In art, and in the higher ranges of science, there is a feeling of harmony which underlies all endeavour. There is no true greatness in art or science without that sense of harmony.
- Albert Einstein
There is a long tradition of amateurs coming together in harmony in a secular environment to make music as a group, club or choir, and, throughout history, such groups have contributed greatly to the development of musical culture in England and elsewhere. Nowadays, many such groups are flourishing, based around local, regional or metropolitan areas. One of these is the London Symphony Chorus (LSC), of which this Researcher has been a member for a number of years.
The LSC, a choir formed to complement the work of the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO), is actually an independent registered charity with a management team elected from among its members. While enjoying a special link with the LSO, the LSC performs in the UK and abroad with many other world-class orchestras, including the Berlin Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Philharmonia and many others.
Who Are These People?
LSC members are an amazing mix of all sorts of people, which at any one time might include students, teachers, retirees, people with demanding, high-powered careers, hamburger flippers, you name it. Most members live within commuting distance of central London, where the majority of rehearsals and concerts happen, but some people are actually making very long journeys, several times per week, often getting home very late, over a period of many years, while coping with job and family commitments, just to sing with the LSC. Don't ask how they do it.
Ask instead why they do it - something they frequently ask themselves, especially on cold, dark rainy evenings when the trains are cancelled and the roads are in chaos and there's a bomb alert or some other 'incident' in old London Town. But be prepared for several different answers.
So, Why Do They Do It?
Obviously, they love doing it - that's the original meaning of amateur. And apart from anything else, although rehearsals are hard work, often coming at the end of a busy day, singing is also a very good way of relieving stress, winding down, using your diaphragm to give your internal organs a beneficial massage, and filling your lungs and breathing in a way you wouldn't normally do. It's therapeutic1. And singing is such a natural activity.
It's also a social activity, and though in the LSC there is limited time for socialising there's usually enough to say 'Hi' to your friends, maybe catch up with a bit of gossip during the break, or meet up in the pub afterwards.
It's also a learning experience. This may be a matter of re-learning or refreshing your memory of something you've sung before, or it may be a question of getting to grips with something completely new. The LSC does a lot of new stuff, new even to people who've been in it for years. Some of it is pretty challenging, and there's a great sense of achievement in the process of getting some difficult music up to performance standard2.
Then there's the limelight factor. The LSC usually performs in major concert halls in major locations, and will often have a significant role at prestigious music festivals3, or perhaps concerts attended by royalty, and sometimes broadcast on radio or television. For an amateur musician that can be a particular thrill. And the LSC often gets reviewed (usually very favourably!) in the national press.
Recordings are rather special. The LSC is probably one of the most-recorded amateur music groups in existence, and there is an extensive LSC Discography of published recordings. It also has over 1,500 entries in the National Sound Archive4.
While some of the LSC's recordings are of what might be termed standard repertoire, many of them are in some way ground-breaking or gap-filling, and it is a particular privilege to be able to make a significant contribution in that sort of way to the world's store of recorded music. High plaudits and prestigious awards have been won, including a Grammy, the Grand Prix du Disque, and a Gramophone Award.
A Little Name-Dropping
There are many opportunities to work with world-famous names. For example, not long before he died, Leonard Bernstein came back to London and conducted concert performances of his operetta Candide, which were recorded live on video and also in the studios on CD. That recording achieved a prestigious 'Grammy' award, and the live performances in particular were also, as Bernstein himself said at the time, 'one heck of a lot of fun'.
Other famous people the LSC has been honoured to perform and/or record with include (in no particular order) Mstislav Rostropovich, Jose Carreras, Sir Paul McCartney, Jessye Norman, Dame Janet Baker, Claudio Abbado, Sir Simon Rattle, Pierre Boulez, Andre Previn, Sir Michael Tippett (particularly memorable in recent times were the concerts of Tippett's music given in honour of his 90th birthday, which were attended by the composer himself), Sir Colin Davis, Richard Hickox, Antonio Pappano - and the list goes on.
Then there are the foreign trips and tours. These range from a quick hop across the English Channel for a concert in France or Belgium and home the next day, to some rather pleasant extended stays with concerts in places like the Lincoln Center in New York City, the Sydney Opera House, the ancient Arena in Verona, Italy, concert venues both ancient and modern in Greece, or visits to Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Jerusalem, Moscow, Vienna and so on. On most trips travel and hotels are arranged and paid for, and there is usually at least some free time for a bit of local sightseeing, which all goes to help create a relaxed ambience in which members can give of their best. Of course, making these trips usually involves taking time off from work or other commitments.
What Do They Sing?
In addition to masses and oratorios and many other great choral works (not to mention many justly-neglected masterpieces), particularly of the 19th and 20th Centuries, the LSC is often involved in concert performances of opera, ranging from Berlioz, Verdi and Puccini through to Britten, Stravinsky and John Adams. And the LSC has specially commissioned brand-new choral works, eg from Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and Sir John Tavener.
And as well as the 'classical' or 'serious' concert repertoire, the LSC also does some film and advertising work, as well as some 'crossover' repertoire. It also gives a cappella5 recitals.
The LSC Music Library contains sets of choral scores which are available, not only for its own use, but also to loan to other choirs.
An entry on the LSC shouldn't omit to mention that the LSC has benefited greatly in the past from the patronage of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, who as well as attending the glittering Gala Concerts (such as the one the Chorus gave for her 30th birthday6) would turn up in a private capacity for many other LSC concerts, often with her children.
Diana also came to rehearsals and made a point of getting to know LSC members as individuals, and among all her other interests was extremely supportive of the Chorus in various ways. Of course this is now merely the stuff of memory, nostalgia even. And the LSC moves on to seek new opportunities and win new laurels.
There is an extremely busy schedule of rehearsals, concerts and recording sessions, far too busy to expect every member to take part in everything. So there is some flexibility in the system, making it easier for members to juggle their LSC and other commitments within certain limits.
Prospective members attend an audition at which they sing something of their own choosing, and need to demonstrate some musical knowledge and reading ability. Many who join the Chorus find that they quickly begin to learn a lot and improve their skills.