Early Music Today Blog 6

I have been away in Germany again and I thought I would take the opportunity to talk about the festival I have been performing in that might not be so well known in England.

In 1992 conductor Hermann Max launched an early music festival based in Knechtsteden, a Romanesque basilica around 10 miles north of Cologne. Since then the festival has become renowned for exclusive historically informed productions. Max conducts two ensembles – Rheinische Kantorei and Das Kleine Konzert – both of which have been the core of the festival since its inception. The choir Rheinische Kantorei is an elite group trained in singing baroque repertoire and are renowned for trying new things such as using gestures in both sacred and secular baroque music, as well as using different tunings from the sixteenth century. His first CD, the B minor Mass, which was recorded 22 years ago, gave the choir and orchestra a crowd of admirers from Germany as well as from Netherlands, Belgium and France.


Hermann Max’s two ensembles are at the core of the festival

This year’s festival explored tolerance as a means to prevent wars, hatred and misunderstanding. An international cast played and sang not only early music by J. S. Bach, G. F. Handel, Heinrich Schütz and Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, but also the currently unknown oratorio Luther in Worms by Ludwig Meinardus from 1871. This romantic piece, performed in the closing concert of the festival with Concerto Köln, was quite a jump in style from previous concerts at the festival, but what a piece it is! I can only describe it as a German equivalent to Elgar – very patriotic with wonderful melodies and six main soloists. As well as the concert performance, we also recorded it for a CD set to be released next year, so do watch out for it. I hope you are as moved as I was, when hearing it for the first time.

The festival takes place each year in the second half of September with around 10 concerts and multiple workshops, including a children’s concert which involved young people trying out conducting a choir and orchestra. This year also included a symposium on the theme of tolerence.

Later this week, I’m performing in Germany again (in Weissenfels) with Rheinische Kantorei and Max in a performance of a Vespers sequence from the later-seventeenth century by Melani (and edited by Max). It’s very interesting to sing different repertoire to that which I often perform in the UK. Pronunciation is always different, for example, as they sing in ‘germanic’ Italian rather than our ‘anglicised’ Italian.

Belcanto - La Dolcezza

Bethany has been performing under the baton of conductor Hermann Max


As I mentioned in previous blogs, I am performing in the York Early Music Christmas Festival which runs from 6 to 16 December. Some highlights of this year’s festival are Alamire (8 December), Brecon Baroque (7 December), the Yorkshire Bach Choir (6 December) and The Sixteen (12 December). I will be conducting a children’s choir at the festival for a joint concert with the Minster Minstrels. I am looking for singers aged 10-18 to sing in the choir who have an enthusiasm for early music. I also have a concert on 13 December in the National Centre for Early Music in which Niels Tilma (trumpet) and I will perform (with the Yorkshire Baroque Soloists) a programme including Bach Cantata 51 (Jauchzet Gott), Scarlatti’s ‘Su le Sponde del Tebro’, Conti’s ‘Languet anima mea’, Handel’s ‘Eternal Source of Light Divine’ and Vivaldi’s ‘La Follia’.

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Early Music Today Blog 5

This month marks the half-way point of my fellowship and it has certainly gone quickly! Looking back over my previous blogs life seems to have been a blur of concerts and tours, so this month it has been a real delight to begin the educational aspect of the fellowship. I was the vocal coach on ‘a musical play in a week’ run at the NCEM for children aged 9 to 14. This week is exactly as it sounds – the children arrive on Monday morning and are handed scripts; then by Monday afternoon the parts have been allocated and learning songs has started. As this was my first time taking part in something like this, I was intrigued as to how the children would cope with learning their lines and remembering all the songs. By Wednesday morning, most of the lines were memorised and more than half of the songs were note perfect. The speed at which the children worked really impressed me. I would very much like to have that sort of memorising ability!

This year’s music was based on compositions by William Lawes to tie in with the civil war theme of the play. The songs were arranged in to two and three parts, and the instrumental pieces tailored to the children’s ability and the wide variety of instruments that they play. I particularly enjoyed helping the children go from note reading to understanding phrasing and shape. I also enjoyed learning new things myself, for instance what a tenoroon is. (It’s a tenor bassoon)

That week was a good start in preparing me for my next educational project, which is conducting a choir for a Christmas concert to join the Minster Minstrels – a very popular youth ensemble that focuses on early music, based in York at the National Centre for Early Music. I will be conducting a group of young singers up to the age of 18 in music by Hassler, Praetorius and Buxtehude. This type of music will be completely new to the singers so I look forward to introducing them to a new style and phrasing. It will be challenging as the lines are both homophonic and melismatic, so will require a good technique and sense of security. If there are any young singers in the north wanting to take part in this project, do get in touch with the National Centre for Early Music for more details.

