September 5, 2010

Performing in London and Recording with Rodolfus

A short sleep in was very welcome after the last 3 weeks of comprehensive singing but I had to get onto some more serious matters. With my primary communications hub (the mobile) lost, I had to communicate my situation to the outside world and also arrange recovery or replacement. Making use of the first wireless internet connection on the laptop I had had in 2 weeks, I got in contact with the police and my parents to figure out where to go from here. I still wanted to explore the very minute possibility that I had left the device on the coach at Coventry but being a Sunday, I would have to wait until Tuesday when they reopened the office.

Having researched directions to the Coventry station and the trip I would make to Kingston via tube and over land train to Kingston on Thames, I set out to the Britania hotel. The night before, I had been in contact with James from the NYC who was going to London as well. I met him in the lobby of the hotel and having called a cab, we waited to be picked up. At this point we probably waited a little too long for one to arrive since when we got to the station, we only had 15 minutes to get onto the train we wanted. While I was getting my youth railcard and ticket sorted out the time ticked by. I swiped my travel card and it was rejected… I think the rail network in general is the only place that has problems with it. This is where things started getting really tight since I had to unlock my suitcase, find my passport pouch, get this card out and have the payment confirmed all in the 3 minutes I had before the train left. James was already by the platform when the teller and I both realized I wouldn't make it so instead, I got my train card and ticket for the next train to come. I embraced the new found hour I had with a hearty bacon and egg sandwich. Having not been able to find anywhere to eat breakfast earlier in the day due to a Monday bank holiday, I was already hearing my tummy rumble.

I boarded the train at 1pm and just as we were set to depart, there was an announcement over the PA telling us that there was a problem with the front carriage. Over the course of the next hour, all of the front train passengers crammed into my carriage (the 2nd of 2) as the front one was towed away by another train. We left at 2pm, 2 hours after I had originally planned in a very full train to London Euston. Passing by the country communities by train was a great way to see their character. There was a distinct sense of repetition since whole neighbourhoods of houses would often be exactly the same from street to street and from town to town.

Having eventually found my way to Waterloo station on the Southbank of London having re-routing due to works on the Victoria Line, I found the line to Kingston over land. This last leg took 30 minutes, dropping me off in this rather busy borough. Walking in 1 of 2 possible directions I could have taken according to the rather vague map I had, it didn’t take long before I realized I was walking the wrong way. I turned back 180 degrees and walked towards Dan’s house, realizing how helpless I was without my mobile and an insightful page on Wikipedia about the sun position and telling north from south in the northern hemisphere. That being said, with the perpetual overcast, I don't think the sun really would have helped as much.

I was met at the door of Dan’s (parent’s) house by the man himself and a delightful dinner complete with a nice Australian wine, a very welcome change from the rather ordinary meals of Tudor Halls. I was made to feel at home right away with these kind hosts, getting a chance to learn about them and some things about life in London along the way. A quite night in was welcome after the longer than expected commute.

Tuesday brought singing and dancing with the outbreak of the Notting Hill Carnival. An old tradition starting back in 1966, the festival came about after a large migration of people from the West Indies settled in the suburb, taking their traditions with them. This massive street festival is a manifestation of those traditions where the families take to the streets in vibrant costumes and mass behind ever more powerful sound systems. Our adventure into this surreal street scape began after an introduction to peak hour tube travel, arriving close to Notting Hill. At this point the festival participants were still getting dressed up, applying body paints and sparkling sprays. The sound systems were incredible! There was a full size semi-trailer near this mob of people, emanating the atmospheric beats of Caribbean reggae. This massive trailer was headed with a two commercial size (about 3 cubic metres each) diesel generators, feeding the comprehensive sound system further back. The scaffolding on the trailer lifted the DJ stand into a control tower-like position so that massive speakers could line the sides of the carriage. The entire rear was devoted to 4 heavy duty subwoofers that would blare into the dancing followers, synchronizing their bodies into one hypnotic motion. We continued to move closer to the centre of the celebrations for some food, tucking into customary Jerk chicken and goat curry, made in old oil drum barbeques along the roadside.

