Requiem First Night!


Verdi Final Rehearsal - probably the Dies Irae by the looks on our faces! copyright Rose Ballantyne 2011

Well we’ve done the first performance, and we remembered when to sing quietly and went at it full throttle when it was required- at one point we were so loud I couldn’t hear what I was singing myself. From the depths of the choir you don’t get a clear picture of what the audience is hearing, but it sounded pretty good to me, and according to Leigh (O’Hara, our conductor and mentor) we are in the worst place for it sounding good, so it must actually have sounded stunning- possibly literally on the decibel front.

Wendy Dawn Thompson and Grant Doyle rehearsing Dido & Aeneas. Copyright Cherry Potts 2010

The soloists, Deborah Stoddart, Wendy Dawn Thompson, John Upperton and Timothy Dawkins, were all superb; Deborah’s voice just soared over the rest of us, and it must be really hard for soloists to compete with 200 enthusiastic amateurs giving it some welly.  Wendy, in a typically dramatic move, to match her dramatic voice, wore a flame red dress that stood out like an exclamation against the black everyone else was wearing.  That’s what I like about Wendy, she stands out: rather different from the rehearsal where after waving cheerfully at the choir, she stood with one hand in her jeans pocket and the other conducting herself, and John in his motorcycle leathers!
I was very glad that unlike the men in the choir I wasn’t required to wear a dinner jacket, it got very hot.
Talking to A this morning, we were reflecting on the difference in singing from a score rather than memory, as in the Operas, where we have to move at the same time and act, and that actually it’s just as challenging and exciting.

We were also talking about how a choir becomes a community, and how it was odd, despite the ‘scratch’ quality of Blackheath Halls Chorus (we come together only for specific events and its a slightly different group each time) that the community feel is still there. People you hardly know will come and confide their nerves, or ask for (or offer) help with bits that aren’t sticking to your brain. It also makes you feel very responsible, to Leigh for getting it right, for supporting other people in your section, for staying quiet and still when its part of the effect, and not turning the pages over too loudly! It’s a lot to think about.
Our three hour rehearsal in the afternoon was only the second time we had sung with all three choirs together, plus the orchestra, and it sounds very different from our smaller Blackheath forces, and even more so from our practice MP3 files from Choralia (a wonderful resource, may it long provide for people like me who have to hear the music to understand the score).  Many of the members of the Eltham Choral Society and JAGS choir have taken part in the operas so they were familiar faces, which helped break down the tribal divisions that might otherwise have intruded.  The buzz in the dressing room was extraordinary and when Leigh came up to warm us up, I think he was pleasantly surprised how much we could sing from memory.

How frustrating it is to think that this superb programme is under threat.

So – the latest on the cuts to funding at Blackheath Halls:
Unfortunately, Greenwich Council has now confirmed its decision to withdraw the entire annual grant of £71,352 as of 1 April 2011.

However, in response to the representations made to the Overview and Scrutiny Committee, the Halls has learned that the Cabinet has agreed to create a general budget of £42,000 to support the delivery of community based arts participatory projects across the borough.

Blackheath Halls hopes that it will be able to obtain some funding from this £42,000 allocation in order to continue the delivery of some of its community and education programme, although this will obviously be a much-reduced sum in comparison to the annual grant that has been provided to the Halls in the past.

In response to the Blackheath Halls’ petition, the Council’s Director of Culture and Community Services acknowledged that the end to their current funding agreement with the Halls “will impact on the service delivered by Blackheath Halls” and stressed that the Council was “keen to ensure that Blackheath Halls continues to play an active part in the cultural life of the borough”. Further discussion at a Council meeting on Wednesday 30 March 2011 at 7pm, which members of the public are welcome to attend.

How you can help

–      Come to  events and take part in workshops and programmes (including tonight and tomorrow for the final performances of Verdi Requiem… if there are any tickets left)

–      Become a regular donor

–      Attend the Council meeting on 30 March (please contact david.white@greenwich.gov.uk by noon on 30 March if you wish to speak at the meeting).

If you would like to support the Halls in any other way, such as through support-in-kind or volunteering, they would also be very happy to hear from you.  Find out more about Blackheath Halls.

Copyright Cherry Potts (and Rose Ballantyne for the info about Blackheath Halls and Greenwich Council) 2011

Requiem First Night Approaches


Poster for Verdi Requiem at Blackheath Halls
Poster for Verdi Requiem at Blackheath Halls

A friend of mine describes the Verdi Requiem as religion as high opera, and it certainly is full of drama and glorious tunes.

