Treasures of Tudor England

The Sixteen, Royal Naval Chapel, last night (sorry…)

It’s officially called the 2008 “Choral Pilgrimage,” but I couldn’t bring myself to use a title that square on one of my posts. Why do classical artists have to continually shoot themselves in the foot by being so bloomin’ po-faced all the time? I guess it’s worse the other way – Nigel Kennedy with his ‘punk’ hairdo; a bunch of girls singing opera having to call themselves ‘babes’ to get gigs, but surely there’s some kind of middle ground where classical music (and early classical music at that) can be cool.

Not that this was going to bother The Sixteen – arguably the country’s best adult choral group just now. The place was heaving – clearly sold out, despite top-whack tickets shifting for thirty five quid a pop. And it wasn’t all old crusties either, there were people of all ages (I’m guessing the proximity of Trinity College had something to do with it) so probably I’m the only person who thought the title cringe-making.

I’d been desperate to go to this concert since I read about it in the ORNC listings (pick yourself up a leaflet in the Visitor Centre – it’s not all face-painting for the under-fives.) Quite apart from the facts that I love early music, and that I love choral music and that The Sixteen are so very well-respected, it was the setting as much as anything that I liked the idea of. After all, short of performing in the ORNC car park (directly on top of Henry VII’s chapel) they couldn’t get much closer to the probable original setting for this gorgeous, home-grown sacred music. This stuff needs to be heard somewhere with a big acoustic; with high ceilings and wides aisles, somewhere you can feast your eyes as well as your ears during the event, so the car park was out, but the Naval Chapel was perfect.

I’d heard there was going to be a talk before the event and I rather hoped it would be a tying-in of the concert with Greenwich’s past as a Tudor palace – considering we were sitting on top of it and all. It wasn’t – it was the choir’s two second basses who did a sort of classical equivalent of “the making of…” which worked rather well. They seemed relaxed and cheery, not too stiff, ‘interviewing’ each other – “So, what’s your favourite moment in the second movement, then, George?” – and they told us good bits to look out for, which for a Phantom who hadn’t actually heard of any of the three composers (for the classicists among you, Parsons, White and Tye) was very useful. Clearly the cheeky boys of the choir, they were fun to look out for later (in the very few moments I wasn’t totally transported to somewhere that may or may not have been the Tudor idea of heaven.)
What can I say? It was sublime. Of course you’ve got to be into that twisty-turny, mellifluous sound that the Tudors liked so much (think Spem in Alium in miniature.) The music washes over rather than confronts and little patterns and motifs are repeated in different voices, resounding through the Naval Chapel and my phantsmagorical mind.
I sat back and looked at that fabulous ceiling (hence the pic, taken by Stevie, clearly lying on his back, though not actually during the concert, of course. A bit anachronistic, but the only bit of Tudor Greenwich that’s left is either the undercroft or the water-house-thingy at the vicarage and neither of them seemed quite right) and allowed the music to filter through me. I knew none of it, yet it was all somehow familiar. Perhaps it was the fact that most of it was in the only bits of Latin I know.
The Sixteen are Discipline personified (though there was just the faintest glimmer of a smirk on their faces as they arrived back on stage after the interval. What do early musicians make jokes about? Rommelpot players, presumably…) Their timing is exquisite, their voices, ditto. A pal of mine who’s in that world tells me the group’s fiendishly difficult to get into, and I could tell that. Each of them was clearly hand-picked (even if some of their tailcoats weren’t…) Of course I’d have like to see them all dressed in the original kit, but I guess they’d consider that to be play-acting or not taking the material seriously. A shame. I like a nice ruff as much as the next phantom.
Of course this was just a one-off, but given that the place was packed, I suspect they’ll be back. Keep an eye out in the programme, and don’t be put off by the name ‘Choral Pilgrimage.’ In the meanwhile, you could always reproduce the effect by buying a CD ,sticking it on your walkman and pacing around the chapel, looking up at the ceiling. Or, even lazier, just look really closely at Stevie’s pic on the screen…

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