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The Bach Choir Lockdown Blog

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We’re delighted to share with you our new Blog, written by Georgina Donatantonio.

4 January 2021

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

‘Tis early evening on the first Monday of the New Year. I emerge onto the street from Victoria Station, snuggle into my coat, and dodge many an impatient commuter on their way home from work, before finally seeking respite in the tranquility of Westminster Cathedral Hall.

Now should be a time to catch up with fellow choristers, indulge in Christmas gossip, and wait for the clock to strike 6:15pm before David clears his throat with an “ahem”.

Yet, this is 2021 and I’m ‘locked down’ at home. So I skip up the stairs, click the Zoom link, and watch faces and names slowly fill the screen.

Let’s not pretend this is music at its finest. But, for the moment, this is all we musicians have. So, we’ll make the most of it.

This term, we have lots to look forward to: from Mozart’s Mass in C Minor to six thought-provoking new works commissioned as responses to chorales in Bach’s St Matthew Passion.  Though we may not stand shoulder-to-shoulder, every name and face that pops up on the screen week in week out is a refreshing reminder that, despite these continually challenging times, The Bach Choir is here to stay.

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23 December

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

‘Tis the season to be jolly, yet the Herald Angels are not singing, Santa will not be coming to town this year, and we will not be driving home for Christmas.  Rock around the Christmas tree all you like, but make sure to keep a social distance.

Devoid of The Bach Choir’s ‘Carols at Cadogan’ this December, I choose to reminisce.  Here are my favourite Christmas-past Bach Choir moments:

– John Rutter’s Christmas Celebration – with a matinée and evening performance, this was tiring, but boy, was it a show!  Rutter, ever the amiable and jovial presenter, was joined by The Bach Choir, The King’s Singers, and a very merry sing-along with the audience.

– Carols at Cadogan – always sold out, and it’s no surprise.  Conducted by musical director David Hill in the intimate Cadogan Hall off Sloane Square, this feels cosy, homely and, in the days leading up to Christmas, just the festive feel-good we now crave!

– Royal British Legion Christmas Celebration – City of London has many an extravagant hidden location, and the Guildhall is one of them.  Stone walls reflect impressively the bold sounds of the Royal British Legion Central Band and The Bach Choir.  Dotted with festive stories, this is music, poetry, and prose, all-in-one.

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30 November 2020

HOWELLS THAT FOR A GIFT!

What a treat to listen to Herbert Howells’ Missa Sabrinensis, meaning ‘Mass of the Severn’.  Even more a treat when the chorus is none other than The Bach Choir.  The weekend just passed, I received this charming CD enclosed with a kindly letter from Peter Floyd, The Bach Choir’s Honorary Treasurer.  Conducted by David Hill and produced by Andrew Walton, this particular Mass was recorded over a weekend in May of 2019 at Watford Town Hall, with the BBC Concert Orchestra, featuring soloists Helena Dix, Christine Rice, Benjamin Hulett, and Roderick Williams.

To say this recording was a challenge would be somewhat of an understatement; the weeks preceding were intense!  Herbert Howells, the composer, certainly didn’t give us an easy ride.  However, this wasn’t the first time The Bach Choir had come head-to-head with Missa Sabrinensis.  In 1982, one year before Howells’ death, the Royal Festival Hall turned into a festival of song as David Willcocks, the Choir’s previous Musical Director, had The Bach Choir perform it in honour of Howells’ 90th birthday.  Thirty-eight years on and it has been revisited, revived, and conquered!

Why so tricky? Perhaps the CD booklet describes it best – “The main reason that the work was considered so difficult was due to the orchestra not being there to support the chorus in the traditional manner, but rather to build more and more lines of polyphony”.

But, as is said time and time again… “Nothing that’s worthwhile is ever easy.”

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17 November 2020

THE PROMISE OF DAWN

A new and exciting project began in the darkening September nights.  A commission from Gabriel Jackson on the theme of Darkness to Light was to have its premiere as an exciting new film.

Firstly, however, Jackson’s piece needed words. Members harbouring their inner poet were asked to write 3-4 lines, and the winning piece would be set to Jackson’s music. Laura-Jane Foley’s topical poem The Promise was chosen. I found out from Laura the inspiration behind her words.

The Promise

On the blackest of nights, a star-less sky,
All light extinguished, all plans abandoned,
Still we can trust that the light will return.
In darkness there’s hope; the promise of dawn

By Laura-Jane Foley (S1)

What was the inspiration behind your poem ‘The Promise’? 

“The brief was quite tight – 3 lines about darkness and 1 about light. My mind naturally went to the pandemic and the darkness of lockdown. The darkness of our temperaments but also the theatres, concert halls and shops literally in darkness. Someone once described me as being a bit ‘Polly Anna-ish’ and I suppose I am. The eternal optimist. The earth is always spinning on its axis, we’re always moving, we’re always waiting for the dawn to come. And it will. We have to trust in our faith that it will come.”

What is it about the current pandemic that has influenced your writing? 

“The pandemic has proved to be rich creative material for me. I also wrote the libretto for A Life Reset (written with composer Dimitri Scarlato); a mini- opera about the equalising effects of lockdown. The opera premiered at the OperaVision #OperaHarmony online festival in August, and we were thrilled to be awarded the Ralf Liebermann prize.”

