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Hand-to-mouth: planning the project

April 22, 2012

This is the kind of project EXAUDI was formed for. Idealistic, ludicrously labour-intensive, with no guarantee of ultimate success and no clear path towards it – it’s the kind of challenge I love and which Juliet and I have been foisting on our long-suffering colleagues regularly over the last ten years. That said, even a piece like the Ferneyhough Missa Brevis (which became for a time our calling-card after we performed it for the first time in 2006) pales in comparison with the work required to realise Aaron’s music. But as I said in my last post, this is something I’ve wanted us to do for a long time and is something worth clearing the schedule for.

At this point it might be worth explaining a bit about how EXAUDI works and how we go about putting on a project of this magnitude. Unlike our lucky colleagues abroad (and one or two conspicuously fortunate – albeit deserving – colleague-ensembles in the UK), we’re not a full-time ensemble, or even part-time. We work from project to project, hoping and praying that our freelance singers are free for whatever grand plan we have in store for them. We receive no public subsidy (our only grant is – at the moment – £12,000 a year from the PRSF, for which we are deeply grateful) and have no permanent home. We have skeletal administrative backup and most of the admin is done gratis for the sake of the ensemble. Our singers (and I) are paid by the session.

This being the case, it makes taking on big projects of taxing contemporary music all the more difficult. When they’re not singing for us, EXAUDI members, none of whom (bar Juliet and myself) make a living as contemporary music specialists, are cruising the freelance circuit: Bach in Vienna with one group on Monday, Josquin in Madrid with another on Tuesday. Or teaching, or conducting, or singing in church, or making their way in the opera scene, or whatever, assembling their portfolio careers piece by piece and hoping to scrape together an income along the way. The preparation, mental clarity and vocal freshness one needs to do an exceptional project are not something we can take for granted, and we have to plan very carefully to make sure we can work to the standards we set ourselves. Frankly, it’s not an ideal way to run an international ensemble but it’s the way things are at the moment, and I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have such a dedicated and generally brilliant band of colleagues. Are they new-music-heroes? I think so!

Our Cassidy plans were kick-started when we were selected to be one of the 20 projects for the PRSF’s New Music 20×12, an initiative linked to the Cultural Olympiad that accompanies the London Olympics. It was a bit of a surprise to be selected, as we didn’t seem the most, um, accessible of submissions for what will be a very ‘public-facing’ affair, but all the more gratitude to the judges for believing in our own version of ‘faster, higher, stronger’. In fact, the more we get into the project the more apposite it actually feels for an Olympiad – this really is art at (some of) its limits: a vocal version of the Heptathlon. The award gave us some funding and a goal to aim at: a performance on the South Bank on the Olympiad Weekend of 14th-15th July.

With the structure laid out, we found there was still a large gap between the funding we had won and our aspirations for the project. Here we were really fortunate to secure a chunk of money from the University of Huddersfield, which allowed us a less breathless rehearsal schedule (even some proper Research and Development!) and a recording of not only Aaron’s but several other recent commissions besides.

A plan of attack slowly coalesced and so did our team: our regular pairing of Juliet Fraser and Amy Moore on soprano, relative newcomers Lucy Goddard on mezzo and Simon Whiteley on bass, and four EXAUDI old-timers Tom Williams (countertenor), Stephen Jeffes and Jonathan Bungard (tenor) and Jonathan Saunders (bass-baritone). As it turned out we could have booked eight countertenors or anything else for this piece, as the parts are not voice-specific, but it’s wonderful that we have such a skilled and, almost more importantly, up-for-it group for an experience that is going to push everyone miles out of their comfort zone and doubtless generate some sticky moments along the way. Per ardua ad astra…

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