At certain times yesterday I had to step back and take it all in. The Parliament Choir convened in Westminster Central Hall to rehearse for today’s concert, and it really was quite an occasion. Southbank Sinfonia were there, a pleasure to behold and to hear, as always, as was John Suchet, who will be introducing the concert, and various technicians from Classic FM who will be recording it for broadcast. The Hall is an impressive venue, and it is a significant step up from Cadogan Hall in terms of size. We might be lucky to fill it, but we will have an audience into four figures in any case.
On the stage the choir has been split on either side of the organ, which makes timekeeping between the two factions a little tricky, especially as the enthusiasts all seem to have gathered on one side of the instrument and the slowcoaches on the other. By the end of the evening it had started to settle down, but singing in such a large space takes some getting used to, and the sound will probably change once we get an audience in there.
Having said that, when orchestra, organ and singers were all going for it in something like O Come, All Ye Faithful, it really did feel rather Christmassy, and the idea that this might become an annual tradition didn’t look quite so far-fetched. The orchestration of Sweet Was The Song sounded really rather fine, the oboe and horn picking out new details in the accompaniment while the strings swayed gently underneath, the pizzicato basses (in one orchestrator’s wonderful words) “casting a reflective sheen over the texture”. Silent Night sounded pretty passable too.
Today will be something of a new record for me, as I have three performances of different works lined up, not something I can imagine happening again in the near future. A Sad Carol For These Distracted Tymes will be performed at St. Mary Abbots at lunchtime as part of their Community Carol Service, and in the evening a sizeable audience will be subjected to the new orchestral version of Sweet Was The Song, technically a première, and my arrangement of Silent Night, really just a fleshing out of a terribly dull harmonisation from a few years back. If you’ve come anywhere near this blog in the past few weeks, you’ll know that the last two will be broadcast on Christmas Eve on Classic FM.
I’d like to write a few words in defence of A Sad Carol, which has come off very much second best this year in comparison with Sweet Was The Song, tomorrow marking its only performance of the year. Maybe I am too close to the works to be able to judge objectively, but I’m have never reckoned either of them to be significantly better than the other, and I am slightly bemused by Sweet‘s sudden rise to not-quite-obscurity, although I am quite happy to take it onboard, thank you very much. A Sad Carol was written in a spare hour before a choir practice, an exercise in modal writing, the only chromaticism coming right at the end – I like its voice, its structure and its subject matter. I have always been much more partial to carols which deal in the darker side of Christmas (the massacre of the innocents, a young family stuck out in the freezing cold, the myrrh for embalming and so on) rather than donkeys, stars and Beth-le-hem (quaver – quaver rest – quaver – quaver, ugh), and Sad Carol deals with that quite well, I think. In any case, this year might just be a flash in the pan, but it would be nice to think that other works might ride into the Christmas repertoire on the back of Sweet‘s emergence.
Thursday will bring another performance of Sweet, of course, this time by the Malcolm Sargent Festival Choir, and Friday yet another, by Queen’s Gate School, so I am heading into a run of five performances in three days. Not bad, really.
I went to see My Week With Marilyn the other day at the cinema, and was heartened to hear some Howells on the soundtrack – the hymn tune Michael is being sung in the background as Marilyn is taken to Eton. There’s some Finzi being played on Radio 4 Extra at the moment, as part of a dramatisation, the slow movement of the wonderful and dark cello concerto. Even if these composers are not part of everyday musical parlance, it is good to know that their music can be found. In fact, Finzi is on pretty much every rural landscape one sees, either the cello or the clarinet concerto slow movements.
The film I am looking forward to seeing most, however, is The Artist, which has no music in it at all. It is that most bizarre of concoctions in the modern day – a silent film. So far so poor, you might think, but I had read murmurings about it and was astonished at the trailer, the only one I can remember seeing which has had me genuinely excited. An enthusiastic thumbs up to those willing to take risks, then, whether the Parliament Choir in booking such a huge venue (or engaging me as composer-in-residence!), or some French film director for bucking the trend entirely. People follow the herd far too much, but difference with genuine quality is a rare find. Perhaps I’ll see you in the cinema on the 30th – www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/nov/30/oscar-nomination-the-artist