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Choral Singing Holiday in Vienna, 2014.
“Whatever it was, it felt like magic”
In 1749, a young Joseph Haydn came to Vienna’s Michaelerkirche to play the organ. In 1791, in the same church, Mozart’s Requiem received its first public airing, days after the composer’s death. On May 5, 2014, Schubert’s Mass in G was performed there — by a bloke from Essex called Gary.
There’s a chance that, over time, one of these events will be forgotten. But it was one of the most memorable things this Essex boy has ever done.
Experiential travel is big news, and it doesn’t get much better than learning to sing Schubert in his home town, and performing it in this amazing venue. That wasn’t all. Along with the bereavement counsellor, hernia surgeon and six other amateurs who had come here to be transformed into a choir — in just four days — I was accompanied by musicians from the Vienna Chamber Orchestra.
Arranging for them to play was a feat of string-pulling that must have exhausted Témi Bowling and Alex Mills, who run a tour operator called Singing Holidays. It was the first time the couple had dreamt up anything like it.
A first for me, too. Yes, I sing in a band, and I’ve played in public heaps of times. But it’s a pop band. I can sing wonkily and call it art, or yell and call it passion. I can’t read music, and I haven’t sung with a choir since primary school. My challenge: a choral work in Latin, with interweaving soprano, alto, tenor and bass parts; a sublime classical piece whose sixth and final movement, the Agnus Dei, is one of the loveliest things I’ve ever heard.
“Does our string quartet often play with amateurs?” I asked Alex.
“No, never,” he said.
“Ah. And how do you know your guests can sing?”
“I don’t… But I’ve met some of them before.” Agreeing to give a solo to a chap named Kenn, whose voice he’d never heard, was a “sweaty” decision, he admitted. He’d not heard me, either, so I don’t suppose I had a deodorising effect.
From Thursday to Saturday, we rehearsed for three hours a morning with Guido Mancusi. The Italian composer was another coup. He conducts regularly at the Volksoper, one of Vienna’s main opera houses. In his youth, he toured the world with the Vienna Boys’ Choir. “Guido knows his schnitzels,” said Alex.
I’d been practising the Mass for a few weeks (the score had been posted to all of us), and I’d watched a lot of Schubert on YouTube. Attached to our boutique hotel was our rehearsal room, and there, on the first morning, we arranged ourselves before Guido, who sipped espresso at a keyboard.
Slap, slap, slap. This was our warm-up: slapping our arms, our chests, our legs. “Be rude to yourself,” laughed Guido, pummelling his thighs. After a series of vocal exercises, we drove a lorry through the Sanctus movement. “It’s OK,” said Guido, after a silence in which you could have heard a conductor’s baton drop. “We have three days.”
In spite of his pedigree, he was a patient teacher, and very funny. “It’s too flat,” he would say. “It’s like a warm cola. And I hate cola.” Or: “Your entrance is like Formula One. Vroom.”
I was one of three bass singers. As was Alex, who studied for six years at London’s Guildhall School of Music, which meant I could make like a goldfish whenever I got lost in a thicket of crotchets. Témi, also classically trained, and one of the warmest people I’ve ever met, joined the sopranos.
Every now and again, Guido would say “no, no, no”, laugh like a Hollywood baddie and polish up a particular section of the choir, talking through dynamics, notes, feel. Gradually we sounded less like amateurs, more like a choir.
We weren’t the only singers in town. I saw Jonas Kaufmann, one of the world’s leading tenors, at the Musikverein — all part of Temi and Alex’s itinerary, along with hand-picked restaurants. And I saw Faust at the Vienna State Opera. I’ve never witnessed applause like it. Would it be the same after our performance, I wondered?
SUNDAY finally arrived: show time. Directly outside the Michaelerkirche, horses were clopping past the Hofburg Palace. Locations don’t get grander. We climbed a spiral staircase to find the string quartet tuning up around the organ Haydn had played. This creaky-floored area is known as the organ loft, and overlooks the pews. It’s at the rear of the church, which meant the congregation already had their backs to us. That was one avenue of opprobrium blocked, but they could still walk out…
We were to sing between German hymns and parts of the Mass ceremony. Father Peter, the priest that day, said a few words, then a few more. The church smelt of old wood and incense. Eventually, Guido gave us a nod. We took a breath, the musicians raised their bows, I panicked a little, and together we sailed into the Kyrie. And, heck, we sounded good.
Our conductor’s hands danced this way and that; he snapped his fingers to tell us when to cut notes, he mimicked a bass guitarist, he bounced in the crescendos. We sang as one, rather than a melange of bits. And, unlike at one of my gigs, there were no awkward silences between songs — Father Peter took care of the banter.
Before long, it was time for Communion, during which we’d sing the Agnus Dei. Our string quartet shook hands with one another — a touching exchange I’d seen at the State Opera — and began the beautiful opening phrases. Then came a solo from Hazel, who handles people’s pensions in real life, but was now performing Schubert in the capital of Austria. Like all of us, she’d been guilty of some flat-cola moments, but her voice soared.
Too soon came the final lines of the Mass, and 17 humans joined to sing “miserere nobis” — have mercy on us. Faith or no, you’d struggle not to be moved. And we’d been a success: Alex and Temi’s reputation was intact, and I’d hit several of the right notes. The experience had what Margaret, a retired teacher, called “the tingle factor”. Hazel needed a large beer.“My solo felt right for the first time,” said Kenn. “It was a spiritual intervention, I think.”
