Westminster Cathedral's magnificent organ featured at our virtual concert on Saturday 13 June, played and filmed in advance by Accompanist James Orford – organist in residence at Westminster – and Music Director Harry Bradford. The concert of celebratory works by Victoria, Handel, Finzi, Howells and Parry marked the end of a most unusual term for Thames Philharmonic Choir. During Lockdown, we have continued to meet virtually every Tuesday to rehearse the music we had planned to perform at All Saints Kingston that same evening. The concert culminated with our virtual recording of Victoria's motet O Quam Gloriosum.
It has been an amazing journey, with up to 50 members on a regular Tuesday evening Zoom call, and huge commitment and input from Harry and James who have created a whole series of rehearsal tracks. For all of us it's been a fantastic way to stay in touch with a community that's important to us, and to maintain some structure in our lives.
It's been wonderful to see everyone's faces; it reinforces how much you enjoy seeing everyone each week", says Alto Annie Dobell. But it also has its limitations: because sound reaches different people at different times over the internet, it's not feasible to sing together. Bass Hamish Norbrook describes his experience: "Singing as a soloist – effectively what we are doing – is very, very different to singing with a bunch of basses." It's also difficult to adjust intonation, tuning and dynamics singing alone at home and, says Soprano Ann Scurfield, "It's less joyful and fulfilling than singing 'live'."
Nevertheless, it has provided some interesting learning. Quite a few members say they have sung along as Harry has taken part through their own learning tracks. "It's interesting that, singing along with the different parts helps you to learn the work better, to see how your own part fits with the whole", says Annie.
A feature of the concert was the virtual recording of Choir members singing Victoria's motet. Again, we had learning tracks and worked on the piece during several rehearsals. But then we were on our own: using a backing track played through
headphones while we recorded ourselves singing, using a phone or pad. For some of us it was a chastening experience: lack of breath, enunciation not good, singing not always in tune! But for the future, maybe a useful technique for improving performance!
One thing all Choir members can agree on: the most amazing personal commitment that Harry and James have given to this process. "They are absolutely extraordinary; incredibly well trained, good at what they do, and their enthusiasm is infectious", says Soprano Jane Fletcher. "It's the personal involvement," says Hamish. "It's the personal involvement," says Hamish. "They're really investing themselves, which will hopefully be useful for their future careers." They have also shared their musical knowledge, producing a YouTube video on the music of Mozart and Beethoven that we were due to perform in March, and enthusing over favourite composers like Finzi and Howells, whose works were included in Saturday's concert.
Soprano Ann Scurfield, whose only experience of the Choir has been a virtual one, sums up what many of us feel: "The experience would be significantly diminished without their input. I find their comments on music, singing and the piece itself interesting and insightful. It has enhanced my appreciation of the music and choral singing."
Just now, no-one knows how long it will be before we have an 'actual' rehearsal and for the moment, members new and old are enjoying this virtual participation, even though it's not the same as the real thing. "What you miss is being in a room with lots of other people, making a big sound; having a big body of (in my case) altos around you, and learning from one another," says Annie." And we've all missed the opportunity to share the cake that has become a weekly Choir tradition, with different Choir members baking each week!
For Saturday's concert, we dressed up in our DJs and smart concert wear, had our music in our folders, and gave it our best, even though we couldn't hear one another. And, on Harry's instructions, we all had a glass of something to celebrate the occasion afterwards. Altogether a very different experience from singing, in front of an audience, in All Saints Kingston. As Soprano Liz Potter put it: "What a tremendous occasion the virtual concert turned out to be. A huge thank you to Harry and James for all their hard work in enabling it to happen. Harry’s inventiveness in supporting our Tuesday practice sessions has been awesome."
Summing up the last three months, Soprano Gwen Spear – a TPC member for 47 years – says: " We are so lucky to have this present-day technology; I am amazed at the possibilities and how Harry and James have prepped for our rehearsals. I am hugely envious of everyone just starting out with Harry as I think it is going to be very exciting. Rehearsals are such fun..."