We ignored the second part of this directive for my first concert performance in 16 months, in the place where the previous one had been, Gloucester Cathedral. This time we were out of doors in the Cloister Garth (the lawn in the middle of the cloisters, scene of 3 Choirs photos) and while it’s usually sensible to assume that cold will strike up through the Cathedral flagstones, it was a very hot day and no such warning was necessary; a greater danger was that the accompanying keyboard would overheat.
Members of Gloucester Choral Society sang a selection of the pieces we’ve been working on. All previously known to me, though I had not performed ‘Victoria’ ‘s. Jesu dulcis memoria or Viadana’s Exultate Justi in the lifetime of this blog, and had only sung Poulenc’s Salve Regina once before, ten years ago (the rest of the choir had done it in a concert just before I joined). Rossini’s O salutaris hostia last came my way, rather poignantly, in the final weekend I sang with Priory Voices (not that I knew it was the final one at the time) and Grieg’s Ave Maris Stella was another piece I’d previously done with Priory, in Gloucester! There were some much more familiar pieces as well including some of the standard Bruckner so it wasn’t just a memory test.
We had an equally informal audience of people who’d wandered into the Cloister Garth, some to eat their lunch. In a normal year the choir would have a long gap between seasons, but it will not be much more than a month till we meet again.
My church took the plunge that other churches have been trying for a while now: live singing by a sextet at a service. We have created a rota using those members of the choir who wish to take part and I was one of those in the first service with a choir in. We sang Rutter’s Gaelic Blessing, Rizza’s Calm me, Lord, a hymn and the usual Mass setting (Nardone’s Mass of St Cedd). We had to experiment to balance the organ with our reduced numbers (further muffled through masks) and tricky location in the apse (it was a special service with Bishop and Mayor so we were displaced backwards). It was well received. We hope though that the ‘rule of six’ restriction will not last much longer.
No, this is not the party at Buck House which I had hoped to attend a year ago. Members of Gloucester Choral Society dodged the current restrictions (as many groups have done) by rehearsing outside, in this grandly named space which is actually part of the King’s School. It’s still impressive, with a fine view of the North side of the Cathedral and other buildings in the Close. Plenty of birds joined in, as did the odd train passing between Gloucester and Cardiff. Most of us had brought folding chairs of a similar design and varied colours although they were little used.
We continued exploring pieces from the European Sacred Music anthology. Despite the Erleigh Cantors making frequent use of this volume (which I dread if it involves lugging it around on trains) there are many pieces in it I’ve never sung, though the only ones new to me in these Gloucester rehearsals have been Handl’s setting of the Lord’s Prayer for double choir and my own request of Warum is das Licht gegeben (I finally had the nerve to suggest this, although it was declared to be the hardest piece in the book!)
In this outdoor practice we sang ‘Victoria’s’ Jesu dulcis memoria which I had not done for many years. I would go further than John Rutter and say that I suspect this too is a 19th-century pastiche; all those dominant sevenths! Still a nice piece though.
The Bath Festival programme this year included something postponed from 2020: a complete cycle of Beethoven string quartets. (Beethoven didn’t do very well out of his anniversary year really, but then no one’s going to forget that he exists.) We went to two of them.
First up were the Heath Quartet playing Op.18 no. 5 and Op.131. The first of these quartets was not well known to me and I felt there was good reason why others in the set are more often performed. Perhaps it was chosen so as not to distract from Op.131. This received a lively and coherent performance, though I didn’t take very much to the tone of this quartet, finding it on the harsh side. Apart from the cellist, they played standing up.
On Sunday the Carducci Quartet had another heavyweight programme, Op.95 and Op. 132, the latter a long-time favourite which haunts me for days after I hear it. I was not disappointed with this performance and preferred the quartet’s rather sweeter tone to the Heath’s.
The seats were arranged (and sold) in pairs, and the staging was less elaborate than usual, without the baldacchino-like construction that is often used. (In fact the stage itself, rather patchily painted black, would not have looked out of place in a school hall.) It was perhaps a mistake to have two screens on it advertising the Festival and the number to ring to buy tickets – these were a distraction and I expect most events sold out anyway because of the limitations on space.
Following the DCMS announcement that no more than 6 amateurs may sing indoors together, a petition has been launched here. I was about the 850th to sign (polishes halo); it’s now at almost exactly 20,000 signatures and I’d expect it to get to 30,000 or not far short of that.
Watching the names of the latest signatories scroll by, I recognise quite a few, whether people I sing with (that’s you, Jane, you, Kieran and you, Dorette) or well-known figures. Either I’ve spent too much time doing this, or I know an awful lot of singers, or maybe the ones I know are more likely than average to protest in this way.
So there are more than a few who are protesting at this restriction, imposed late and without detailed justification. A warning in advance, with some reasoning and science, would have made it much more palatable. I doubt that tens of thousands of signatures will make the DCMS go back on its current position, but they might do well to reflect that most of us will have a vote in the next general election.
