Greetings from The Man At The Front

Hello everyone…. Week nine and counting, although I’m not sure what or who we are counting on! I hope all is well with you and yours. I guess the slight loosening up of ‘lock down’ makes little difference for most of us unless you are a golfer, or play tennis (singles only of course). I have to admit that I’m liking the shopping arrangements at Sainsbury’s Banbury – after queuing (?20 mins) you seem to have the store to yourself – so quiet, and the only thing I have never managed to find is Vanilla Essence – that’s not bad is it?! Each day begins gloomily – reading the papers online – how depressing, must change that habit. The paucity of leaders is frightening. A lovely message: Hannah Cervenka (recent ex-Alto!) sends her greetings to all. She is very much enjoying the Radio 3 sing-along at 8.55 each day and is having timba drumming lessons online and joining in with her Samba group and their ‘pre-recorded groove’ Go Hannah!

WHO IS MORE IMPORTANT? I hope you and your families and loved ones haven’t been hit by changed financial circumstances – know any furloughed fellows? I guess we will all be affected somehow when the country’s bills have to be paid. Concerned about this, a dear friend of mine recently checked a government website to find out how exposed her job is due to Coronavirus. The website didn’t recognise what she put in and prompted her to ‘Please enter a valid job’. She’s an opera singer! Coincidentally she – for ‘tis Natalie – sang solo soprano for us in our May 2003 performance of the Rossini and sings in the English National Opera Chorus. Not being a key worker, she won’t get a clap every Thursday evening, but she might after performing Madam Butterfly at The Coliseum if she does her job properly. Who are the most valuable people in our society? Discuss!

STILL SINGING? Staying cheerful – it’s great to see the online singing things forging ahead, and there is so much good music to catch/keep up with. I hope the CNCS Messiah crew is still at it; performance time is not far away – exciting. I drop into The Sofa Singers online choir occasionally, and spotted that their next song is the Beatles’ Here comes the sun. Great choice, and I recall arranging that song for upper voices a few years ago, which has NEVER BEEN SUNG! So, I am amending it to include tenors & basses and we’ll sing it when together again. We’ve had great weather, and it’s summer, but in many respects these last two months have felt a bit like a “long cold lonely winter” and it would be lovely to see “the smiles returning to their (your!) faces”.

ARE WE AS GOOD AS WE THINK WE ARE? Despite being a popular song with some groovy syncopated rhythms, Here comes the sun is not difficult to sing and won’t take anyone out of their comfort zone, I promise. There is a delicate balance between challenging and stretching a choir to reach beyond their current abilities, and presenting them with the impossible. It’s a calculation that every Person At The Front (or committee, depending on who selects repertoire!) has to make, constantly. Last year was ambitious for CNCS but thoroughly assessed for all risks – manageability, achievement potential, impact on voices and self-esteem in the unlikely event of failure! Know your singers and the commitment they bring to their work has to be a conductor’s mantra. To illustrate this, and provide very brief amusement, I have posted a clip. Labelled ‘The worst choir ever? it’s soon obvious that their Man At The Front is in denial, surely? What’s so sad and makes my blood boil is that nearly 13 million people have viewed this and probably found it hilarious – that’s so unfair. Appropriate repertoire for these singers? I don’t think so, unless anyone wants to suggest they are just under rehearsed, it does happen! I trust that if CNCS ever displayed anything like this, you would ask for my resignation, as I hope they did their Man At The Front, pronto. Credit where it’s due though, some of the basses are trying really hard and I recognise these facial features when I’m casting around on a Wednesday! I bet this ‘worst choir’ sings a moderately challenging church anthem on Sunday with confidence – well done them.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ItMJtA8vfpw

AM I BEING TOO NICE? Talking of basses (like the segue?!), I am enjoying the thoughtful and frank contributions aired in Members’ News from some Boys In The Back Row, particularly the attempt to connect with other voice sections. Any contributions are welcome – length and subject matter immaterial – it’s just good to stay in touch. As the basses seem a hardy lot, I feel emboldened to share this clip I came across when looking for examples of classic singers. It is the great conductor Toscanini (died 1957), who according to Wikipedia (forgive me) was renowned for his intensity and perfectionism. Here he is laying into the orchestra’s double bass players who are not watching, or following his instructions. I’m sure you can appreciate the irrestibility of including this, and reflect on how fortunate you are…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-1KtSOwLXE

WHAT SHALL WE SING AND WHEN SHALL WE SING IT? Whilst undertaking enough DIY in the last 2 months to qualify as an interior decorator, I have been mulling and musing atop the ladder about our concert programmes. Past glories and treasured moments have kept my thoughts occupied and tempted me to revisit the repertoire list we assembled after the ‘post-it note’ exercise in 2018. New members may not know that every few years we ask everyone to suggest choral pieces the choir could tackle and would like to see in future programmes. Some nominate pieces they have done before, some flag up their favourites or things we’ve never performed. A music committee then selects a programme for each year balancing size of work, ambition, challenge, style/period and cost. The current programme runs until 2023, which is suddenly not that far away! This current season has been somewhat ambushed and as soon as we have a clear idea of when we can safely return, the immediate programme will be reviewed depending on timescale. The Rossini WILL happen sometime! Whilst daydreaming with a paintbrush I fantasised about two works that are always going to be impossible but have been listed in the past. A Mass of Life by Delius (1905) requires 3 each of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, SIX trumpets, 4 horns 3 trombones + tuba, 2 harps and lots of strings, four soloists and double chorus. That’s a huge orchestra (forget using St Mary’s Banbury!) and the cost prohibitive. Sadly, even if our wonderful committee proposed a plan involving cakes sales, sponsored sing-ins, walking up Everest in the back garden and a ceilidh, this MatF would never do it. There is very little music I claim not to like, but sadly Delius wrote most of it. Another fantasy was Mahler’s Eighth Symphony – nicknamed The symphony of a thousand. Why won’t this be possible? Um..it requires huge numbers – you do the maths. This comprises 4 each of the woodwind instruments, 8 trumpets, 8 horns, 7 trombones, 2 harps, piano, celeste, harmonium (Anne Page playing of course), organ, lots of strings and A MANDOLIN!! Not forgetting singers – 8 soloists, 2 choirs, a children’s choir and probably a partridge in a pear tree ‘Nuff said.

…..AND SO TO MUSIC I have selected a few more music extracts for pleasure rather than illustrative purposes this time. The first is The Phoenix Choir from Vancouver, with a spoof on Billy Joel’s For the longest time which works quite well. They must have had some fun putting this together.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LpAKcQufacc

Samuel Barber wrote his Adagio for Strings in 1936, adapting the second movement of a string quartet. In 1967 he turned it into a choral piece, setting the Latin text Agnus dei. Set aside 7’36” minutes and turn up the volume – the piece is one long crescendo and packs a punch at the climax, around 5 mins in. I have a set of copies if anyone is interested in performing it!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fRL447oDId4

Continuing the contemplative and tranquil theme, John Tavener’s Hymn to the Mother of God was composed in 1985 in memory of his mother. Performed here by Tenebrae, probably the best chamber choir on the planet right now.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7E_rKYkjSC4

And for something completely different – Walking back to happiness sung by Helen Shapiro in 1961. I am hoping that this is how we will all feel just before our next rehearsal!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QWWDyCkpsiw

BIRD NEWS There is a blackbird nesting nearby whose song is the first eight notes of Cliff Richard’s ‘Living Doll’ (Got myself a walkin’ talkin’….).

Love and best wishes, take care and stay safe.