Monday, 7 December 2009

Hallelujah!

This year is the 250th anniversary of Handel's death and to celebrate his life, the BBC declared yesterday as Sing Hallelujah day. Various events were held up and down the country for singers and choirs of various standards to get together to sing the famous Hallelujah Chorus from the Messiah. I've always wanted to get involved with this work in some way ever since I was a student: I was grounded in the university sick bay late one Christmas term and whilst there I heard my grandad's cousin singing one of the solo parts on the radio.

Our local BBC region had decided to mark the event with the gathering of a massive scratch choir to open their BBC South West Sports Personality of the Year awards ceremony held at the University of Bath yesterday. A rather strange mix in my view, but an opportunity not to be missed. So I duly sent off my email application and promptly forgot about it. 2 weeks ago I finally got a reply back to tell me I was in :)

Team Bath at Bath university is the south-west's regional sports centre of excellence and hosts quite a few of our national squads such as hurdles, bob skeleton and the modern pentathlon, so it was exactly the right venue for the day's events. Needless to say everywhere we went there were lots of rather fit looking young people training for all kinds of sports. Grenville Jones was our choirmaster for the day: some of you may remember him from TV's Last Choir Standing, where his Bath Male Choir did rather well.

Around 250 of us gathered at 9.30 am in the Fencing Salle and Projectile [shooting] Room, where Grenville was assisted by the ever cheerful Francis on the piano, for the workshop to get us ready for our performance at 5.30 pm. It soon became clear we wouldn't be doing the 'straight' performance dowloadable from the BBC's website which I'd practised a couple of times. The final hallelujah's were to be interspersed with claps, a smaller choir would sing a couple of lines, and the fusion band the Zen Hussies would also perform.

A hectic couple of hours ensued with us only getting through the beginning and end of the performance accompanied by lots of scratched heads trying to make sense of who was meant to be singing what from the wordsheets we'd been given. Once I'd cottoned on the word Handels on the sheet meant the main choir things were a little clearer, but both major and minor adjustments to what the performance would actually be like were being made constantly, which meant our concentration could never flag.

At 12 and 3.30pm we decamped to the studio for technical and dress rehearsals respectively. This meant a long trek to one of the main sports halls. At 12 this was in complete chaos: wires trailed everywhere, cameras and lighting were being fixed onto the floors and temporary platforms, plus an enormous boom camera threatened to take off anyone's head who got in the way. Dozens of people were frantically hiding wires under matting or using what seemed like miles of gaffer tape to prevent them becoming trip hazards. Around 20 tables were being wheeled into positions with their attendant table decorations and place settings to seat the awards nominees and their guests. No-one was allowed onto the studio floor at this time in shoes: socks only - odd socks in the majority of cases - was the order of the day.

After lunch and an hour's rehearsing the middle part of the piece, the scene on our return to the studio didn't seem any less frantic at the dress rehearsal either. Our seating positions were changed for what seemed like the umpteenth time and finally we made 2 central bands of singers on either side of the audience seating areas. We rehearsed our cues and found we were also going to sing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot: a big clue to the kind of team (Taunton rugby) that had won the Team of the Year award.


Dress rehearsals completed, we stayed in our places whilst the rest of the audience arrived and fitted themselves in around us. There was one final rehearsal for everyone as the warm-up man put us through our spontaneous applause and cheering paces. Then the sporting celebrities and their guests took their places, the TV presenters took theirs, the floor manager counted us down to the start of the programme, our first cue was called and whoosh we were off!

The performance itself was rather a blur, both in how well we performed and also because a couple of smoke machines were being used to add 'atmosphere' to the studio. Most of the lighting was rather dim too, except where a presenter was making an award or a TV interview recorded, so we spent most of the 2 hours recording time in semi-darkness. There were displays by Bath's rhythmic gymnasts and Team GB wheelchair basketball players to entertain us in addition to the 12 awards made.

I was particularly pleased the swimmer Stephanie Millward won the 2012 Paralympian Hopeful award. NAH has trained with her in the past and a 'phone link to Brazil had to be set up for her award interview because she was competing in the world championships there. She'd just grabbed a haul of eight medals, including four gold :)

Jenson Button won the main award, but wasn't there to receive it, so we had to make do with a pre-recorded interview. We then reprised the final part of the Hallelujah Chorus to close the show; received a quick thank you from Ali Vowles, the BBC presenter - and the wife of my former photography tutor - who'd joined us for the day (and also sang - she sounded rather hoarse on the news this morning!) on the way out and that was it. It was a great experience that's left me wanting to take part in the entire performance of The Messiah. There are regular scratch choir events for this - I must seek them out.

Update: The BBC have now put up their recording of our performance on their website :)

9 comments:

  1. organized chaos in action! pleased to see you enjoyed yourself. did the smoke machines affect anyone's ability to sing?

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  2. Good point Petoskystone. They were reassuring all the sportspeople that the smoke machines weren't medically harmful, but I was rather concerned for us singers at the time. It seemed to be OK at the time, but I am rather bunged up today :(

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  3. That sounds like fun! I didn't realize that it was the 250th anniversary. That probably explains why VIS was walking around the house the other day singing "We like sheep..."

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  4. Great fun. Being a big choral society enthusiast, I've done a lot of Messiahs. Everyone thinks its easy, but really it isn't. I do admire anyone who can get up a scratch choir and make a decent fist of it. Brilliant!

    Messiah is glorious to sing but also fab to listen to, and singalongathome. While you were doing it for real, I was listening to a recording on my iPod, while shovelling compost onto a new border.

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  5. You are such a good story teller, VP, it was just like being there with you. This was always a big part of Christmas celebration when I was growing up, when they were still allowed to sing religious songs at Christmas in schools.
    Frances

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  6. Loved it - not so sure about the 'band'.
    Back to plotting - can you or anyone tell me what has happened to my Black Russian Tomatoes?!?! See pic on my post for last Saturday.

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  7. OMG, that sounds chaotic. It's bad enough trying to keep up in an ordinary choir performance (pronunciations change every five minutes, suddenly you're faced with a piece you've never rehearsed "because everybody knows this bit", the altos never get a look in when it comes to going over the music etc etc). I think I'd pass on the smoke machines too.
    But it also sounds like great fun. I'm supposed to be singing a scratch Messiah next Sunday - having missed one on 31 October. There seems to be one a week round here, but not on such a grand scale as yours.

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  8. What a lovely experience and wonderful memories you must have. Well done

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  9. MMD - It was loads of fun, but I was shattered afterwards!

    Nige - I have a lovely image of you warbling away in your border :)

    Frances - that's a great compliment from an ace storyteller yourself, thank you :)

    Angie - I'm not so sure about the band either. Someone said on the day the arrangement destroyed the tension that the 'King of Kings' section generates.

    Victoria - I'm extremely envious. Have fun!

    PG - thank you :)

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