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19 December, 2006

A Choir at Christmas

Christmas is a funny time of year. It’s only at Christmas, for example, that a man might wander into the foyer of his office building, as I did yesterday morning, to find 30 people standing in a group singing their hearts out.

It was a visiting choir and they sang very well. I stopped for a while to listen as they went through a range of Christmas-themed songs. The foyer of a modern office building is as wide and as deep as the building itself and at least six storeys high – bigger than most cathedrals – and the stark, uncarpeted floors and unadorned walls give it a very cathedral-like acoustic. So it was a rare treat to stand on a fourth-floor balcony looking down on them as they performed.

They had several good voices among them and I watched one chap, a tenor with a good, accurate voice with lovely timbre, step forward from the row of men at the back of the group to be the soloist in a piece that I did not recognise but would guess was by Bach. He was an old boy – perhaps seventy – and did it wonderfully and with great feeling, perhaps a little embarrassingly so. As he made his way back to join his fellows on the back row, I saw him stagger a little and put a hand on one of the ladies’ shoulders. Two men hurried forward to help him and I found myself greatly moved that he had actually suffered to bring us that lovely performance. No-one in the choir seemed to find it unusual that he needed help and he resumed his place with no-comment and no-one missing a beat.

He wasn’t the oldest person there by a long way. There was a pianist, playing an electric piano, who could have been his mother. She had the fragile look of an Egyptian mummy and the wild, white hair of a comedy witch. She had obviously been a good pianist at one time and her long, sticklike fingers flitted across the keys with confidence but these days she was obviously becoming a little error-prone and played not a few interesting ‘improvisations’. At one point, she set off boldly into ‘We Three Kings’ while the choir set off equally confidently into ‘Silent Night’. It took about four bars for everyone to grind to a halt and start again.

The conductor – the director, perhaps – was a woman who clearly knew what she was doing and who had a kind, coaxing way with this oddball but talented crew. I like to think it was she who did the arrangements, which were intelligent and subtle (not like the over-elaborate stuff I do), with interesting harmonies sliding about within a good, solid framework, and the many voices so nicely balanced in the mix.

They had a flautist too – a tall, shapely woman with wide hips and large breasts who looked magnificent while she played and quite ordinary when she stopped. I’ve often remarked how beautiful it make a woman look to play a musical instrument. It’s something about the way they sit or stand so pertly but also some unconscious effect of the gestures the instrument forces upon them. Take a lady violinist for example, sitting straight-backed, chest out, her neck stretched and swan-like, her head turned slightly aside in an attitude at once aloof and yet poignant, her arms (if you ignore the instrument) raised in a gesture of longing, an unrequited embrace. Fanciful, perhaps, but there you are.

I met Wifie for lunch some hours later and we saw the same choir singing in another office building and paused to listen. By then, after more than three hours of singing, they were struggling for the highest notes and the eccentric old pianist had been replaced by a stout, middle-aged lady who strummed simple chords with fierce concentration. It struck me again how much effort these people had gone to, to bring us such lovely music on that ordinary Monday morning. The toll the performance was taking on them must have been nothing to the months of work in learning and rehearsing the pieces. They will never know, of course, how grateful at least one person was for their efforts.

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