You can watch a video of some of us singing the Dies Irae in protest at threatened cuts to the funding of our beloved Blackheath Halls here, and I promise we will be acres better on the night (make that nights- Saturday, Sunday and Monday).

You may be familiar with this music, but if you’ve never heard it live, it’s worth it- extraordinary!

We had our first rehearsal with the entire choir (around 200 of us) plus the orchestra on Monday and as I was in the front row I was completely surrounded by sound, orchestra in front, choir behind.  It fair set the hairs on the back of my neck on end.

I am a bit worried about how they will make room for the audience, with so many of us spilling off the stage but I am reliably informed that there will be one, and that tickets are selling fast.

News on the cuts so far is that Greenwich Council didn’t like the plans their officers had made and sent them away to rethink, so it is still up in the air.  Presumably they have to make a decision before the end of the month.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed that we won’t be singing the Requiem in response to news that the funding has been cut so disastrously that the wonderful education and outreach work the halls do is compromised.

Final rehearsal Verdi Requiem, all the choirs, orchestra and soloists copyright Rose Ballantyne

copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Early Music part 2


Early music is a passion I share with my partner A, and a chance discovery led to the inspiration for an historical novel, The Cold Time.

Sometime in 1993 , arriving early for a film at the Odeon at Marble Arch, we headed into HMV to browse, and I picked up a new release in the early music section:  Sinfonye’s the sweet look and loving manner.

Dire title, I thought, lovely cover– a medieval painting of two women in a garden. Look like lesbians I thought, turning over the CD to discover that what I had was recordings of very rare songs, written by women in 12th and 13th century Languedoc.  I couldn’t resist, I bought it, loved it, confirmed that one of the songs was indeed written by a woman for a woman; and I was off- research, research, research!

I found The Women Troubadours a book of transcripts of the songs with English translations and brief biographies by Meg Bogin. There was sufficiently little real information to leave plenty for my imagination to fill in.  I found all the songs interesting and full of personality, and apart from the song that started it all of, Domna Maria written by Beiris de Romans, I found my title in a song by Azalais de Porcaraiges (Portiragnes 5m east of Béziers) which follows the traditional troubadour motif of using the seasons and weather as a metaphor for her love life:

Ar em al freg temps vengut
quel gels el neus e la faingna
e.l aucellet estan mut
c’us de chantar non s’afraingna
-e son sec li ram pels plais-
que flors ni foilla noi nais
ni rossignols noi crida
que l’am e mai me reissida.

Now we are come to the cold time
of ice and snow and mud
and all the birds are mute
for not one inclines to sing;
and the hedge-branches are dry
no leaf nor bud springs up,
nor calls the nightingale
who woke me once in May.

before going into a strange litany of (apparently) places she’s saying goodbye to because she will never see her lover any more.

To God I commend Bel Esgar
and the City of Orange
and Gloriet’ and the Caslar
and the lord of all Provence
and all those who wish me well
and the arch where the attacks are shown.
I’ve lost the man who owns my life,
and I shall never be consoled.

Roman triumphal arch, Orange, Provence

The references are obscure, but I think, from having visited Orange, and researched (oh the research) architectural terms, that it is her lover, Raimbault d’Aurenga’s home she is referring to: Gloriet is a term used for a tower, and the arch with the attacks is a Roman triumphal arch which at the time she was writing was effectively Raimbaut’s front door.  These days it is marooned on a traffic island on the ring road with heavy trucks pounding past.  I love this vignette of loneliness,  it is all the more challenging to realise that what seems to be a complaint against the medieval equivalent of not returning her calls, may actually be in response to Raimbaut’s death.

As I researched further I discovered there was overlap with the Cathars in terms of time and territory, and loosely at least in politics and got some interesting responses when I discussed my research with friends and family.

A lot of nonsense is talked about the Cathars, and as an atheist I have to make a bit of effort to relate to it all, but I was quite shocked by how ruthlessly the Cathars were treated; I remember mentioning this to my mum, whose response was ‘they’d all be dead by now anyway’ and a friend, who got cross and seemed to think that being distressed by people being tortured and burnt alive put me in some ‘anti catholic’ bracket, which hadn’t even occurred to me:  I had been thinking of the crusade as a land grab by the French, rather than anything motivated by genuine religious feeling of any kind. Once she had raised it, of course, the whole religious angle became more of a motif in my research.

