Sunday, 11 October 2009

Choir and orchestra

There's something very special about playing in a big choral work. I find that I enjoy playing in an orchestra when it is accompanying a choir more than I enjoy playing in an orchestra when it is accompanying a soloist in a concerto.

The members of the choir are of course almost always amateurs - you could never afford to make up a massed choir of professional singers, the cost would be absolutely prohibitive (though sometimes I wonder what sort of a sumptuous sound could be produced by such a choir!). So all the singers are amateurs like me - they sing for the love of the music, and they take part in a large group for the joy of sharing their music with others, both fellow singers and the audience. That enthusiasm is wonderful to see and the warmth of the massed voices makes for a beautiful sound.

Then there is the fact that the choir is placed behind the orchestra. As a horn player, I'm almost always at the back of the orchestra, so I'm usually not actually surrounded by the sound when the orchestra plays alone. When I have the choir behind me and most of the orchestra in front, there is something incredibly exhilarating about being right in the middle of everything.

And choral music is usually perfect for producing wonderful horn parts - horns sing in a way very similar to the human voice, so composers who write good choral works usually are also able to produce gorgeous horn passages as well!

With concerto soloists, there is always a degree of separation - the soloist is projecting his or her sound out into the audience, and so the players behind in the orchestra often hear relatively little of the soloist. And even in some wonderful concertos, there is often a significant amount of accompaniment that consists of little more than a few occasional quiet chords here & there while the soloist dazzles the audience with his technical prowess. With a choral work, there is a much more equal partnership between choir and orchestra.

As it happens, on October 17th, I'm taking part in my second choral concert in consecutive weekends. The Hillingdon Philharmonic Orchestra are short of a horn player when they travel up to Coventry Cathedral to accompany the massed choirs of the Free Church Choir Union in their 2009 festival "Praise and Thanksgiving", and have asked me to join them for the trip.

I've not been in Coventry Cathedral for some years. My grandparents lived in Coventry and my father was brought up there. As a child visiting my grandparents on holiday I visited several times. The 14th century Gothic cathedral was burned to the ground in the German bombing raid of 14 November 1940, which devastated most of the city. The present cathedral replacing it was completed in 1962.

I've never before had the opportunity to perform there, and I'm looking forward to it. Cathedrals are really the proper places to perform big choral works, there is something about the increased reverberation of sound round the building compared to most concert halls that makes them ideal for this kind of music. Also, many choral works are based on sacred texts and it seems somehow fitting to perform them in surroundings that reflect that content.

Benjamin Britten's War Requiem was commissioned for and given its first performance at the consecration of the new cathedral. In between the standard offices of the requiem mass, Britten very powerfully includes settings of poems of the poet Wilfred Owen, including "The Parable Of The Old Man And The Young", based on the Old Testament story of Abraham being prepared to sacrifice his first-born son to God (Genesis 22:1-14), but with an ending reflecting the senseless slaughter that Owen witnessed in the trenches during WW1.

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him, thy son.
Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,
A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Coventry Cathedral has included a very strong peace and reconciliation element as part of its ministry in the years since the war, and Coventry has formed cultural links with Dresden, a city even more dreadfully bombed in 1945 in the closing months of the war. I visited Dresden a few years ago on a musical tour, and had a chance to visit Dresden's Frauenkirche. Like Coventry Cathedral, it was destroyed in the bombing. Rebuilding started after the reunification of Germany and was finally completed in 2005, and representatives of the city and cathedral of Coventry were present at the reconsecration ceremony. I visited a year or two later. It is a beautiful building and the people of Dresden have an obvious and great civic pride in it. Let us hope that the joint work of the people in both cathedrals will eventually contribute to bringing an end to all wars.

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