ALONGSIDE the tinsel, the tree and the turkey, if Christmas is characterized by one thing, then it’s singing. Singing is an important part of the season, whether it is traditional Christmas carols, hits that have made it onto the Christmas pop charts or the great works of choral music associated with the holiday. And it’s an aspect that this year is going to be lacking.
Social singing in Scotland was suspended in March due to the essence of the transmission of the coronavirus, and there are no signs that it will restart. It does not take place in schools and churches, or in any of the amateur choirs that put individuals together on a daily basis.
This will be a Christmas at Usher Hall without the annual New Year’s production of Handel’s Messiah or the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall Christmas concert that raises money for the NHS.
Paradoxically, there was a revived and increasing interest in singing before the pandemic, with a range of possibilities for those who had discovered their voice, whether they were able to read music or not. The popularity of singing was reflected in the emergence of new community choirs as a means of musical expression that does not require an expensive instrument, joining long-established choirs such as the Glasgow Phoenix Choir and the City of Glasgow Chorus, the Edinburgh Royal Choral Union and the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, and those singing with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the Scot Chorus.
The director of both the RSNO Chorus and the SCO Chorus is Gregory Batsleer. His Scottish caps are these. He guides the venerable Huddersfield Choral Society south of the border, and the much newer Festival Voices, a group of professional singers based in London. As with everything else, guidance on singing in Scotland and England has not always been the same in this health predicament, but for those who love to sing, he has a strong understanding of the situation – and his main concern is that they should not forget.
“My understanding of the science is that the virus is clearly more likely to be spread by aerosol transmission. If rooms are not well ventilated and the air is not circulated, then the aerosol effect created by our voices has the potential to stay in the room, and then people are more susceptible to infection,” he says.
“That’s the reason people are nervous when they sing and also when they play brass and wind instruments. That’s why gatherings are limited, because the more people in a room, the more people could potentially be infected. Those are the facts, and that’s why we have to be careful.”
However, Batsleer is worried that the need for caution has left the voices of singers unheard and that there is a lack of preparation to start exercising their vocal cords again for those who love to sing and whose mental health is related to the thing they love.
Of course, to some degree, technology has kept individuals in line. In late October, under the direction of choral director Andrew McTaggart, the Ayr Choral Union performed a brilliant Messiah performance, featuring a small instrumental group and a quartet of young soloists working together in a studio. He also conducted the choir members, who, after being guided by the young professionals, watched online and sang at home.
Many other choirs have relocated their practice meetings online, but sites such as Zoom inevitably provide a weak replacement for real-life rehearsal opportunities.
“Batsleer says, “The SCO and the RSNO are very different choirs, and there are very different people in them. Their needs are different and their ambitions are different, although it is normal to make music at a high level.”
We do vocal coaching online, and we had a couple of evenings together making music via Zoom. Thank goodness for this technology – no one knew what Zoom was 8 months ago! We were able to release our pre-recorded Brahms Requiem concert with the RSNO, and this month we’re beginning online rehearsals again, and I’m looking forward to seeing people again.’
A big problem for orchestra leaders has been the ever-changing situation surrounding disease restrictions, with carefully restructured digital season plans thrown out on short notice when conductors and soloists were no longer permitted to fly, but Batsleer says the needs of the choirs of both orchestras were still paramount.
“This time makes it possible for me to collaborate with d