At about this time last week, we were getting ready for the last performance of our week in Poland, the Rossini Petite Messe Sollenelle, all of us still stupidly high from the Verdi that we had performed the night before.
Poland was amazing.
If you work with me or go to church with me or are connected to me through any other form of social media or are related to me or have passed me in the street in the last seven days, you’ve likely heard it all already and seen the ridiculous grin that comes along with it. But. In the end, when someone realises that I was serious about wanting the Verdi Requiem at my funeral, trumpets and drums and everything, on that day, in the annals of stunning things I had the privilege to do in my life, Poland with the City of Glasgow Chorus will be something of which I was very proud and for unparalleled experiences will rank up there with my time in Tanzania.
And if you know me at all, even if it’s only the Internet sort of knowing, you know that saying that says a lot.
I went into this with no expectations at all. For one thing, I, like most people, was so busy that I didn’t have time to stop and think about the fact that this thing that had been over a year in the planning was finally upon us. I was looking forward to leaving the country for the first time in nearly three years and to seeing somewhere I hadn’t. I was excited about Krakow, because Krakow and also because I actually felt like I knew the piece we would be singing there. But I was also worried about whether, having mostly never spent more time than the day of a concert together, we would survive a whole week living in one another’s pockets. I thought I might find out that the people in the other sections really did have two heads – you can’t go a week only talking to second sopranos, can you? On the plane last Sunday morning, I was still making up significant chunks of the Verdi. I wondered whether this would my last time on stage with this chorus. During FY1, a run of Tuesday long days and chronically bad luck with the weekend on-call rota meant that I missed many more rehearsals than I’d have liked and all but one concert. It’s one of the sacrifices you make and I wouldn’t have swapped my FY1 year for anything, but always playing catch-up in rehearsals and never getting to do the *really fun bits did start to make a thing that I’d once loved feel a lot more of a slog. So far, this year, with a less insane rota, I’d started to remember what I’d loved about it, but I hadn’t yet fallen back in love with it. Falling back in love with it happened in the orchestral rehearsal for the Verdi. But I’ll get to that.
Krakow is a beautiful city.
I knew very little about it before I arrived, and I was expecting something more Eastern Bloc. It isn’t. It’s like central Europe, with stunning architecture and cobblestones and crunchy autumn leaves and churches, so many churches and so much Catholicism everywhere I wondered if I had accidentally flown to the Vatican (“It’s a little like the Ship of Fools website vomited all over everything,” I said when I got back. “Except that it isn’t meant ironically.” There is an actual altar to John Paul II in St Mary’s Church, Krakow, with no indication at all that they might be even slightly worried about the second or third commandments.) There is an improbable amount of sunshine for mid-October. It’s beautiful even through the Sunday afternoon haze of flight-left-at-zero-dark-thirty been-awake-for-too-many-hours where-is-the-coffee. “So this is what autumn looks like when you don’t live in the west of Scotland,” I kept saying. My roommate and I commandeered a golf cart with an audio commentary and were taken all over the Old Town and the Jewish Quarter, and as we turned into a back lane and the iPod began talking about St Katherine’s Church and its famous acoustic, we realised that this was where, in two days time, we would be singing Elijah. Outside was a petition to St Rita, the patron saint of hopeless causes, which sounded about right. And on the South Door there were two posters, both proclaiming Eliasz sung by the City of Glasgow Chorus. “Can you stop?” we asked our driver. “Can we take a picture? That’s us! We’re singing here on Tuesday!”
So sing we did, and I was reminded of all the little joys of a concert day. Of hearing it all come together for the first time. Of seeing people wander in to look around the church and staying a bit to listen to the fits and starts of an oratorio sung by people in their jeans with pencils stuck in their hair. Of people applauding and appreciating something that’s been laboured over. Of a standing ovation, and that isn’t a thing you generally get in Glasgow.
And by now, in the between times, (in the very late nights in the hotel bar), I was learning that the people I sing with are a really brilliant group, not just our little gaggle of second sopranos, but the other people, too, the ones who I had collectively spoken about eight words before this and who I recognised only as people who had perhaps once climbed over me in the City Hall. I found out that a guy who for the last six years has sat four rows in front of me and a little bit off to the left is from where I am from. And that our accompanist has a better sense of humour and is a better gossip than I’d ever have guessed. And that first sopranos really don’t have two heads! One of the most wonderful things to come out of this tour, I think, is that I went back to choir practice on Tuesday night and I had conversations with people who sit on the other side of the room.
Then, after Krakow, to Opole.
If I had no real expectations of the trip, nobody had any expectations at all of Opole. I mean, where is Opole?
Opole is a town in the very middle of Poland, north west of Krakow, with a population of 125,000. It has a brilliant orchestra and a gorgeous Philharmonic Hall which reminds me on the inside of a smaller version of The Sage Gateshead, the first real concert hall I ever sang in. And as Wikipedia told me when I had a fit of curiosity over *why, it’s the Polish Capital of Music. Opole is an unexpected jewel in Poland’s crown and I think it surprised us all.
On Thursday morning, I sat down behind an enormous drum that was in the charge of a very enthusiastic percussionist. Our inimitable musical director had handed us over for this one to our Polish conductor, Bartosz Zurukowski, with all the trepidation of a parent handing over its new baby – less worried about their child being stolen away, I think, than that the kid will scream and lose control of its body functions.
I have never sung the Verdi Requiem before. I have never heard it live. The drums exploded. The trumpets rang out from the back of the hall. I came in on the top note of the Dies Irae. The top of my head flew off. Once, years ago, I sang the Hallelujah Chorus in the Royal Albert Hall under the baton of Sir David Willcocks. I came off stage and sent a text message to a friend that said, basically, “omg that was amazing I don’t know why anyone does drugs”. That. That moment, in the middle of the orchestral rehearsal, that was when I fell back in love. I didn’t need the performance for the high. The performance was the thing that took it from awesome to stratospheric, and not only because by that point I was no longer making most of it up. The orchestra was brilliant. We were good, and we knew we were good. The concert was to a packed house, and Poland, as we have learned by now, does standing ovations and does curtain calls. As we congregated for dinner, starving and buzzing, one of our select group of groupies, the husband of one of the second sopranos, said, “It was better than magic.” It had been. How did I ever think I could have given this up? It is a high in the same way that Corpus Christi is still a high.
We’re recreating the Requiem for our thirtieth anniversary concert, on May 18th in Glasgow City Hall with Orchestra of Scottish Opera.
The next night, last Saturday, huddled backstage before the Rossini, I fought down the looming tears, telling myself that I couldn’t cry until I didn’t have anything left to sing, and I did. On stage, after the last note of the Agnus Dei, in the silence before the applause, to the cheers from a smaller but still appreciative audience and our wonderful Verdi maestro appearing unexpectedly to present vodka and flowers to our conductor, I laughed and grinned and burst into tears. I got weepy again at the Polish last supper and again on the plane — although that one I’m willing to blame on the three hours of sleep I’d had.
“How was Poland?” I keep being asked. My real life people are, I’m sure, absolutely sick by now of hearing that it was amazing, but I don’t know how else to explain it to them. It was an extraordinary week and at the end of it I think we all felt that we had come together to create an extraordinary thing. Poland was amazing. A stunning country. A fantastic sing. An intangible experience that I may not be able to explain but that I will never ever forget.