RIP Joanna

I was sorry to learn this week of the death of Joanna Wiesner at the age of 96. You couldn’t be very involved in choral music in Bath without coming across her, in my case mostly through the South West Festival Chorus and my occasional outings with Bath Minerva Choir.

She could organise anyone and anything, and I first encountered her doing this in the ultimate choral test – Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. She was putting on concerts with the SWFC as recently as 2019. And there was no better source for Bath’s classical music-related gossip, dispensed willingly – I remember being filled in on lots of it beside an infinity pool in Goa.

Joanna was a regular sight in the audiences at concerts, especially of amateur groups. I once sat in the front row when attending a concert in St Stephen’s Church, only to hear her complain loudly just behind me – in that church every word uttered nearby is audible – that her view had been blocked. (I didn’t dare turn round and suggest, as I would have done with some people, that she might have avoided this by sitting in the front row herself. Sadly, other reasons made me decide not to stay after the interval of that concert.)

She would have been in her mid-70s already when I first met her, but such was her energy that you didn’t really notice her age. It was perhaps only given away by characteristics of her generation such as the expectation that you would reply to any communication, including emails – which made it rather hard to end any e-conversation with her.

I will try to look out for obituaries as I gather she’d already had a very full life before I knew her.

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a choir which should have existed years ago

Ever since moving here I’ve been frequently asked ‘Do you sing in Bath Abbey?’ And for a long time I not only didn’t, but couldn’t, as there was no Abbey choir containing adult women. But that has changed with the setting up this autumn of the Bath Abbey Chamber Choir, which I am singing in.

It’s a mix of younger and more experienced singers, and in the few weeks it’s been going we have begun to gel nicely as a group. The repertoire is mostly known to me but nevertheless a challenge to sing well. Like Christ Church, the choir is also getting to grips with new furniture and a new acoustic, but we also have the benefit of the new rehearsal facilities which have recently been created.

Our first outing was a weekday evensong a couple of weeks ago, singing Dyson in D and O pray for the peace of Jerusalem by Howells, among other things, and we also led the family Eucharist at the Abbey that weekend, including an anthem by John Rutter (Look at the earth) which I have only ever sung in Bath Abbey, the other occasion being as an alto! Here‘s a clip of us in rehearsal.

I’ve long felt that every diocese should have a choir like this in a major church. Bath Abbey had a mixed choir when I first moved here, but what it sang was a cut-down evensong, this being the era when it was thought women couldn’t sing Anglican chant or full canticle settings. The BACC will be doing occasional services, singing the same quantity of music at them as the other Abbey choirs would do.

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Given my interests shown here, it’s won’t come as a surprise that I follow various church and choral music groups on Facebook. I had to give up one when my feed filled up with (rather bad) hymns with words and music by one other contributor. But I’ve now shrunk back to lurker status on others. As you are supposed to use your real name on Facebook I can’t conceal my gender, and this inevitably led to my being patronised by lay-clerks. (I can’t claim credit for the name for this phenomenon, which forms the title of this post; it was suggested by a fellow choir member.)

I finally dried up after I opened a discussion about the retro nature of the music of William Harris. My main correspondent started really well, but later returned to the thread (I suspect after a session at the pub) with a contribution which was not only patronising but inaccurate in several respects. I corrected his errors, and since then have only posted very rarely.

The BBC used to run an online forum for Radio 3, which spawned a separate forum for discussion of Choral Evensong broadcasts. When the BBC closed it (perhaps they were afraid of being sued) it reappeared elsewhere. I have read and contributed to this since its BBC days. As you are able to write under a pseudonym, I could get away without a gender reveal – provided that I didn’t refer to recently singing the soprano/treble line or use a careless pronoun when I quoted what others might have said about me.

However that still doesn’t remove the risk of being patronised – even by a fellow long-term contributor. When that happened recently, I quietly withdrew from posting. I notice traffic has gradually declined and was doing so before the pandemic, so maybe that is the experience of others also.

