Singing Six Feet Apart: The Season So Far

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While the challenges of the 2020-21 season could never have been predicted, they’ve also been met in some unexpectedly meaningful ways, says Syd Birrell.

“As a conductor, it’s very exciting to be up on that podium. But during the pandemic I’ve heard louder than ever before from people how important the Peterborough Singers are to them. Not only have audience members responded to our appeal for financial assistance, they’ve also expressed that the Singers are a cornerstone, artistically and emotionally, in their lives. That means an awful lot to hear.”

When rehearsals for Verdi’s Requiem abruptly ended last March, the Singers immediately rallied, gathering together on Zoom with hopes of rehearsing virtually. But the extreme limitations of online choral singing soon became apparent. As a result, the Singers launched a “bridge year,” where the large choir would not meet. It kicked off with an appropriate enough piece of music — a spirited virtual choir recording of Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” put together by Peterborough Singers’ member Melissa Wotherspoon. (In case you missed it — or just want to enjoy it again — you can hear it here on YouTube.)

Next came the formation of small groups that provided participants with the opportunity to focus on repertoire a large choir would not undertake. These sessions, held at Murray Street Baptist Church with singers wearing masks and maintaining physical distancing, have been led by Syd Birrell, Pam Birrell, and David Geene.

While the aim has not been for the typical level of musical excellence the choir is known for, Syd Birrell feels some of the resulting music has been “quite beautiful,” even with limited rehearsal time and COVID-19 restrictions. Birrell also thinks there’s potential for the small-group electives to last beyond COVID. “I do believe in future we may be able to continue to offer some small-group sessions. We’ve seen that some folks love covering something we can’t normally do in the big choir rehearsals.”

Another unexpected musical bonus was a session that the Renaissance group, led by David Geene, was able to do at The Mount Community Centre, taking advantage of the chapel’s beautiful acoustics.

“To sing this repertoire from three to four hundred years ago in a setting similar to what the composers probably had then is pretty wonderful,” says Geene. “Sounds reverberate and blend beautifully; you can hear every voice, even with masks on — although diction suffers!”

Pam Birrell, who’s led two small jazz groups, says she’s been struck by the participants “excitement, joy, and eagerness to learn,” adding that the sessions have become the highlight of her own week as well. As for singers coping with the challenges of diction, fogging glasses, and being in a semi-soloist spotlight, the pressures seem to have been worth it. As one singer put it, “It’s good for the soul and the brain.”