Friday, 30 November 2012

Singing for Lely - the Courtauld Community Choir

Peter Lely - The Concert
We attended one of the Courtauld Lates during the run of the Courtauld Gallery's previous exhibition, and had enjoyed the mixture of art, talks and music (see my blog entry), so had every intention of going along on the evening of Thursday 30 November for a similar event themed on their Peter Lely: A Lyrical Vision exhibition. Then an email arrived from someone I had sung with who works at the gallery, with information about a choir being formed to rehearse and perform music from Lely's time. All from scratch. So at 5pm yesterday (30 November) I found myself in the lecture theatre of the Courtauld Institute (which is in Somerset House, next door to the Courtauld Gallery) with a varied mix of people all who had come to sing.


The choir was directed by Joseph Timmons, a London based tenor and musical director whose work includes Cosi fan tutte at the Rye Arts Festival. The community choir was organised by Dr Charlotte de Mille, a Visiting Lecturer at the Courtauld Institue of Art, and a singer herself.

At the previous Courtauld Late for the Lely exhibition Peter Lely: A Lyrical Vision, they had simply assembled a group of people to sing rhymes, catches and rounds from Lely's time. The singers had so enjoyed themselves that it was decided next time to attempt something more serious. In addition to Oranges and Lemons, London's Burning and Ring a Ring a Roses (which would all be sung by the audience as well), we were to rehearse John Blow's motet Salvator Mundi and, if there was time, Purcell's Remember not, Lord, our offences.

The singers were a varied group, 20 in all including two of the musicians who were performing that evening and had agreed to be roped in to sing as well. Not everyone was experienced, not everyone knew each other, though some did and there were a varied mix of ages and people. But all were enthusiastic about singing and keen to have a go. All Joseph Timmons had to do was convince us all that we were a choir, and in under two hours.

As expected, the catches and rounds went quite straightforwardly, though it was fascinating realising that the printed music was different to what we had learned as children. This was particularly true of Oranges and Lemons (which refers to St. Clement Danes Church just up the road from the Courtauld Gallery and built during Lely's lifetime). Ring a Ring a Roses refers, of course, to the plague which was prevalent at the time, and London's Burning to the Fire of London.

John Blow wrote Salvator Mundi for the Chapel Royal the year of Lely's death, and included in the exhibition was a delightful picture by Lely of two boys singing, almost certainly two boys from the Chapel Royal. Blow's motet is a lovely, rather chromatic piece, with two soprano parts and it has some tricky moments. Timmons' role was not so much to teach us the notes, but to convince us to have a go and lose our inhibitions. His pep talks helped persuade us that were were a choir and that it was all possible. So possible, in fact, that everyone was keen to try the Purcell as well.

Rehearsal finished at 6 50pm, so in less than two hours we had learned two pieces. The lecture theatre was hardly the best of acoustics to sing in, so it was a relief to discover that the gallery had a fine acoustic. The audience all gamely joined in the singing of the rhymes, catches and rounds, there was even music for those who had forgotten. And then we performed John Blow's Salvator Mundi, and Purcell's Remember not, Lord, Our offences. Not perfectly, I for one made mistakes and next time I will remember my reading glasses, but creditably, giving a musical performance which did some justice to both works. The audience were appreciative and the singers all left talking about what sort of music might be suitable and possible for the Picasso exhibition next year.

We missed the gallery talk by Debbie Babbage and the recorder programme from Laszlo Rosza based on Playford's The Dancing Master, but we did see the artists participating in Lely's Drawing Academy with artist Matthew Kirchnau, attempting to do justice to the two elaborately draped models. And in one of the other galleries, close to the Courtauld's own Lely portrait, we heard Liam Byrne and Donald Bennet play duos for two bass viols by Gibbons, Matthew Locke and Christopher Simpson. Magical to hear such music, stunningly played in such lovely surroundings.

 Elsewhere on this blog:

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