So, more research; too much research. I have an entire bookcase of ‘essential’ reading that I shall probably never finish, obscure books about Jewish ghettos in Provence in the thirteenth century, articles on littoral erosion …  books on attitudes to death, building techniques, farming practices, the position of women and the persecution of heretics, more than half of them are in French.

I had lessons to refresh my French (not a lot of use with a medieval vocabulary- you would not credit how long it took me to cotton on to Terre Sante meaning the Holy Land and Outremer overseas, nor the likelihood of coming across témoin (witness) and blessé (wounded) during your average French class) I now own an enormous French dictionary which is too heavy to lift, as well as smaller Provençal, Latin and Spanish dictionaries, just in case!

We spent a total of five weeks over a two-year period touring Cathar castles and hilltop villages, abbeys, rivers, pilgrim spots, mountains, graveyards, springs and ruins. The biggest realisation I made (apart from how much further apart everything was than I had expected) was that part of the reason the Albigensian Crusade was successful  must be that most of the castles they were attacking were effectively facing the wrong way- expecting attack to come from the south.

I met Stevie Wishart, director of Sinfonye a while back, at an early music festival at the South Bank, and thanked her for setting me off on what sometimes feels like a wild goose chase, but has widened my horizons considerably, in terms of musical taste, philosophical and architectural understanding, to say nothing of languages and travel!

Quick update, follow this link for the Radio 4 Early Music Show special on Trobairitz, not sure how long it’s up for but while it’s there, an hour’s music that’s spot on.

Copyright Cherry Potts 2011

March of the Women


Sandi Toksvig, Sue Perkins, Susan Calman, Marin Alsop… sorry, what? The finest lesbian (or lesbitarian as Calman would have it) comedians of the decade all on stage together and … the world’s leading woman conductor?  OK you got me, I didn’t know what I’d got tickets for, but I’m very glad I was there, for Mirth Control,  the closing event of Women of the World at the Southbank this weekend.

I began to have an inkling of what was actually going to happen when we arrived to find the stage of the Queen Elizabeth Hall set up for an Orchestra, and a slide show of images from the suffragette movement on a screen above.

“OOh!” I said, “do you think they’ll get us to sing the March of the Women, with the words on-screen and a bouncy ball to tell us where we’ve got to, like they used to have in pantomimes?”

Ms Toksvig, bearing a passing resemblance to a scarab in a green and purple shot satin suit, was witty and informative as she whisked through the history of women’s suffrage and introduced the 88 strong women’s orchestra brought together especially for the show to play the overture to Dame Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers, rarely performed and unjustly overlooked IMHO.  Predates and foreshadows Britten’s sea interludes, and something I have a great fondness for as it accompanied the writing of the first section on my epic fantasy novel.  The orchestra attacked with panache, Sue Perkins conducted with precision and gusto.

Although I thought I’d come for an evening of comedy it was the music that held me, and the very happy feeling of hundreds of women sharing this experience, it quite took me back to the 1980’s when I used to do this all the time. 

Quite rightly, Sandi Toksvig took time to thank the Southbank’s artistic director Jude Kelly, for planning the festival and conference, and Helena Kennedy  presented Ms Kelly with a ‘votes for women’ penny as featured in the British Museum’s history of the world in 100 objects.

And I would like to add my thanks, not just for this weekend, but for the way Jude Kelly has made the Southbank so much  more accessible.  Through her efforts to get people involved, I have taken part in choir festivals, day projects and, the toughest thing I’ve ever done, REwind: Cantata by Philip Miller.  Not only did I get to sing on stage at the Royal Festival Hall, but when we were rehearsing (and really struggling, I have to be honest) Jude turned up at Blackheath Halls where we were rehearsing. 

I don’t know whether Paul, our choir master knew she was coming,  but we certainly didn’t, and weren’t all that pleased to be distracted by a strange woman wandering in… we glared with hostility (sorry about that Jude!).  A lot of people had dropped out because it was difficult to sing, more had dropped out because once they’d got to grips with the music and listened to what we were singing, and what it was interlaced with, they found it too distressing  (and it is distressing, it really is), and those of us hanging in there and trusting to it-will-be-all-right-on-the-night, were unbelievably grateful that Jude bothered to come out to Blackheath and tell us we had a right to be on that stage.  I for one needed that.  And it was all right on the night, in fact it was more than all right, it was phenomenal.

