Cheltenham Festival of Performing Arts
I spent last Saturday afternoon at the choral classes of Cheltenham Festival of Performing Arts. This isn’t the famous Cheltenham Festival that brings lots of big name classical and jazz performers to the town, but the community festival of music, drama and dance with two weeks of competitions for amateur performers. But while it may look more small-time in its level of artistic ambition, it’s still an event that has more than just local interest, attracting entrants from around the South of England and Wales.
One thing I found very interesting was the repertoire on offer, which was exclusively from the 20th century. Obviously the Songs from the Shows class was going to offer this, but you wouldn’t necessarily expect it from the general choir class or the Sacred Music class. I was expecting from the latter a spot of Byrd or Palestrina but what we got was all Chilcot and Rutter and Lauridsen.
I also found it interesting that the original idea of ‘a cappella’ meaning ‘in the style of the chapel’ lingers in on the syllabus for the sacred music class, which required at least one of the two pieces performed to be without accompaniment. I was glad it did too – I discover that, while I find myself engaging with and enjoying a truly miscellaneous range of styles in my professional life, I seem to have a purist streak when it comes to vocal ensembles. There is a distinct pleasure from the sound of voices by themselves without the jangling distraction of the sound of the piano.
The choral genre of ‘Songs from the Shows’ is a somewhat contradictory one. Of course it’s normal that choirs and their audiences are going to want to spend time with this eminently popular repertory, but it opens up all kinds of questions from a vocal perspective. Singing in Musical Theatre is all about acting: about distinctiveness of characterisation, and dramatic expression; a successful performance is all about individuality. It is therefore not necessarily easy to capture the style in a choral ensemble whilst still keeping the integrity of choral craft: of blend, of team-work, or many voices performing as one. Indeed, the chorus singing in shows is often a very unblended sound, representing the way that different characters will all have their different take on the situation they are singing about together.
The great thing about music as an art form, though, is that such artistic contradictions inspire people to more interesting performances. We saw a full range of solutions to this problem, from primarily choral approaches that brought the repertoire into the choir’s usual sound world, to overtly dramatic approaches that aimed not just for the expressive timbre, but even the accent of characters represented. You could hear the dilemma between choral precisions and dramatic impact playing out in these performances, and if it made them less perfect, it also made them more entertaining.
One thing I noticed in all classes in which there were pieces with strongly characterised rhythms is the British choral habit to mistake staccato singing for rhythmic articulation. (It may not be only a British habit, but since I live in the UK, this is where I‘ve heard it the most!) I think there are two factors that underlie this, one vocal, the other musical. The vocal issue is the need for a more supported sound and a more continuous airstream. It takes attention and practice to learn how to join the voice up into a line so that the consonants don’t chop it up into little pieces. So, the wordier the music, the more likely it is lose its sense of direction.
The musical issue is the tendency to think of rhythm only in terms of the surface durations of the notes you actually sing – the melodic rhythm. But the more strongly rhythmic the music is, the more you need to be thinking abou the metrical framework and how that is characterised. If the main pulse wants to be on the backbeat and you’re feeling it on the downbeat, it’s very hard to join all the notes up into a meaningful whole.
The highest-scoring choir in any of the classes I saw was the Reading Pheonix Choir, under their new director David Crown. I have a particular soft spot for this choir, as it was the first choral group I remember being taken to hear in concert as a child where we went just because it would be good, rather than because we knew somebody singing in the concert!