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Portsmouth pointing: 2

We returned from our dumb day (in our case, a first visit to the Isle of Wight) to the second half of the Portsmouth week. This had delighted the script/diacritical mark nerd in me (I update the choir’s website) as I had to typeset both Pēteris Vasks and Богородице Дѣво. The Vasks is one of two anthems I have come across to set words by Mother Teresa; we were permitted to use piano accompaniment as originally written. I sang one of the soprano verse parts in Daniel Purcell’s canticles in E minor, something I’d long had my eye on (I did the other when I was a student).

The Rachmaninov really is ‘the piece of the pandemic’ as since it started I have sung it with four different choirs. It was paired with Watson in E which was more familiar to me than to most others (a standard setting when I was a student). On Sunday morning our Mass setting was new to me – the Missa Brevis by Neil Cox. A piece that I’d be happy to sing again, although it was not hard to tell that the Gloria was written at a different time and for a choir of different ability than the other movements we sang. Our grand finale was Dyson in D and Jonathan Dove’s Seek Him that maketh the seven stars.

We paid special attention to psalms during the week, the highlight being word-painting of Ps. 102 on the Friday.

I had not performed indoors without a mask on for 18 months and it was a relief that everything still worked and I could leave with a real feeling of accomplishment.

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Vote for us!

It is an autumn of awards seasons, and Bristol Choral Society covered itself with glory at the Making Music awards, winning Best Project with a Focus on New Music for our carol competition in December 2020. Our conductor Hilary Campbell also won an award for best vocal group music director!

We have been nominated for an RPS Inspiration Award for our work during lockdown and as this is decided by popular vote, do consider casting yours for us!

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Portsmouth pointing: 1

Finally I got to sing my first choral evensong in 18 months. The Cathedral Chamber Choir was in residence at Portsmouth Cathedral (rearranged from Salisbury) for a week, many of us staying in Rees Hall towards Southsea. It’s a very long time since I sang here, my previous visit being a service with the Erleigh Cantors not long after they were founded.

Our programme mixed music from various periods, with some pieces new to me and/or the choir. Dealing with the first half of the week: I had never before sung Robert Walker’s As the Apple Tree. This uses an aleatoric technique popular in the 1980s; the singers are at one point invited to sing set notes freely in any speed/rhythm they like, being brought in individually and all ending together. This sort of device seems to derive from the War Requiem, but never really caught on in church music, despite the efforts of Jonathan Harvey et al. It’s still being used elsewhere – I most recently encountered it in the new Judith Weir piece I recorded last year.

As we were getting used to singing as a group, and indeed to singing close to other people, most of the rest was familiar at least to me, though I had not sung Tomkins ‘Fifth’ Service for a while, and had only done Matthew Martin’s Te Lucis ante Terminum once before. As with the Walker, a setting I actually prefer to the normal setting of the same words.

We spaced ourselves out at readers holding a pair of singers, with the precentor and congregation the far side of a kind of bulkhead affair in the middle of the Cathedral that holds up the tower. A benefit of a dispersed congregation was that the service was livestreamed and then available on the Cathedral’s Facebook page.

Part 2 to follow.

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encouraging the congregation

As restrictions have been lifted so recently, during August any members of the church choir who are around are free to turn up and sit in the choir seats and encourage the congregation in hymns and service setting. We are highly visible because the cameras which broadcast the service are often trained in our direction.

Singing a service on the fly like this generates its own set of problems. If there is a descant, do we sing it? How do you alert others that there is a whole verse of a hymn on the service sheet that is not in the hymnbook? What if we don’t have the right service sheet at all? Which seats should we occupy? Who sings the Gospel acclamation? And so on.

Actually the congregation don’t need much pushing to get them to sing – it was more of a problem to stop them during the months in which they were supposed to be silent.

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Dress code casual (and warm)

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.

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between the altarpiece and the flower arrangement

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.

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singing in the Palace Garden

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.

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