SING IT LOUD Choral music is cresting a massive new wave of interest, due in part to the success of BBC2’s The Choir. Two London festivals celebrate a rich mix of song styles
od respects me when I work, but he loves me when I sing,” said the Hindu poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore. Although it is becoming increasingly difficult to earn God’s respect given the rising jobless total, the numbers worthy of divine love have never been greater. Singing has become almost emblematic of our culture. More people sing in choirs today than take part in sport and the skills on display range from the world’s top professional ensembles like the 40-year-old King’s Singers, to slightly ragged fun groups like the Can’t Sing Choir at London’s Morley College (who are not as bad as they think).
This love of singing is nowhere better exemplified than in the successes of choral animateur Gareth Malone, whose numerous TV choir-initiating projects have made him one of the best-known conductors in the country. His latest project, the Military Wives Choir, recruited its singers from the spouses of soldiers serving in Afghanistan and the single it produced, “Wherever You Are”, topped the charts at Christmas, beating Simon Cowell’s newest X-Factor protégé into second place. Malone chose as composer for the hit single, Paul Mealor, who has also benefited hugely this year from the interest in choral singing. His version of Ubi Caritas was premiered at the royal wedding last June and won him a solo recording from a major record label.
Another of Malone’s initiatives, the South Oxhey Community Choir, performs in the finale of the Brandenburg Spring Choral Festival which runs at the Church of St Martin-in-the-Fields in London’s Trafalgar Square and other nearby venues until the end of April. Its appearance is a relief to those who worry that once the TV cameras have gone, the singers lose interest and the choirs disband. Its continuation is living proof that the enthusiasm for choral singing is genuine. Malone remained as conductor for two years after the TV series before handing over this year to Simon Wookey. “Simon’s doing a brilliant job,” says Bob Porter, founder of the Brandenburg Festival. “Gareth Malone’s great skill is in getting these amazing projects off the ground, but it is down to others to carry out the sometimes harder task of maintaining the commitment and enthusiasm. There really is something special about the South Oxhey Choir. Its way of performing is so infectious.”
The South Oxhey Choir is one of about 40 groups participating in the Brandenburg Festival. Most are local choral societies, grateful for the opportunity to perform away from home. The common thread is that most have at one time hired as accompanist the Brandenburg Sinfonia or its sister band of period instrumentalists the Brandenburg Baroque Soloists. The orchestras, founded by Porter 20 years ago, are returning the compliment on their own patch as they are resident ensembles at St Martin-in-the-Fields.
“We built the Sinfonia up gradually through friends and contacts,” Porter explains. “It takes time. You don’t invent an orchestra overnight. If it goes well, it thrives; if it doesn’t, it disappears.” The name is borrowed from Bach and now lent to the festival. “The name has a special resonance,” says Porter. “The Brandenburg Concertos are probably my favourite music.”
Religious works remain the staple for choirs. There are several Requiems on the Brandenburg programme as well as Masses, Bach motets, a Magnificat, a Gloria, an Agnus Dei and no fewer than three performances of the Rachmaninov Vespers. One concert features sacred works by Duke Ellington and another, music of the genre “gospel jazz groove”, both of which link with a second strand in the festival, jazz choirs, including two from London conservatoires. Although it is possible to perform entire secular programmes, music expressing religious ideas is never far from the choral repertoire which seems to confirm Tagore’s dictum.
The Brandenburg Festival is not the only choral music looking for audiences this month. At King’s Place, there is the London A Capella Festival, a packed weekend (12-14 January) of unaccompanied choirs hosted by the Swingle Singers. Here the vocal music
The Purcell Singers, who will be performing in the Brandenburg Festival includes beatboxing, the vocal percussion associated with hip-hop culture, barbershop and glam rock arrangements. The festival opens with the Vasari Singers, one of the most versatile groups in the country, their styles ranging from the intense religiosity of the Duruflé Requiem to arrangements of jazz standards by Ward Swingle, the founder of the Swingle Singers and recently announced as the Vasari’s patron. He is descended from Zwingli, the sixteenth-century Swiss religious reformer, and some would say his influence since the 1960s on contemporary singing has been as great as his ancestor’s on Christianity.
One group, the London Vocal Project, straddles both festivals. It appears both times under conductor Pete Churchill who also brings his student jazz choir from the Royal Academy of Music to the Brandenburg Festival. Influenced by Swingle, particularly in the manner of his juicy modern arrangements, he more than any is taking the vocal art forward. Much of what his singers do quite naturally now, was considered impossible until a few years ago.
There’s a purity to vocal music which mere mechanical instruments can only imitate. The orchestras in the Brandenburg Festival are still but vehicles; the stars are the choirs. Even where no words are involved, song is deeply expressive of the human condition, no matter whether from the Swingle Singers or the Can’t Sing Choir.
Instruments change, but vocal music has remained the same throughout man’s history, for there are forms of beatboxing in Indian culture which, still practised under the name bol, are several thousand years old. Perhaps this is what lies behind the Hindu Tagore’s statement. Work, if we have it, is merely respectable, but singing expresses, even over time, what and who we are, loved with all our faults, by the Creator.
22 | THE TABLET | 7 January 2012