Singing Holidays

Ooooohhh, Vienna!

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Gary Cansell performs Schubert in a Viennese church.

Pack your cassock and lederhosen and head to Austria. Sean Newsom learns to yodel, and Gary Cansell performs Schubert in a Viennese church.

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 hometown 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 Temi 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. Temi, 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: showtime. 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!

Newspaper Holiday Reviews. Featured in The Sunday Times. Vienna Classical Singing Holiday