SEE US IN A NEW LIGHT
The Return of the Cathedral Choir!
The walls of Newcastle Cathedral once again resound to the sound of the Cathedral Choir. This is far from a return to normal, it is logistically difficult, but the circumstances also present some interesting opportunities, as Ian Roberts (Cathedral Director of Music) explains:
It’s now become a well-worn cliché, but the global pandemic and its associated lock-down was and remains unprecedented in so many ways. Some commentators have rightly stated that, for the Cathedrals of England, this period has been the longest without choral music since 1662. For us at Newcastle Cathedral, 2020 was always going to be an unusual year. The building work for the inspirational Common Ground in Sacred Space would have inevitable dominance and therefore prove a challenge for the sustaining of daily music in the Cathedral, but we had worked long and hard so that it would be possible to continue offering children of the North East the unique musical education in all its richness, and the walls of the Cathedral could continue to resound with the music of prayers and God’s praises.
As we all know, in mid-March this all needed to change abruptly. A week before we’d welcomed children from across the North East for our Chorister Experience Day, and we were knee-deep in rehearsals for a CD recording which we were about to undertake (but of course ultimately had to cancel). Circumstances demanded that we, quite literally, downed tools and went home. For our Cathedral musicians, as I know was the case for musicians across the diocese, this was a difficult and disorientating time, made worse by the fact that singing went from being perceived as a ‘good, healthy activity for the whole family’ to a ‘high risk activity’ overnight. The majority of our singers and musicians have remained in good health, and we have had so much for which to be thankful. Technological possibilities were a real bonus in enabling some very basic musical interaction. Yet, I was keenly aware that the plaintive cry of the psalmist in Psalm 137 seemed so very apt: ‘How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land’.
Fast forward to mid-August and we rejoiced at the change of Government and Church of England guidance relating to choral singing. We’d managed some very limited activity with the choristers via Zoom during June and July, but now we could actually begin to think about working with the choristers ‘in person’. It was immediately apparent that a return would not be logistically easy, and any sense of sliding back into the ‘normal routine’ impossible. Unlike foundations with Choir Schools, we have choristers attending from a wide variety of schools across the local area. This means that in no way can we call ourselves a ‘bubble’. Instead it has been essential that we have various additional measures in place.
The choristers have, in the most part, reacted with understanding and maturity when it comes to the new rules. The new regime includes the wearing of face coverings when moving around the building and at break times, and the strict two metre rule on all sides and ends when singing. To achieve this the choir is presently singing at the east end of the Quire, with all singers facing west.
Another aspect of the guidance for which the reasons are self-explanatory is that the singers should not face each other, and to this end we are not using the choir stalls. Other precautions include one-way systems and tape on the floor reminding choristers about safe distance and the spot on which they should stand. I’ve spent longer walking around with a tape measure than I ever thought I would need to during the course of my chosen career!
It was as I laid the furniture out in our Cathedral Song School that I realised that, with a lot of moving of furniture we could just about manage 12 choristers safely. Including our Probationer Choristers, we have double that number in our Girls Choir, so adaption of the timetable and multiple rehearsal and break-out spaces has been essential for accommodating everyone. With this comes the need for extra staff and volunteers.
I’m writing this article the day after we sang our first Choral Evensong in six months. The music was comparatively simple as we got used to using the space very differently, but the occasion was very special and moving. Because the majority of the Cathedral remains a building site, we can’t welcome congregations ‘in person’ for Evensong, but we can welcome all via the Cathedral’s YouTube channel. Our intention for the time being is to live stream Sunday Evensong and record two Evensongs during the week that will be streamed on the following day. This means that you can attend Choral Evensong from Newcastle Cathedral using your computer, tablet or phone on Thursdays and Fridays at 5:30pm and on Sundays at 4pm. The recordings will also be available for a while after so that those who would like can join in with Evensong at a time that suits their schedule.
For us at Newcastle Cathedral this will be a new departure, and we have had to be rather resourceful and invest in some new equipment to make this a reality. Ultimately, I hope and pray that the ease of availability of Choral Evensong from Newcastle Cathedral will bring a greater number of people to this beautiful act of worship. Venturing into the traffic, finding a parking space, or sitting on a crowded Metro is no longer a precursor to enjoying Choral Evensong at Newcastle Cathedral.
Therefore, out of a difficult six months that have proved challenging in so many ways, springs an exciting and new initiative. I do hope that you might be able to join us for Evensong on YouTube, and that you will tell your friends. If we can help and inspire just one more person that otherwise wouldn’t have discovered the Cathedral, its music, or indeed the Christian Faith, it will be well worth the effort.