Choir returns: ‘It’s the most normal thing, but it’s now such a joy’

Conductor Bernie Sherlock’s concert with Chamber Choir Ireland streams this week

Bernie Sherlock: ‘The first week back we were only allowed have 15 singers. We met in Phoenix Park and we tried for about 15 minutes to sing in the open air on the grass. It was just so bad’

Bernie Sherlock: ‘The first week back we were only allowed have 15 singers. We met in Phoenix Park and we tried for about 15 minutes to sing in the open air on the grass. It was just so bad’

 

The Covid-19 pandemic has been difficult for singers. Early on, the projection of air created by singing was identified as something which increased the transmission of the virus and restrictions were put in place, even on singing in religious services.

Choral conductor and music lecturer Bernie Sherlock has been suffering the consequences. It was not until January that she got a break which allowed her to conduct 13 student singers in a room. Social distancing had to be imposed and windows had to remain open. It is only over the last four weeks, since the start of the pandemic, that she has been able to conduct her multi-award-winning choir, New Dublin Voices.

“It started quite small,” she says. “The first week back we were only allowed have 15 singers. We met in Phoenix Park and we tried for about 15 minutes to sing in the open air on the grass. It was just so bad! We were so happy when a couple having a picnic on the bandstand moved away. We took over the bandstand, stood in a circle so everybody could hear, and it was transformed.

“Now we’re at Wesley House in Leeson Park, working outside where there’s a kind of an awning if it rains. We sing underneath the awning. We had 22 singers last night and it was great to be back to a version of normality. Everyone is so excited to be singing in person. To be able to hear other people. To be able to measure your intonation. To be able to hear other lines being sung. The most normal thing, but it’s now such a joy.”

The voices are not quite what they were before the lockdown. “If you’re not using your voice then you’re not staying fit and your vocal cords will deteriorate. You’re not going to have the same range or the same control.”

Before New Dublin Voices became active again Sherlock realised she was a bit rusty when she recorded a concert for online streaming with the professional singers of Chamber Choir Ireland (CCI). She loves conducting, including, she says, the sheer physicality of it. But for a while during the first CCI rehearsal she had the unusual experience of her arms feeling a bit tired. But she mastered the moment.

Shared Ground

The concert was her CCI debut and, to her delight, she got to choose the repertoire rather than having to take on works selected by someone else. The title of her programme – Shared Ground – comes from a work by the contemporary English composer Alec Roth. “It’s a story to do with the house that the 17th-century poet George Herbert lived in” – the Old Rectory in Bemerton, a suburb of Salisbury.

“The Indian poet and novelist Vikram Seth went to have a look at it when it was for sale. He fell in love with it, put a bid on it even though he didn’t have enough money and he ended up owning it. He felt a very strong affinity with Herbert and he wrote six poems called Shared Ground, each modelled on one of Herbert’s poems. Roth’s piece has a nice movement where a tenor soloist represents Seth coming to look at the house and the choir answer, saying yes, you can buy it, you’ll be fine.You’ll find the money. Everything will be good.” Roth wrote the piece while house-sitting for Seth, with whom he has also written an opera, Arion and the Dolphin.

Sherlock describes her programme as “somewhat eclectic” and says that each of the works links to the title in different ways. “Uprooted, the piece by American composer Sarah Rimkus, was composed in 2018. It’s tied in to executive order that [former United States] president Roosevelt put into place in the early 1940s after Pearl Harbour. It decreed that anybody with Japanese ancestry could basically move to an internment camp.” More than 100,000 people, most of them US citizens, were forcefully incarcerated under armed military guard.

“Two particular ladies interviewed by the composer for this piece had been uprooted from their homes on Bainbridge Island, Washington, and moved to the Mojave Desert. It was horrendous. The piece is saying this shouldn’t have happened, it was appalling and let it not happen again. I like the message. I think it’s important for us to learn from awful things that have happened in the past and try to ensure they won’t happen in the future.”

Folk music

Estonian composer Veljo Tormis’s Sügismaastikud (Autumn Landscapes) is “a beautiful set of pieces, all about nature. Tormis had visited Hungary and met Zoltán Kodály in his latter years, it was the early 1960s, and was very taken with Kodály and his interest in collecting folk music.” Tormis is famous for having said, “It is not I who makes use of folk music, it is folk music that makes use of me.”

“He became primarily a choral composer. These pieces aren’t arrangements of folk music but they tie very much into that idea of love of nature, love of country, love of your own place, your own ground.”

Sherlock’s concert opens and closes with spirituals, Michael Tippett’s “sombre and deep” version of Deep River and Keith Roberts’s arrangement of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, which Sherlock says is “much lighter, focusing on the more joyful future and sounding a little bit jazzy”. She also mentions Ian Wilson’s Bealach Conglais (Baltinglas), setting a poem by Deirdre Brennan, “because it’s us and our history, where we come from. The opening lines are about the embers of a fire, they’re digested back into the Earth, and they’re in the air around us.”

If you view the concert online you’ll see the CCI singers carefully spaced out in All Hallows Chapel, the conductor much further away from them than in pre-pandemic times. This creates difficulty of co-ordination and balance. But it masks the reality of rehearsal during the pandemic, with the singers having to wear masks and having to put up with the perspex dividers that performers have so come to hate.

No one is going to be happier than musicians when they can see and hear and react to each other in the way composers have always intended and expected them to.

Shared Ground streams on Sunday, June 27th. Full information is on chamberchoirireland.com

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