Almost exactly a year ago Turner Sims Professor of Music Harvey Brough launched a new community choir based in the university. Elwyn Edwards tells us what led the group to their first big stage appearance last week (and there’s a video at the end of the post!):
Like many people I have had a secret ambition to sing in a choir for most of my adult life. As a treble I sang in my church choir and apparently reduced my parents to tears when I sang the first verse of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ in the carol service. Once my voice had broken, I suspected my voice made people cry for completely different reasons. I did sing in my school’s Gilbert and Sullivan productions, but then stopped. I knew I was never going to be committed enough to sing in a choral society singing endless Requiems and Messiahs.
Then I started hearing about ‘Community Choirs’. I followed Gareth Malone’s series The Choir on TV and liked the idea of no auditions and just singing with other people for fun. So in December 2012 I was intrigued by the announcement that the University had appointed Harvey Brough as Turner Sims Professor and that he was going to start a choir for staff and students. On the appointed Wednesday lunchtime I went to the Turners Sims concert hall and along with over 100 colleagues met the ‘staggeringly versatile musician’ and incredibly enthusiastic Harvey Brough who in 50 minutes managed to inspire us to sing a very passable version of ‘Danny Boy’.
Since then our repertoire has grown, we’ve adopted an official name (the University of Southampton Voices) and made three public appearances. The first was as the warm up act before a concert in the foyer at the Turner Sims, the second was again as warm act but this time at the summer staff party for the VC (who spoke rather than sang – although I hear he was very impressive on the Karaoke machine later in the afternoon).
After the summer vacation Harvey announced he wanted us to take part in a concert at the end of November at the Turner Sims given by folk rock singer Clara Sanabras. Her programme would be a series of songs around the theme of Spanish exile which she had written and Harvey had arranged for string quartet, double bass and us, the University’s community choir. This was a big step up for us but it was clearly going to be exciting.
So our 50 minute Wednesday lunchtime rehearsals suddenly became very intensive. We found ourselves rehearsing music hot off the press, singing lyrics in Catalan, Spanish and English. Harvey made recordings of every song available to us on The Cloud. Mysteriously the number of songs we were going to take part in grew from four or five to eight or nine. We sounded OK but our levels of confidence fluctuated. In October Clara came to a rehearsal. She was jet lagged and had a cold but she was able to sing one of her songs accompanying herself on her Baroque guitar. She was wonderful. Did she really want us to sing with her?! Harvey said we would be great. We had faith in him but didn’t hesitate to agree that we would benefit from some extra rehearsals.
Suddenly we only had ten days to go. Were we going to be ready? A couple of extra rehearsals were arranged. Harvey said we were doing well and, ‘by the way, here’s an extra piece I want you to sing, let’s rehearse it now’! Twenty minutes later we seemed to have got it. We felt it was coming together but thank goodness for those recordings on The Cloud we could listen to; they gave you an idea of the shape of each song and how all the parts fitted together. But could we sound as strong and secure as the professional voices on the recording? Harvey said we were sounding better than his London choir. There’s nothing better than a hint of rivalry to make a choir up its game.
Three days before the concert Clara came to rehearsals again. She sounded even better and more moving than before. The night before she and Harvey had been on Radio Three’s InTune programme and Sean Rafferty had mentioned that they would be singing with us, the University of Southampton Voices. Suddenly the last rehearsal was over. In thirty – six hours we would be on stage at the Turner Sims performing with professional musicians. We all went home, switched on our computers and listened to the recordings of our parts.
Five o’clock: 29th November 2013. The choir members, tired after a week’s work, start to gather in the Turner Sims. After a year we’ve got used to being alone in the hall with Harvey guiding us through the music. Now it’s completely different; there are musicians on the platform and microphones, wires and monitors everywhere. It’s noisy and the atmosphere is serious. We wait to be told what to do. Harvey takes charge; we file into the two rows of seats across the back of the platform and run through our first song. It’s awful; we can’t hear each other, the amplified sound throws us. There mutinous mutterings amongst the tenors. Can we re-arrange the choir’s seating? There isn’t time or space we are told. We run through the songs very quickly – some songs sound OK, others sound a shambles. Harvey smiles, he tells us that we sound great from where he’s sitting. We’re relieved and scurry off to grab something to eat, change and have a drink. There is a general consensus that a glass of red wine or a brandy will enhance the voice.
Back at the hall we cram into the Green Room and line up. This is really serious. Ten minutes
later we’re on the platform facing the audience. It’s for real. Clara sings her first solo songs. She’s even more impressive performing like this. Then Harvey motions us to our feet and we listen to the 21 bars of ‘Absentia’ and start singing, the notes come, the sound has been sorted out we can hear each other – it’s working. Applause! Now it’s ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’. This is the most challenging song for us; it’s long, there are sustained notes for the choir and the final part is complex but it’s in English! We concentrate, glace at our scores, look up at Harvey, breath and sing. Suddenly it’s over and once again there is applause and we’ve successfully sung our most difficult song.
After that we no longer seem to be in such an unfamiliar situation, we’re doing what we’ve practiced for so long and it’s working. It may not be perfect, but it’s good. The concert ends, there’s applause. Harvey looks very pleased and then mouths ‘Rumba’ at us. Yes, we’re going to give an encore and it goes really well the second time round and everybody is really happy. [Check out the video of Rumba sin rumbo/ Ay Carmela below ~ ed.]
We file out, compare impressions, exchange ‘thank yous’ with Clara and Harvey, have a drink and go home. It has been quite an experience and it’s clear from the emails which fly around during the next week that none of the choir wants it to be our final concert.
Harvey has sent an email saying that he has ‘a few ideas’ for 2014. We are impatient to hear what they are!