MUSIC / High with a little help from their friends

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Train drivers do it. Printers do it. Even retired bankers do it. The Philharmonia Chorus draws 200 amateur voices from as far away as Oxford, Eastbourne, Canterbury and Gloucester. Fiercely loyal, they give up two evenings a week to rehearse, their holidays to tour, their weekends to perform. Most of them are untrained, all unpaid. Sabine Durrant listened to their stories.

THE BARRISTER: Adrian Salter, 43, has been with the Philharmonia for 21 years

I'm baritone which means that I sing second bass for everything Russian and tenor for everything Italian. I started singing when I came down from university and I've sung with other choirs, but none that have the blend of the Philharmonia. At the London Philharmonic, the women are particularly good, but the men are particularly awful. With the BBC Symphony Chorus, it's vice versa. But at the Philharmonia I think the blend really works. We're trained to recognise other qualities of voice, you're made very conscious of a voice coming on at the other side of the stage and tuning in with it.

Singing is a relaxation, a way to let off steam. When it works - most of us would happily rehearse the Rachmaninov Vespers 24 hours a day, seven days a week - it's the best thing in the world. There was a time, when we were on tour in Montepulciano in Italy and I used up the choir's week's supply of water in one bath, when things didn't look too rosy. Michael Webb, our new chairman, an extraordinary placid and gentlemanly fellow, was apopletic with rage. But the festival at Orange in the South of France was another matter. There's nothing to compare with singing Turandot on a warm Provencal night on a 300ft-wide stage; you look up and there's a light behind the last tier - there are 45 tiers in all - and the Pole Star is immediately behind that. That's quite something.

THE FASHION BUYER: Anne Skelley, 42, is soprano and has been with the choir for six years.

I don't have a night in during the week. I play golf, tennis, bridge; I go to the theatre. The choir is just one of a range of things that I do with my time. There were occasions when I was buying for John Lewis that I'd be overseas and then I might miss the odd concert, but when you're busy you make time for everything.

I used to sing with the Philharmonic, but so much depends on the conductor - I don't think I was their cup of tea. I suppose I'm an opera singer manquee, but I can't stand up and sing solo anymore. I go completely wobby. The annual re-auditions here are quite horrible. First sopranos who are not hitting the high notes suddenly become second sopranos or leave. But then you have moments like the Pavarotti concert where we were the only dry ones - singing on the stage looking out at I don't know how many thousands of striped umbrellas. It was like an Impressionist picture.

THE PIANO TUNER: Clare Tobin, 21, has been with the Philharmonia for three years. Both her mother and her brother are in the Chorus. She sings soprano.

When I was little, I hated my mother going off to rehearsals - she's been going for 25 years. But when I got to the Upper Sixth and I was enjoying singing in the school choir, I thought why not join her? And now I'm not living at home, I get to see her twice a week without having to make a special journey.

I live in Amersham, but it's a good Tube service to Great Portland Street and then it's only a five minute walk to the rehearsal hall. You see people arriving in a rush and in a frazzle from work, and there are some people who are late every time, but I can arrange my own work and for this Winchester thing I can afford to take a day off. It's good to be flexible.

It's a very sociable choir - I know all the sopranos anyway. The average age is about 40, so you'd never join to find love. My voice isn't terribly strong, but I sing in tune; some people don't. David Hill is very good on pitch, he pulls people up on that. There are frustrations - when you get a work that isn't interesting it can be a bit of a slog. We did Szymanowski's Stabat Mater recently - it's quite bitty music, you can only sing for a couple of minutes and then you have to stop for the orchestra, and that can be annoying. But in concert it all came together and you understood what the hard work was all for.

THE PRINTER: Hannah Tiller is 46 and joined in 1979. She sings alto.

I work in the family business and I used to say I was lucky to have so much freedom. But what with the recession I feel more and more guilty taking time off. When I started my singing life I did want to become a professional but things didn't work out so that was that. Now I think I have the best of both worlds - I sing solo with smaller companies and with the Chorus I've sung with Pavarotti, Domingo, and all over the world. You get all the backstage thrills and if I was professional I'd be unlikely to have had the same opportunities.

At one time, people did think we were toffee-nosed - and in any group there will be those who annoy you intensely; the sopranos can be remarkably competitive. But when you've done a good one - and sometimes they're rather pedestrian - it's just a totally homogenised sound that blends with everything. It's not edgy and bright like the LSC, it's warm, velvety. You feel it around you. It's hard not to be proud about that.

THE RETIRED BANKER: Michael Webb is 60 and has been with the choir for 25 years. He has just been elected as chairman of the committee.

I actually joined this particular choir after going to pick up my sister-in-law from a rehearsal and getting caught in a pincer. The audition was frightening - I sang a little, very simple piece by Dowland - but the re-auditions are much more terrifying. When you've acquired the habit, when it's become part of your life, you don't want to lose it.

