By Hugo Deadman
When I joined a choir, after not picking up a piece of music for 18 years, I thought I knew it all. I could pitch a note, pick up a part quickly and follow the conductor. I was in for a rude awakening – an awakening that began when I was told by an irate choirmaster – and I quote – “Don’t be so b***** choral! If I want to hear a cathedral choir, I’ll go to a b***** cathedral!”
And he was dead right. My voice had tone, my singing was accurate – but it was all completely lifeless, an academic exercise. Yes, he wanted us to get it right. But far more, he wanted us to sing from the heart, to use music as a means of telling our story, our pain, our triumphs. The results were often quite staggering – and often meant members of the choir didn’t sleep for a week after concerts, so deep was the emotional impact of our singing, on ourselves on our audiences.
That robust injunction – and its consequences came back to me as I listened to the Petersfield Choir’s volcanic performance on Saturday. And I’m willing to bet there were a few sleepless nights in our town on Saturday night. Yes, they were accurate. Yes, they sung to a remarkably high standard, especially considering they’d only been practising since the new year. But more, because of the sheer passion and intensity with which they invested their music-making. I was frankly blown away – as I am sure was a packed house at St Peter’s – and at times could hardly recognise choir members, so transformed were they by their efforts.
It was also a pleasure to make the acquaintance of some new musical friends. We were privileged to witness nothing less than a world premiere – of the Stabat Mater by Clive Osgood, who I assume is no relation of Peter Osgood, flamboyant flaneur of the 1970s Chelsea forward line. But this was music with the same richness and individuality of his footballing namesake’s play. It was also – as footballers say – a big ask, a truly demanding piece, with the lushness of the melodies and harmonies often balanced by dissonance. The greatest compliment I can pay to composer and choir is that a friend of mine said it made her go away and find out more about the poem from which it is taken, the lament of Mary, as she witnesses the crucifixion of her son.
This agonised drama was followed by the calmer waters of the SouthDowns Camerata’s delightful rendition of Bach’s Air on the G String, best known to those of a certain age as the music from the Hamlet cigar adverts. Now I have not smoked for nearly twenty years, but so rich, resonant and relaxing that I found myself reliving the glories of tobacco. It was lovely.
Then we were back to some serious choral pyrotechnics – and I use the word advisedly, since Handel’s Dixit Dominus is the musical equivalent of fireworks, especially the Gloria, which is a most remarkable rocket indeed. It demands a fierce concentration from each and every choir member and a willingness not to breathe at all. Mr Handel appears to have considered that such fripperies as taking in air should be sacrificed for the greater goal of making the biggest, most joyful noise possible. I don’t how the choir managed the breathing – but it was truly big and truly joyful.
We even had the good fortune to have that Gloria twice – with Steve Sargent inviting some brave singers from the audience to join the choir on stage. The results were somewhat akin to the adrenaline rush I understand is felt when participating in extreme sports. It also led to my favourite moment of an evening of happy moments – seeing the tiny daughter of the excellent soprano soloist, Jo Latter, joining her mum for the encore – and positively bouncing with every bar.
One of the most bittersweet moments of music-making is when you turn the page, realise you have come to the last few bars – and feel a peculiar grief that something so intense is coming to an end. I bet most of the Choir felt this at the end of the evening – I know one of the altos did, because she told me so the next morning after Church. This was a cracking evening, impressively led by Steve Sargent. I couldn’t decide whether his conducting was a particularly expressive form of charades or whether he was, like the choir, living every beat of every bar. We were also privileged to hear lovely sensitive soloists: take a bow, Ella DeJongh, Jo Latter, Timothy Clifford Hill, Edward Williamson, Edward Roberts. This concert showcased what amateur music making is all about: not being so b***** choral! Bravo one and all!