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It’s officially Christmas

St Magnus Cathedral

 It’s officially Christmas. At least it finally felt that way on Sunday night when I was lucky enough to sing with the Festival Chorus in St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, Orkney’s largest town. Along with the Orkney Camerata orchestra we performed Parts I and II from JS Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.

With its lovely warm red sandstone walls, the cathedral is a very special place to perform. And from my perch in the back row of the alto section I had a perfect view of the attentive audience with a very tall Christmas tree in the background.

The soloists, who had come up from the south for the performance, were wonderful. I especially enjoyed mezzo Judy Brown’s aria ‘Slumber in Blissful Repose’, her soaring vocal chiming beautifully with Gemma McGregor’s flute.

Between the sections of the Oratorio, Catriona Price and Tabea Sitte played Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins with the Camerata. I thoroughly enjoyed this, as the young women clearly relished the challenge of the music.

I have sung with choirs before, including once for HM The Queen at the Royal Festival Hall in London with the Voicelab project.

But I must admit I’ve never been a big fan of classical voices. I don’t enjoy opera, which I’m sure makes me a musical philistine. But I find the singing style too mannered and unnatural.

The cathedral, with its soaring ceiling, arches and oddly-shaped roof spaces, pulls and twists musical sound around inside it. Notes reverberate for ages amongst all these nooks and crannies, and the return of the sound happens at different times in different places.

Some of our singers were complaining about the acoustics, that it made it difficult for them to hear themselves. I tend not to worry about this, especially in a choir – I figure if you just sing the right notes with the right amount of enthusiasm the sound will sort itself out just by dint of the sheer number of voices!

But that night, as we sang with nary a microphone or amplifier in sight, I suddenly understood why classical singing has developed the way it has. Obviously in the early days, music was written mostly for religious services, so it would have been heard in big, echoing stone barns of buildings. Anyone singing in a ‘normal’ chest or head voice would never be heard.

But hearing the voices of tenor soloist Joseph Doody and bass soloist Jerome Knox cleaving softly through the air made me realise this is why classical singers sing as they do. It carried magnificently throughout this enormous, weirdly echoing space and sounded beautiful and pure.

I learned something else that is borne out of the acoustical nature of the cathedral.

The organist, Heather Rendall, explained to me that if she is playing in this sort of situation, where the soloists and orchestra are a fair distance from where she sits at the organ keyboard, she has to anticipate the music and actually play just slightly ahead of when it will be heard.

I’d come across a similar phenomenon playing keyboards in bands using a slow strings patch, which has a very slow attack, so I would have to play the chord ahead of when I wanted it to actually sound. But I can hardly imagine doing this with something as complicated as Bach.

So Sunday was an evening filled with glorious music and voices, and I had an unexpected lesson in classical voice and acoustics.

Thanks to Glenys Hughes for leading us so ably. I appreciate the opportunity to sing such wonderful music in such a beautiful setting.

Kathie Touin