Sunday, 7 March 2010

In the Presence of Genius

Last night, I sang in a performance of David Fanshawe's African Sanctus.   I If you are unfamiliar with the African Sanctus,  there is a small sampler available on the website - it's well worth a listen.

My introduction to the African Sanctus is probably the most unusual introduction to a Latin mass that you'll ever have.  In 1984, it was performed at the Perth Intervarsity Choral Festival, just before I joined the Melbourne University Choral Society.  At a party, three or four months later, someone put on a recording of the African Sanctus and, suddenly,  I was surrounded by a swirl of singing and dancing choristers!  I was enchanted.  And hooked.

I had to wait five years before I got the chance to sing it at the Melbourne Minifest 1989.   As far as I am concerned, it is the best piece of modern choral music written in my lifetime.  There is nothing else like it.  It is almost impossible not to dance to the Finale, when the Sanctus is sung repeatedly across 8 pages of score.   And when you have 150 voices on a stage in the Robert  Blackwood Hall plus drums, it can blow your mind away.

Last night was different but incredibly special in its own way.  First the differences - in 1989, I sang first First Soprano, right at the top of my register (C# anyone?); last night, I sang second Second Soprano, partially because someone had to do it and partially because my absolute top notes appear to have been left behind in Australia so these days I sing Second Sop (I struggle to get a B now).  Swapping parts when you know a piece is one of the hardest things I have ever done.  At one point last night, I gave up - I couldn't hear the Seconds (it was my turn to be rotated to the back row) - so I went with the part I knew best.  Hello, Firsts, here I come!

The other main difference was the venue.  Robert Blackwood Hall is a big, purpose built concert venue seating nearly 1500.   Last night's church is a 1920's barn-shaped building, seating 350.  I think (and DH agrees) it was overpowered by the music.

And the final difference was the choir size.  ECS has between 80 and 90 active members.  Last night, I think we'd have been lucky if we got 60 on stage.  I'm not sure if the pressure of the rehearsal timetable (8, I think) got to some of the old biddies or they didn't like the music.  Certainly, it's not an easy piece to rehearse because of all the interspersed tapes of African music.  Oh, and did I mention that even Second Second Soprano is high?  As in top B high?

But the thing that makes last night special is that it was very much David Fanshawe's performance.  Not only was the composer present - he gave an introductory talk about the African Sanctus - he'd spent the day work-shopping with us and ran the sound desk for the concert.  All day yesterday, during breaks in the singing, he'd throw in comments drawing out one part or another to change the balance, explaining why certain pieces sound the way they do and demonstrating the sound he wanted from us (as well as his normal singing voice (tenor?) he has the most amazingly operatic falsetto soprano).  He also gave us the history behind the movements, explaining where he was when he composed them and what inspired them.

It was a privilege to work with David Fanshawe yesterday.  He's quite a modest man, self-effacing and a little bit shy.  And he's a bit eccentric ("mad as a spoon" as DH put it).  But, when it comes to his music, he is such a big presence.  He was really pleased with our performance last night, taking his bow last night with a big smile and then telling us "well done!".  Afterwards, he kindly signed my score.

- Pam

1 comment:

amy said...

That sounds wonderful, Pam!!