As was Sunday’s event.  we did finish with Ethel Smyth’s The March of the Women: a swift lesson from the wonderful Mary King, (“are those your own lungs?” Sandi asked as Mary launched into the very high first line) support from the ‘Women of the World Chorus” drawn from Southbank’s own Voicelab and including our friends Trish and Judith (hi girls) and several hundred women and a handful of men joined in, conducted by Marin Alsop a la Ethel Smyth, with a toothbrush.  I don’t know how many the QEH holds, but it was full and we really went for it.

shoulder to shoulder, and friend to friend.

This is going to be an annual event.  I’m booking the whole weekend out for next year.

copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Early Music


Music I found early, and Early Music I found…

My passion for words nearly got in the way of my interest in music, and I was almost oblivious to tunes until I introduced myself to a wide variety of music via the library I worked in when I was nineteen. I think I took music for granted until then- I didn’t understand the work and skill involved in a beautiful melody, or even more so a harmony; bizarre given I had learned to play piano, recorder, clarinet and oboe by then (all staggeringly badly- maybe that was the problem!)

Phil Oakey of the Human League- a sweaty night at the marquee @ 1979 copyright Cherry Potts

I’m not sure that there might not be a connection to being into Punk music – The do-it-yourself-garage-thrash approach deconstructed the whole process for me and stopped it being something to be in awe of.  I was briefly in a punk band, playing one finger piano and shout-along-a-backing-vocals. This was when I took to live music and it struck me when I started converting my vinyl collection to digital, that I have almost no records from this period: I spent my money on gigs, it was all in the now.

The ‘Indie’ scene was just getting going and the few records I did buy were Rough Trade or Stiff Records output.  I quickly bored of ‘traditional’ Punk’s nihilist approach and sought out artists that were more difficult to categorise. I went for

The Raincoats somewhere in Brixton 1980 copyright Cherry Potts

the quirky and down right bonkers back then, John Cooper Clarke (words again), Spizz Energy, The Revillos, The Teardrop Explodes, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Jam, Dead Kennedies, Human League, Skids, Penetration, Pere Ubu, the Edge, Lena Lovitch, Dalek I, UB40, Poison Girls, The Specials, the Slits and the Raincoats: I spent a lot of time in sweaty dives like the Marquee (great atmosphere), student unions and at Rock Against Racism gigs with my head ringing from being too close to the speakers, sometimes leaning on them to steady my camera- daft idea, its a wonder I didn’t do permanent damage to my ears!

Amazulu at the Deptford Albany 1983 copyright Cherry Potts

Later, I settled into a liking for women’s bands, the Guest Stars, Lydia d’Ustebyn Orchestra, Amazulu, PMT, Friggin’ Little Bits, the Bright Girls, Jam Today, Alex Dobkin; the Albany in Deptford became home from home, – just as the Marquee had been for a while.

In the library the music was more staid, and I worked my way systematically through everything that was unfamiliar.  I tried and discarded Gilbert & Sullivan and a great many musicals, quite fun, but not for me; and Country & Western, as it was known then (although I’ve gone back to it … those stories again). I discovered African tribal music, Flamenco (which I should have picked up sooner, Dad’s collection is stuffed with it) and most importantly  Early (medieval and baroque) Music: musicians like Emma Kirkby the Deller Consort, Phil Pickett, David Munrow and …counter tenors… an acquired taste, which didn’t stick with me at first, so I found myself skipping the tracks with words (mostly not English anyway) and becoming a great fan of Dowland, Tallis, Handel, Purcell, Gluck, Monteverdi, Susato and Machaut, and many others, and  divorced music from words for long enough for me to really get to grips with the patterns and shifts.  I was struck by the really early tunes- earthy, rhythmic and somehow contemporary; and by the sheer unearthly beauty of some of the church music – If you’ve never heard a perfect ‘dying fall’ (I was going to say you haven’t lived, but that’s plain silly: you will have missed out on one of the most swooningly gorgeous things your ears will ever encounter.)  Early music was also my route into Opera.  I really found opera tedious until I heard Purcell.  I still think it’s daft, but enjoyably so, although a lot of Puccini et al leaves me cold.

copyright Cherry Potts 2011