Procol Harum

the Pale

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Procol Harum • Dominion Theatre, London • 24 November 2014

A Chorister's Blog: 'From the Back Row of the Stage'

Part 1: 3 November 2014

On Tuesday last week we sang Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time, and piece about Malala Yousafzai that we had commissioned, at the Barbican; on Friday we started to rehearse Monteverdi’s Vespers; next week we will be rehearsing to sing opera choruses and cross-over music with Andrea Bocelli at the O2 in London and the LG Arena in Birmingham; but tonight we met in a school hall in North London for the first rehearsal of the chorus parts for Procol Harum’s next London concert.

Crouch End Festival Chorus is a choir of nearly 150 singers, but at the Dominion on 24 November there will be about 40 of us. The choir has some experience of singing with great groups of the 1960s: Ray Davies of the Kinks is one of our patrons, and we have sung with him, and recorded an album of Kinks songs. But every new gig is a new challenge. We were provided with recordings of Procol Harum In Concert with the Danish National Concert Orchestra and Choir, and with sheet music that consisted largely of bars of rests, with a few moments of singing every so often. Our conductor had been given some instructions, but for most of the evening it was a matter of working on notes, so that we will be able do whatever is required of us when the time comes. Having music that is legible (as this mostly was) is always useful in these situations; having music that is singable (as again this mostly was) is always a bonus. There are some lovely harmonies in Fires (Which Burnt Brightly) in particular – although how well anyone will hear them buried in the mix remains to be seen. Most backing singing is a matter of ahhhs, ohhhs and oohs, so having some sustained words to sing (even ‘hard of hearing, hard of hearing, hard of hearing, hard of hearing, hard of hearing’ etc.) makes a pleasant change. And the Latin of A Salty Dog is a language we enjoy working in – at least once the textual errors in the lyrics provided have been identified and amended (it’s that sort of choir).

The parts we have are not the most difficult we have had to deal with by any means. But even a simple descending figure in the bass line, sounding at least faux-baroque, takes on a new flavour if it is part of a song you have known since early youth (and still can’t make sense of). We will be back with this music next Monday night – with enthusiasm.

Part 2: 13 November 2014

If you were listening to Radio 2 last Sunday just before 8 am, you would have heard us backing Susan Boyle’s version of Abide with Me on her new album. I mention this as a way in to talking about the way we work. For that album, we recorded the backing vocals on our own in Abbey Road Studio 1, listening to a click track with the orchestra and Susan Boyle mixed well down. But we rehearsed our parts beforehand in the same school hall where we are rehearsing for Procol Harum, with no pre-recorded support: just us, our musical director and our pianist. The object of the exercise is to make sure we know the notes, and sing them in tune with each other.

So our second Procol rehearsal, on Monday, was another two hours of note-bashing. We have got to emulate the (professional) Danish National Choir. Next rehearsal we will be working with David Firman, who will be conducting us on the night, and checking with him whether we are really singing some of the Latin words in our scores (which do not match the official lyrics). Until then, we sing what we are given, over and over again, so that it sinks in, and so that, on the night, we can go with the music. It is odd singing a series of aaahs and ooohs (not to mention ’or’, ‘baum’ and ‘bop wah dup’), and the occasional recognisable phrase, with a piano accompanying us, and no clear idea of how this will sound in context. But this is not really different from the other performers practising by themselves. We are expected, at home, to listen to recordings while following our parts, so that we know what to look out for before we come in, and know how what we sing fits in with what others are doing. We are used to this – we get to sing with an orchestra at most on one occasion before concert day. We have sung with the BBC Concert Orchestra before, in this summer’s Sports Prom at the Royal Albert Hall. We like them: as one of my fellow-singers said, what’s not to like about an orchestra with a full string section and a drum kit. We will be rehearsing with them on the day before the concert, in Abbey Road: and the acoustic there is wonderful.

There is not a lot else to report at this stage. Before we rehearse for the concert again we will have another night of working on Monteverdi’s Vespers, and some of us will be running through Italian opera choruses and Neapolitan songs to sing with Andrea Bocelli at the O2. No rest for the Crouch End Festival Chorus.

