15 October 2005

I've finally sung at St John's College, Cambridge!

At a fortnight's notice I was offered the opportunity to sing with the English Arts Chorale in their performance of the Bach B Minor Mass at St John's College, Cambridge last Saturday. Anyone who is familiar with the work will realise that it's one of the hardest sings in the repertoire—long, relentless and tiring. Having not sung it since the early 90s, I was a little sceptical that they'd actually take me at such short notice, but I was encouraged to come along and try out. I had dreamt of singing at Cambridge all my life, so how could I refuse?

So I showed up to the ante-penultimate rehearsal, got some of it right although I fumbled my way through several of the cruel runs at conductor Leslie Olive's cracking tempo. I was pronounced adequate without having to undergo their usual audition ordeal, and it was Cambridge, here we come. At this first rehearsal I was struck by the choir's excellent handling of the rapid bits, and real sense of ensemble and subtlety in the delicate bits. Les encourages everyone to sing the very least they need to create a good tone, and pursues a bright clear 'young' sound, and it works. The choir has a good blend of strong voices and for an amateur choir of 45 or 50 voices is very good indeed.

We arrived at St John's College on Saturday last for the big day. The College is lovely, dating back to the early 16th century. The Chapel, which is world famous for its choir and its acoustic is, surprisingly, much newer, having been built in the 1860s. It is nevertheless a beautiful building, with a magnificent polished floor, lovely roof treatment and austere dark woodwork. There's a Quicktime movie you can scroll around on St John's College website which you might like to check out. The place is long and thin, with the organ mounted above the Quire on the Cantoris side. One look at the place and you can see the sound is going to be nice and detailed in the front half, and a wash of meaningless noise at the back, and that's pretty much how it is.

We had been practicing at my son's school in Reigate, accompanied by piano. The dress rehearsal in this completely different space, now with organ and chamber ensemble was, frankly, a disaster. Suddenly without the percussive authority of the piano, tired from more than two hours travel, and perhaps a little overawed by the occasion, heads went down and timing went out the window. To add to the disaster, the oboist's music was lost, and the tenor soloist was clearly under-rehearsed. This could be ugly.

But as I said earlier, this is a pretty decent choir. With three hours between rehearsal and concert, would we get our heads together in time? Would there be anyone in the audience to care? And most urgently, how was I going to get my fat neck into the tiny bow tie with which I had been provided?

In the end, I need not have worried too much. Joanna fixed the bow tie with the ingenious application of safety pins--a girl thing if ever there were one. The audience was just shy of 250 which in a college chapel is pretty good. The tenor soloist had been working hard between times and was fine. Soloists were very good all round, and the violin, horn, flute and oboe generally excellent—top class players all. And the choir were suitably transformed—they sang well, with reasonable tightness and authority until the inevitable 'wall of tiredness' which affects every choir I've ever heard about two-thirds of the way through the Bach B Minor. After a couple of ensemble wobblies at that point, they recovered to a very musical conclusion. They could have been a little tighter on the day, and perhaps just a little more sophisticated in places, but overall it was pretty good, and in several places, brilliant. And the star of the show was Ian Le Grice, the choir's accompanist, on the organ.

So all told, a very good show. And what a joy it is to sing in that incredibly famous chapel. As wave after wave of audience applause washed over us at the end, I was high on the space and the sound, and just did not want to get off the stage, knowing I may never have this opportunity again—an absolute buzz.

My '6-week' world tour started last Christmas, but somehow didn’t involve any singing until quite recently. Of late I have performed Brahms Requiem with the Surrey Choral Festival, rehearsed Spem in Alium with the Tallis Scholars (yes THE Tallis Scholars), and soon I have another Spem with the highly regarded Exmoor Singers of London in early November, followed by yet another Spem with the English Arts Chorale at Arundel Cathedral, along with the Faure and Brahms Requiems. But in this 500th anniversary of Tallis's birth, every Spem is sacred, every Spem is great!Go to eebahgum!

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