Let’s face it, most choirs hate singing out of doors. There’s no acoustic, often dodgy staging, and, in Britain at least, a high risk of being rained on. But when you combine a stunning twelfth-century Abbey with a spectacular modern light installation, a top-notch orchestra and first-class soloists, the proposition becomes a good deal more tempting. So we were asked to take part in the Sacred Site and Sound Festival at Tintern Abbey, established to celebrate the richness of the building’s religious heritage, it’s fair to say that we jumped at the chance.
That didn’t stop us hedging our bets when it came to the weather. Thunderstorms had been forecast a few days previously, and, as we drove along winding roads into the heart of the Wye Valley, many of us regretted not bringing waterproof suits to Tintern as well as our traditional black concert uniforms. Luckily, however, there were no weather worries on the day. We arrived to find the Abbey bathed in glorious late summer sunshine, the skies above its open roof blue and cloudless.
The abbey was bathed in sunshine
Our concert that evening was to be dedicated to the life and work of John Tavener, who had died the previous year. We were due to perform two of his most popular choral works; The Lamb, and Hymn to the Mother of God, as well as works by Eric Whitacre, Henryk Gorecki and Benjamin Britten. All these pieces had all been carefully chosen to suit the outdoor venue and the occasion, as well as to convey the theme of elemental spirituality that the festival organisers had envisaged.
We spent a couple of hours rehearsing in the village hall, before getting changed into concert dress and lining up at the side of the ‘auditorium’ ready to process in. Our opening number was a piece of Latin plainsong Veni Creator. Processing up to the stage whilst singing in perfect unison is much more difficult than it might seem, but all seemed to go well and the audience were very appreciative. We were told afterwards that it helped to strike the mood perfectly for the rest of the evening.
Processing whilst singing is harder than it looks!
Certainly we were pleased with how the rest of our performance went – despite the quartet of soloists in Britten’s Hymn to the Virgin, who had expected to be providing a distant echo to the rest of the choir, finding themselves accidentally miked up! It didn’t detract from the overall performance, however; the wonderful atmosphere in the Abbey, the lighting, the birdsong, and a large, attentive audience all combined to make the evening extra special.
Our set completed, we took our seats at the side of the stage to enjoy the rest of the concert. As dusk fell over the Abbey and birds darted across a darkening sky, we were treated to a sublime performance of two haunting string pieces by Arvo Pärt: Fratres and Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten. The string section of the Welsh Chamber Orchestra under its director, Anthony Hose, were superb and many in the audience were clearly moved. Later that evening, the strings took centre stage again with a wonderful performance of Tavener’s masterpiece, The Protecting Veil. Inspired by the Virgin Mary, to whom the Abbey is dedicated, it featured the well-known cellist Kathryn Price as soloist and received a rapturous reception. John Tavener, we’re sure, would have been delighted.
With the concert over, and the harmonies of Pärt and Tavener lingering in our ears, we slipped away for a celebratory end-of-term curry in Chepstow; the perfect way to relax after one of the most moving and atmospheric concerts we’ve been involved in for a long time. Huge thanks to the organisers of the Sacred Site and Sound Festival for inviting us, and to everyone who came along to listen. We hope we’ll get the chance to sing for you again very soon!