It’s exciting when you hear that a composer is commissioned to write a piece for your choir. Also – nerve-wracking.
Anticipation is tinged with apprehension: what is this piece going to be like? Is it going to be fun to sing? Is it going to be ‘a challenge’ rather than ‘a pleasure’?
We were handed the sheet music a week before our first rehearsal and I had a quick look. My first impression (full disclosure!) was of a multitude of triplets and accidentals; I worried that this was a piece that was going to be tricky for our choir.
But I should have trusted Emily Hazrati. She is a singer herself and her first ever compositions were choral pieces. For her, writing for choirs has always been intrinsically tied to her practice as a performer. She repeats and improvises vocal lines as she writes, so that her ideas are embodied early on in the creative process. And I have to say that as soon as we started singing Ave Maris Stella, the music stuck in my head immediately.
Emily uses the Ave Maris Stella Gregorian plainchant as a sort of 'anchor' for the choir to latch onto. Whilst fragments of the melodic line are scattered throughout the score, she is more interested in the harmonies implied by the plainchant and stretches out the original chant to create an expansive, almost cosmic space evocative of the sea and stars.
The theme of water comes across very strongly as I sing. I'm an alto and in Emily's piece, the three lower parts, (bass, tenor and alto) have what feels like surges of triplets underneath the soprano line. It reminds me of waves, the ebb and flow of the sea, or water lapping on a shoreline. Plus, those triplets might look daunting on the page but they are a real earworm and I'm humming them for days!
Our conductor had originally planned for the commission to be performed at Southwark Cathedral and Emily was intrigued by the cathedral's location next to London Bridge – the first known crossing of the Thames – and by suggestions that the first Christian establishment there was a community of nuns in the 7th Century. The intersecting themes of gateways, the sea and femininity instantly drew her to the first verse of the Ave Maris Stella text. The premiere is now taking place at All Saints Kingston, next to Kingston Bridge, so the text still feels deeply relevant.
But when you make music, it’s not just about themes and text, but also about the joy you find in performing. And that brings me to maybe the most important point: I love that Emily Hazrati’s Ave Maris Stella is so singable and melodic. This is clearly a piece written for singers by a fellow-singer and I hope that our audience will enjoy listening to the music as much as I enjoy rehearsing it.
Anja de Jager
Photo: Ben Tomlin Photography