It’s like getting your timetable at the start of a school year. A shiny new schedule arrives and its pages are eagerly perused to see what music we have in store. Many choirs will have a fairly simple schedule – one concert in the Autumn, Spring and Summer with the obligatory Christmas festivities. Sometimes additional special events will make it onto the calendar. That’s what I was used to singing with my London choirs. The CBSO Chorus’s schedule is more, how shall I put this, mental.
Our schedules cover up to 18 months ahead, so you really do have to be the sort of person who likes to know what they’re doing in advance (audition gods willing). Currently we have 15 concerts planned for 2013/14, of which we need to do 10. Now, assuming that a person can’t do everything (although I know some who do), which ones to choose?
I think that everyone looks at the music first. Some pieces are like old friends. We see them regularly, and we need hardly any catching up time before we know them well again. Beethoven 9 is often allocated a solitary rehearsal before a performance (from memory), and Mahler symphonies are frequent fliers, although currently being overtaken by Britten’s War Requiem (5 performances coming up this year, 3 of them abroad). Some pieces generate excitement. You’ve heard them, you’ve always wanted to perform them, and there they are, shining on your schedule. Some pieces are choral kryptonite. You cannot explain how much you hate them, and will do anything to avoid them, meaning you’ll agree to sing anything instead. Then there’s the new commission. It’s never been performed before, no one knows what it sounds like, and you’re just hoping it doesn’t involve you mimicking a lawnmower while hopping on one leg.
Obviously choosing what to perform in is all down to individual taste. Personally, I will do anything to avoid Mahler 3, the choral part drives me mad and the rest of it causes me to snooze. Many people will think this is heresy. I love Baroque music, which we rarely perform, but when we do… I was in heaven during Bach’s St Matthew Passion with Rattle. Other people were bored. C’est la vie.
Location makes a difference. Even if a piece doesn’t grab your attention the venue might. St Paul’s Cathedral is on the schedule in June, an amazing venue with serious acoustic challenges (how many seconds is that delay again?) which will be extremely interesting for a performance of Britten’s War Requiem. More Britten is programmed in the Royal Festival Hall in February, a venue I haven’t performed in since I was doing a school orchestra competition in the ’90s, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it’s changed. Sometimes the most fun events are the unusual requests. I’ve sung on the pitch at Wembley, opening a rugby final with some crowd pleasers and the national anthem. It wasn’t so much the singing (you can’t hear a thing on the pitch and Delilah is not traditional choral repertoire) that made it memorable, but the noise generated when the teams ran out hit you like a wall is an experience you don’t get very often.
The CBSO Chorus is extremely lucky to mainly perform at Symphony Hall with its wonderful acoustic and (don’t underestimate the importance of this) comfortable choir stalls. Not for us the ceiling mushrooms of the Royal Albert Hall or backless benches on hastily assembled risers. Every time we perform in other venues, however amazing they are, I think we always think about how great our home is. For aspiring concert hall designers, please note that folding choir seats are a bad idea. We come across this a fair amount in European venues. Whatever the reason is for installing them, don’t. I’d like to see you try and stand silently in unison, while balancing music in folders in one hand and trying to stop the seat banging with the other.
So how have I chosen? Well with the absence of the dreaded Mahler in the forseeable future, it looks like revisiting Britten, getting to know Wagner and catching up with Beethoven will keep me busy until the summer, when it will be time to meet A. R. Rahman for the first time then reacquaint myself with Rachmaninov.