This article will appear in the Spectator magazine dated October 17th
Someone somewhere recently asked me in a public forum whether I would prefer to be a singer, the conductor or a member of the audience at the concerts we give. He himself was of the opinion that he would rather be a singer, saying that the music we do is so complicated that only someone on the inside of it can appreciate exactly what the composer has achieved. If he’s right, the audience don’t stand a chance.
I rushed to my own defence, saying that the guy out front has the best of all worlds, as one would expect if he is to control the performance. He is receiving the sound without distortion, so placed that the voices will come to him equally strongly. With this immediacy he can draw out and shape the phrases, which is both a privilege and a pleasure with music of such quality. In fact I have always opted to stand as close to the singers as possible, believing that only when I can virtually touch them will I have real control over the ensemble. When there is some impediment to this – a microphone or some steps or a piece of furniture in a church – and I am obliged to stand back, I never feel so confident about the end result.
My questioner pointed out that since there was no such thing as a conductor, in the sense of a non-singing interpreter, at the time the music was written the interpretation must have come organically from within the group. I asked him where he thought this left the audience, who seemed to be doing not much more than dropping in on a private conversation. I said this wouldn’t do with our modern listeners, who expect something more proactive from the stage. I then took the opportunity to dilate on the astonishing size and international spread of our following until the chairman could bear it no more and solicited another question.
Actually he was right: the best place to be is amongst the singers. I know this now, despite the fact that what you will hear in any one of the three positions on offer – singer, conductor or listener – is so different from the two others that you might wonder whether it was the same piece of music being sung. Of course I have never sat in the audience for one of my own concerts, but I did, just the other day, do some singing. The request to do this, which came from a fellow conductor on a choral course I give in Portugal, Owen Rees, showed how serious the situation was. In twelve years of this course, I have never sung a note. Nor did I find it easy to do so now. The problem that musicians with good ears have when they try to sing is that there is no tension in their voices. They know where the notes are in theory, but in practice the muscles in their throats don’t know where to find them. My problem was that I could hear them, but not identify them in the right octave. Since I was supposed to be singing second bass I spent a long time trying to think down, deliberately cutting out two-thirds of my available untrained range. Once this was achieved I came to appreciate how wonderful, and how stressful, it is actually to be making the sound. You are responsible, there is no one else. The conductor can flap about for all he’s worth, but he is powerless to do anything other than encourage. Suddenly my low notes could make or break this performance: if I missed them the whole thing might unravel.
Afterwards I realised that this responsibility is greater and more satisfying than conducting, to be on your own in a big collaborative effort where everyone is equal more arduous and more rewarding. When I reported these findings to the Tallis Scholars in our dressing room in Cadogan Hall the other night they said ‘three cheers for Owen Rees’. However there is one place in the world where everybody at a concert really will hear exactly the same thing: Florence Cathedral. They won’t hear it the same when the sound is actually being produced – the same divisions will apply as before – but the moment the sound stops and the echo provided by Brunelleschi’s dome takes over, everyone will thrill to the most beautiful acoustical effect in the world, exactly the same wherever they are sitting. Unlike other big buildings with famously long echos – like St Paul’s in London – here the sound is preserved here without any distortion. It was as if we released our final chords into the stratosphere, perfectly formed, to watch them float away. You could almost see them go. It goes without saying that 15 seconds of perfectly preserved sound is the greatest spur imaginable to singing your final chords in tune.