One of the undoubted privileges of my job at Marlborough College was the opportunity to conduct the annual Choral Concert in the Chapel of St Michael and all Angels.
Walking up the central aisle with four professional soloists to direct a choir of over 200 singers and an orchestra of 50 players in a packed chapel, it was I suppose a kind of once a year musical ego trip.
But for me more than anything else it was a chance to keep alive the long-standing tradition of combined “town and gown” music-making and conduct works that I loved: Verdi’s Requiem, Handel’s Messiah, Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius. It was my responsibility, I felt, to introduce such greats to any pupils that might be persuaded to get involved, now that the era of whole school performances of choral works at schools such as Rugby and Uppingham had passed.
In former times Friday night rehearsals in a warm Memorial Hall with a large body of singers was an attractive option for boys faced with spartan conditions and cold prep rooms in their Houses. With the creation of brew rooms, individual bed-sits and access to TVs, CDs, DVDs and other creature comforts, these Friday choir rehearsals had lost their appeal. I therefore opted to rehearse the choral work with Chapel Choir and all-comers once a week and specified two or three Friday nights for them to join up with the adults.
I was usually offered an advertising slot at morning Assembly: loudspeakers blared out the opening of the “Dies Irae” from Verdi’s Requiem as I urged the Marlburians to get involved in what amounted to “an operatic tour de force.” It was harder to sell Gerontius, for the storyline didn’t exactly sound riveting: “It’s about the journey of a holy man’s soul from his deathbed to his judgment before God, oh…and he ends up in purgatory!”
Strangely enough this work went down well with those that took part, especially the crazy “low born clods of dull earth” Demon’s Chorus section. As for the youthful energy and rhythmic vitality of Orff’s “Carmina Burana” it left them cold, and it didn’t help that most of the best singers were involved in a major Musical production scheduled the week before.
Dvorak’s Requiem was a shot in the dark, Mendelssohn’s Elijah safer territory. A colleague urged me to do the Elijah but a former Headmaster had denounced it as a Victorian monstrosity and put me off even considering it! I must have approached it in a rather diffident way, for the performance was not as good as it should have been. It nagged at me for years until I did it a second time, found I rather loved it and needless to say the performance was much better.
As the years rolled by I kept fighting to keep up student numbers but even with such works as Bach’s St. John Passion and The Messiah it was often an uphill struggle. From a position in which College involvement was greater than that of the town, the ratio had been reversed and the Subscription Concert Society could no longer rely on a disproportionally generous financial contribution from the College.
I remember music scholar Simon, former chorister of King’s Cambridge, asking if he could be excused from singing in Haydn’s Creation, “with all those wobbly sopranos.” He thought the choruses were predictable and boring, and so could he just be excused, please? It was at times like this that I had to control my temper, for it was part of the scholar contract to play a supporting role in these events and inspire confidence in less talented and experienced pupils. Knowing that I had Emma Kirkby and her friend David Thomas (Bass) in the solo line-up, I said: “You need to stay in the choir Simon, for when it comes to the performance you will have a ringside seat to listen to three fantastic soloists singing the best music in the Creation, which are the solo sections.” When it came to that phrase in the Bass Aria “creeps with sinuous trace the WORM” Thomas ended with the optional bottom F, reserved for those that can get down there-wonderful!
How lucky I was to engage the Baritone Simon Keenlyside, now a Covent Garden Superstar, for a mere £150, ands likewise the sonorous Bass Graeme Broadbent before his operatic career had really taken off. There were soloists who came several times and some became friends: Lynne Dawson, Anne Mackay, Neil Jenkins, Stephen Varcoe.
Conducting Dream of Gerontius was a particular challenge. Unless you are a professional conductor regularly performing such a work you can get badly caught out. Going through all the choral sections week after week imprinted much of the music on my mind, but I only had the day of the concert to work with the soloists and the orchestra in music that requires continuous rhythmic flexibility and sensitivity, the music surging forward one moment, lingering the next. But what a wonderful work, and we had Emily Bauer-Jones as the Angel, whose voice was an echo of her one-time tutor Janet Baker.
