Background: Havergal Brian’s Gothic symphony remains one of the most challenging works in the choral repertoire. Far from being the random jottings of a deluded old man, the work is a tight, compelling score as Martyn Brabbins, conducting massed BBC forces, showed at a 2011 Promenade concert in London.
But, before that, a triumphant performance of the work was staged in Brisbane. Alison Rogers was the chorusmaster (her term, not mine).
It was early evening in Brisbane, one day in April, when Alison Rogers and I discussed her work on the Gothic. Alison founded and directs the Queensland Performing Arts Centre [QPAC] Choir and she explained the rather unconventional way she got involved.
“I was never approached, she explained. I think I’m a little out of the norm here in beautiful Brisbane and I don’t seem to fit the mould. I discovered a number of choral entities in Brisbane had been approached and I did some research to find out who they were. Then I rang up and said, ‘hey, what about me and my singers?—we’d love to be involved’.
“That was Veronica Fury who I phoned. She didn’t know who I was or what I did—which was fine. We got together for a coffee and she said she’d never had anybody ring her and chase her about The Gothic. I didn’t know whether I could commit to it at that stage but I was very keen to know all the details. We had a very long coffee that afternoon and she talked through a lot of the plans that she had for the concert. She moved on to the frustrations she was having getting the forces galvanised here in Brisbane.
“She was due to hold a meeting at the conservatorium with the then chorus master, Michael Black, the Australian Opera chorus master, and I attended. It was wonderful to meet him. Some of the key stakeholders were at that meeting: John Curro, and some of the instrumental tutors (the section leaders) were there as well as three or four of the choral organisations. Veronica presented an overview of her strategy for the work and John discussed the orchestral facets. Then the choral team went into another room with Michael Black and we looked at the score. This was prior to you [Jeremy Marchant] producing the master vocal score and that’s when we thought that a single vocal score would be a great help.
“When Michael Black left, that’s how I ended up chorus master by default for the project. The creative producer role was very much at the instigation of QPAC who provided the venue and the marketing team – without them we couldn’t have afforded to stage the work. QPAC wanted an artistic producer appointed and John Cotts, chief executive of QPAC, is very supportive of my work and has given me some wonderful opportunities over the years. Hence that appointment.
“Veronica and I then discussed further the organisation chart, the infrastructure for the work, and everything that we needed. I told her, from a musician’s perspective, how projects of this nature are successful. I’d just come off a project where I’d put together 1500 singers at the Brisbane entertainment centre for Queensland’s 150th anniversary celebrations – hence the 1500. That was a two hour production that was televised nationally on Network 10.
“And so Veronica and I whiteboarded. I said this is how it works in these sorts of events. They’re almost commercial, they’re almost like your variety show spectacular type of thing, in a way, and I said we need to treat the concert like that. We can’t treat it like a high art performance: we need to turn this into an ‘event’.
“For example, with the 1500 voice choir, they did a lot of cheesy standards but I also got them to do the Lachrymosa and Dies irae from the Mozart Requiem, and that brought the house down. We had 5000 in the audience for four shows, sold out, and that’s telling me that there is a craving for interestingly produced high art, for want of a better word, here in Brisbane.
“When Veronica and I were whiteboarding this at QPAC, I said let’s treat it very much in this way, and I went through the music and creative aspects and she went through the documentary, finance and the business infrastructure. Between the two of us we came up with a plan of what we wanted. Veronica said she knew this ‘fabulous lady’ Kerryanne Farrer – I didn’t know Kerryanne at the time. She brought Kerryanne in an hour later into that meeting and I clicked with her instantly.
“Whilst Kerryanne is not trained in this particular musical genre, her event management skills and her people skills are excellent. She does what she says she’s going to do when she says she’s going to do it. She’s got great integrity as a manager, as an event manager. I could ring her at 11 o’clock after a rehearsal and just vent concerns or frustrations or whatever. She understood that was me in my chorus master role needing to discuss things with somebody I trusted and, if I was totally emotional and off course, it wouldn’t go any further. But, if the situation was something that needed a resolution – wasn’t just me letting off steam – we’d always come to very good conclusions together.
“Now, we needed an auspicing entity, somebody who was going to take the risk. I am the director of a very small company called Vocal Manoeuvres, which I have been directing for twenty years. Veronica suggested Vocal Manoeuvres might be the overarching umbrella organisation, but I couldn’t take that risk with my business and creative produce at the same time and – as it then turned out fortunately – chorus master as well (at that stage I wasn’t chorus master). Given the amount of work Gary had put into the project previously, 4MBS was made the auspicing entity and Gary was appointed executive producer of the project. That was in August 2009.
