Slowly life, and arts, are getting back to ‘normal’, as our veteran culture correspondent, BELLA BARTOCK, was delighted to discover at a concert by the choral group The Sixteen at Croydon Minster on Monday
I was getting impatient.
I had phoned my friend Claudia’s mobile several times, but got no reply. Trying the landline, I was almost about to give up again when a voice came on the other end, “Hello. Claudia de Boozy speaking,” she said, rather too loudly.
“You’ll have to speak up. I’m watching Pointless on catch up and I don’t know how to pause it.”
As loudly as I dared, I explained that I had got two tickets for The Sixteen’s concert at Croydon Minster and would she like to go with me. This just added to Claudia’s confusion.
“I’ve refused to watch that programme since they had that woman, Anne Robinson, on it,” she said.
As calmly as I could, while raising my voice so that Claudia could hear me over the sound of her television set in the background, I tried to explain that The Sixteen is one of the world’s most renowned choral ensembles, and nothing whatsoever to do with the TV quiz show Fifteen To One.
“You might not have heard of them,” I told her, “but they are one of the best choirs in the country, if not the world.”
I ignored Claudia’s exasperations about Richard Osman not being on Pointless any more, on weekdays at least, and told her to be ready at six on Monday.
She appeared to warm to the idea when I told her we could stop off on the way to the concert for a quick sherry, and that I would send my nephew, Kenny, over in the Rolls to pick her up.
Claudia was standing at her gate as Kenny and I pulled up.
With our schooners downed at Coombe Lodge en route, Claudia and I arrived at the Minster with a few minutes to spare.
“There’s lots of people here tonight,” observed Claudia as she saw the queue snaking through the door.
Our seats were near the back of the church and I’m pleased we were there, as the opening piece in the concert, the medieval Carol Deo Gracias Anglia, had a chap playing a drum right by the side of us. That ensured that Claudia had no chance for a post-sherry doze.
As the concert progressed, I was simply enthralled. Of course, when I was a girl, I sang in the school choir. No solos or anything like that, but I could hold a tune. I’d even sung in a local choir for a while (I fancied one of the tenors). I’m sure that’s where I had come across the second piece in the concert composed by Hubert Parry. Mind you, we had never, ever sung it like The Sixteen did. They created such energy and emotion with the sound. You could hear every single word and syllable.
Claudia was enjoying the evening, too. I knew that, because she hadn’t said a word for at least 30 minutes. All her focus was on the singers.
When the interval arrived, there was huge applause and a buzz of conversation and appreciation spread through the audience. Claudia’s cheeks had turned a shade of pink, matching her outfit, as if she had been holding her breath through the magical chord sequences she had been listening to.
“I’ve got a question,” Claudia piped up after the musical spell had been broken. “Why are there 18 singers if they are called The Sixteen?”
In all the years I’ve known Claudia, since we were at school together, that was the most perceptive thing she has ever said.
“I really don’t know,” I said.
Just then, some of the choir came down into the audience to chat with friends. One of them walked past very close to us. Without a moment’s hesitation Claudia pounced to ask her question.
“It all depends on what we are singing,” said the singer. “In some of the pieces tonight we don’t use all of us, but when we sang in the Albert Hall at The Proms this summer we needed more than 40 singers. Different forces for different pieces.”
Once the singer had gone, Claudia turned back to me. “Bella, I am surprised at you, not telling me they sang at The Proms this year. These people are famous. I need to read up on their Choral Pilgrimage concerts.”
While Claudia was thumbing through the programme, discovering this very same concert had been performed at York Minster and at Liverpool Cathedral, she paused and opened the clasp on her handbag. For one terrible moment I thought she was fumbling for a pen so that she could collar the choir members and ask them for their autographs. So, so embarrassing…
Every so often I still have to listen to her story about the time when she got Gene Pitney’s autograph at the Fairfield Halls in 1967. It’s still the best one in her collection. Thankfully, on this occasion, she was just searching for mints.
We were ready for the second half. I have to say that every piece was exceptional. I don’t know how the singers were able to control their breathing so well and sing such long sustained notes. I get out of breath just chatting on the phone.
Claudia was pleased that the little chap who played the drum at the beginning had another starring role in a second medieval piece. She just turned and gave me a thumbs up. I think the drummer was pleased with himself too, as he gave a big grin at the end of the piece.
For the choir to be so good, a lot must be down to the conductor.
Eamonn Dougan was conducting on Monday. It amazed me that at the start of each piece he just blew very gently and quietly into a little mouth organ and from that all the singers could pitch their opening notes. Of course, sitting further back you couldn’t see the conductor’s facial expression, but from his body language and the use of his arms and hands, he kept those singers in perfect synchronisation.
Claudia was so overcome by the last piece that she wiped away a little tear from the corner of her eye. She tried to make out she “had something in her eye”. Fiddlesticks!
Nothing beats live music, I have always thought, and that seemed to be the view shared by the majority of the Minster’s audience, clapping and clapping at the end to show their appreciation of the quality and brilliance we had just heard.
Claudia and I didn’t say much in the car on the way home. I think we were both just thinking about the music we had heard.
When we got to Claudia’s flat, she thanked me for a lovely evening. Turning to Kenny she asked, “You couldn’t come round next week to help me with the controls of the iPlayer could you?
“There are some things I’d like to hear more of and others I need to mute.”
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