Betsy Cook Weber
The London Blitz, Part 4 — Harry Christophers & the 16, 18, 29
"I won't lie — I didn't stay for the second half."
That text came from a new friend, an American doing choral research here in the UK. She had attended The Sixteen at Christmas concert the night before. She did not like it, and her text cast a pall on the lead-up to one of our most-anticipated concerts. We had felt lucky to get tickets, because it was an early sell-out, but were we about to waste an evening?
If you're a choral fan, you know about The Sixteen, led by Harry Christophers. This is a choral group that specializes in performances of the great choral repertoire, particularly early repertoire. They tour, they record, and their performances are often regarded as seminal. They are a big deal.
Harry Christophers and The Sixteen (from their website)
The printed program contained some surprises. First, The Sixteen roster actually consists of 29 singers. "In preparation for these concerts, 29 singers are rehearsed, of whom 18 (six sopranos, four altos, four tenors, and four basses) perform in each concert." This practice makes a lot of sense, particularly in this Covid era. In addition to allowing for possible illness, the show can go forward regardless of vocal wear and tear, voice type, or availability. The use of 18 singers almost felt like false advertising, but it didn't matter. I was surprised to learn that the group has been around since 1979. That is a remarkable run for any small arts organization.
Before I discuss the performance itself, I want to describe three issues of concern. The first is that Cadogan Hall, which rightly required mask-wearing of all audience members, sold beverages in the lobby at the interval, and then allowed audience members to bring their drinks back into the concert hall, which, of course, meant that their masks were off. At the point of this concert, the Omicron variant had become a "thing." I cannot imagine the thinking behind this practice.
The second issue was that Sir Harry acknowledged some soloists, but not all. I don't think I was imagining the disappointment I saw on the faces of those singers who were ignored. I, too, have made that mistake, and it is not OK. To be ignored is hurtful.
And, finally, the printed program did not list the arrangers of the carols that were sung. This, too, was an unfortunate oversight.
Now, to the concert itself. The 18 singers walked onstage followed by their leader, Harry Christophers. According to his biography, his early musical influences — or influencers as some young people would say today — are The Rolling Stones, Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler, Igor Stravinsky, and Jethro Tull. Honestly, he looks a bit like an aging rocker.
Harry Christophers with shorter hair
Under Christophers' elegant leadership, the ensemble sang absolutely beautifully. I couldn't have wished for a more wonderful performance. The repertoire was masterfully conceived, with "serious" (whatever that means) literature interspersed with "more accessible" (whatever that means), beautiful carol arrangements. It is not uncommon to attend a concert where the "hard" stuff goes first, followed by the "fun" stuff, but I liked The Sixteen's approach very much. It felt less patronizing, somehow, and I suspect that a number of audience members very much appreciated the timed-release-musical-sugar capsules.
The inclusion of Bob Chilcott's O Antiphons, interspersed throughout the concert was brilliant. And I was pleased that the program concluded with a glorious Victoria Magnificat. (For the uninitiated, this falls into the "hard" stuff category.) It was almost as if to say, "We gave you some carols, but this is what we do, this is what we love, and this is what we want you to hear." In the interest of full disclosure, they did finish with an encore, the over-sung, over-used Leontovich, "Carol of the Bells." (This piece, for me, falls into the same category as Disney's "It's a Small World.") I simply closed my eyes and tried to pretend that it wasn't happening, but, of course, the audience loved it.
So, how to explain my friend's dislike of the concert the previous night? Perhaps
Rick and I were lucky enough to get the "A" team. Perhaps the program simply needed more time to gel, coming togther for our concert. And, then, one has to admit that fine choral singing is very much like walking a tightrope. One pinky toe (or singer) out of place can create disaster. Finally, there is the "different strokes for different folks" reality. The Sixteen simply may not have been my new friend's cup of tea.
We felt lucky to have heard The Sixteen in person and to have placed a check next to another ensemble on my choral bucket list.