One of the huge privileges of being part of the BBC Symphony Chorus is taking part in the Last Night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall. We are the amateur choir attached to the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and our ranks are made up of people from all walks of life, such as teachers, lawyers, students, doctors, HR people, photographers, care workers, tax specialists, psychologists, fund raisers, arts administrators, mums, and even a couple of publishers. In some ways we are a disparate group, but we are united by our love of singing, taking on challenging music, and performing it to the highest standard.
For us, the Last Night of the Proms is a bit like an end-of-term party, after the hard work of the whole Proms season. It is certainly different from many of the concerts we do with unusual repertoire and smaller audiences. We usually perform in five or six concerts over the eight-week Proms season, but often start rehearsals for them in the January or February previously, in order to have enough time to prepare the demanding works we are asked to sing by the orchestra. For the Last Night we cast aside our usual black concert wear and bring out the party dresses and the bling, and this year a Sikh member of the tenors treated us to a red, white and blue turban.
As it would with any typical music student, University instilled in me a certain amount of musical snobbery that it took quite a long time to get over. In particular, it is only recently that I feel like I’ve fully appreciated that almost any instrument has the potential to be played beautifully, and no instrument should be dismissed before you’ve heard it being played by one of the best. If you have not yet achieved this zen-like approach to instruments such as the accordion or ukulele, the following musicians might help to convince you otherwise…
The ukulele appears to have become the new recorder in UK schools and suffered an image crisis accordingly. Having only really heard about the ukulele as a sort of novelty instrument that no-one takes that seriously – and not being at all convinced by the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain – it was quite a relief to come across the Canadian player James Hill http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yOfycEepSOo&feature=related, who I think is a brilliant reminder that even the most derided of instruments can have great capabilities.
I have to admit that I’m still not entirely convinced by the recorder, which I think might be because I just can’t get over my early primary-school memories of it. But if anyone is going to change my mind then it might be The Royal Wind Music http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x52-VKWI9hg&list=UU_3X1REMTN1M-KYO3ty8BTA&index=7&feature=plcp and their fantastic Renaissance instruments (whoever thought a recorder could be over 10 feet long!). This is the sort of music that, to me, makes sense of this instrument.
If you think the accordion is a horribly nasal-sounding, expressionless instrument soley destined to accompany morris dancing – which I did a couple of years ago – then listen to Andy Cutting http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-5a8n9Zotyg and think again. He is a wonderful English melodeon player who makes the instrument sound beautifully sweet and expressive.
A couple of months ago I was lucky enough to see the legendary Boubacar Traore at Ronnie Scotts in London, and he happened to be accompanied by the harmonica player Vincent Bucher. Up until this point I’d largely dismissed the harmonica as a cheap little toy that turns up in children’s Christmas stockings – or occasionally in the hands of mediocre buskers on the underground. Well, thanks to Vincent Bucher I will never think about the harmonica in the same way again. The subtly and expressiveness of his playing was just as surprising as the sounds he was able to get out of the instrument – watch this video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2OJSc3-cz4U from about 2:25.
Patrick Gazard is the author of Rhinegold’s new book, How to Create a Successful Music Ensemble. Here he shares his journey taking the High Wycombe Music Centre Stage Choir from a local Music Centre choral concert to the Music for Youth festival in Birmingham.
Saturday 3rdMarch 2012
Today’s Music Centre Choral Concert presented us with the ideal opportunity to run the set we have decided upon for the Music for Youth competition with the band, especially the strings (who sounded gorgeous!). The church acoustic made for a great sound. A few errors in performance, but none serious, and overall this was a good dry run for the Regional Festival.
Saturday 10th March 2012
Although the choir sang well last weekend, a brief listen back to the recording highlighted a major issue – the voices weren’t blending well. The MFY mentors/judges will mark us down if they can hear so many individual voices, especially in the more lyrical songs. The problem is that our standard rehearsal room, a school classroom, has no acoustic to speak of, so I needed to find another room.
I negotiated a one-off swap with another Music Centre choir for today’s rehearsal and spent it working on blend and voice colours. The aim was to make it sound as if four different choirs were doing four different songs, changing the colours for each number. The session, in what was a much more suitable room, was very successful, and I’m grateful to my colleague for agreeing the swap.