Sunday, 28 June 2020

O Radiant Dawn!

There couldn't really be a better way to refer to that time when, post-lockdown, life can return to normal. That day will definitely dawn radiantly! Until then, we do things differently and we dream...

'O Radiant Dawn' was the title of the motet by James MacMillan that the Stay at Home Choir rehearsed and performed with The Sixteen a few weeks ago. Last night, after a long wait, we got to see and hear the result.

Over 14,000 people in 64 countries took part. And I was one of them! It was a wonderful experience, probably something that - under normal circumstances - I'd never have been able to do. It was exciting, inspiring and uplifting. It came at the moment the first wave of good weather broke and lockdown started to seem less like a holiday and more like house arrest, especially to those (like me) with a shielding letter.

We rehearsed with Sir James himself, and then had sectionals (i.e. were split into our respective voice parts: soprano, alto, tenor, bass) with members of The Sixteen. I'll never forget Eamonn Dougan's 'Choral Chiuhuahua'... and if that means nothing to you, take a look here:

Then there was the challenge of recording - alone - to a guide track that sounded like a cross between something by Kraftwerk and my Auntie Annie on the Hammond organ. Then, finally, uploading my 'take' and waiting... and waiting.

And it was worth every moment! Here's the result. What do you think?

Wednesday, 17 June 2020

I Have a Song to Sing? No!

Last Thursday the eminent Organista et Magista Choristarum of Westminster Abbey, no less, successor to Henry Purcell, Orlando Gibbons, John Blow (and Osborne Peasgood!) was a guest on BBC Radio 3's In Tune, talking to Sean Rafferty about what desperately frustrating times these are for singers everywhere, not least in this country's great abbeys and cathedrals.

Yesterday The Guardian published a letter from eminent vocal and choral musicians, composers and conductors claiming to 'give voice to the millions of people who sing in choirs in this country' and lamenting the 'uncertain future' we all now face.

Both argued strongly that church leaders, and the government, should take action. Abbey organist James O'Donnell referred to current restrictions as 'ridiculously risk-averse' and The Guardian's correspondents argued church leaders should now 'speak out so that we can make singing together in churches work' and that the government needed to 'show how we can restart singing together on an equal footing with opening theme parks, shopping and kicking a football around.' They added 'It is imperative that we find a way for choirs in this country to resume as soon and as safely as we can.'

No-one could argue with that. But I get the impression that phrases like 'within certain guidelines' are sometimes added as a sop to the 'ridiculously risk-averse' among us who - while bitterly regretting the current situation - might be a little less keen to come back anytime soon to choral singing.

Yes, 'Singing in a choir is not only about communality, social cohesion and harmony...' There is no doubt that is provides a 'source of emotional wellbeing and positive mental health.' It is important and needs protecting. But not at the cost of people's lives.

Like many recent relaxations of the lockdown restrictions, such calls are not only disappointing, but scientifically misleading. Earlier this month the New York Times published a article which seemed to show that, far from being 'ridiculously risk-averse' the current restrictions might actually be inadequate for singers.

Of course, much is not known. But as such, is it right to begin thinking of relaxing restrictions which may silence cathedral and concert halls, but save lives? I am as frustrated with the current situation as anyone. As a former cathedral lay-clerk and active singer I miss the opportunity to make music terribly. But with underlying health conditions, and having received a shielding letter, I am also acutely aware of the need to stay safe.

The risks of relaxing the restrictions too soon are too great. And until we know better, choir practice for me will look like this for a lot longer...

Tuesday, 2 June 2020

In a churchyard...

It's 180 years today since the birth of Thomas Hardy: poet, architect, novelist, playwright, musician, countryman and legend.

Hardy (like his protagonist Jude) didn't go to public school or Oxford. He didn't inherit wealth. He worked, as an architect. And wrote in his spare time. It was architectural business - not literary - that took him to Cornwall in 1870. While there he met the woman who was to become his wife, the woman who, over a long marriage, he would neglect and whose death he would mourn so painfully that it inspired some of the English language's best poetry.

Here's one of his poems not directly inspired by the death of his first wife. 'While Drawing in a Churchyard' is sometimes subtitled 'Song of the Yew' and it is the yew tree, that ancient tree of churchyards, that speaks to the poet. "Death isn't as bad as people think, y'know," the tree seems to say.

But then, that was Hardy's own view!

'It is sad that so many of worth,  
Still in the flesh,' soughed the yew,  
'Misjudge their lot whom kindly earth  
Secludes from view.

'They ride their diurnal round  
Each day-span's sum of hours  
In peerless ease, without jolt or bound  
Or ache like ours.  

'If the living could but hear  
What is heard by my roots as they creep  
Round the restful flock, and the things said there,  
No one would weep.'  

' "Now set among the wise,"  
They say: "Enlarged in scope,  
That no God trumpet us to rise  
We truly hope." '  

I listened to his strange tale  
In the mood that stillness brings,  
And I grew to accept as the day wore pale  
That show of things.

Monday, 25 May 2020

Just one more thing...

No doubt the assembled hacks in the Rose Garden behind 10 Downing Street were all waiting for their Columbo moment. Either that or they're all as fawning as the obsequious Laura Kuenssberg and as puffed up as Robert Peston, who both seemed content to play pat-a-cake in their top-of-the-bill questions to the man-in-chief, the power behind Johnson's throne and Machiavellian puppet-meister, Mr Cummings.

I'll spare the rest of them. Perhaps they didn't get the chance? I'll give them the benefit of the doubt. And ask, on their behalf...

1. Why Cummings' wife, Mary Wakefield, didn't either drive or take a share of the driving if the journey back to London was a worry?

2. And if it was, why Cummings didn't simply catch the train? There's a mainline station at Durham. Once he was cleared for work he could've been off on the 0620 and in the office a few hours later. Failing that, what with him being so important ("I decide each day what to tell the Prime Minister") why didn't he call for a ministerial car? Or a military helicopter? Even Thunderbird 3? He's clearly so pivotal to government strategy (he said so himself this afternoon, many times) they'd have chartered a private jet for him if he'd asked!

3. And why was it necessary for Mary and Dominic Jr to accompany him back to the capital anyway, to a house he'd already said he'd 'fled' when falling ill as it was being 'targeted'? If his family farm was such a safe place, why not leave his wife and child safely there, to convalesce? No need for dodgy outings on your wife's birthday to Barnard Castle, possible pit stops for refuelling on the A1 southbound and unscheduled wee-stops in a wood. Just Dom, in a carriage on his own, on the train.

Oh and one more thing...

All that guff about 'other people maybe not agreeing' with his actions is fine up to a point, with an elected politician. Because we can vote them out if we don't believe them at the next election. But we're stuck with Cummings until Boris tires of him or decides he's a political liability or something.

Or until Cummings tells him what to do!
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