“I became very close to John and Kerryanne, and to Veronica. Veronica has a most disarming way with people. She would go into many meetings and people would just love her. She’s very gregarious and chatty, and engages people and is very good at getting them on board to support things and she was always a breath of fresh air.”
I wondered if Alison had heard of The Gothic before she learnt of this performance.
“Yes I had. As with many works I have to rely very much on recordings rather than going to live performances or going to the library and looking at a score. If I lived where you are [London], I am sure that my world would be very different. The recordings I had heard didn’t excite me, but I could hear the potential in the work.
“On my creative ‘to do’ list was to purchase a score at some stage and go through it with a fine-toothed comb. But, lo and behold, that opportunity presented itself to me a lot earlier than I anticipated. To be fair, I wasn’t a great fan of the work and I think that perhaps the recordings to date haven’t done the work justice. I am not by any means a critic – that’s just from my perspective. I’m absolutely enraptured with the work now, absolutely enthralled. I’ve read everything I possibly can, kept copious notes and I hope I have opportunity to prepare it again some day.”
What was your strategy once you’d been invited to be chorus master? How did you set about planning how to bring the choral component to reality?
“It’s so complicated, it’s just so big. It really is. I think my strategy was quite unorthodox in that I was rehearsing the work even before I was formally appointed – three hours every Saturday afternoon. It would break my heart: although I loved doing it, I was leaving my children swimming in the pool with my husband and I’m like, ‘Bye, I’m off to rehearse something that I don’t know is even going to be worth the investment of my time’.
“But each week I spent three hours at the city campus, a forty minute drive from my home. I would meet with this very small team of wonderful, faithful choristers which allowed me to work through the piece without having to sing full voice, just having a look at the work, the complexity of it.
“There were twelve, initially. I ran it as a rehearsal with them, used them as my litmus paper, if you like. The compositional language is so unique, it wasn’t easy to get my ears into it. And it definitely wouldn’t be easy to get my choristers’ ears into if I didn’t understand it and have that aural immersion which I really needed before the cacophony of the big chorus at the first chorus call. You can prepare so much on the page and play it through, but I wanted to hear it in the voices too.
“I noted that, particularly in the a capella passages, there is a degree of accuracy in the Brisbane performance which I had not heard before. Now I could hear what I could see on the page, and speaking as a choral singer myself, it did strike me that Brian’s style is somewhat perverse, gratuitously difficult almost.”
“If it was a new Beethoven score that had been discovered, or a new Fauré or a new Bartók even, we have their sound in our ears. I don’t have the sound of Brian in my ears and I tell you most Australians wouldn’t. So for me it was quite challenging.”
[Alison broke off from our conversation.] “I’ve got my little girl coming in, just excuse me a moment, she’s off to bed. She’s a little entrepreneur – she’s only seven and she’s planning her performance at the markets! ”
What did the group of twelve feel about it?
“They didn’t like it at all! It was very hard for me to keep them coming back each week, I really had to bribe them. They didn’t understand it, they couldn’t grasp the form, they couldn’t grasp the modality: what key is it, where are we going? It was so mindblowing big for them that they couldn’t see the macro and then, when they got into micro, they just would allow themselves to sink. I think that’s a good thing for the chorus masters of any amateur choirs preparing this work to bear in mind.”
So how did you motivate them to stay?
“Payment first and foremost – which we didn’t have! That’s a great motivator for singers. In this instance it was terribly hard to motivate them because I couldn’t even guarantee them a performance, an outcome for the investment of their time.
“And everybody’s time poor. I just kept telling them I’m really keen to put this work in our repertoire and this is providing us with the perfect opportunity. Let’s use these Saturday afternoons as a chance to build some skill development, some sight reading and some vocal growth. I just made them sing it in counts, I made them look at sections in solfège so, to keep a small group motivated, when there was no guarantee of a performance outcome, drew on every resource I possibly had to keep it going – for myself as well.
“Because I would be thinking, ‘I’ve got this other performance coming up next week and in that three hours on Saturday afternoon I could be preparing my score, or doing a sectional’.
“I chose passages I thought would bring quick success. So the plainchant sections were very popular, and the end of the fourth movement was very popular. I had meticulous notes at every rehearsal, I just chose excerpts that would be accessible and would create a feeling of success. I would include one of those in every rehearsal, tempered with the formidable bits. But keeping them motivated was incredibly challenging.”
But you succeeded.
“Yes, we did. We had a very small team, in the end, of incredibly committed, motivated people and the weight on my shoulders to bear testimony to them was huge. I wanted to validate them and their investment. I kept saying to Veronica – this was ten months out – that I owe it to these people, I can’t drop them now.
