07 October, 2010
A black, wet and windy late 20th century November night: I’m in my mid-30’s, recently returned to Edinburgh. A friend has fixed up an audition for me with the Festival Chorus after their rehearsal this Tuesday evening. He says it’s a good choir. Well, I could join for a year or two. An audition? – no great problem.
I arrive at the venue, find the stairs for the fourth floor. I’m on the first few steps when, evidently after a pause in the rehearsal, I suddenly hear the choir far above launch into the start of the first movement of Mahler’s 8th Symphony. I am transfixed. I have never heard a sound like the sopranos I am now hearing. They are rising to a tremendous fortissimo high note, truly thrilling – then over two or three bars descending melody they diminuendo to an exquisite pianissimo and a brilliant accompanist is taking the music on into a piano dolce section, amazingly simulating a full orchestra plus soprano soloist.
As I wait outside the room I know that I badly want into this choir. I no longer fancy myself, this is no stroll. I need to pass this audition.
Twenty minutes later I’m in, on probation as a 1st bass. It appears that work on my voice is required, actually a lot of work. But I’m in.
Fast forward a couple of decades and I’m still in. The Festival Chorus has given me a fantastic musical education. I have got to know, and know well - from the inside - marvellous music by marvellous composers, much of which I might never have heard otherwise, let alone grow to love - taught to me by great musicians. There’s immense interest in seeing a brilliant conductor at piano rehearsal operate within a very tight timescale, testing and educating the chorus, in the process entertaining us with wit and charm, then later maybe surprising us with fresh nuances even in the performance.
There have been great concerts and fabulous foreign tours. But nothing beats a Tuesday evening, often the ones I have felt least like turning up for, when some powerful mix of great music, humour, intellectual demand and simple corporate energy just leaves ordinariness far behind. Donald Runnicles once complimented the Festival Chorus on its reputation for taking hold of a performance and energising it. I know what he meant because it happens for me on so many Tuesdays. Audio replays are in my head for good – the tenors singing “Et Incarnatus Est” from the Bruckner E Minor Mass, the women with “Huic ergo parce Deus” from Verdi’s Requiem, many more. Any Tuesday night could hold a moment like that.
Arthur Oldham said that Giulini told him, “You've a marvellous chorus, but the voices are all white. Now you have to look for the reds and the blues and the greens.” That’s encouragement that my voice supplies something in the blend – though I hope it isn’t a loud pink.