One has always had to fit it in with family. Fortunately, the Bank of England went over to Flexitime fairly early on, but it was a balancing act when the children were younger. Sometimes you can take people with you on tour. There was one splended holiday in the South of France for the Orange festival when the whole family came and we camped out. The children had a high old time wandering around the back of the amphitheatre during rehearsals. My eldest son developed a business acumen selling drink to the thirsty chorus and principals. Since I've retired I've had more time for music and now I'm chairman for the organisational side too. There's a fantastic harmonious feeling. You get a bunch of Philharmonia people together, they'll talk the Chorus for hours on end.

THE TELEVISION PRODUCER: Benetta Adamson, 41, has been with the choir since she was 20. She sings alto.

My job can be extremely stressful and all-consuming and I've found the perfect release: the choir keeps me sane. When I go into any new office the first thing I say is I can't work on Wednesday or Thursday evenings. It's a relief to go off and sing - you look at your watch and to your amazement an hour has gone by. You get completely lost in it.

At the moment, something interesting is happening: we're less likely to perform the Verdi Requim, which used to be our party piece, and have all fallen hook, line and sinker for the Rachmaninov Vespers. It's the province of chamber choirs, really, but we think our performance offers something out of the ordinary - 200 voices finding a dynamic range of expression. When David Hill says it's time to rehearse that, we all sigh and reach for our books, preparing ourselves for half an hour of blissful fun.

THE THEATRE CONSULTANT: Ray Carter, 56, joined in 1961. He's the choir's longest-serving bass.

I travel a lot with my job and I've arrived at rehearsals from some very odd places - Portland, Oregan, Warsaw in Poland, Calgary in Canada. But it's always worth it. In some choirs, the rehearsals are a necessary evil, but with the Philharmonia, working with the many chorus-masters over the years, they're a pleasure, very satisfying. And in performance, with the right conductor, the rapport between the audience and choir can be tremendous, almost tangible.

THE TRAIN DRIVER: Stephen Hines, 45, has sung bass with the choir for 12 years.

It's a major commitment being with the Chorus. Being a shift-worker, of course, it often means juggling shifts to fit the rehearsals in. Sometimes I manage it; sometimes I don't. I can't make the Dream of Gerontius - just one of those things - but I can make the Prom. I like doing the Proms most of all; the atmosphere is totally different to other concerts, the audience is so vociferous. It's something to really look forward to.

I used to sing with another choral society - the Ernest Read Music Association. It was quite good there, but a friend was moving and a change is as good as a rest. The Philharmonia is a different kettle of fish - we do a lot more concerts, for one thing. I remember one year I counted 14. And whereas at the other chorus we hardly spoke to one another other than say good evening, here we socialise, we go on foreign tours. It's a hobby, after all.

THE TRAVEL AGENT: Sheena Thompson, 53, has been with the Chorus since 1982. She is an alto.

The children were growing up and I thought 'God: work, train home, supper, telly.' Something was missing and it was music. My husband wasn't terribly keen at first. I'd done the odd evening class, but this was a fairly major commitment and I think he found it threatening. But then we met a lot of nice new friends - both of us - and he's included in everything. I think he's proud of me now.

I was a soprano all my life until this year. We were short of first altos and I've got a wide range and can sing right down to second alto. Unfortunately in the re-audition, David Hill sussed me out. I was upset to begin with. It's harder in the alto because you haven't got the tune. The last year has been quite tiring: every single work I've been familiar with for years I've had to relearn. If I'm very, very tired, the thought of getting in a car and driving the 25 miles in from Rickmansworth is, well . . . it's demanding. One or two of the alto parts are dead boring, particularly Beethoven 9. But the Rossini Stabat Mater was glorious. I was lucky: it really eased me in. And funnily enough most of my friends are in the altos and they were when I was in the sopranos too. It's a biological thing, I think.

THE VOLUNTARY WORKER: Ron Archer, 59, is a founder member of the choir. He sings tenor.

In 1957 I saw at advert in an evening newspaper asking for volunteers for a new choir to record Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with the Philharmonia Orchestra and I thought 'they'll be too good for me'. But then a soprano friend got in and, no disrepect to her, I said 'if you can get in, I can get in'. And I did. At first, when we had young children, my wife was left to hold the baby in inverted commas and perhaps she minded, but it was always part of the marriage. Now I go up from Eastbourne on the 4 o'clock and I'm back on the 10 o'clock which gets me in just before the coach turns into a pumpkin as they say.

It's changed a lot over the years. There used to be an age limit - 40 for ladies, 45 for tenors, 50 for basses - so it used to be a relatively young choir. It's also become more sociable, what with all the foreign trips - living, eating, I won't say sleeping, together. There have been quite a few 'matches' - even some marriages. We all get on. Sometimes we chide each other about trying to be Pavarotti, singing loudly or showing off their voices. 'Trying to get paid extra for singing the solo?' we say.

Financially, the choir has been a commitment. But that's like any hobby, really. It would cost me pounds 15 a week to have a round of golf.

The Chorus performs the 'Dream of Gerontius' at Winchester Cathedral tonight; and a programme at the Proms on 10 August. Auditions: 081-676 8918.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments