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The Creative Issue – News for Creatives | August 8, 2020

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Stephen Cleobury Masterclass

Stephen Cleobury Masterclass

| On 13, Aug 2014

Although I was eagerly looking forward to it, I was not sure what to expect from this Masterclass.The repertoire was all new to me, so it was a blind first listen with each of the four conductors. However this was a great experience because it allowed me to really focus on what Stephen Cleobury was offering without being prejudiced by my own interpretation of the program because I had none. In Masterclasses that utilize well-known music, I often just focus on comparisons to well-known interpretations and how ‘the expert’ follows these or not. I received a very different experience and it really highlighted why Cleobury is a Master Conductor of choral music.

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I felt a little uneasy as the event started. I wondered how the sponsor Audi would have felt with a number of spare seats still clearly available. Make no mistake – Cleobury is a World-beater, so I thought that the chorally keen people of Brisbane would have been hanging out to see a world renown performer up close and also to receive extraordinary insight about his craft.

Brisbane, are you awake??

Anyhow, the first of four performances was given by Lachlan Snow, conducting Resonance of Birralee, a well-known performing Brisbane choir, with members limited to a 17-30 age range. Northern Lights was by Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo who gained his tertiary education in London and also at the Jilliard Msuic School in New York. A Latin translation songs of Solomon, it was difficult to tell whether the light of Northern Norway can compare with sundown in a Brisbane Winter. Nevertheless, I quickly got into this piece as subtle dissonances were a nice contrast to the otherwise sweet sweeping harmonies. The underpinning bass lines could have probably benefited from a nicer (more evenly spread) acoustic environment??? I am glad Stephen Cleobury also noticed my same thoughts during his reflection and dissection of this performance! Interestingly Cleobury gets around the subtly of the contrasting lower bass parts by mixing the up the dynamics of the other parts.

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If the audience picked up one thing from this masterclass it was that Cleobury did not endorse ‘word mouthing’ by a conductor. ‘Don’t confuse the singers – they are singing different parts at the same time, and they won’t know which part you’re focusing on’ Cleobury remarked to Snow during the breakdown. Lachlan and the next two conductors all suffered the same affliction and all of them had to really concentrate not to, as they took instruction on the night.

It was clear quite quickly that a ‘master’ knows the simple and the subtle really well, compared to someone still honing their craft. In fact Cleobury was so good that the choirs often knew what to do before the aspiring conductors. Interestingly Cleobury repeated the following feedback on numerous occasions throughout the evening:

1) How a conductor gives his/her preliminary beat will give rise to how the ensemble responds to tempo (it is very difficult to change once you’ve started).

2) Conductors often get caught up with both hands and they forget that essentially the right hand indicates tempo and left hand informs the ensemble about dynamic (the loud and soft)

3) A Conductor needs to engage his or her musicians with his/her eyes.

4) Tips on falling flat – especially with repeated chords; widening minor thirds was a tip given a number of times

5) Words beginning with a vowel often give rise to late entry

6) A diminuendo is much more difficult to achieve with a choir than a crescendo.

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Absolon my Son, a Jonathan Rathbone piece followed. It was a much more difficult piece to present at a Masterclass in comparison to the first, performed by Brisbane Chamber Choir under the baton of Collen Guilfoyle. Rathbone started his career as a chorister at Canterbury Catherdral and later with Chirst’s College Cambridge, so obviously vocal music is in his bones. This piece sung by a much smaller choir with far more dynamic activity between the parts in comparison the Gjeilo composition, meant that imperfections stood out far more distinctly. It left Guilfoyle and her charges with no room to hide. That said, it was awesome to hear a local Brisbane choir be daring with repertoire choice. I would have loved to have heard it in a cathedral.

During the later dissections of this performance, I noticed how ‘sharp’ Cleobury’s ears were to his environment; he hears distinctly a disagreement in pitch between 1st sopranos. This was more than hour in to what was quite an intense listening experience for even experienced musicians…it was also with arguably the most harmonically challenging of the music presented during this event. Cleobury also picked up on the composer’s failing in marking dynamics. He talks about this as ‘getting the subtleties right’. Cleobury went on to say, ‘the conductor has to turn on the tone and the colour – proficient singers will have the ability to follow.’ With some guidance from Cleobury the Brisbane Chamber Choir achieved quite beautiful ‘pppp’ (quieter than very quiet for those who do not understand music’s dynamic markings).

Christopher Bradley continued the evening as the third conductor, taking charge of the Birralee group with a piece by Daniel Brinsmead, He Wishes the Cloths of Heaven. Brinsmead is an Australian composer, and this is a love song to the woman of a man’s dreams. It is quite a pastoral sounding piece – for the lay-person probably the simplest sounding (of the night), but once Cleobury started pulling it apart there was some significant detail that had been missed initially. It was mostly time related and what Cleobury described as ‘traffic direction’. The ‘Master’ got us through a troubling pause, picked up so quickly on some drifting pitches, and then informed the audience about how the sung pronunciation ‘paw’ vs ‘poor’ can impact a piece both sonically and rhythmically.

Amber Evans was the forth and final Conductor for the Masterclass. Taking charge of Brisbane Chamber choir we heard Butterfly Dance by Matthew Orlovch. In comparison to the others, Evans was the most subtle of ‘mouthers’. She also used her left hand with a lot more natural restraint.

It was really nice to hear a choral piece that reflects modern Australian composition. Although as Cleobury pointed out, ventriloquism is required for this piece as the singers have to quickly repeat the word ‘butterfly’ throughout numerous phrases and passages. Again he demonstrated why his is a ‘master’ of his craft as he informed Evans of how articulation and dynamic contrast is required to ensure this piece doesn’t get ‘boring’ to the listener. I sensed that Cleobury was almost impressed with Evans’ interpretation of time and use of accents, but he demonstrated how he takes precision to a whole new level – it was all in the execution (but he was so relaxed in his approach). It was simply stunning to watch and absorb.