Stay at Home Choir: Alone in a Crowd

Naomi Roseth writes about joining the Stay at Home Choir.

Prompted by the pandemic, two young London-based musicians started a new venture: ‘Stay at Home Choir’. Judy introduced me to their current project: Karl Jenkins’ ‘The Armed Man’ and I, along with five other MWC members registered, as did some seven thousand people from 70 countries. We are doing only five movements: Sanctus, Hymn before Action, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, and God shall wipe away all Tears. As I write we are rehearsing the Benedictus. At the end of August the whole project will come together in some sort of a virtual concert. I can’t imagine how that many voices can be put together coherently but I am both glad and curious to be one of these voices.

To begin with I thought I faced two challenges: mastering the technology and learning  the music. The technology was relatively easy. Perhaps made so because I read and heard Richard’s description of how his Cantiamo choir has managed theirs. The music still remains a challenge.

Each week we get the sound track for one of the movements. On my screen I see on the right Sir Karl Jenkins conducting the ’World Peace Orchestra’ in a past Berlin concert and on the left the score and I can switch from a whole choir version to my voice – soprano. I listen to it through my earphones and video record myself on my iPad. For each movement we can join a rehearsal led by one of the organisers – one for the sopranos/altos and another for the tenors/bases. There are also webinars with Sir Karl and two soloists talking about the piece in general and the particular movement we are rehearsing. We have a two-week period to rehearse, video record ourselves, then upload the product and send it off before rehearsing the next movement.

Am I glad to do it? I guess I am. It is good to rehearse, to learn some breathing and posture techniques, to sing, to work towards defined end and to try and improve my contribution. I am also grateful for the opportunity to watch and listen to Sir Karl Jenkins – such a highly renowned contemporary composer. I am awestruck by the technology that enables us to interact with thousands of people all over the world. And I am impressed by the efficient organisation of this mammoth project and the enthusiasm of the organisers.

But I can’t really say that I enjoy the singing. For several reasons: I am so dissatisfied with my voice. After weeks of no practice, it is flat and scratchy. Many home-rehearsals bring about an improvement but then comes the time that I have to send my recording and start practising the next movement and I just have to send off something that is far from satisfactory for me. I tell myself that my voice will merge with thousands others, who probably won’t be much better than mine. All the same, I worry about the long-term impact of this long drawn singing hiatus.

I also find the home rehearsals a weird experience. I watch and hear the tutor but on my screen I see lots of other women, their lips are moving and I can’t hear a thing. The tutor gets us to sing a couple of bars, and then she says “Excellent, well done” even though she heard not a thing. All a bit artificial and isolated.   In a way it makes me miss our MWC rehearsals even more than I do any way.

So in summary – I am pleased I rose to the technical challenge. Musically, I am sure that the YouTube rendition of The Armed Man with the London Symphony Orchestra would be a more pleasing experience. But all the same, I am glad to be involved in this project. Better to sing in isolation then not at all and good to know that people from so many countries have come together to sing in this Mass for Peace.

On the whole a very strange experience:  I am singing with thousands of other people but  I am still all alone behind my computer.

Reading during lockdown

I have found lockdown wonderful for reading. Somehow the pace of life for us over 70s, encouraged to sit the pandemic out from the comfort of our sofas, has seemed more measured than normal. There has been time to savour things more, rather than be continually hurrying from one thing to the next. And I have found this particularly so with reading, where I tend to rush from one book to another, in order to catch up with what everyone else has been reading.

The first book of the pandemic was Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. It is the story behind the last female execution in Iceland, set in the 1830s. You can feel the ever-present cold and rain in the prose, not just of the environment but of the story. It is a slow burn, in that narrative and dialogue covering just a short time gradually reveal a complex and harrowing back story of several years. The tempo of the book is constant, encouraging the reader to move on from chapter to chapter, wondering what will be revealed next. At the end there is a feeling that the full story has been told, and that, despite the verdict and punishment, the culprit’s actions are vindicated.

The second book of the pandemic was Bridge of Clay by Marcus Zusak. This book would have been discarded in normal times. The opening chapters are scenes from a highly dysfunctional family – a horrible environment and a set of loathsome characters. I asked myself why I was reading such dreadful material, and got very close to moving on to the next book. However, something held me, and I determined that I would read to page 100 (of 580). At that point, if things had not improved, I would then put the book away. It was a close run thing. On page 98 there is the hint of some humanity in two of the main characters. I persisted and was rewarded with a remarkable tale, again revealing a harrowing back story, but in this case also moving to a satisfactory conclusion with animosities resolved to create a truly functional family.