“I remember a very hot day, it would have been January, February 2010 and Veronica and I were inside and we were perspiring, it was so hot: 40 degrees heat. We were sitting down and Veronica said, ‘I have to tell you I’m taking time off the project for a while’. A fellow called Brent Howe had resigned, so they had lost another event manager, and she said, ‘why don’t we just call it quits?’
“I replied, ‘you need time out, but let me carry the flame for a bit and I’ll hand it back to you when I’m exhausted’. It was very much tag team between us and she did take time out, but she did come back and then she did pick up the flame and really ran with it. She just needed to take time out to recharge, as any person would.
“At that time, I wasn’t even being paid (I probably did eight months of rehearsals for which I wasn’t paid), and I told her, ‘you’re not holding a gun to my head. I’m choosing to do this, I owe it to these choristers to give it the best shot I possibly can at getting this work performed. I couldn’t live with myself if I stood up there in front of them and say, ‘everyone’s resigned, Veronica’s taking time out, I’m not getting paid, let’s can it’. I just said, ‘let’s keep going’.”
So your group of twelve is helping you get inside the vocal writing and choral demands. When did you start putting on more singers?
“Around March, April, May, a lot of choristers from other entities were getting quite interested in this project and what was happening. It slowly started growing bit by bit, even up to the final soundcheck. There were still people walking in the final soundcheck who I had never seen before! I wouldn’t do any of my other performances in that nature, I would know exactly what was going on. But it was quite funny. It just kept growing and gaining interest, and I just had to take a very different approach to this work to anything else I would do.
“I gather that some of the choirs in Brisbane weren’t interested to start with but, when they saw the momentum growing, they decided to change their minds.
“Some of the choirs wouldn’t even let Gary through the door to speak to their choristers. I think it was a case of ‘oh, here he is again’. But eventually we got choristers from those organisations, independent enrolments and that was terrific. I kept saying, ‘Gary keep going back, knock on the doors. Build it and they’ll come.’
“Every time you had a rehearsal you had new people who hadn’t participated in previous rehearsals and so didn’t know the work. But you couldn’t afford to turn them down – you needed the numbers.”
So, how did you deal with that – going back to the beginning in terms of teaching it?
“Terribly, terribly frustrating. But I definitely couldn’t afford to turn them down. I also had to be very clear and careful, politically, that it was not just a QPAC choir performance. It really needed to be – and this is what Gary wanted – a cross section of choristers from the community, and that’s where John Curro believed getting Michael Black, an independent from Sydney would have worked.
“But I felt we needed an independent chorus manager. If it was seen as a QPAC event, there are other choral entities in Brisbane who would have loved to be involved but who would not want to give us their data-base of choristers. We needed to put somebody in the Gothic office not related to Vocal Manoeuvres who could source and manage all that information and we needed to give a guarantee how that information would be used.
“I was very disappointed that a choir manager was never appointed for me. I had three requests of Gary. One was a specific classical music audio engineer who I wanted for the project, based in Sydney; they did get him in, which I was delighted with.
“The second was ‘don’t pay me [until the project can], but I really want my repetiteur [piano accompanist in choral rehearsals]to be paid’. He was with me from the outset and I wanted him paid from the outset.
“My third condition was that I had dedicated chorus manager. If my VM staff were to do things such as music issue, uniforms, communication, marking rolls, and getting names for programmes, legally I would have to pay them to do it – I can’t expect them to do that without pay – and that’s something my company hadn’t budgeted for.
“So I did feel very let down that an independent chorus manager – business manager for the chorus – was not appointed, because that was a crucial role in taking a lot of the pressure off me and in recruiting the choristers.
“As it was, the rehearsals would be finished and I would have a queue thirty deep of people asking me questions and I just wanted to replay the rehearsal in my mind and make notes – not deal with ‘what are we wearing’, ‘I can’t make rehearsal next week’, ‘I’ve lost my book’. I don’t do that in my own business [Vocal Manoeuvres], let alone a massive undertaking of this nature.
“In a work for four choirs, sectional rehearsals, where one choir or even a part of one choir is rehearsed separately, are essential.”
I asked Alison how she organised sectional rehearsals.
“I couldn’t do them. Occasionally, I would ask a section to come in an hour early prior to the rehearsal. But otherwise, only chorus I, then chorus II. I had no opportunity to do chorus IA or smaller groups. But what I did do was CD recordings of each and every part so they all had their own CD to practise with.
