Choir returns: (3) Gloucester

GAIA in Gloucester

New Zealand is under there somewhere…

The last to return of the three choirs I sing with that are currently functioning was Gloucester Choral Society. It looks as if auditioning for this choir was one of my best decisions of 2020 (not, admittedly, a year in which there have been many decisions for me to make). Although I think it is slightly smaller than Bristol Choral Society, more GCS members are coming to rehearsals in person, possibly because Zoom rehearsals are not offered as an alternative. Or maybe it is just the attraction of being in the Cathedral. At the moment the Gaia exhibition is installed so I had the globe suspended above my place in the nave.

Singing spaced apart in a very resonant acoustic is not easy, but there is the compensation that this is the only choir of the three not to make you wear a face covering. I wasn’t in the best of voice but that didn’t really matter.

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how to return

Before I post an account of my third return to choral singing, I’m going to reflect on some of the difficulties that have had to be faced and the questions to be answered.

Firstly is there a place where rehearsals can happen safely? (One choir I sing with has not yet returned because it could not guarantee this). And if there is, there are the usual practicalities to be worked out such as a one-way system. Should the choir rehearse wearing face coverings?

Do you rehearse one group in an evening or two? Can you broadcast the rehearsal online to those who aren’t physically present? Assuming you can’t fit everyone into one evening, do you invite singers strictly in rotation, or do people in voice parts that are thin on the ground get to attend more rehearsals, in order to preserve balance?

Do you make any attempt at live performance? Online performances? Or no performance at all? Do you reduce the annual subscription because there won’t be a full programme of concerts? Or keep it as it usually is and risk losing singers who don’t want to pay it? Should all singers pay the same subs if some get invited to more rehearsals (see previous paragraph)?

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singing in the mask

This expression is no longer just a way of describing good vocal projection. We are now wearing face coverings to sing in church choir, to forestall any objections that we might not be protecting our congregation sufficiently.

If I'm going to sing services in a mask, I'm going to have them in the full range of liturgical colours

If I’m going to sing services in a mask, I’m going to have them in the full range of liturgical colours

I haven’t heard the results, though I’m told by those who have that our sound is still acceptable. There are some practical problems though. One is that we can’t ‘read the lips’ of our conductor for such matters as ends of words. Another is sucking in the material when you breathe in, though this happens less with the fairly thick material I’ve made masks from. I think that, erm, the length of one’s nose also makes a difference here.

I was worried about jaw tension creeping in and so far this hasn’t happened to me, although I haven’t yet had to sing anything with lots of high notes in. My main problem is that I don’t really associate what I hear with the effort I make to produce it. I can’t tell how consonants are coming over, what the tone is like, or how loud it sounds. With practice I might get better at judging this but the lack of physical engagement with the sound is disconcerting.

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Portsmouth to the rescue

We are now beginning to see which Cathedrals have been hit hardest by the loss of revenue in 2020. I’d made a booking for a choir to sing for a week in Salisbury in 2021, and this week got a letter from the Cathedral saying that it would have to cancel all bookings from visiting choirs. The reasons were partly logistical – understandably as their choir room is awkward to get to at the best of times, although on some previous visits we have rehearsed elsewhere. But the letter made it clear that visiting choirs were being scrapped for the moment as a cost-cutting measure. It’s worth noting that Salisbury has lost tourism revenue not just as a result of the 2020 pandemic, but also in the wake of the Novichok poisoning there in 2018. Other Cathedrals are having to make cutbacks, although I don’t know of any which have done so by stopping visiting choirs.

Fortunately Portsmouth Cathedral had a vacancy for a choir for the week we had booked at Salisbury, and we are not the only Salisbury refugees they are taking on. In fact we had been scheduled to go to Portsmouth in 2020, so the rearranged week (if it happens as planned) will please the choir members who were disappointed this year.

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Choir returns (2): Bristol

Bristol Choral Society has in one sense had less of a break than in many years. Very often we’d do nothing after the concert in June until the AGM at the beginning of September, but this year we carried on with remote rehearsals on Zoom in July, some of which were opened up to a wider public as choral workshops.

I realise sadly that I did not sing a concert with the choir at all in the 2019-20 season. I did perform with it because I sang on our CD recording (that’s for another post). It’s not clear when the next concert will be, but after a lot of discussion – including a session where choir members could see the committee inspecting the rehearsal venue – workable ideas about how to meet have emerged.

Those of us who wish to come to rehearsals have been divided into two groups, and I was in the first one to meet. We have a different venue from last year, and are lucky that it is spacious enough for a sensible one-way system, and also to allow us to queue inside before we are let into the rehearsal space. The proceedings are webcast for the benefit of choir members at home.

We are still feeling our way and in particular it isn’t clear yet whether rehearsals will be weekly, or less frequent but longer. Used to being in small groups, I am not bothered by being some distance from other singers, but this week we sang music familiar to me. The real test will come when we learn the new pieces written for our carol competition – again a topic for another post.

I am full of admiration for the way we have managed to work around the difficulties (so far!). They come on top of the difficulties in planning programmes created by the delay in reopening Colston Hall (now the Beacon) – this was running two years behind the original date even before the pandemic.

