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On Sunday 8th December I took part in Come and Sing: Britten St Nicolas and I can honestly say it was one of the highlights of my year. I very much hope it will become a regular fixture and for those who might be tempted next year here is a brief description of what took place.
There we were, around 25 people more or less unknown to each other, being asked to bark like dogs! Soon we were being instructed to masticate while gyrating our hips. This was just the beginning of last Sunday's Come and Sing workshop as Matthew Morley, St Brides' enthusiastic and entertaining Assistant Director of Music, encouraged us to limber up for several hours of singing. It was a very effective way of getting us to relax and I don't suppose I was the only one feeling a bit apprehensive about tackling a difficult piece of music and singing alongside such an acclaimed professional choir.
As it turned out, we need not have worried on either count.
The Come and Sing event had a dual purpose: to encourage people to come and take part in some community music-making in the run-up to Christmas; and to help raise money for the Inspire Appeal. The people gathered in the room ranged from those who had very little formal singing experience (perhaps with a school choir in the distant past) to some who sing regularly, but whatever our level Matthew took time to ensure we felt comfortable. He even advised us that if there were bits we felt unsure about when it came to the evening's performance we could simply stop for a few bars.
St Nicolas was an excellent choice because Benjamin Britten composed it with amateur singers in mind, but with support from a core of professionals. Besides a main choir, there is a second 'semi-chorus' of treble or soprano choristers, a trio of trebles who sing the role of 'pickled boys', and both a child and an adult Nicolas. The piece also includes two anthems - well-known him tunes with which the entire congregation can join in. During the morning workshop Matthew took us methodically through all the sections of the score that we would be singing. After a break for lunch we were joined by the volunteer St Brides Orchestra and a by a small number of the choir, who were there to support and encourage each 'voice'. We then had a further rehearsal with the whole choir, the semi-chorus and soloists. So by the time we took our places for the concert we felt really fired up rather than anxious.
I found the concert itself a magical experience. The scene was set with a series of Christmas anthems sung by the St Brides Choir, interspersed with readings given by Joanna Lumley. St Nicolas has a compelling narrative of its own and as the church filled with Britten's dramatic and sometimes plaintive or humorous phrases, I felt completely absorbed in the music and very privileged to be a part of it. It was extraordinary to sing alongside such a wonderful choir and to tackle a great piece of music from a standing start. A joint spirit of endeavour and Matthew Morley's sheer determination ensured a remarkably good performance. Many people said they would come back again next time - and so will I.