It’s been the end of a very busy period for the Chamber Choir, with two performances as part of the Gala weekend of concerts celebrating the opening of the new music building, followed hard upon by rehearsing and performing in the Cathedral for the University Carol Service.
All of the hard work and commitment came to fruition on Saturday and Sunday with two terrific performances in the Gala concerts, and the most interesting thing to have emerged from both occasions is the fact that all the comments and feedback that have come my way since, all of them have referred to the fact that the pieces were performed from memory. Everyone has noticed this, and it has obviously made a significant impact.
I’m very pleased at this; it’s something that the Choir itself (well, Paris at first, but then everyone!) decided it wanted to achieve, and they have worked extremely hard to get the music off the scores and into their heads. It’s certainly true that, as soon as you’re not looking down at the music but out at the audience, you deliver a piece with greater conviction and heightened levels of communication. And it’s clearly worked.
There was a sense of euphoria, therefore, as we gathered in the Cathedral on Monday afternoon, to start rehearsing for the Carol Service. The first two carols are sung from the West end, behind the congregation; and as we did last year, we sang facing sideways to each of the adjacent pillars (no-one can see us: the lights are switched off, and everyone is facing the other way!) to get a little more resonance, and some return on our sound.
As usual, the most excited confusion came with organising how we would process from this formation down the Nave during ‘Once in Royal’ and end up in the right formation on the choral risers behind the altar. Not overlooking the fact that some of the ladies had long dresses and long hair, troublesome for navigating steps and handling lit candles respectively.
Having retired to an adjacent hostelry for dinner in between rehearsal and performance, we gathered in the north aisle at 7.15pm, where Emma led the Choir in her usual dynamic warm-up exercises beneath the sheltering sounds of the Salvation Army playing pre-service carols to the slowly assembling congregation.
Shortly before 8pm, we processed down to the West doors, and waited whilst the lights in the entire Cathedral were doused and candles were lit; from out of the darkness Emma launched ‘The Sussex Carol’ with sprightly vigour, to which the Choir responded, and the service had begun.
After a short silence, there then rose the wonderful warm tones of Paris, one of the sopranos, in the opening verse of ‘Once in Royal,’ with a lovely relaxed, flexible and confident sound. No matter how many years one has heard this carol at the start of a service, there is nothing quite like hearing it at the start of the Carol Service in Canterbury Cathedral.
The processing went, you will be pleased to hear, without a hitch – none of ladies tripped up as they ascended the stairs, and no-one set light to anyone else – and the rest of the service unfolded in the majestic surroundings of the city’s historic cathedral.
At the end of the service, the order of service bids us take our ‘lit candle out of the Cathedral and into the world.’ As I left the Cathedral, walking across the city centre, in front of me a Chinese family were similarly heading home, and the two small children were doing just that – carrying their candle, still alight, through the city. They turned off ahead of me and disappeared down one of the smaller snickleways, and I watched the candlelight dwindle as it must have done many hundreds of years ago, passing between Tudor-timbered shop-fronts as it faded into the night. This is the real magic of the University Carol Service – the combination of a vibrant, international community coming together in an historic venue, where the current University members renew again the Christmas message in the middle of an ancient city.