October has offered me many diverse perspectives on singing – that wonderful activity which we can do anywhere, anytime, and with anyone (well, within reason).
At the start of the month, I was at King’s Place, London, for a day focussing on the remarkable (and still not well known) tradition of Bolivian Baroque music. In 2008 I had the privilege of touring the Jesuit Missions in the Bolivian lowlands of Chiquitania. Here in the 17th and 18th centuries, Jesuit priests not only built churches, but – to my mind, rather miraculously – instructed the local folk in the arts of music: instrument making, composition and performing. And here – in another miracle – the tradition was kept alive for over two hundred years after the expulsion of the Jesuits by the Spanish monarchy in 1767. Here is a photo of the beautiful Santa Ana church from my travels in 2008:
The music from this tradition was a secret until the inspiring Priest and musicologist Pyotr Nawrot arrived in the region half a lifetime ago. In King’s Place at the start of October, he gave a fascinating presentation about the repertoire, full of his wonderment and excitement for the tradition, mixed together with a beautiful modesty.
In the evening, the excellent Florilegium, led by charismatic recorder player Ashley Solomon, gave a fine recital of the music. On the platform with the players were Bolivian singers performing items of their home repertoire. The whole experience was fantastic; one of the striking things to me was that for these young Bolivians, it was their singing that had allowed them to travel, with their music, to a faraway land where they performed to the likes of me.
Singing was very much the catalyst to my experience of the following weekend. My friend, Jamie Lonsdale, presented a soirée in his beautiful Oxfordshire home in aid of Sobell House Hospice.
There were some wonderful young singers taking part: Alexandra Kennedy, Mary-Jess Leaverland and Jennifer Clark (some fabulous coloratura Strauss). The main star, though, was Jamie himself. Jamie has told me that he came to singing somewhat late, but what joy he is having – and giving – through his newfound love of song from the inside. Among his items, he gave a most tender and warm-hearted première of my ‘Lullaby’ which I wrote for him, and ‘Fifty Shades’ (a combined Lonsdale/Knight number that links to a well-known bestseller) went down a storm! Best of all, Jamie’s singing habit led to the raising of a handsome amount for a wonderful charity.
A third singing-focussed weekend on the trot took me to the beautiful church of St.Mary-on-the-Bridge, Putney, where my new friends of the 1885 singers were performing a concert of tango-inspired music, including Palmeri’s Misa a Buenos Aires. They kindly opened the event with a performance of my La Vida de Tango (written in 2015 for Malvern Festival Chorus). There was no doubting the joy that this team of enthusiastic singers, led by their choir-founder Alison Hunka, conveyed to their impressively large audience. There was little doubt that their singing created a strong community spirit and focus. They made my evening by inviting me to conduct the final movement of the cantata as an encore at the end of the concert.
Reflecting on these three October weekends, I recalled a poster I saw a few years ago in a school in Oxford:
I don’t sing because I’m happy,
I’m happy because I sing.
It is my guess that the Bolivian singers at King’s Place, Jamie Lonsdale and his guest soloists, and the good folk of the 1885 singers in Putney all finished their performances with a strong sense of happiness. Their faces certainly suggested this.
And then I turn my thoughts to our schools and ponder: why is it that singing is not more celebrated and promoted among our children? You would have thought that an activity that offers such inter-cultural connection, community cohesion and charitable benefit might be seized whole-heartedly by headteachers, and that the happiness it brings to those who participate might be so valued that there was none of the reluctance, sadly so often experienced by music teachers, to afford music departments ample time for the rehearsals that allow choirs to flourish.
After all, it’s not just the singing that would be flourishing … it would be the happiness too. Surely we can’t have too much of that?