One of the (many) great things about being a member of St Albans Bach Choir is that you get the opportunity to perform in some truly wonderful, world class venues (see our Venues page). And yesterday, a bunch of us were back at the Royal Albert Hall. Twice, we've been invited to take part in John Rutter's hugely popular Christmas concerts there, and this was the second time for which we were taking part in the BBC Songs of Praise Big Sing.
We'd had a rehearsal in St Albans last week with the musical director Paul Leddington Wright and yesterday we joined with members of the Adventist Vocal Ensemble, Coventry Cathedral Chorus, Guildford Choral Society and Wimbledon Choral Society to form a choir of around 200.
Most of us took a packed mid-morning train to London then converged on the Albert Hall by one or two different routes, for doors opening at 12.30. None too soon as it was beginning to drizzle as we waited outside, with a blustery wind that reminded us that Summer was definitely behind us.
We were led to our dressing rooms, into what always seems like the bowels of the earth. According to the timetable we'd been given, it looked like we'd have the better part of an hour to eat packed lunches and maybe relax briefly with a coffee in the artist's bar. In fact, I didn't even get to the bar before the very efficient stewards started rounding us up like sheep and lining us up to go onto stage, strictly in seating order.
Once on stage we had plenty of time to relax, take in the immensity of the place and the multitude of lighting effects, microphones and cameras, though still without coffee. In fact we were under strict orders not to take anything spillable onto the stage with us. No doubt the reason for that was the mass of electrics, and I wondered how many miles of wiring went into the event, and rolls of sticky tape went into securely taping it down.
Eventually we got started, and there followed a full 3 hour rehearsal, on camera. But even in that time we didn't manage to cover everything. With the full orchestra we were able to appreciate for the first time the power of the music we were to sing and its settings and arrangements.
We had a break of (on paper) an hour and a quarter, during which we were supplied with a welcome and much appreciated bag containing a sandwich, a bag of crisps, an apple, a carton of juice and a Kit-kat. But I had not long finished mine when we were told that we would soon have to line up again to go back on stage. I quickly made my way to the artist's bar and joined a queue for coffee. Unfortunately the urn had already run out but I found a sachet of coffee granules and added hot water and almost the last of the milk. Not everyone was so lucky.
Next came three recording sessions, with Aled Jones as compère and with several famous soloists (though I'm ashamed to say, unfamiliar to me): Katherine Jenkins (@KathJenkins), Mary-Jess (@MaryJessMusic), JB Gill (@JBGill), Shane Filan (@ShaneFilan) and boys vocal group Libera (@OfficialLibera), not to mention a capacity audience of 5,000.
Of course, the music wasn't all of a style we are accustomed to in the St Albans Bach Choir nor did all the soloists display the vocal refinement we expect from our concert soloists but nevertheless there were moments of considerable beauty and some of the great hymns sung with such numbers were very stirring.
I sometimes have to remind myself that in every age there is much music which speaks to that age, a tiny proportion of which is remembered in an age to come. But any musical shortcomings were made up for by the atmosphere. If we were to somehow engineer the same atmosphere and level of excitement in one of our concerts it would take them to a different plane.
I also sometimes wonder why some singers feel the need to tickle their tonsils with the microphone, and whether they might feel more discomforted by losing their microphone than they would be by an embarrassing on-stage malfunction of the wardrobe variety! I must ask my sound engineer friend whether pop stars' mics are actually live, or whether they're just cardboard replicas. But like the bow ties we were wearing they just seem to part of the expected apparel.
For the second 90 minute session we were asked to transport ourselves into Christmas mood, which both performers and audience did with a will, adding festive additions to our attire to taste. I had a self-sealing polythene bag with me containing a length of tinsel which I use on such occasions, but it left an impressive trail of lametta behind me as I took it out on my way back from the dressing room during the break. Nevertheless, it served its purpose, together with my red bow tie. (Mental note made to save myself a new piece of tinsel when Christmas comes according to the calendar.)
There followed another brief pause, barely long enough to put my tinsel away (yet more glitter shed) and remove my red bow tie, but not quite long enough to find the clip under my chin on my black one. To finish the evening with the last of our remaining stamina, we recorded four more hymns for a Hymn-writers' Hymns edition of Songs of Praise to be broadcast at an unknown date. I managed to secure my bow tie for the last three.
Exhausted but happy, the time came for us to wend our weary ways home. After removing the last itchy bit of glitter from my collar, I flopped into bed and fell almost instantly asleep.
Catch us on Songs of Praise on the 24th and 31st December.