The third book of the pandemic is the most intriguing. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery is a lovely tale of the concierge in a block of Parisian apartments who unexpectedly finds love – and her real self –in late middle age. The book is so well written – and translated – that from about half way through I found myself savouring it as I might a delicious meal, the sort where you enjoy the taste of one mouthful for as long as possible before taking another. So I would read just one chapter at a time and then put the book down to share and reflect on the heroine’s triumphs and trials before picking it up later to read the next chapter.

I just hope that once things are back to normal that I can maintain a more measured way of reading. It may mean reading fewer books, but it will mean appreciating them more.

Singing while you wash

What and when have you been singing recently?  Without MWC rehearsals, most of my music making has been to accompany the ritual anti-Covid 19 hand-wash several times each day – singing the recommended Happy Birthday to you, twice through, not forgetting to add on the three cheers, all of which can indeed be made to last the requisite twenty seconds.

That’s not a very edifying piece to sing so frequently, and I must confess that I soon tired of it.  But what would be a suitable substitute?  Well, there is a section of my favourite oratorio, Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontuis, where Gerontius sings the Creed,  which is decidedly more interesting and powerful, and the first phrase lasts just about twenty seconds.  It worked well to start with.  But, whatever the singer thinks, others in the house indicated that, sung so often, this piece could also become tiresome – and I would not want to give Elgar’s work that reputation.

So what else might there be?  An obvious choice is the choral theme from the last movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.  That lasts just over twenty seconds and went down well with the enforced listeners.  It even works well without the words, just sung to “lah”.

But even that could pall.  The next thought was the gorgeous cor anglais melody from the second movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony, written while he was living in the USA.   Some commentators believe that the melody reflected Dvorak’s longing for his home country, Czechoslovakia; one even creating some matching lines starting “Going home”.  That was a prompt for some revised lyrics reflecting our current situation.
Staying home, staying home,
Now we’re staying home.
Staying home, staying home,
Not allowed to roam.
Go out for necessities, scripts and groceries.
Otherwise, stay inside, be content to hide
Staying home, staying home,
Now we’re staying home.
Staying home, staying home.
Not allowed to roam.

After a few weeks of distancing and isolation, I found that I was getting not a little frustrated.  A new song was needed for hand-washing to give vent to that frustration.  What transpired is a reworking of O sole mio, with apologies to its Neapolitan composer and to Elvis Presley.
It’s now or never!  For we must fight
Coronovirus with all our might!
We’ll distance and wash as well,
This pesky virus can go to……..
And even with the final word omitted, it still lasts for twenty seconds!

Ah well.  The restrictions are gradually being lifted.  Maybe one day it will be appropriate to sing Dvorak again, but with different words:
Going out, going out……….

Roll on the day!


In times of adversity……….

Roger Pratt has discovered a recently recorded video of a “virtual” performance of The Chorus of Hebrew Slaves from Verdi’s Nabucco.   Click here to watch it.

He writes:  “It’s especially moving knowing the current situation in Italy. You probably saw the article in the SMH on Monday, describing how in Lombardy they’re bringing in army trucks to cart away the dead bodies to the countryside to burn them.

“Also the choice of ‘Va pensiero’ is so apt – it became a virtual anthem for Italy during its struggle against the Austro-Hungarian empire during the Risorgimento in the 1850s. In the same way that it gave hope to the Hebrew Slaves, it still inspires the Italians in these dark times.”

Maybe we will find a way in which we at MWC can virtually sing together over the next few weeks.  You never know!

Who are the Peacemakers?

At last night’s rehearsal, we basses practiced the modest section in The Peacemakers where we take the limelight.  It was a revealing moment.

We were singing in the style of a Gregorian chant, the words being provided by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.  It’s one thing to read or listen to these words; it is quite another to sing them properly.  Singing them makes you think about them and what they really mean.  And they are challenging.

Particularly so this week for me, as I had been sounding off to anyone who would listen about the dreadful nature, in my view, of most, if not all, politicians.  Until, that is, a friend reminded me of two old adages.  “Countries get the politicians their people deserve”, and “Politicians tend to reflect the nature of their constituents”.

Hmmmm.  Does that mean that I am part of the problem?  It is indeed exactly what the Dalai Lama means when he writes – and we basses sing – “Peace starts within each one of us”.

That set me looking at the rest of the words in The Peacemakers. In some ways it is Jenkins’ choice of the text rather than his music whch make this piece special.  Yes, the music adds to the words, but the words are fundamental to communicating the nature of this work to an audience.

It is good that Carlos, as always, makes us reflect on the words we are singing.  Our performance could be, in its own modest way, one of that myriad of small actions which lead to a more peaceful world.