By Keith Bruce
ALONGSIDE the tinsel, the tree and the turkey, if one thing defines Christmas, it is singing. Whether traditional carols, hits that have made it into the Yuletide pop charts, or the major works of choral music associated with the festivities, singing is an essential part of the season. And it is an element that will be missing this year.
Because of the nature of transmission of coronavirus, singing in company stopped in Scotland in March, and there is no sign of it resuming. It doesn’t happen in schools and in churches, and it does not happen in any of the amateur choirs that bring people together on a regular basis.
This will be a Christmas without the annual New Year performance of Handel’s Messiah at the Usher Hall, or the carol concert raising money for the NHS at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.
Paradoxically, there was a renewed interest in singing before the pandemic, with a diverse range of options for those who had found their voice, whether able to read music or not. A form of musical expression that requires no expensive instrument, the popularity of singing was reflected in the birth of new community choruses, joining long-established ones like Glasgow’s Phoenix Choir and the City of Glasgow Chorus, Edinburgh Royal Choral Union and the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, and the choirs that sing with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Scottish Chamber Orchestra.
Gregory Batsleer is director of both the RSNO Chorus and the SCO Chorus. Those are his Scottish hats. South of the Border he directs the venerable Huddersfield Choral Society and the rather newer Festival Voices, a London-based group of professional singers.
As in much else during this health emergency, advice regarding singing has not always been the same in Scotland and England, so he has been well-placed to assess the situation for those who love to sing – and his main concern is that they are not forgotten.
“My understanding of the science is that clearly the virus is spread more readily by aerosol transmission. If rooms aren’t well-ventilated and air isn’t circulated, then the aerosol effect produced by our voices has the potential to stay in that room and people are more susceptible to being infected,” he says.
“That is why there is a nervousness around singing, and brass and wind instrument playing as well. That’s why gatherings are limited because the more people you have in a room, the more people could potentially be infected. Those are the facts of it, and why we need to be cautious.”
However, Batsleer is concerned the need for caution has left the voices of the singers unheard, and there is a lack of planning for how those who love to sing, and whose mental health is tied up with doing the thing they love, can start exercising their vocal cords again.
Of course technology has kept people involved to some extent. At the end of October Ayr Choral Union streamed an ingenious performance of Messiah that used a socially-distanced small instrumental ensemble and a quartet of young soloists in a studio, under the baton of chorus-master Andrew McTaggart. He was also conducting the choir members watching online, and singing in their own homes.
Many other choirs have shifted their rehearsal meetings online, but the possibilities offered by platforms like Zoom are inevitably a poor substitute for the real thing.
“The SCO and RSNO are very different choirs,” explains Batsleer, “and there are very different people in them. Their needs are different and their aspirations are different, although high-level music making is one they have in common.
“We are doing online vocal coaching and there have been some collective evenings where we have shared music together on Zoom. Thank God for this technology – no-one knew what Zoom was eight months ago! With the RSNO we were able to put out our Brahms Requiem concert that was already pre-recorded and we are beginning online rehearsals again this month.”
The constantly-changing situation regarding restrictions around the disease has created huge headaches for orchestra managements, with carefully re-structured plans for digital seasons scuppered at short notice when conductors and soloists were no longer permitted to travel, but Batsleer says the needs of the choruses of both orchestras have still been on their minds.
“This time is allowing me to work with the management of both organisations to ensure that when we do come back we come back just as strongly as we were. We need to look on it as an opportunity to do some renovations and decorate the house, as it were, so the singers still feel part of the family, even if they are not performing.”
The RSNO Chorus was to have provided the climax of the opening concert of the current season with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and was due to make its second appearance on December 12, singing for Music Director Thomas Sondergard in a rare performance of Karol Szymanowski’s Symphony No 3, The Song of the Night. In the revised digital season there is plenty of Beethoven, but Sondergard, Szymanowski and the Chorus are all absent next month.
The SCO Chorus was scheduled to sing Handel’s Coronation Anthems in October and Mozart’s Solemn Vespers this month, before its own Christmas concert in Greyfriars Kirk, including a new work by Anna Clyne. For the members of both choirs, that schedule of learning and performance is a major commitment now missing from their lives.
This evening, however, Batsleer’s Huddersfield chorus will premiere its own new commission, online.
“In Huddersfield there was a window at the beginning of the season in September when we were able to come together in small groups to do socially-distanced rehearsals. The Huddersfield Choral Society had two of its members die of Covid earlier in the year so, as an organisation, it is acutely aware of the dangers, but we were able to do socially-distance rehearsal with up to 20 people in one very large, well-ventilated large space.
“The rehearsals were much shorter and there was no contact at all between members, except that made through making music. It was a very touching thing to experience,” he says.
“Now the rate of infection is much higher and we have reverted to doing things online, but in that moment it was possible to do a recording, which we will be putting out online. It is a project with the Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage. He’s written two poems inspired by the experiences of
members of the choral society during lockdown and we commissioned two composers, Daniel Kidane and Cheryl Frances-Hoad, to write pieces. They were written especially to understand the limitations of rehearsing in the middle of a pandemic.”
Batsleer wants to be clear that
any comparison is only useful in showing possible ways forward – he does not want to appear in any way critical of the approach to dealing with Covid in Scotland.
“Singing doesn’t need to happen in large numbers,” he says. “It can happen in smaller groups and people can be socially distanced and I believe that this can be done in a safe way.
“What I would like to see is some acknowledgment that we need to find a way through this together. We are looking at the potential risk of stigmatising singing unnecessarily, and making people scared to sing. We need to find a more compassionate and hopeful rhetoric around singing. What are the ways in which we can get the thousands of singers in Scotland doing the thing they love again?
“The standard of amateur singing in Scotland is very high – we really have some of the finest choirs and as healthy a choral scene as anywhere. On the understanding that the virus is going to be around for a long time even if there is a vaccine, how can we achieve a return to singing together so that this core part of our identity in Scotland as a cultural nation isn’t lost?
“Performing large-scale choral works might be a thing that will take a long time to come back, but the important thing is to get a conversation going where we can see the possibilities and develop a road map through this. The Scottish Government is doing exceptionally well in its communications, so we have to develop our choral way through this to bring to the table. At the moment it seems we are a bit stuck.
“We mustn’t forget that for everyone who is in a choir in Scotland it is one of the most important things in their life. It’s that thing they do every week, it is their way of expressing themselves, an important part of who they are as human beings. We want to be able to get that back into people’s lives again.”