“Kerryanne turned up a lot. She didn’t need to – it wasn’t part of her position description, it wasn’t necessary for her to be there. But she’d just turn up, sit at a table open up her laptop and off she’d go. That was so terrific to have her support.
“John Curro came to a lot of rehearsals – he’s quite a presence, that man. He’s tall in stature and very regal when he walks into a rehearsal. He would sit there and watch me conduct the whole rehearsal and he’s got such a quick wit, ‘what’s that gobbling turkey in the second row?’” [Alison laughs.]
If new singers are arriving at every rehearsal, how long did it take to get a full complement?
“I probably had that in the last month.”
So, in the last month there were people joining who hadn’t done it?
“Correct. And I just had to put a smile on my face. The fourth movement we learnt first and we had that as a whole, beginning to end, very well, very beautiful. So we would then be working on the fifth, or parts of the sixth, and new people would come in, so we’d have to go back to the fourth, and you could see the choristers looking at each other saying, ‘this has gone downhill so quickly’.
“It was just a case of getting those people working, and strategically placing them. The choir placement was very, very important. I spent time on that, not just higgledy-piggledy random seating, I really worked hard on the voice placement and I explained it to them. It’s like combs which I’m placing in a drawer. I said you have some wide toothed combs and some narrow toothed combs that just fit together nicely, then you’ve got the combs that don’t fit together at all
“They were very good at not taking offence and their trust was just so wonderful. Some days, I would look at them and I’d say, ‘please no talking at all today’ and they wouldn’t. Or at a break time I’d look at a queue of choristers and I’d say, ‘your questions are important, but I really need a break, I need to go to the bathroom, can I have ten minutes?’ They were very good.
“When new singers arrived, I’d welcome them with open arms, obviously. After all, some of them were referred by my colleagues. There was a terrific team of choristers referred by James Cuskelly who is a very fine musician – he referred some very good singers. I welcomed them into the rehearsal, let them taste the rehearsal, and then half of my job was done. They are intelligent choristers in that they’d sit back a little and see the lie of the land, and you could see their eyes popping out of their heads. So they were motivated to go away and learn.
“I had 250 in the last month. It was always incremental, just building, building, building, handing out the CDs with practice notes on them and they got carried along with the enthusiasm of my stalwarts.”
So the original twelve were converted in the end?
“Oh yes! it was a cathartic moment, like someone had taken a blindfold off them. It was wonderful – it just flowed. There would still be places of difficulty – for example, four bars before the final bit of the fourth movement which, to this day, is quite unsingable for me –they’d stumble over that a little bit. But you could see they really got it. The Judex they really loved and you could see that coming together.
“The other issue I had then was that, in that last month, John Curro was taking more and more of the rehearsals. I had to walk the fine line between the maestro and the new enrolments in the chorus. I wanted John leaving the rehearsal feeling positive but I had to explain to John, ‘we’ve got thirty new people today’. I’d just have to be careful how I put it.
“What would happen is he would rehearse the fourth movement, which previously we had very tight, with thirty new choristers so it wasn’t tight anymore. He would get cranky with the chorus, demanding more and the chorus’s self esteem would drop. It’s such a fine psychological balance getting back on track. The combination of John running the rehearsals and new people coming on board was eroding the fine work we’d done. At his rehearsals there were constantly new singers arriving who needed to learn the work, not be conducted by the orchestral conductor. I didn’t want to create any additional anxiety for him by constantly reminding him that is the first time a lot of the choristers had seen this work. The note bashing should have been done by that stage.”
But John has a lifetime’s experience of teaching students so maybe he is more used to this, and is more prepared to tolerate it, than a ‘prima donna’ conductor might.
“Absolutely. He got away with saying things to the chorus because he just won them over. I could see other choruses around the world walking out on some of his comments! It’s just that tongue in cheek humour and they really related to him. But he can be quite formidable in his demands, too, so it was very good to have him in early. He conducted many of the mixed metre passages very differently to how I would have conducted them so it was good for the chorus to see John earlier than would be usual. And he is a very good educator.
[Alison broke off from our conversation again.] “My other little girl’s coming in now, on her way to bed. She’s four. They saw a lot of the Gothic rehearsals, my two girls. They sat in the middle of the orchestra during the rehearsals, they did a lot of the meetings, they fell asleep under boardroom tables. They adore John Curro. He’s such a tall man with such a big voice, a beard, and he’s just so wonderful with them. They spend a lot of time at his house and he with them.
“And he’s so funny, he has these big yells, he just bellows, ‘why are you putting the chorus in 4 there?!’ But it’s not personal, it’s just his Italian passionate nature. I think the documentary shows a very heated debate between John and I where we were talking about concert dress, and I said how I wanted the chorus in concert dress for the open rehearsal because I wasn’t sure what I was going get.