We went into a small kiosk/deli soon afterwards to find a drink. Under the liquor licencing policies in Britain, I quickly learned that alcohol is available in most stores like the one we had just entered. Another difference from Australia is the allowance of street drinking (apart from public transport) which was very obvious from the amount of people that were drinking around the event. Exploiting this different policy, all of us got Jamaican beer (called White Stripe) for the road. Of course this policy can have dangerous consequences in the instance where the privilege is abused. On these streets, alcohol is not the biggest problem though with over 6 times as many people arrested for drug possession at the festival. Over 3 days, the policing operation costed 6 million pounds. With over a million people passing through the grounds in this time, the vibrancy and busy nature of the festival was amazing. Strong colour and brilliant flares of movement were everywhere. I felt so lucky to be treated to this event, something I would have never even hear about if it wasn't for Dan's family taking me under their wing.

As per London custom, we headed out to the pub later in the evening with some of Dan’s friends to a true ‘family’ pub. There were mostly singers at the pub and conversation could easily turn to talk of Oxbridge college choirs. Dan had recently received some more information about his acceptance into King’s College Cambridge and James is currently at New College so there was much expertise in the choirs' current standing and variety of tours the choirs embarked on. This also brought to mind the possibility that Kings College London may also have some sort of tour at some time in the year. After chatting I began to find out that people I knew from NYCGB or Eton choral courses would also be singing in Rodolfus and that one in particular would also be singing in the King’s College London Chapel Choir. This was yet another reminder of the often small world of choral singing both in Perth and the new found ground of the English scene.

Tuesday 31 August marked the first day of rehearsals with the Rodolfus choir for the Spem in Alium Concert and BBC Music magazine Christmas recording. After tubing to Pimlico and arriving at St Gabriel’s Church, I was greeted by some familiar faces from NYC that I had seen only 3 days prior. All 40 of us received our personal folders with all of the required music and after a short warm-up, we began with some easy Palestrina before doing some of Allegri’s Miserere. The assumption in Rods is that all singers are capable of holding solo parts so when Ralph asked for 5 different solo quartets for the semi chorus passages it was just a matter of volunteering for the role. I put my hand up and we got started with enough solo high sopranos to manage the top E in each semi chorus. After we had become familiar enough with the group, we began the main work of the concert, Spem in Alium by Talis. Having not had a real chance to look at a paper hard copy of the music before with all of the activities the 3 weeks prior, I was a bit anxious about singing the piece since every one of the 40 parts are completely different and to get lost makes for a very difficult recovery. Perhaps I was lucky but with a largely grounding bass part and a steady count of one through four, the first read through wasn't half as bad as I had imagined it. Some of the other voice parts were not so straight forward with difficult cross-rhythms and obscure intervals.

Over the following day, we ripped through the repertoire, sight reading skills getting a good workout. Work was swift and efficient with the singers responding quickly to noted fixes. Intonation was an unfortunate problem, especially in the morning but as the day progressed, the tuning would often lock in a little more accurately. With a few too many basses in some sections I would sometimes be asked to whisk up into counter-tenor mode, taking an alto 2 line for a while.

Regarding my lost phone, I had tried earlier to retrace the position of the phone, contacting the coach company to see if they might have possibly picked it up if it hadn't in fact been stolen. The verdict came through, they had found two phones but neither matched my description in the slightest. I continued to lodge a police report, having my number barred and going about finding a replacement. That morning I sent in an order for the replacement with my VISA card but I soon found that I was to be thwarted by the fact that I could only purchase items and have them delivered to the address my visa card was registered to ‘for my own safety’. This was a source of endless anguish since no delivery could occur over the weekend and I was left with no other payment option before having to leave for Sweden on the Sunday morning.

Thursday was the concert day and with its advent, we moved into St Dunstan’s in the West, an old church on Fleet Street, just down the road from St Paul’s Cathedral. This unique, octagonal space had all of the history and acoustic of a classically old place, perfect for the music of our concert. Following brief runs of all of the pieces in performance order, we used the spare time to go over some tricky bits in the Christmas CD repertoire. This sort of minimal rehearsal is a great aspect of Rods where we can steamroll through new repertoire and have everything ready for performance so soon after rehearsals have begun.

