Learning in concert: Performance as (re-)education

I haven’t double-checked, but I think it was a character in a Stephen Fry book who proposed that there are people with great minds (in other words, enthusiasts), and people with great brains (in other words, experts). You don’t need to have read Fry to know that I’m an enthusiast more than an expert – you just need to have stood next to me in a concert.

Be that as it may, writing about a concert in which I sang is a first for me as an adult. The concert in question is Vivamus’ recent “Celestial Fire”, framed by the great “Mass for Four Voices” of William Byrd. I wrote the programme, and had already pondered all the works in depth. Even so, on the day of the concert itself I wasn’t personally sure how I wanted to embrace the music – but the late addition of a glorious extra tenor to Vivamus’ ranks gave me new insight. Even a casual listener might have noticed the rich, full tone, added vibrato and more assertive phrasal shaping. Certainly, I was inspired to push on the night for a more ‘continental’ approach to the work, rather than the more ‘English’ sound with which I’d started the day (I’ll let you decide whether to go ‘full choral geek’ and look those terms up as needed).

“Christus Vincit” by James MacMillan offered two other vocal extremes. The opening section involves long phrases sung quietly and quite high in each of the eight voice parts. It’s a bit of a minefield for the amateur singer, however enthusiastic they may be, as such scoring can result in unfortunate cracks or breaks in the voice (not dissimilar to that experienced by boys going through their change of voice). Apparently, I got away without such a break on the night. This meant I could relax and fully appreciate the wonderful soprano solo given by Monica Nash, the ‘extended hairpin’ (gradual crescendo then smooth diminuendo) beautifully rendered, the top Bs and semiquaver runs notwithstanding.

It would of course be remiss not to mention our accompanists, organ soloist and conductor. We were starstruck as a choir to be accompanied on synthesiser during Patrick Gower’s “Viri Galilæi” by Joshua Gearing, BBC Young Musician of the Year finalist. Joshua was a delight, and admirably sustained on the synth for several minutes a ‘glittering, bell-like effect’ without, in effect, deviation or repetition. Meanwhile, organ professor Charles Andrews played beautifully throughout the concert. His talents were perhaps most noticeable in organ solo “Star Fantasy on Alleluia: Vidimus Stellam” by Kristina Arakelyan, with some shimmering registration I would love to hear again one day (but only if it’s not too much trouble…). And bringing his customary electric energy was Vivamus’ wonderful musical director, Rufus Frowde, who introduced each item expertly, really got us going during the dance-like rhythms in “All Wisdom Cometh from the Lord” by Philip Moore, and even remained calm in our final rehearsal when at times it seemed like the organ had gone sharp.

And what about the piece that gave the concert its name, I hear you ask? The text of Cecilia McDowall’s “Celestial Fire” appears to absolve mere mortals from needing to ask for grace. You need to concentrate like anything to give full shape to the music’s vocal lines – and all the more so when the printed editions turn up a bit on the late side – but it was a triumph nevertheless.

So, there it is. Job done. Old favourites and pieces new to me, described in the programme and inscribed in my head. Artistic elements under control. Concert magnificently and beautifully delivered. Post-performance pub drinks imbibed.

What’s that? I haven’t mentioned the beautiful interior of St Stephen’s Church in Westminster, where we performed? I haven’t gone into how Vivamus’ first post-pandemic concert there, including Byrd’s “Mass for Five Voices” and “Ne irascaris, Domine” was one of the most moving musical experience of my life?

Well, interweaving all of that would take an expert, I suppose. Perhaps I need a bit more musical education before I can get there. And, as I remarked on the choir WhatsApp on concert day, I cannot get enough of the continuing musical (re-)education I get from singing in Vivamus.

Post written by Kieran Morgan.