Magazine article The Spectator

Glances at the Dots

Magazine article The Spectator

Glances at the Dots

Article excerpt

Another weekend, and storiues are circulating of another concert given by an English professional ensemble (not mine, though it might have been) in a major European venue on frighteningly little rehearsal. Apparently the group thought they knew the piece, which was of full concert length, better than they did, but since there was no spare cash, no extra rehearsal was available, which resulted in the soloists singing parts of their arias for the first time with the orchestra in the show, and the chorus sight-reading large sections of their music likewise. One participant described the thrill of being in the same position as a member of the audience: hearing the music unfold before him with no idea of what came next. Yet, there was no real sense of anxiety in the ensemble, nothing more than a little extra frisson which concentrated the mind wonderfully, and a rapturous reception from an audience that had paid a large sum of money per head to be there.

This is the new `English disease', bred not so much in public schools as in choir schools. From an early age our singing children are taught to read almost anything at sight, which often means in performance. In my experience sight-reading in public is not undertaken for the fun of it, but because there is insufficient rehearsal time which means, somewhere down the line, that there is insufficient money. Our cathedral choirs wheel out, week by week, a dazzling amount of music, many hours of it if rendered end to end, which is thrown together on a fraction of the time it takes to sing every note once. Psalms, canticles, antiphons, motets and anthems are regularly performed with only the most cursory glance at `the dots' beforehand. Of course these choirs build up a repertoire and a know-how over the years which usually preserves them from disaster, but there is always the danger that the listener will have an uneasy feeling that he is being conned. Nobody, whether in church or in an expensive concert hall, is interested in brinkmanship for its own sake. He wants to feel safe within faultless technique put to the service of mature interpretation.

Choir-school training, and the assumptions it is built on, permeate English musical life more thoroughly than we may realise. …

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