How VOCES8 are keeping the choral flame burning brightly

Martin Cullingford, Gramophone Editor
Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Behind-the-scenes at Westminster Abbey for the Christmas edition of Live from London

Westminster Abbey, caught on camera for 'Live from London - Christmas' (photo: Libby Percival)
Westminster Abbey, caught on camera for 'Live from London - Christmas' (photo: Libby Percival)

On the day I visit Westminster Abbey, there is still a week to go of this second English lockdown, before we step into the tiers that will shape society for the next few weeks at least. Lockdown London doesn’t feel as desolate as many an eerie Instagram photo might imply: traffic still circulates, tube trains rumble, pedestrians pace the pavements. But it’s in the closed venues where the restrictions and the rules are really felt: the silent stages – or the silent stalls.

Westminster Abbey has offered continuous worship for almost a millennium now, and while the nature of that worship has changed radically (not least the music that forms a part of it), it’s a continuity that is powerful to contemplate. A near thousand-year span of public prayer offered daily through liturgy, or uttered privately within walls that have stood, and withstood, through extraordinary social and political upheaval. That this worship has been paused – albeit briefly – due to the current Covid-19 crisis only adds to the heady mix of poignancy, pleasure and privilege I feel as I wheel my bike through the security gate into Dean’s Yard, turn left towards the cloisters, and enter the Abbey to encounter the choir, resplendent in their red cassocks, mid-rehearsal.

I’m here for the filming of the Abbey’s annual Christmas Concert, a special service of lessons and carols, to be this year broadcast as part of the second series of the online Live from London Festival. The festival itself is the creation of VOCES8 – a vocal ensemble, and a very fine one, but an impressively entrepreneurial organisation too. During the last lockdown, when choral singing to audiences was not allowed, they launched a festival of online events featuring ensembles including The Sixteen, Gesualdo Six, Stile Antico, I Fagiolini and of course themselves. Lockdown mark two brings the sequel: Live from London – Christmas. At this point I need offer the disclaimer that Gramophone was both media partner of that first festival, and is of this second one too, but I do so with no self-conscious caveat. In helping artists earn money, and in offering audiences worldwide superb new choral concerts, Live from London was a beacon amid the bleakness: we were proud to lend our support.

One paradoxical pandemic outcome is that ensembles and organisations, unable to reach their usual local audiences in person, sought to do so virtually – and ended up reaching audiences throughout the world. Live from London sold 40,000 ‘seats’ to viewers in 62 countries. Westminster Abbey – architectural icon, scene of royal weddings and funerals, not to mention coronations, all beamed globally - is of course very far from a local-facing organisation. But unless you are very lucky, you probably haven’t attended its annual Christmas concert of carols and readings. Live from London now makes it as equally accessible in Wellington as in Westminster.

There are subtle concessions to the times. The choristers, being boarders at the Abbey’s choir school, are huddled in a bubble, but the men are spaced at two metre gaps around them. But overall, it’s the familiarity, the continuity, that most moves. Standing across the crossing from a chorister sending the solo opening verse of Once in Royal David’s City upwards into the vaults was a moment of both beauty and reassurance: this is no new normal, just normal – if something so sublime can be described in such terms. A little later, light having long left the stained glass, Catherine Bott read the seasonal scripture verses. There was beauty and reassurance here too in those comfortingly familiar words. In a filmed conversation beforehand with VOCES8 Artistic Director Barnaby Smith, Bott spoke of how she mostly encounters the Abbey as an Evensong worshipper these days, finding peace in its daily offering of hope. Though not these days, of course – but it will return, soon.

Continuity, in many different ways, is a theme found running through the whole afternoon in fact. It turns out both Barnaby and his brother Paul, CEO of the VOCES8 Foundation, were choristers at the Abbey. I also meet Lord William Wallace of Saltaire, a politician and inaugural Chair of the VOCES8 Foundation; he too was a chorister here, and sang at the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Back in 1953, cameras were welcomed into the Abbey for the first time, vast vehicle-sized machines, a daunting logistical undertaking. Today, many and minimal cameras capture the choir from all angles, manned by multitasking members of the VOCES8 team – Barnaby and Paul included. An edit I’ve seen looks and sounds wonderful.

But then, in a manner that they would never have expected earlier this year, the VOCES8 team have had a lot of practice at this. Aside from the summer’s inaugural festival, much work has already gone into this second edition, which begins this evening with a candlelit musical meditation featuring Rachel Podger playing solo Biber and Bach alongside advent carols and prayers performed by VOCES8 of music by composers from the early Protestant Praetorius to a superb young voice of today, Owain Park. You can watch a beautiful excerpt from that performance below this article.

Coming weeks will then, alongside Westminster Abbey’s choir, welcome back Apollo5 and I Fagiolini, alongside new collaborators including The Tallis Scholars and the Gabrieli Consort and Players (the latter will be performing the six cantatas that comprise Bach's Christmas Oratorio, one per day, from December 25 onwards). Familiar names to many, now becoming familiar to many more, through astute programming, adept digital delivery, and an inspiring commitment to keeping choral music alive, whatever challenges the world throws in its way. And if all this has been born of a crisis, I wouldn’t bet against it becoming an additional, successful and permanent part of the newly returned old normal – whenever that may be.

The ‘Live from London – Christmas' online festival starts tomorrow; the broadcast of Westminster Abbey’s Christmas Concert is on December 15. Individual tickets cost £12.50; a season ticket to all 16 events costs £120. Full details here: Live from London - Christmas

Gramophone is a media partner of the festival, and ticket buyers can save 25 per cent on gift subscriptions to Gramophone with a special seasonal offer.

More festival preview films will be available on Apple Music from December 4.

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