displace his own concerns with a mandolin(e) that Vivienne gave him (the photo above a serendipitously discovered study volume in one of Margate’s many ‘Vintage’ shops). The dominant pleasure palace of Margate’s contemporary seafront is closed, the bathos of an art-deco structure with a tower that bears its name, ‘Dreamland’. You can see Dreamland in the background of the image of the shelter above. As one of the articles covering the shelter’s listing in 2009 notes, ‘Dreamland currently resembles Eliot’s “heap of broken images”‘. This line from the first part of The Waste Land has itself recently been co-opted as the title for a new exhibition of paintings by Bartholomew Beal, in which the artist has taken lines from the poem to inspire canvases, often featuring figures lost in their own tasks and certainly – suspended in abstracted backgrounds – decontextualised from the immediate world.

‘My people humble people
who expect nothing.’

Dickens HouseOn the evening of my visit I visited the neighbouring town of Broadstairs. A cosy, rather more gentrified place than Margate, Broadstairs has embraced the legacy of its own literary visitor, Charles Dickens. I ate at a restaurant next to Dickens House – itself next to Charles Dickens Hotel (with its bar ‘Copperfields’!) – and looking out across the bay towards Bleak House. I was reminded that the working title for The Waste Land was in fact ‘He Do The Police In Different Voices’, a comment from the admiring Betty Higden in Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend. Betty is drawn as a warm but vulnerable working class woman who is caught in the miserable social cul-de-sac of the workhouse. Another humble person expecting nothing.

imageFor all that I’m drawing a rather pale impression of Margate, I had a really enjoyable visit. The bay on which the town sits is a vast, beautiful sweep of proper sand on which dogs and families were happily playing. The town’s many historic firsts include the Royal Sea Bathing Hospital (opened 1791, now desirable flats) and first seaside town to get a theatre (Theatre Royal, still in use) and the old part of the town centre contains many attractive Georgian buildings, so there is plenty to see.

Both in passing and in conversation I found the town full of characters self-possessed and making their own way. This is the population that TS Eliot looked out on as he sat in the Nayland Rock shelter, jotting down what Stephen Moss perfectly reasonably referred to as ‘the greatest poem of the 20th century’. Of course, from my perspective as the producer of a work concerning his wife, I like TS Eliot’s comment in that letter of 4 November, that he ‘must wait for Vivien’s opinion as to whether it is printable.