Except when in the shower, singing is one of those art forms that seems to demand company. With a piano, your fingers can produce ten notes at the same time, but unless you are a Mongolian throat singer, your voice will only produce one. Among the countless enterprises to have suffered from Covid-19—bars, restaurant, sports clubs—it is no surprise that choirs have felt the lockdown keenly.
The choir at St Mark’s English Church, however, refused to countenance a musicless Easter. They are still singing together, never mind the distances between them. At the time of writing, they have uploaded two videos to YouTube: the first a recording of John Stainer’s “God So Loved the World”, the second of the Hallelujah from Handel’s Messiah, a piece of music that we all know, whether we know it or not. Each member of the choir recorded their part at home, but the end result, with those parts digitally stitched together, sounds nothing like a diaspora.
Naturally, smartsinging was not without its hitches. Kamin Mohammadi usually sings soprano, but dropped to alto when she found that she missed the sonic support of her colleagues.
“When we’re together,” she says, “the collective energy helps me soar up the scale.” Staying in tune and in time to a backing track was another challenge: “I very nearly gave up,” she admits, “but in the end just decided to go for it and have fun.” She beams through the Hallelujah video, from start to finish.
Kamin sang from her home in the Tuscan countryside, but others were considerably further afield. Richard Decker is a modern languages student at St John’s College, Cambridge, and in his year abroad had casually stepped into the role of conductor and director of music at St Mark’s. When the virus hit he returned to his native Kent, lamenting “the wealth of Passiontide music” that he had planned for his adopted church. The idea of virtual choral singing came from a fellow conductor, who had taken his own choir in Ealing into this brave new world.
His first job was to choose the music. “To spend the entirety of Lent and Easter without singing or hearing a single excerpt from Stainer’s Crucifixion seemed almost sacrilegious,” so he went for “God So Loved the World”: a chorus from the Victorian composer’s oratorio. The end result was uploaded to YouTube on Palm Sunday, proof that it will take more than Covid-19 to disrupt the liturgical year.
By all accounts, getting a grip on the Handel was more difficult, as the greater complexity and independence of its parts made backing tracks all the more vital. There were practical obstacles too, like the logistics of singing to camera, score in hand, solicitous pets to fight off and no conductor to follow. But with individual tracks eventually laid down, Richard had little trouble blending the soprano, alto, tenor and bass recordings. More taxing was the cinematography: a conductor may be direttore in Italian, but, having edited the first release, he did not trust himself to attempt a more ambitious video. Instead, it was 13-year-old saxophonist and chorister Alfie Beston who got 20 hallelujahing faces into the same screen. A shining exemplar of how to use lockdown time well, Alfie edits videos, makes his own arrangements and, as he writes on his website dailysaxophone.com, “hopes to brighten your day with some music”.
The musical nous doesn’t lie solely behind the editing desks, however; there’s a good deal of it behind the voices too. One member of St Mark’s Choir is Italian-Australian soprano Sarina Rausa, who since 1998 has sung in the chorus of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino opera house. She confesses to being the opera singer “who belts melismas from her racing bike” as she tears through the streets of Florence, and showed a similar flair for the ad hoc when she recorded her Hallelujah part in her bathroom. Her street is one of the busiest in Florence, she explains, and even in lockdown some aural debris would always filter through the windows. Besides soundproofing, her improvised studio had another pleasant advantage: “added reverb”.
The show must go on, and at St Mark’s, thanks to Richard, organist-in-residence Marlowe Fitzpatrick and the wonders of modern tech, it does. Video has also helped the church continue to fulfil its pastoral role, with chaplain Father William giving a virtual celebration of Easter Mass. Not everything can be done this way: an inevitable lockdown casualty is St Mark’s Opera Company, which performs repertoire operas on a small scale but normally to a full house, witness to their high standards. All parties hope to resume the full St Mark’s programme of Masses, music and weddings in their usual venue, via Maggio 16. Until then, we can sing a Hallelujah for the technology that keeps us in touch, and in tune, wherever we are in the world.