Friday 10 January 2014

Singing for Dürer - the Courtauld Community Choir

In connection with the Courtauld Gallery's Young Dürer Exhibition, I joined the Courtauld Community Choir to perform at last night's late opening (9 January 2014). The music for the evening was all themed around music of Dürer's time, such as a group playing recorder consort music from the period. The choir, under the direction of Joseph Timmons, sang music by Heinrich Isaac and JS Bach along with some pieces to celebrate Epiphany and to get the audience singing as well.

We met to rehearse a couple of hours before, always a strange experience being led through the maze that is the Courtauld Institute (the door opposite that of the gallery, leading into the other half of Somerset House). Rehearsing in a seminar room is not ideal, but at least it meant that we had nice surprise when we moved to the more gracious acoustic of the Courtauld Gallery.

The singers come from a variety of backgrounds, all sing in other choirs and come along for the sheer joy of making music. That said, performing in the Courtauld Gallery is a little bit different and not a little special. Before the rehearsal started Joe and Charlotte (the choir's organiser) explained how the music fitted into the rationale of the exhibition. The exhibition looks at Dürer's Wanderjahre, when he visited both the Netherlands and Italy, with the visit to Italy having a significant effect on his art. The composer Heinrich Isaac (1450 - 1517) made a similar pair of journeys and they had a similar effect on his art. This was showed by the pair of settings of Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen that we sang, one very Netherlandish and the other influenced by Italy. We also sang a pair of chorales from Bach's St Matthew Passion, in which Bach used the same tune.

In order for the audience to be able to join in, we sang the carol We three Kings, which celebrates Epiphany (6 January) and a New Year wassail song. Additionally we sang another Epiphany piece, Peter Cornelius's The Three Kings in which Cornelius (a friend of Brahms) added his own lovely solo line to the chorale Wie schon leuchtet das Morgenstern, which was originally written by Philipp Nicolai (1556 - 1608). We finished with more Bach, his chorale Jesu, meine Freude sung for the simple pleasure of it.

The rehearsal was as much about turning the 14 disparate singers into a choir as about learning notes. Joe was, as usual, full of injunctions to make us work harder, telling us to energise the vowels, to make a proud sound and not be afraid to open fire, as well as bribing us with biscuits. With such a varied group of music and with printed copies coming from a variety of sources, we had the usual problems checking what note was what, as well as the copies of Innsbruck where the words on the right-hand side of the page disappeared entirely. But such things are the life of a choral singer, and we over came them.

We sang in the large gallery with the majolica (room two, there is a panoramic view of it on the Courtauld Gallery website). This time there were no mishaps, but at our last appearance we managed to set the alarms off. There was a good audience and they seemed very receptive and appreciative, as well as singing lustily in the audience items.

As a choral singer who mainly performs in churches, it is rather wonderful to sing in one of the Courtauld's galleries, surrounded by wonderful pictures (and majolica), especially as the music was linked thematically to the exhibition. Roll on the next time!

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