Well, I find myself in the rather fortunate position of at least having something to write a blog about over these last few months. Slowly but surely it feels as if things are getting back to normal, at least in terms of having dates in the diary. We are still finding most of our work abroad has to be either cancelled or postponed, but the performances we have in the UK are all going ahead and I can’t tell you how good it feels to be singing for an audience again.
Of course, once we get to our venues we have to go through the process of measuring out 2m between every singer, even if there are just 6 of us. I find myself scratching my head at this rule over and over again, and share in the frustration and disappointment of amateur choirs all over the UK at being limited to such an exaggerated extent. Thousands on the football terraces, and now at Wimbledon 15,000 in a covered area that is smaller than some concert halls, all shouting their heads off in excitement at the great sporting events going on, with no social distancing measures in place. Meanwhile, any more than 6 amateur singers in a hall are considered dangerous. Can you Adam and Eve it? I never thought I’d be saying to myself “I wish our mediaeval Cathedrals were bigger”, but these days I find myself muttering these exact words as we try to place 20 singers at the head of a nave, putting 2m between them all. Still, the government’s announcement yesterday that they aim to lift all restrictions from 19 July is grounds for optimism, and we are certainly moving in the right direction.
So, enough of the rant and on to the important stuff: our singers, our audiences and our music. In late May we embarked on a small-scale recording project with saxophonist Christian Forshaw. We had been due to record a new Christmas album, but owing to the ongoing 2m rule I took the decision to postpone that until we can record under normal conditions. Christian is not only a fabulous player but also a very talented composer and arranger, so it was exciting to discover and perform his pieces based on old English Renaissance gems such as Tallis’s Te lucis ante terminum. I always loved The Hilliard Ensemble’s recording with Jan Garbarek and so wanted to work on some more new music that would allow us to further explore how the combination of sax and voices could work together. All rather exciting and I’m looking forward to getting on with post-production on that over the next few weeks.
Last weekend we performed a lovely varied programme twice in the wonderful Saffron Hall (with its beautifully clear acoustic), including Allegri’s Miserere, and for this we welcomed back soprano Natalie Clifton-Griffith to sing the famous top Cs. Nat sang with Tenebrae in our very first recording project and concerts and so now ranks as the longest serving member of the group, along with myself of course! That’s stamina for you. We then spent a day reacquainting ourselves with Joby Talbot’s epic Path of Miracles. This amazing work never fails to get the best out of us all and we were thrilled to perform it in Wells Cathedral. Wells is such a beautiful town that I spent the day wandering around in a bit of a dream, imagining what it might be like to live and work there every day. The people there are very lucky. Jeremy Cole, the Director of Music, had prepared the choristers of the Cathedral choir brilliantly to perform alongside us in Owain Park’s Footsteps, and they were sensational in the rehearsal and concert. What a bright and lively bunch they are! Nice to have a handful of choristers with perfect pitch too, helping me out with giving notes as we went through our rehearsal. As always, the audiences in Saffron and Wells played their part in making these concerts feel truly alive. This is why we do what we do, to perform music in the here and now, to share with other people and feel some kind of connection through the music. Perhaps I shouldn’t say this, but standing ovations aren’t the norm in the UK; certainly we receive more in the US or anywhere else for that matter. Perhaps we Brits are just more reserved, or possibly even spoilt for choice in terms of just how many great choirs there are in the UK, amateur as well as professional, church as well as Cathedral choirs. In this case, though, both audiences were on their feet at the end of the concerts, and they were moments to really cherish, helping to keep our hopes alive for the future. At this point in time, when everyone is struggling but people in the performing arts especially, I can’t tell you how special that made us feel. Thank you so much.
Last week we also got together again for a very sad and different reason. Our Chairman of Trustees for the last 11 years, Sir Roger Gifford, sadly passed away in late May and we were invited to sing at his funeral service in the church of St Bartholomew the Great and at his Valediction in the mediaeval Guildhall in the heart of the City of London. This was such a difficult and moving day for all in the choir who knew Roger, but it was the best and most appropriate way for all of us to say a big thank you to him for all he did for us. He had become a good friend and for so long was a hugely enthusiastic supporter and brilliant Chairman that he will be sorely missed always. He chose some beautiful and stirring music for us to sing and, as always, the choir gave of their best. One usually hears the statement “He was the nicest man you could ever meet” said of recently departed friends, but I heard it many times over on this day and never was it more true or heartfelt. Our prayers and thoughts are very much with Roger’s wife, Clare, and the family, and we look forward to seeing them all again soon in happier circumstances.
Off in an hour to St Alban’s Cathedral for our concert there this evening. This is something of a happy return for me as I sang in the choir there for a year when I first attended the Royal College of Music about a hundred years ago, and when Stephen Darlington was the Director of Music (sorry Stephen). Doubtless the administrative challenges will again be at the forefront of our efforts until that heavenly moment when the music starts and we can do what we were put on this earth to do: sing together.