As I said in my last blog, I am recording the Matthew Passion in the next week and so I have spent the last month preparing for this. As a lover of Bach’s music, it has not been a chore to spend so long practicing one piece, but it has certainly been challenging. Those of you who have sung any of Bach’s pieces will agree when I say one of the hardest aspects is stamina. The lines are long and demanding with very few chances to breathe. Having said that, the reward when you do get it right is well worth it! The team of performers (mentioned in my last blog) will be very inspiring. There’s a great deal of discussion between the performers and conductor about the (early) version we’re recording – for example, about the accuracy of the manuscript itself (not Bach’s own), let alone which of Bach’s later thoughts might have been included in his own early performances. And, although we’re not trying to produce a museum piece reproducing what might have been heard in 1727 or 1729, we’re conscious that it has to be a performance which vividly communicates Bach’s understanding of the text … no pressure then!

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Early Music Today Blog 4

Bethany Seymour is writing a monthly blog exclusively for Early Music Today to talk about her experiences as a BBC Performing Arts Fellowship Award winner. The young professional soprano is carrying out her fellowship at the National Centre for Early Music (NCEM) in York. The BBC Performing Arts Fund (BBC PAF) is a charity committed to developing new performing arts talent from across the UK in all disciplines, including early music.

Well, what a month! York Early Music Festival (YEMF) was a fantastic success with artists coming from all over the world. A particular highlight was meeting world-famous soloists including both the lutenist Paul O’Dette and gamba player Wieland Kuijken. The Young Artists Competition was also better than ever with participants seemingly a better standard each year; it would have been possible to present a whole festival using just these young ensembles.

‘Voicing Corelli’ was the theme of a concert performed by La Risonanza directed by Fabio Bonizzoni; it was a real treat to hear Italian music performed by Italian singers and players and the programme, with lyrics added to Corelli’s string trio sonatas by Antonio Tonelli, was fascinating. The interaction between two violins and two singers was wonderfully intricate and very different to anything I have heard before. The two groups are treated as equals with both starting each piece together, as opposed to the more usual fashion of the violins playing a ritornello before the singers’ entry. The BBC Radio 3 Early Music Show has already broadcast La Risonanza, but Paul O’Dette’s concert is broadcast on 3 August and Wieland Kuijken’s on 24 August.

I was incredibly delighted to take part in the live festival broadcast of the BBC Radio 3 Early Music Show alongside the Rose Consort of Viols and Fabio Bonizzoni on the harpsichord. Having chosen to sing the Carisimmi Lamento di Maria Stuarda, I felt very honoured to discuss the piece with Kate Bott, as I was influenced and guided greatly by her own recording of it. A word of warning , however – make sure your accompanist has bound his music before you begin a live broadcast as it is a little nerve racking when his music falls off the music stand mid-performance! In fairness, he did catch it in one hand and continued playing with the other, and thank goodness for a fast-moving viol player who saved the day by putting the music back on the music desk and then holding onto it until the end of the piece! And, of course, I was grateful for the talent of the harpsichord player to remember the notes while the music was being repositioned!

In August I am solely working on preparing Bach’s St Matthew Passion for a recording in September. I will be singing first soprano chorus and solos. In this particular recording (based on Bach’s first version from 1727) we are using single voices for each chorus and I am very proud to say I will be standing alongside the likes of Sally Bruce Payne, Charles Daniels, Peter Harvey, Matthew Brook, Joseph Cornwell, Julian Podger, Helen Neeves and Nancy Cole – quite a line-up! This recording is performed by Yorkshire Baroque Soloists who have some wonderful players too; Lucy Russell is leader and Tony Robson is principal oboe. I’m looking forward to hearing the bass aria ‘Komm, süsses Kreuz’ sung by Peter Harvey, not with a gamba as we usually hear it but with Liz Kenny on lute.

After YEMF I was almost straight off to Bingen in Germany to sing Bach’s motets (all seven … ) with Rheinische Kantorei. There were some inspiring moments as the conductor, Hermann Max, explored the idea that dynamic markings influence the tempo choices. This created a very focused and concentrated atmosphere and a very exciting and rewarding concert. I was also able to slip in some lessons in Köln with Barbara Schlick whom I have been studying with since my year’s study at the Musikhochschule in Köln. I returned on Eurostar only to fly out immediately to Italy to perform with Vox Musica and the Southbank Sinfonia at the Anghiari Festival.