Whatever it was, it felt like magic. No applause, no calls for an encore, but what a gig it had been. Goodnight, Vienna!
Folk Singing Holiday in Italy. Unthanks, 2016.
“The whole trip had a pinch-yourself quality”
On a trip to Abruzzo Gary Cansell got to sing with the Unthanks, the UK’s coolest folk band.
The Unthanks are a Mercury-nominated Folk band. They have collaborated with Sting, Orbital and Portishead. They count Ewan McGregor and Nick Hornby as fans. All of which is to say they’re a pretty big deal. And, earlier this year, they formed a new choir. With me and 14 other amateur singers — no talent necessary. And it only took us four days. How’s that for bragging rights?
I’d had enough of aimless holidays and, given that I wanted to achieve something — in this case, learning to sing folk music — I decided it may as well be in a beautiful place. For me, that was Santo Stefano di Sessanio, a little hill town in the mountains of Abruzzo, a two-hour drive northeast of Rome. My home for five nights was to be a low-tech, high-romance room in a renovated stone house.
We’d rehearse for three hours each morning, leaving plenty of time to explore this tumbledown fortified town, with its cobbled lanes, medieval stone houses and an earthquake-scrambled 14th-century Medici tower. And after four days of ambling and practising, we’d give a concert. “Folk Britannico,” read the posters pinned to crumbling walls in town. “The Unthanks con l’accompagnamento”. I didn’t mind being the accompagnamento. I felt big-time.
Rachel and Becky Unthank — my tutors — were as smitten with Santo Stefano as I was. “We can’t just sing miserable songs from the northeast here,” Rachel said during our first rehearsal. Having grown up in Gateshead, the sisters are familiar with moody northern skies, but the windows of our 16th-century rehearsal room revealed the most delicious sunbaked countryside. They sat us in a circle and took us through our first number. “Rose, Rose, Rose, Rose,” it went. “Shall I ever see thee wed? I marry thou shalt, when I am dead.” Next up was the haunting Caught in a Storm, by Graeme Miles, a prolific Teesside songwriter. The sky clouded over…
Weirdly, the folk songs we learnt — about miners, bonny lasses, ha’pennies and dry-stone walls — sat perfectly with the Italian countryside. Something about the simplicity of the music and the landscape. What sat less well was my accent. “You’re going to have to do vowel reconfiguration,” Rachel said. It turns out estuary English and Northumbrian aren’t natural bedfellows. From now on, “done” would be “doon” and “rain” “rairn”. The sisters smiled. “We’ll make a Geordie out of yers yet.”
During a break on our first morning, I heard them working on harmonies in a medieval passageway, as swallows darted past outside and lavender scented the air. Their voices were beautiful, weaving in and out of one another like cotton threads. I felt very lucky.
In fact, the whole trip had a pinch-yourself quality. I heard tales of awards shows and touring with Ben Folds, of travelling to Ethiopia with Damon Albarn and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I read about the band winning the 2015 Radio 2 Folk Awards album of the year, then I did a tree with them. (Yoga is on offer, too.)
The next morning, I was up at 5am to walk the flower-strewn hills with Rachel and my fellow amateurs, pausing to sing Bright Morning Star as the sun rose and spilt over the Apennines, illuminating the castle where they filmed The Name of the Rose. The sisters, along with their mother (sorry, mootha), threw themselves into everything, rather than disappearing after rehearsals. Folk is an ego-free zone, it seems. We ate together, walked together and laughed a great deal together.
We cried together, too. One day, we drove to a church in Bominaco, another lovely Abruzzo village, and in the Oratory of San Pellegrino, we formed a circle and sang Bright Morning Star again. If music has charms to soothe the savage breast, add ecclesiastical reverb and it’d make anyone weep like a lost child.
“Oh where are our dear mothers?” it goes, “Oh where are our dear fathers? Some have gone to heaven shouting.” Not all the words came out. “Singing is how we celebrate,” said Rachel, who was as moved as the rest of us. “And how we commiserate.”
The night of our performance came round all too soon. In a local wine bar lit with oil lamps, we gathered in a corner, rustled our lyric sheets and launched into the Unst Boat Song, the oldest song of Shetland — sung with three-part harmonies in a mixture of Norn (a medieval Norse language) and dialect. We sang Little Weaver Bird, by Molly Drake, mother of Nick. We sang the Great Silkie of Sule Skerry, an Orkney ballad about half-human, half-seal beings. People clapped — we had become a choir. Not a bad one, either.
Actually, an inspirational one. Just after we finished, the sommelier found a guitar and introduced us to Italian folk, translating as he went. “The butcher’s daughter,” he sang, full of emotion. “I saw you in the garden. Boobs. Pear-shaped boobs.” Next, a group of Italians turned to us, broke into song, then asked us for another. That’s the thing with folk music — it’s democratic. Anybody can join in. Usually, everybody does.
Time for one last Farewell Shanty. It was a traditional Cornish song of valediction, and, though I’m not religious, the final lines meant no less to me. “When your sailing’s over,” we sang, seated around a table with glasses of beer, “haul away for heaven, haul away for heaven, God be by your side.”
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