On Thursday July 8th,Â I went off to St. Paul’s Cathedral to rehearse and perform Beethoven’s epic 9th Symphony with Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. This was part of the City of London Festival and the last in a series of concerts we began in January.
The first concert was in Basingstoke followed by short hops to Madrid, Paris and then the LSO’s home at the Barbican Hall in London.
I remember the Paris trip being particularly gruelling as we had to get up at 4am to drive to Haywards Heath to catch the first train to London. It was during that bitter patch of winter weather and neither the platform nor the train had any heating – I arrived at St Pancras International feeling like a block of ice. We took the eurostar to Paris and rehearsed for three hours at the Salle Pleyel. We were returning home straight after the concert and so didn’t have a hotel room and therefore no chance for a nap. We had lunch and then crammed into the green room until the late afternoon performance.Â The choir doesn’t sing until the last of the four movements but we are onstage for the whole symphony. The big challenge was to stay awake during the beautiful slow movement…….quite a few of the tenors and basses didn’t manage it and even the Bass Soloist’s head was drifting down and jerking up as he struggled along with the rest of us. After the concert we piled on the bus to Gare du Nord and caught the Eurostar back to London. We then had to catch the train and pick up the car – finally arrived home at 1am – a very long day!
When John Eliot persuaded the LSO to use his own choir for this project instead of the LSO Chorus, he committed us to learning the piece from memory. The famous ‘Ode to Joy” was to be sung in the original German, and I spent most of Christmas with my iPod trying to memorise the words. As we’d had nearly a six month break since the Barbican, I had to dust off the iPod again and dredge up ‘Freude schÃ¶ner gÃ¶tterfunken” from the depths of my memory banks.
We rehearsed with the soloists in the choir room in the crypt of St. Paul’s and I have to tell you – it was LOUD!
Sadly the Soprano soloist Rebecca Evans had to pull out at the last minute because of a family bereavement, but we had a wonderful last minute replacement in Lucy Crowe. Both sopranos had sung solos for the choir in 2009 during the tour of Haydn’s Seasons and Creation.
I’m not sure that the choir room in St Paul’s had ever heard such a huge noise – you could see the names of years of choirboys etched into the wooden benches. Even the tenor soloist put his hands over his ears when the choir let rip.
We then went up into the Cathedral and started to realise the scale of the task in hand. It is a huge and beautiful building and when the music stopped I counted a good five seconds of delay – surely this would be like listening in an enormous bathroom? – we could only hope the audience would soak up some of the sound. JEG set to work moving the french horns and soloists and re-arranging the choir in order to try and improve the balance – he often does this when we first arrive in concert halls as we never know what the balance will be like.
You can’t rely on standing next to someone of your own voice part – often you can almost be in the tenor section or have the basses singing right behind you – something I have come to enjoy, although it was a bit of a shock when I first started with the Monteverdi Choir three years ago. It was a quick rehearsal for the choir (with some lucky tourists watching the proceedings) and JEG commented that the concert would probably be good for the first eight rows and the last eight rows so we’d just have to do the best we could. We left the orchestra rehearsing the other movements and headed off for a very long lunch.The concert was at 8pm so, for those who don’t live in London, there was a long wait.
Every one of the 2200 seats were sold and when we walked on stage it was a wonderful sight. Before we began, a prayer was read which was composed by Beethoven on realising that his deafness was incurable. He was only 32 and we were reminded that he never actually heard the music at the first performance of the symphony and he commented that he had to be turned around to see the rapturous applause from the audience and had sobbed bitterly. A sobering thought.
O God, give me strength to be victorious over myself,
for nothing may chain me to this life.
O guide my spirit,
O raise me from these dark depths,
that my soul, transported through your wisdom,
may fearlessly struggle upward in fiery flight.
For you alone understand and can inspire me.
Ludwig van Beethoven
The reviewer Graham Rogers at Classical Source agreed with me that the acoustic was a worrying feature of this concert but that the sense of occasion gave the concert something really special. He also commented on the choreographed sits and stands of the choir – how else are we to stand except together, trying to cause as minimum disruption as possible?
“This concert should have been a non-starter: unlike such grandiose works as Verdiâ€™s â€œMessa da Requiemâ€ or even Elgarâ€™s â€œThe Dream of Gerontiusâ€, Beethovenâ€™s â€˜Choralâ€™ Symphony teems with far too much intricacy to succeed in the cavernous acoustic of St Paulâ€™s Cathedral. And yet somehow, magically, Sir John Eliot Gardiner pulled off a triumph………The choreographed standing of each section of the Monteverdi Choir before its members started to sing was rather comic, but they sang their socks off â€“ making all the more impact without scores to get in the way……..The hell-for-leather abandon in the sprint to the finish was exhilarating. Although a lot of crucial detail was smudged over, perhaps this performance worked so well because, rather than in spite of the acoustic. The magisterial reverb provided a mystical aura which worked wonders at blending and cosseting. Whatever the truth, this was a great occasion which the thousands who attended will surely remember for a long time.”
He’s correct about that – the concert, the setting and the occasion will certainly remain in my memory.