This week we heard from Janet Wheeler, an award-winning composer and conductor of local choirs Saffron Walden Choral Society (SWCS) and Granta Chorale, about the future of choral singing in Saffron Walden and beyond.
Right across the world, choirs have had to put normal rehearsals on hold and cancel physical concerts. The local choirs I conduct are no exception and two cancelled events stand out for me as particular disappointments – both were scheduled in Saffron Hall. One was the choral workshop and joint concert in which chamber choir Granta Chorale should have shared the platform with SONORO – a choir of professional singers conducted by Neil Ferris. The programme had pairings of familiar choral classics with modern works inspired by them. Excitingly for me it included a piece SONORO had commissioned me to write in 2019, and also a piece by local composer and Granta Chorale member Sarah Cattley.
A few weeks later we were bitterly missing the choral and orchestral concert planned by Saffron Walden Choral Society – Bach’s wonderfully uplifting Magnificat and a beautifully melodic 21st century work by Alec Roth, A Time to Dance. The Roth had been a new discovery for SWCS and we were so enjoying rehearsing it. The hope is that both of these events can be rescheduled in Saffron Hall in some form in the future, but research suggests that choirs may need to be cautious about how and when to restart as the pandemic subsides.
Much live music has headed to the internet of course (what would we do without it?!) Nationally there have been numerous online choral initiatives open to singers – from Gareth Malone’s Great British Home Chorus, to the Stay At Home Choir and workshops from I Fagiolini, Voces 8 and many many more. Choir members from Granta Chorale and SWCS have been among those taking part in these.
But now that it’s clear we may have to wait longer before coming together again to sing, it’s also clear how important it is for us to keep together as choirs. So, following the example of St Mary’s Church Choir and many others across the UK, both Granta Chorale and Saffron Walden Choral Society are now making the best of the online possibilities with Zoom rehearsals – aiming to keep our own communities of vocally and musically exercised singers in good shape to pick things up again as soon as it becomes possible. Zoom rehearsals are not without their challenges but they also present new opportunities for individual singers and choirs.
There has been plenty of time since March to reflect on what Saffron Hall has done for us since its opening in 2013. As audience members we’ve been able to attend world-class concerts in a world-class venue, as performers we’ve been able to sing, play and conduct there, and then as musical groups based in Saffron Walden we’ve also benefitted from amazing high-level musical collaborations offered by Saffron Hall. Among these, SWCS recently sang Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with Marin Alsop and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, while over several years Granta Chorale has provided a chorus for numerous projects with English Touring Opera, most recently for Weill’s The Silver Lake. And alongside the Hall’s programme of concerts and other performances Saffron Hall has been the moving force behind all kinds of educational and community projects benefitting everyone from young to old and all stages between.
Saffron Hall contributes hugely to the quality of life in Uttlesford and further afield. Amid all the limitations of lockdown we can still treasure it and do what we can to ensure it comes through this crisis as strong as ever.
Before I get on with planning the next rehearsal, I’ll share some words from a song I’ve just written – Singing in a Choir – which Granta Chorale will be recording soon:
When we sing together
Our crescendo has the power to move us all
When we sing together
We can bring a magic hush to Saffron Hall
When we sing, the harmony flows through us as our breath becomes the song.
It breaks the bounds of earthly time and carries us along.
(cue repeat of chorus: Singing in a choir…)
Over the top you reckon? Don’t be so sure. If you’ve done some singing in the past maybe you should get in touch with Saffron Walden Choral Society! You may have to wait a bit to experience the full effect of Singing in a Choir but you could ease yourself into it gently via some distanced Zoom rehearsals.