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Choir returns (1): church

choir seating

Some of our new sanctuary furniture including choir seating

A few weeks after our church services resumed, we have a live choir again. Not only that, but our new choir furniture arrived on the day of our first rehearsal, to join the altar, lectern etc. which appeared earlier in the summer. Usefully, we went for individual seats rather than stalls, so we are carefully separated by 2 metres. I have a seat directly behind the altar, giving me a view out through our glass doors (the previous major project in church), and also a glimpse of the bell-ringer who tolls after the others have come out of the ringing chamber.

The wooden platform the choir stands on has been built out, partly in order to accommodate larger ensembles in concert, and this together with the removal of soft furnishings in church means we also now enjoy a more resonant acoustic. (Although when runners and kneelers return post-pandemic it may dampen down again.)

We sang a hymn, a congregational communion setting (without congregational participation) and a straightforward anthem. Our congregation for the first choral service was not far short of its normal Sunday size and clearly appreciated having live singing even if they couldn’t join in.

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crowdsourcing a music list

I’ve never been involved before in a project to crowdsource transcriptions. But I’ve long thought that Cathedral music lists would be a potentially valuable one. I even at one time tried to devise a TEI schema for them.

So I was delighted to be invited to play my part in transcribing Lichfield Cathedral music lists from the mid-19th century. There is a sensibly laid out interface where you choose a day of the week and are then offered a series of pages with that day highlighted and a form to fill in. You can do as much as you like – time prevents me from doing very many but in odd moments most weekends I transcribe a few; it’s more productive than frittering them away on the internet. The transcriptions are double-checked and there is a leader board of participants ordered by their number of correct contributions.

Cathedral music was very different then – sung Mattins every day with the Litany regularly. No settings of the Responses and the Canticles appear to have been sung to chants almost all the time (to judge by the composers’ names). Anthems are all on scriptural texts and in English. The anthem repertoire still relied heavily on the 18th century and also included many movements from oratorios. There is some music by Purcell and his contemporaries, and by Tudor composers, but it is limited, presumably because of a lack of printed editions. It is sad to think of the pieces this choir could have sung and didn’t! I look forward to searching the resulting database to explore these generalisations further.

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tentative returns

September approaches and with it the normal start of the choral season. Three choirs I sing in have indicated that they are making moves to resume rehearsing around the middle of the month. In each case, it’s not clear yet quite how it will work. Who will be there? How will we be arranged? What repertoire will we be doing? How long will we rehearse for? When are we likely to perform, and under what conditions?

It is clear that we will have to stand at some distance from one another. For singers used to standing close together in rows of their part, this will be quite a departure from the norm. With my chamber choir background, I am more used to not relying on my neighbour for notes and leads. The Exultate Singers in particular sometimes sang in a widely spaced circle surrounding their audience. Even Bristol and Gloucester Choral Societies have been known to rehearse familiar pieces ‘scrambled’ with the parts mixed up. Singing spaced out will nevertheless be a test for all of us, although hearing your neighbour at a distance is better than not hearing them at all in a Zoom rehearsal. Other forms of reliance, such as getting a page number you have missed, will also not be possible. I’m thinking of it as an opportunity to learn new skills or improve those I already have.

One advantage though: I won’t have to worry about whether I’m wearing any perfume at choir. If another singer is near enough to be bothered by it, they are too near me!

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a choir returns in Milan

We managed to escape the UK for a short break in Italy and I was able to get to Sunday Mass in the Duomo in Milan (which has featured before here). They are keen to make you pay to see the interior of the building but there is an unmarked entrance at the north-west corner for worshippers to enter by at service times. The service took place at the main altar under the crossing and I sat in the nave.

There was a small all-male choir of nine or ten singers, of lay-clerk standard. They sat in the north transept behind a screen (blocked from my view by a pillar) and sang a motet by ?Monteverdi and a Mass setting as well as plainchant. They were miked, which I hope was just because they were few in number, although they didn’t need it. The building is sufficiently spacious that they were well away from both congregation and clergy (there were 10 of the latter, three of whom executed 360° swings of the censer during the service. I suspect being able to do this is a qualification for admission to the Chapter.)

That afternoon I took a train out of the city to visit the Certosa di Pavia. The monastery church boasts some very impressive marquetry choir stalls. I’m sure this building would be a good place to record (though I don’t know what the organ is like) with a resonant acoustic and isolated location away from external noise. But that probably wouldn’t suit the monastic routine and need for silence.

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Two remote recordings

As well as my weekly recording session for the church choir, I have recently made a couple of ‘distanced’ recordings for other choirs. This procedure is happier for me than Zoom rehearsals. I have now worked out why I don’t sing well at these rehearsals – it’s because in order to get my mug in shot, I have to put the device quite low, and because the conductor is on it I tend to bend over to sing into it. If they resume in the autumn I will experiment with other set-ups. With a recording, the device shows a reflection (if not a mirror image) of my face and I’m not tempted to sing at it, or at the conductor who is on the screen of my phone in one hand. As I’m holding the music in the other hand, I have yet to work out how to turn the pages, though it always seems to work!

One of my two recordings is Bogoroditse Devo by Rachmaninov for Bristol Choral Society, which was straightforward enough. The other is Vaughan Williams’ Let all the world sung by people associated with the Three Choirs Festival and the cities where it takes place. This provided the unusual experience of being conducted in performance by someone I’ve never actually met in person. Every conductor has a different way of doing this piece, and its changes of tempo kept me on my toes.

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