Our part of the score, with my annotations above the score line on how it should be performed on the day.
My head is still stuffed with the most wonderful music today, so it’s time to take a break from my usual bloggage.
On Sunday I sang the chorales in Bach’s St John Passion at the Wiltshire Music Centre in Bradford on Avon, as part of a project put together by English Touring Opera (ETO). Our performance was reviewed in The Guardian yesterday, which has kept the music in my head and the good feelings going well into today.
I must admit I was a bit daunted at first. I can’t read music, it’s a challenging piece, and it’s not the kind of thing I usually perform or listen to. However, the WMC Choir component was a scratch choir, so there would be plenty of people like me there. It was too good an opportunity to miss.
Can a scratch choir perform to the standards expected by ETO with just four rehearsals? It seems we can, as long as you do your homework. There were practice tracks to sing along to courtesy of Cyberbass and the whole thing is available on YouTube. The latter looks like a classical music version of karaoke, with the various components of the score moving along to the music, and a translation line running underneath.
The first three rehearsals with Mike were fun and full of laughter, especially when he demonstrated correct breathing with the aid of a squeezy tomato sauce and lemonade bottles. They were a stretch for me, particularly when some of the pauses in the score were crossed out, but doable. Our role in the chorales was to be the ordinary people commenting on proceedings, and so ETO had our pieces translated into English by the likes of John McCarthy, Rowan Williams, John Sentamu and Marina Warner.
The fourth rehearsal on Sunday was with ETO and my first experience of performing with classically trained musicians. Jonathan Peter Kenny, the conductor, gave us no quarter despite having an imperfect piece but with a huge chunk of soul in mind. This would take the performance back to Bach’s original intention, when it was sung in church as a community witness of faith with the congregation singing the chorales. It truly is a piece for the masses rather than the hoi polloi, but that didn’t mean a sloppy performance was expected of us.
“You sang beautifully, but it might have been in Zulu, which I can’t understand”, was a typical remark from him. I giggled at this point as I have sung in Zulu. “Remember, text, text, text. I want the audience to hear what you’re saying and be involved with the performance, yes? Look at them and draw them into the piece.”
He was also a very dramatic and energetic conductor, roaming amongst us during the rehearsal and we took bets on whether he might fall off the stage later that evening. Sadly, he was a little more restrained in the performance.
The opera singers were a revelation. As a soprano I was drawn to Susanna Fairbairn’s technique. I noticed she relaxed and bent her knees slightly for the trickier parts of the score, and when she stood next to me, I could hear her emphasis on the consonants like ‘b’ and ‘p’. It sounded like she was spitting them out. As for mezzo-soprano Katie Bray, I never knew so much sound could be expelled from so tiny a frame.
As for the performance, for me it was extraordinary, even though we weren’t dressed up for the occasion. The opening chorus was so loud, I thought it was going to raise the roof. The orchestra – the Old Street Band – played period instruments and had quite a different sound, which to my ears added grandeur to the piece.
I was particularly struck by the lute with an enormous neck, which is called a theorbo. I also spoke to one of the flute players during the interval. Hers was a wooden, less complicated instrument compared to today’s, like a cross between a flute and a recorder. She told me it’s her favourite instrument to play and the silver rings are purely for decoration. It seems even musical instruments can have a bit of bling.
At the end everyone was in tears – choirs, audience, orchestra, and our conductor. As I left the building to come home, I overheard a couple of the audience say “That was amazing!” That’s a good enough review for me.
A lot is written about the inaccessibility of opera. The cost of tickets is high, you need to dress for the occasion, and it’s usually sung in a foreign language. I’m glad those criticisms – and my preconceptions – were blown apart by this amazing project. Around 30 local choirs will be involved in the tour around the country, including a gospel choir. I’d love to hear that.