This week I was all primed to go to two choir practices: over to Gloucester on Thursday for Gloucester Choral Society, and then the return of my church choir on Friday. Next week I was expecting to go to a rehearsal of Bristol Choral Society.
All of this has been put on hold because of the ruling of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. If you want to see anger and frustration on Twitter (more than there usually is there) just search on ‘@dcms’ and ‘choirs’ right now. Not only are the rules more restrictive than last autumn, but they were apparently announced as an afterthought, a day after other rules were generally relaxed and some time after choirs had to book rehearsal venues and make other preparations in the light of what we’d been led to expect would be possible.
For myself, I had mixed feelings about returning to sing. As explained in the previous post, I’m reluctant to sing wearing a mask, which two of the choirs required, and I also want to feel confident that all around me are respecting whatever rules have been imposed. And there were no plans to sing the large-scale repertoire that I’ve really been missing. But I’d been within touching distance of choir rehearsals and they have now retreated out of reach. A particular annoyance is that not far away in Wales it is possible for up to 30 to rehearse together.
The online discussion shows up some curious views, as it always does. Someone confidently asserts that ‘most choirs are fully vaccinated’. Do they really think that only the over-60s sing in choirs? Because people younger than that will probably only have had one jab, and those under 40 none (or had one so recently that it will not have taken effect). Bristol Choral Society at least has many in its ranks (I’m happy to say) who are too young to have been vaccinated.
As choirs begin to poke their head above the parapet again and prepare for live performance, I find myself reviewing the differences between what is returning and what there was in spring last year. As far as I know only one choir that I’ve sung with has not survived, the South West Festival Chorus, which was already somewhat moribund before the pandemic.
The Cathedral visiting choirs scene is still very patchy, with some Cathedrals taking visiting choirs again and others not ready to. I have the prospect of one such tour in August though.
My concert-giving choirs are arranging informal performances rather than concerts in the immediate future, then planning for a return to concerts in the autumn. The continued closure of the Bristol Beacon (originally planned for 2017-19) is a further constraint. And will audiences want to return in numbers? Proms appearances and being drafted into performances in London and Cardiff are a distant memory.
A further consideration is how much I’m willing to rehearse and perform in a mask when I find this unrewarding and even damaging (because I get into the habit of clenching my jaw). I’m hoping the two choirs which required this will feel able to drop the requirement before too long.
As part of the church ‘Time and Talents’ fund-raising drive, I got a request to transfer four cassette tapes to CD for a member of the congregation.
This inevitably doesn’t produce as good results as transferring LPs: you don’t have clicks to deal with, but there is background hiss that can’t be totally eradicated, and I find that any stretching is much more annoying when you hear it on a CD. There is also the problem of my tape deck sometimes stopping and winding forwards or backwards a little. Backwards winding just means making a cut when editing the result, forwards requires re-recording which usually works as the problem doesn’t always appear in exactly the same place, unlike LP clicks.
The tapes were of choral music, including the choir of St Alphege Greenwich (just before a friend of mine took over there), Bath Camerata, and a choir from Namibia which sang European and African repertoire. Two recordings were unseasonally Christmas ones; one had no printed liner so I had to identify pieces by their texts (Bath Camerata’s diction was good enough I could do this even for less well-known ones). The Greenwich recording showed how tastes have changed over the years in Christmas material. Walford Davies’ setting of O Little Town doesn’t get many outings these days which is a pity. On the other hand I don’t miss Macpherson’s The Shepherds’ Cradle Song (also on a Bath Camerata tape) – I remember a bass dropping out of a carol service because of it ‘I couldn’t face those lambkins!’ (Not a piece that would survive modernising ‘thou’ to ‘you’, either. Think about it.)
This year’s Lichfield Cathedral Lent Quiz invited competitors to identify stops on the Cathedral organ. I did have a go at a dozen or so of these. Some of the less standard ones I was able to identify but most of the others just sounded like ‘an organ stop’ and I couldn’t really tell them apart. You can hear the clips of ‘Forty days and forty nights’ with the answers here.
Of necessity our Holy Week/Easter choral contributions had to be recorded and then edited together, so we stuck to what was already in our repertoire. I got to reprise my part in the duet in Philip Moore’s It is a thing most wonderful.
Against all probability the scaled-down Bath Festival 2021 will feature for the first time in many years (I’d guess 40 years at least) an ensemble called the Bath Festival Orchestra. This has been refounded with a new remit for the 21st century and performed for the first time at the end of 2020. I somehow doubt that the organisers of the Festival instigated this development, but perhaps it might reverse the trend in recent years for classical music to be sidelined at the Festival. I am all for their going out and looking for new audiences for this repertoire; see some of my complaints that no effort was being made to bring in young concert-goers to Festival events.
Dare I mention it? Perhaps the next stage might be to revive the Bath Festival Chorus too?