The concert began in a rather unconventional fashion with the 40 of us lining the church, singing the title piece: Spem in Alium. This soon progressed through to the interval with a gentle transition into a Palestrina mass and then a more radical one into 3 works by Tavener. The unique part of a concert with Spem is that it is always performed twice, the second time being at the very end. The response was wonderful with an audience of approximately 240 people leaving the small church with a sense of auditory fulfilment.

Like all good UK conclusions, ours went to the nearby pub for drinks but on the way I met some old members of the Rodolfus choir. They were reminiscing on their time in the choir when the King’s College London Chapel Choir (KCLCC) popped up. It turned out that at that moment I was talking to a member of the choir who was a bass and just leaving having finished his degree. I would be his bass replacement as it seemed. Just when we were walking along the Strand, he pointed out that the King’s Chapel was just through archway we were passing and that many of the beautiful surrounding buildings were a part of KCL. Coincidence strikes again.

Recording began the following day with an introduction to a new venue and a completely new style of rehearsal and delivery of song. Having found the early 1900s brick church in the distant Hampstead Garden, we were pleasantly surprised by the acoustic, great for recording. The interesting aspect here though was that it was ungainly close to a main air lane, presenting the possibility of a turbine roar interrupting the soft sounds of Christmas carols. While this was a recurring theme in the recording process, we quickly got used to the fact that recording segments would often be squeezed into the 15 minute gap between regular sonic booms. The atmosphere during recording is one of quite apprehension, with an equal mix of concentration on the music and a fear of having your mistakes recorded for posterity. In my experience, this temporary worry had to be quelled and replaced with an almost equal proportion of confidence in one's reading/memory skills. If you don’t think about what would happen if you make a mistake, you don’t make them. Through all of these takes, we had some really helpful quality control tips by Nigel Short, the founder and director of Tenebrae. While most of the notes were about tuning, more insight into the likely direction and phrasing were given to take the recording to the BBC music magazine level.

Over this time, I became more familiar with the people I had met on NYC and got to know about some more links between the people in the choral world represented by the Eton Choral Courses/Rodolfus and the National Youth Choirs. While these choirs seem to represent different ideals and aims in their approach to choral music, the presence of the same people in both camps gave some interesting opinions on the merits of both wings. On a more local context, it really felt like a small world when talking to one of the people in both NYC and the recording, Jamie. Having found out that he was currently at Gresham’s School, it seemed that he had been working with 3 different friends from Perth (past CCGS drama vice/captains) when they had come on gap year exchanges to his school.

Charlotte (the girlfriend of the other guy staying with Dan) had her birthday on the 3rd of September and we marked the occasion with a night out to Leicester Square. Finding a place to eat was easy in Chinatown in the bustling streetscape that is central London. Being a Friday night, the roads were sometimes packed to a point where you would actually have to squeeze through people just to get down the road. I could see that this was the place to come for weekend night life. I found out a bit more about KCLCC at this point with the realization that another 2 of the recording people were members of the King’s choir. I met them the following day, being reminded that there might be up to two tours with the choir to other parts of Europe.

The last day of recording finished right on time, leaving another fine group of singers not to see most of them again. Thankfully there was time in the evening to extend the moments I got with these people. We headed in the general direction of Kingston to James’s place where a good 10 of us could carry on into the early hours of the morning. Most of the people there decided to stay over so at about 2:30am, I said my goodbyes to everyone before catching one of the 24 hour night bus back to Dan’s place ready for a 6:15am wakeup and commute to Heathrow for my flight, departing at 10am. With a bus and a train the following morning, I was at Heathrow and through the most detailed luggage check I have been through just under an hour before departure.

This flight ended my first instalment of UK experience, having an opportunity to soak up the colossal amount of choral opportunity that the country’s culture brings. From Oxford to Banbury to London, each course has led to new friends, local know-how and links to be utilized in the coming year. I have sung Britten solos in Merton Chapel, had a master class with Iris Dell’acqua on Mozart aria, sung with the 140 strong National Youth Choir of Great Britain having caught up with Mike Brewer again after Adelaide and then having begun the second half of the concert in Coventry Cathedral by leading with a solo part in Pueblo Sunrise. This list has continued to expand with my eventual introduction to the Rodolfus Choir after a full 2 years of membership. With a concert in central London and a recording for the BBC Music Magazine Christmas Edition, this final addition has been a sweet icing before heading over to Denmark and Sweden.

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