These choral concerts always had large audiences, and on one occasion a Senior Master asked the audience to close up any gaps so that more people could be admitted. This was the evening when one of the music staff had to tell an irate ticket-holder that the Chapel was completely full. “Are you a teacher of mathematics?” she asked. My colleague looked nonplussed…. “because if you were you would have worked out in advance exactly how many people can fit into the chapel!”
When the fire officer came to call the following week and subsequently stipulated how many people could fit into the various spaces in the Chapel we knew who had alerted him. With the advent of Health and Safety all musical performances were up for scrutiny and restraints and regulations were the inevitable consequence.
It was about this time that I began having serious delusions of grandeur, imagining performing Berlioz’s monster “Grande Messe des Morts,” in a building big enough to house it, and for a larger than usual audience. We had enough links and contacts to consider Salisbury Cathedral as a possible venue, and with encouragement from the organist and choirmaster David Halls the idea took wing. After a lengthy meeting with ranks of cathedral officials and some of us all was agreed and a date set.
The choir was raised at the West End, the huge orchestra ranged in front of them. For the Dies Irae section Berlioz, taking the words “a trumpet flingeth its sound from the four corners of the earth” quite literally, specifies four spatially separated brass ensembles, thus creating a unique passage of quadrophonic sound.
During the Dress rehearsal, in an empty cathedral (apart from the performers) the brass groups began to fill the building with sound, one by one. A group of Belgian tourists had drifted into the building and were standing reverently in the central aisle, two with berets in hand. When the brass cacophony reached a maximum decibel level, they all turned heel in terror and almost ran out of the building.
The cathedral welcomed us again for a performance of Verdi’s Requiem. Edward Heath was in the audience and just before the performance while I was checking where my baton was I was introduced to him by Headmaster Gould. He looked me up and down quizzically and said:
“Shouldn’t you be studying your score backstage young man, instead of talking to an old buffer like me?” I think he was trying to be amusing.
The solo line-up was good but halfway through the bass began to lose his voice. Tenor Justin Lavender had a whispered word and helped him to save his voice in one or two ensemble passages by somehow sketching in the bass part as well as his own.
With the Berlioz Te Deum and Poulenc Gloria combination came the last of the Salisbury performances. It was exciting for me that my daughter was the soloist in the Gloria, and Matt Beale, son of my neighbour Peter Beale, the tenor in the Berlioz. The use of both the cathedral organ and a large chamber organ at the west end allowed us to alternate them at key moments to create antiphonal effects in the Te Deum, and once again the orchestral forces required were huge.
Salisbury was special, but so too was the College Chapel. I always enjoyed the annual choral society ritual: rehearsals in the Memorial Hall on cold January nights leading to the final product in mid-March when the days get longer, lighter and warmer(?) It was always difficult trying to keep everything together with such a distance between conductor and the faraway men in front of the reredos. I would curse and shout at the basses about anticipating the beat, but when it finally came together in the broad sweeping flow of a work such as Elijah it was all rather uplifting.
The Choral Concert is no longer part of the Subscription Concerts series, but it is as popular as ever, conducted by the Director of Chapel Music and often featuring outstanding young soloists. It has been good to go back and just listen. The Messiah was recently performed “in the round” as it were, and with pupils singing small sections of recitative: what an experience for them. As for Health and Safety I note that the Gallery area is no longer used for audience or as a location for off-stage brass in a work such as the Verdi Requiem.
I still get to conduct choral works there with the Swindon Choral Society so the connection has continued. We combined with the Bracknell Choral Society in performing the St Matthew Passion and with my opposite number conducting I took my place with the basses right at the back of the choir pews, a once in a lifetime experience.
I muttered to a fellow singer (who had sung in the Marlborough Choir under my baton many times) as to how difficult it was to hear the soloist in front of the conductor and how very frustrating it was to sense we were lagging behind the singers nearest the conductor.
My colleague gave me a look, and it was easy to read his mind:
You shouted and harangued at us year after year, and now its your turn to see what it’s like back here!
Robin Nelson, May 2020 to be continued……