“I said, ‘John, we are talking about choristers here’, and I had that real ‘deferring to the orchestral musician’ tone in my voice. John bellows back, ‘I don’t care if they wear bikinis, they’re not wearing concert dress until the performance!’
“I really feel that, with John’s experience and his advice, I could call him any time, drop over to his home anytime (he lives in the most beautiful home!) and he is such a clever man: sometimes when political things weren’t clear to me, he succinctly summed up the situation and was superb in the advice that he gave me. It was very tactical, he was just wonderful.
“He treats me as a real colleague, he treats me with respect. It’s quite rare for me to have a man of his generation do that. None of the issues that I raised with him was ever rebuffed back to me: ‘you’re just a woman’ or, ‘you’re thinking as a woman’. He really heard what was I was saying and was able to give me magnificent advice. I really appreciate that. I find it very rare, in all professional aspects of my life, to have somebody like him, who is non judgmental, who allows you to speak and hears what you say, and then comes back with some very insightful responses. John provided me with terrific support.
“With the Judex I would go into fine detail and then back out to the macro to give the choristers some sense of where the music was going. John and I had very different interpretations of the Judex. He really want the word Judex stressed as an accent, fortissimo – not a caressed fortissimo but a real accent – and I kept saying to him, ‘no! It sounds like a mosquito bite, Juuuuuuu! But that’s what he wanted’. [Brian marks the Ju- with an accent and fpp].
“And also the plainchant section, Tu devicto mortis saculeo [IV, fig 124], he wanted that very metrical and I had it very senza misura [not beaten in strict time]. So we had some really great debates – of course he always won.
“I pointed out that this passage is surprisingly staccato in the performance.
“He and I had big arguments about that [she sings the passage staccato]. I said to him, ‘it sounds like gunfire, an automatic rifle, John. Could we have a little bit more ebb and flow, a plainchant sort of feel about it?’ ‘No! that’s how I want it!’. And then, with the mixed metre, we discussed whether a 6/4 passage would be in 3, or a 4 and a 2, or whatever. And how are we going to do the 5/4s?
“We had very strong debates about how the text was set, and the accents in the bar, and I would say “I believe it’s this…” And, to give him credit, he never spoke down to me, he always considered my suggestions, and would try it my way on the choir. Nine times out of ten, my way wouldn’t work and he’d give me that look as if to say, ‘see, I knew that one wouldn’t work’.
“But he did beat the mixed metre sections very differently from me. If I was singing in the chorus I’d find that hard to follow. But that’s what he wanted and I just prepared the chorus to keep the crotchet constant across the mixed metre, and I said to them, ‘if the worst comes to the worst, just put your head down and keep the beat constant because he’s keeping the tempo constant’. That came up surprisingly well in performance.”
One challenging aspect of The Gothic for the choirs is the wide range of styles which Brian deploys and which the singers have to move between.
“The Gothic is very much a pastiche of different styles which is quite confrontational. Pitch, and pitch occurring at the right time (rhythm), and pitch occurring with the correct part of the word at the right time are all important as is an appropriate vocal tone and a nuance that is appropriate to the genre – my five tenets of good choral singing were really challenged by this work.
“So, at one moment, we’re working with something that’s romantic in style and we’re working with the choral timbre in that passage and then, all of a sudden, you’re flicking into plainchant. Then you’re flicking into a very exposed Varèse-type vocal technique. So I really did feel like I would imagine it would be like having multiple personalities.
“Usually you do a work in one style, you’re immersed in that style and it’s complete. But with this work I’m continually going from one to other. I feel as if I’ve just learnt choral conducting and I’m trying out all these new things. It was quite complex for me intellectually and emotionally. It really bothered me, in fact, well into my holidays in January, February this year. It was constantly in my thoughts. I kept going over and over sections in my head, trying to understand it.”
Do you think you reached a conclusion?
“I reached the conclusion that I really want to do the work again; that I want the opportunity to at least hear the work again and that it will be something that will perplex me for the rest of my life. I don’t think I will ever understand it but I’m quite fascinated and very attracted to it. To think if I could just do it again, now that I know it, that would be unbelievable.”
© 2011 Jeremy Marchant . uploaded 1 june 2016 . this article was commissioned by, and originally appeared in, the Newsletter of the Havergal Brian Society . top image: courtesy Alison Rogers . remaining images: screen grabs from The curse of the Gothic—produced by Veronica Fury @ WildFury, director Randall Wood, editor Scott Walton—show a full rehearsal conducted by John Curro—excerpt . trailer
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