The London Blitz, Part 2 — A Tale of Two Evensongs
The London blitz continued with two evensongs, one amazingly wonderful, and one extremely disappointing. I'll begin with the latter.
EVENSONG #1 — Famous Choir in Famous Venue
(There is a reason there are no photos. )
Throughout choircrawl I have tried to offer honest reactions to what I have seen and heard, but, as my mother used to tell me, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." With this in mind, when a concert or rehearsal experience has been largely disappointing, I just haven't written about it. I am going to write about this disappointing evensong, because I think it might be instructive. I am not going to tell you where or who it was. I will say that this particular choir is one of the most famous in the world. I have heard it in situ three times before this trip. On those visits, the choir was wonderful.
Lesson — We have a responsibility to give every audience the best possible musical experience. No service or concert is so small or unimportant that it deserves less than our best.
Audiences deserve accurate, complete information. The church's website indicated that this would be a full evensong with men and boys. In fact, the choir consisted only of their professional men and one woman. Upon arrival, we were handed a program that contained a general outline of a typical evensong, but the titles and composers were not included. The readings were not listed, and the order of worship didn't always match the written outline. Clearly, the church produced this piece to use for every evensong being given for the next twenty years.
Singers need to be assigned repertoire on which they can be successful, and they might also benefit from being reminded that every performance is worthy of their best efforts. The singing from these professionals was ragged, with numerous false starts. One high-baritone/tenor sang with a pushed tone that cut through the entire ensemble, even in the extremely lush acoustic of the venue. The singers could not possibly have felt good about what transpired.
Students need to be assigned music at which they can be successful. A young man, presumably an organ scholar, conducted. He knew the music, but struggled leading it. We have observed this practice before on this trip. As a conducting teacher, my reaction is that organ scholars need more gestural instruction before venturing out, and they would benefit from being assigned easier music in these early stages of their careers. The quality of his work negatively affected the performance.
Few were in attendance at this evensong, and they almost all appeared to be tourists, including a group of Asian students. I imagined that they were part of their school choir and that their teacher had told them, "You are going to hear one of the world's most famous choirs! It is going to be life-changing!" At any rate, the students entered with an excited buzz, lost interest, and left after the service in dispirited quiet. I imagined that they were thinking, "Well, if this is the best choir can offer, I think I'll join the debate team."
The church is, of course, gearing up for Christmas week, and I understand trying to conserve resources in the week preceding the onslaught. Nevertheless, this particular evensong was important to the few visitors in attendance, many of whom trudged through the cold and dark to spend an hour of their precious time with the choir. "Famous Choir in Famous Venue" should be embarrassed.
EVENSONG #2 — Royal Holloway at Great St. Bartholomew
Rupert Gough, conductor
The reader may remember that Royal Holloway was the very first choir I visited on my choircrawl. They were wonderful then and were even more wonderful this week. Rupert Gough is director of choirs at the University of London, Royal Holloway. He is also director of music at Great St. Bartholomew, established in 1183 and reputed to be the oldest church in London. As interesting as it is, you have to work a bit to go St. Bart's. Unlike the church of Evensong #1, it is not in a beautiful part of the city, and it is actually hidden from the street by other buildings. Finding it is something of a treasure hunt.
This evensong was SPECTACULAR, consisting of beautiful and thoughtful repertoire with a nicely-produced program containing informative, well-written notes.
The singing was exquisite and a tour de force from beginning to end. I had heard some of the repertoire in October, and it was interesting to hear how it had improved over time. It is a reminder of the value of repeating music, something we don't do enough in the U.S. One of many highlights was the impeccable performance by a quartet of James McMillan's "O radiant dawn." KUDOS to Rupert and those absolutely outstanding undergraduate student singers.
And, by the way, Royal Holloway at Great St. Bart's, as out-of-the-way as it is, had a full house, unlike the meager crowd at "Famous Choir in Famous Venue" evensong #1. Word does get out, you know. (I very much regret that I am unable to report on the quality of the mulled wine and mince pies offered after the service.)
A full house at Great St. Bartholomew