Over the past few months I have been creating my website and it will be up and running in the next week; I will announce it on Twitter so do watch out for it (follow Bethany on Twitter @bethany_seymour).

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Early Music Today Blog 3

Bethany Seymour is writing a monthly blog exclusively for Early Music Today to talk about her experiences as a BBC Performing Arts Fellowship Award winner. The young professional soprano is carrying out her fellowship at the National Centre for Early Music (NCEM) in York. The BBC Performing Arts Fund (BBC PAF) is a charity committed to developing new performing arts talent from across the UK in all disciplines, including early music.

Having just arrived back from Leipzig BachFest, I have been spending some time getting to grips with July’s concert repertoire which includes Handel’s Salve Regina (York Early Music Festival, York Minster, 5 July), Carrisimi’s Lamento de Maria Stuarda (Early Music Show, 1pm, 7 July), Bach Motets (Bingen, 20 July) and Handel’s Messiah (Anghiari Festival, with Southbank Sinfonia and Parliament Choir).

My concert with the Rhienische Kantorei was in the very individual Leipzig Nickolei Kirche. Due to the larger forces, and for better audience contact, we performed from the east end instead of in the organ loft. The programme was J.S. Bach Cantata 67 and C.P.E. Bach Die Auferstehung der Himmelfahrt and the concert was broadcast on Deutschland Radio Kultur.

During the festival, Leipzig is always a hot-bed of early music ensembles and soloist. As such, it is very exciting to be around as you never know who you might bump into out on the street; it was a particular pleasure to see Hannah Morrison, Peter Harvey and Matthew Brook who were there singing with Monteverdi Choir. Bachfest is a very active festival with a large number of concerts and talks going on each day.

York Early Music Festival is starting this week (5–13 July) and I am performing in the opening concert alongside the wonderful Mhairi Lawson, Yorkshire Baroque Soloists and Yorkshire Bach Choir. I have added a sound clip of one of the Handel arias I will be performing, ‘Lascia la Spina’ from Il Trionfo del Tempo. In the attached recording Ian Hoggart has joined me, here playing the oboe line on recorder. Do let me know what you think! This concert is in York Minster on 5 July at 7.30 pm and tickets are still available from

I am also very excited to be performing in the BBC Radio 3 Early Music Show broadcast live from York Early Music Festival on Sunday 7 July at 1pm. I have chosen to perform Carissimi’s Lamento de Maria Stuarda which sets the (supposed) last letter of Mary Queen of Scots, written the night before her execution. The theme of the Festival this year is ‘The Eternal City’ (Rome) and, as there are no other performances of Carrisimi, one of the most popular composers and teachers in the seventeenth century, I thought it would be a good addition. The piece is very dramatic, as you will hear if you listen in, with a very wide vocal range, some very fast Italian text and some wonderful harmonic and melodic chromaticisms. The lament was a very popular form in the seventeenth century with many examples including the famous Lamento d’Arianna of Monteverdi through Carissimi’s Lamento and Purcell’s concluding solo in Dido and Aeneas. One of the problems to be considered here was the pitch at which my father (on the harpsichord) and I should perform the piece. Carissimi sets it in a very high register but the performing pitch in Rome was lower than much of the rest of Europe. I’m sure he expected each singer to perform it at a pitch that allowed the fantastic emotional palette to come across to the listener to the best effect.

The rest of July sees me visiting the RheinVocal Festival to perform Bach motets in Bingen and then straight on to Tuscany for a week with Vox Musica and Southbank Sinfonia. It will be my fourth year out in Tuscany with these ensembles and it is always a very diverse week in terms of programming. In the past, performances have ranged from Monteverdi Lamento della Ninfa through to Vaughan Williams Serenade to Music. This year I will perform some Zelenka and Schubert songs as well as Messiah with the Parliament Choir.

Listen to Bethany performing ‘Lascia la Spina’ here

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Early Music Today Blog 2

This month I have been working on preparing repertoire for the coming months. Arranging programmes and rehearsing with other artists is a large part of my fellowship and I have enjoyed having the opportunity to collaborate with talented artists that, without the fellowship’s help, would be very difficult to arrange.