Aside from The Bach Choir and poetry, what are your interests? 

“Well, in a normal year I’d probably say going to galleries (I’m an art historian and I have a podcast called ‘My Favourite Work of Art’ – please have a listen!) but this year – I have no idea. Haha!  How about… watching telly, doing tie-dye, doomscrolling through Twitter?! I have a four-year-old daughter who isn’t at school yet, so we have lots of creative fun at home. She’s learning to play the piano at the moment, so I’ve dusted down the John Thompson books, and she taught herself Baby Shark so it seems to be going well!”

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31 October 2020

FIVE LIFE LESSONS LEARNED FROM BRAHMS

The Bach Choir took to Zoom in April to sing Johannes Brahms’ Requiem, and again, over the last few weeks at live rehearsals (small and socially distanced) in Guildhall Yard.

Brahms’ Requiem is just one of many terrific and significant compositions The Bach Choir has performed. Yet, for all the times a work is brought back to life, how often do we know about the composer?

I thought it only courtesy to uncover the Brahms behind the Requiem. Turns out as well as being a joy to sing, Brahms also provides excellent life lessons to which I think The Bach Choir can relate – note, these are my personal musings and don’t represent any views held by The Bach Choir.

1. If at first you don’t succeed, try again – Leaves turning from green to brown, compositions unopened and neglected. This marked the September of 1853 for young Brahms. The recipient of these letters was Robert Schumann, heralded the musical God of the times. If you don’t receive an answer, “knock and the door shall be opened unto you”. This resilience marked the beginning of Brahms’ legacy. The Bach Choir may have not yet ‘succeeded’ in live performances this year due to the pandemic, yet an innovative, online platform has become a joy and success.

2. Either beat someone at their own game or shake up the rules – There were two defining figures of the late Romantic period: Brahms and Wagner. Both were hugely influential; both played the game differently. You might see it as Brahms, sitting at the right hand of Beethoven, and Wagner – a fallen angel – seeking new ground and crafting his own domain. The Bach Choir is closely aligned with Johann Sebastian, but that does not stop us from venturing confidently into the world of Tippett or MacMillan.

3. Slow and steady wins the race – If you’re ever in a panic that things are taking too long, then you could do worse than to remember Brahms. The pen went to paper of his First Symphony in 1854 (subject to debate). The orchestra first tuned 22 years later in 1876. Covid-19 may have put a spanner in the works of many a choir’s live repertoire in 2020, but the music industry is certainly not beaten.

4. You can poke your nose into both classical and pop – Think you can only like the one? Oh, how very wrong. Young Brahms entertained diners and enthralled those light on their feet with a touch of pop and folk during his younger years. The Bach Choir’s outreach programme, Vocalise!, sharing the joy of singing with children in primary schools, sees an impressive variety of genre.

5. All beauty fades… but music – The trusted search engine displays Brahms as a bearded, late-aged bachelor. Rewind 20 years, and we see a man of clean-shaven charm. Fortunately, what ceases to diminish is the beauty of music, and The Bach Choir’s gift to recreate it.

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12 October 2020

THE BACH CHOIR DURING LOCKDOWN

Life-under-lockdown has savagely pulled the stage from under the full-time self-employed musician.  It has hurled huge problems at musicians’ livelihoods, their incomes, upcoming tours, as well as swiftly turning once-thriving music venues into sparse and desolate places.

Still, despite this, and albeit in a different way, music has flourished. Different traditions, time-zones and ways of living have come together, producing distinct and diverse creations.

No, music cannot continue like this. But, music has always been an art of creativity, communication, and collaboration; being locked away has not put a stop to this. So, what has lockdown meant for The Bach Choir?

St Matthew Passion

Perhaps the most loved of the Choir’s yearly performances is Bach’s St Matthew Passion.  Year-after-year, it fills out Royal Festival Hall, and the incredible story of the Passion of Christ is movingly sung out through chorus, recitative, and aria.

However, this year saw Covid throw a spanner in the works.  But oh no, we weren’t going to give up the fight that easily. On Good Friday, 150 members took to their seats and gave a mesmerising virtual performance. In an odd way, the circumstances made it all that more moving.

A true Corona Contingency Plan in action.

Choral Workshops

Choral Workshops are choral training days, open to anyone who wants to raise the rafters.  This was one thing that became better because of Covid. Suddenly, it wasn’t limited to those within easy access to central London.  Around 500 people Zoom’d in to sing Fauré’s Requiem, from as far afield as San Francisco, Austria, and Brazil.  As people’s comments show, it provided much-needed joy and relief.

Starting the New Season in Style

A new season and no vaccine.  Nevertheless, in true Bach Choir fashion, the show must go on.  A commission from Gabriel Jackson on the theme of Darkness to Light needed words. Members harbouring their inner poet were asked to write 3-4 lines, and the winning piece would be set to Jackson’s music.   Laura-Jane Foley’s topical poem The Promise of Dawn was chosen.  Wait for the exciting premiere of this!

There may be challenges ahead, but the strength, commitment and enthusiasm shown by The Bach Choir’s members and leaders during this difficult period, will ensure it not only continues, but thrives.

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