I took rare unilateral action to see this concert. I booked myself a single ticket. I’m really glad I did.
It sounded so interesting in the SJSS brochure, but could I persuade Janie (Daisy) a few months ago to agree to venture into Westminster on what she suggested might turn out to be a bitterly cold Thursday evening in February? Could I heck.
As it turned out, it was a bitterly cold Thursday evening in February.
I had a Skype music lesson with Ian Pittaway before heading of to SJSS. I am working on some very strange and ancient plainchant with him at the moment. I’m trying to sing in a slightly higher register now, which seems to have more going for it with my voice than the lower register I find safer. Also some tutorial on transposing complex lute parts into simpler baritone ukulele (Tudor guitar) parts without turning, for example, Though Amaryllis Dance In Green, into a banal three or four chord pop song.
On all of these matters, I’m sorry to say, Ian Pittaway concludes his seemingly helpful advice with the words, “that’s it – now keep practising that before the next lesson.” Why can’t he teach well enough so that I can get it 100% right first time and not need to practice? That’s the sort of teacher I want. I’d even pay a few bob extra for one of those teachers. 😉 I mentioned this evening’s concert and asked Ian if he had heard of Aux-Cousteaux – Ian asked if he was a deep sea diver who also composed music. Does this guy know much at all about early music or is he just spoofing us all with his waggish manner?
Joking apart, the music lessons are going rather well in fact. But by the time I had finished fiddling around with one or two of those ideas in order to try and cement them in my brain, then finished off a couple of pieces of work that I really wanted to get out of the way before the concert, it was time for me to get my skates on…more importantly, time for me to don my hat, scarf and gloves…and head for Smith Square.
The crypt was swarming with Québécois dignitaries being entertained and fawned over by the waiting staff, so my half-baked plan to pre-book the dining arrangements for my next visit with Janie, in May, came to nought. I hasten to add that the entertainment and fawning was a very dignified drinks and nibbles reception for the lucky Québécois swarm. Nothing “Presidents Club” about it.
Anyway, instead I bought a copy of the CD which seemed to be closest to the evening’s performance…
…then took up position along with a small posse from the regular SJSS front row mafia. The Québécois dignitaries had been allocated that “middle of the front block” which is deemed to be the best seats, although frankly, for a small enemble like this, I think front row is best even in a hall the size of SJSS.
I immediately knew the music was going to be to my taste. Ten voices singing a cappella, beautifully.
On researching the matter before the concert, I wondered why the Québécois considered this French early Baroque music to be their own. After all, Quebec City and Montreal were tiny little trading posts during that early Baroque period – a few hundred people in each place, mostly fur traders with a hundred-or-so monks in each town praying for the inhabitants to be spared famine, pestilence, Algonquian marauders, British marauders or combinations of several such fatal misfortunes.
It was all explained in the programme.
Firstly, some of the music they performed on the night is sung in the Abenaki language – that of the indigenous Algonquian people of that part of Canada – which is quite interesting. So it wasn’t all fisticuffs with the indigenous locals in those days.
In some ways more interesting is the sacred music of the early Baroque period by French composers, such as Henri Frémart, Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy and especially Artus Aux-Cousteaux. The monks brought the current music with them when they settled New France in the mid 17th century. There’s some very good music in there, which apparently would have been completely lost had scores not survived in Quebec, as all known copies of many of these composers’ works were destroyed in France at the time of the revolution.
So in those ways, this music is the Québécois people’s own.
The embedded sample is part of one of the Aux-Cousteaux pieces they performed on the night, so it gives you a very good feel for what we heard. I recommend that those who cannot resist the Aux-Cousteaux/Jacques Cousteau pun listen to this clip while submerged in their bath. Other folk, simply enjoy the delicious sound.
There was one modern piece by a young Québécois composer named Maurice-G Du Berger, who was at the SJSS gig to hear his piece and took a bow with the choir. It might be the first time I’ve seen a composer who was probably the youngest person on the stage in such circumstances.
At the end of the concert, the round of applause was resounding, but it wasn’t until towards the end of it that I realised that the Québécois dignitaries were doing that very North American thing of giving a standing ovation – the result being that the front row mafia was doing the SJSS regulars/British thing of politely but loudly applauding, while the rest of the audience was on its feet.
I hope the visiting choir didn’t think it was being dissed by the regulars, because the few I spoke to were all transfixed by the music and by all accounts the CDs sold like hot cakes in the interval.
It was a truly delightful concert, to round off a very interesting day of early music…
…but by heck it was a cold journey home that night. Not even faintly cold by Canadian standards of course, but for a wimp of a Londoner like me, it was well taters.