Over the past few years I have been working with a Danish trumpeter called Niels Tilma. He and I have toured various programmes including Bach and Telemann cantatas, but our work has been predominantly in Denmark as the funding for small-scale concerts in churches is much better there than it is here; most of the larger churches put on regular concert series, often based around the (usually excellent) church organ, and soprano and trumpet is a popular format. With the fellowship’s help we have been able to bring these programmes here to England – but this time with full string band rather than just organ. The first is planned for York Early Music Christmas Festival on 13 December and I’ve been enjoying the experience of getting an instrumental ensemble together. I will let you know in the coming months when other performances of this will happen.

Another collaboration I have been working on is with a very talented recorder player, Ian Hoggart, who is based in York and studies with the excellent Pamela Thorby. Ian and I have been performing together in various ensembles and we are very excited to be planning concerts as a duo.

Recorder and soprano repertoire is very fertile especially in the early eighteenth century and many obbligato lines can be adapted for the recorder, so the programme ideas are endless. Composers were keen to sell their compositions and so often advertised their music as suitable for several treble instruments. Our upcoming performance in June will include Handel’s German arias and his passionate Italian cantata ‘Mi palpita il cor’. The recital is on 29 June at 11am at Kings Manor, York and is a promotional concert for the Rydale Festival, which begins in mid-July.

Part of the BBC PAF’s role is to guide us as young musicians in how to promote and market ourselves to potential employers, with the hope of giving us a platform to work upon. As Ian and I are both just emerging as soloists it is hard to know how to promote a programme, so the NCEM and the BBC PAF teams have been helping us with this.

The BBC PAF is run by some lovely ladies based at MediaCityUK in Salford and this year they’ve celebrated 10 years of supporting the arts. Over the years they have supported artists such as Adele and the very talented Kathryn Rudge. I was lucky enough to take part in the anniversary celebrations and gave a performance of Handel arias. As an early music singer I can usually be found singing in churches, cathedrals and concert halls but this performance was a little different; it was in the studio next to those used to film Jeremy Kyle. I was following a young rock band that I presume you would describe as ‘fierce’ so there was a marked difference in decibel levels between our performances! However, by far the most entertaining (and challenging) part of the performance was trying to sing while having waves of fake smoke blown in my face. I found that whenever I had a break in the music I was trying to blow the smoke out of my face; needless to say it was most entertaining to those watching – perhaps more so than my singing … at least I learnt that incense is not the worst thing to be wafted around you while singing!

In the coming month I am working on some recordings for my website, for the BBC Radio 3 Early Music Show (airing on 7 July) and for a commercial recording in September. I will attach a sound bite to the next blog – it will be a well-known tune, but with a twist! So do watch out for it.

Leave a question for Bethany in the comments box below if you’d like to ask her anything about her experience so far.

(Image credit: Jim Poyner Photography –

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Early Music Today Blog 1

My name is Bethany Seymour, and I am a young professional soprano. At the end of February I was lucky enough to be awarded a BBC Performing Arts fellowship in conjunction with the National Centre for Early Music (NCEM), which is based in my home town of York. The fellowship is aimed at helping young professionals to further their careers by providing the necessary funding for specialist tuition, along with invaluable performance and promotion opportunities. Throughout the year I will be taking part in performances and educational workshops in the NCEM.

I hope to use this blog as a way of giving updates about the fellowship and some of the notable experiences I have along the way. Alongside performances and educational workshop events the fellowship will support my tuition with various specialist teachers. I will receive vocal lessons with Mhairi Lawson and Barbara Schlick, as well as language coaching with Richard Jackson. I will also be receiving help in setting up a website … but more on that in my next blog.

The past month has been very busy, with Easter being a busy time for any singer. The fellowship started off with an opening concert in the BBC’s new offices in Salford, media city, at which I performed alongside other fellows. I took the opportunity to sing two Mozart songs and an aria from Handel’s Solomon, accompanied by my father, Peter Seymour. The concert was a really positive start to the year and was shortly followed by an interview for BBC Radio York that was broadcast the following week. As a singer, I’m used to performing rather than speaking on the radio,  so I hope I wasn’t too flustered by the moment!

Over the next few weeks the fellowship will see me preparing for my first educational workshop, part of the Music to Young Ears conference at the NCEM. This conference examines how under fives with hearing loss access, enjoy and benefit from musical engagement. I will also be singing in the London Handel Festival performing Handel’s Utrecht Te Deum and Zelenka’s Magnificat in D. (Information and tickets are available here.)

I will be writing this blog monthly, so please do read again if you are interested in hearing about the fellowship, my concerts and other activities throughout the year. Until next time …

Follow Bethany’s activities in the meantime on Twitter @bethany_seymour or you can ask her a question in the comments box below.

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