Part 3: 23 November 2014

Sunday morning, Abbey Road. It is raining. By the world’s most famous pedestrian crossing a few bedraggled Japanese tourists are clutching cameras, hoping that someone famous is going to cross the road. But they already have. Outside Abbey Road Studios is parked a large lorry with ‘BBC Concert Orchestra’ on its side. Inside, Studio One has been divided into three parts. The front third – nearest the booth where the record-producers normally hide – is occupied by a piano, a drum kit, and a Hammond organ, along with other keyboards and various amplifiers and mixing desks: the band’s zone. It is walled off with shoulder-high Perspex screens, to protect the rest of the room from their sound, perhaps. The middle third of the room is full of music stands and empty chairs. The back part of the room has a lot of unused furniture in it but also, on low risers, forty chairs in three rows. This is where the choir have been put.

For the morning it is just us and the band, and David Firman, the conductor. We are here to sing through the set before the orchestra arrives, although some numbers, including the opening Homburg, make no real sense without the orchestra, and are postponed until later. At the start we are introduced to the band, including ‘our newest member’, Dave Colquhoun who, it turns out, has been ‘with the band’ for a far shorter time than we have. And while from time to time through the morning he is sorting out song-endings with Matthew Pegg, his solos give the impression that he was a founder member. As they are introduced, the band members wave – Dave waves one of his crutches.

And so we sing our ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’, and occasional passages of Latin, with David Firman anxious about tuning, and the band sorting out their endings, and Gary Brooker saying things like ‘lovely’ about our singing. In the course of the rehearsal one or two chords are changed – Broken Barricades now ends in D major rather than F# minor. We are witnessing music in the making. Sort of. It is wonderful to work with musicians for whom we are not simply part of the furniture, and who treat us as part of a partnership. In some songs our ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ are quite limited, so we only rehearse bits, which means that we took A Whiter Shade of Pale from the second verse, where Josh Phillips’s Hammond organ comes in. For the morning it is just us and the band, and we are singing that song, with that sound, and that singer. It is something rather special.

At precisely one o’clock we break for lunch. In the not-very-large canteen a table has been reserved for the band, but the rest of the space is occupied by the forty singers of Crouch End Festival Chorus. Some of us have sandwiches, and some queue for hot food. It is the privilege of stardom that there is someone to bring the band their pies and vegetables. But food is not the main interest of the band, it would seem, because a large TV screen is showing the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. A great cheer goes up from Gary Brooker as Lewis Hamilton snatches the lead at the first corner. Inevitably the race is still going on when we troop back into the studio, now with its centre third full of the musicians of the BBC Concert Orchestra.

And so we sing through everything again. Balance is checked. Co-ordination between the orchestral percussionists and Geoff Dunn is sorted out (at the start of Simple Sister). We have actually worked with the orchestra in the summer at the Sports Prom in the Albert Hall, and they are good. In the impossibly fast and difficult string passages, David Firman congratulates them as the first orchestra who could actually play the notes (‘the Swedes just gave up’). There is a section in An Old English Dream where David Firman’s arrangement includes a snatch of quasi-Elgar (Nimrod from the Enigma Variations, but not quite). It seems particularly appropriate to hear that in the studio where Elgar recorded much of his own music.

There are moments of relaxation – a group photograph is taken, at the request of the band, to mark this gathering of artistic forces – and there are occasional moments of tension, caused not by the band, or the orchestra, but by the producer from Radio 2, who is concerned (ironically as it is to turn out) with our ragged stands and sits. Since we do not know what the set-up in the venue will be, we accept instruction patiently. Part of the problem is that he knows already what we are to discover, that there is more of the set of White Christmas left on stage at the Dominion than was assumed when the stage was measured for the show.

But that is for another day.

Part 4: 24 November 2014

We were due to start our soundcheck/final rehearsal at the Dominion on the afternoon of the concert at three o’clock in the afternoon. But the day before, while we were at Abbey Road, we were told by the Radio 2 production team that we needed to be there at one o’clock, so that there would be time to fit our individual headsets. I had a meeting that I had already rearranged once, and could not do again, so I reached the theatre soon after two (and then spent a while finding the stage door). I signed in, then waited patiently until a crew member led me through the backstage area, stepping over bits of scenery and props from the show that we were interrupting (White Christmas) to the stalls, where my colleagues had spent the last hour and more waiting for something to happen. Half an hour later it did, and we were led onto the stage, past even more scenery, through narrow spaces. Half the sopranos and altos appeared to be standing behind scenery flats, invisible to most of the audience. Meanwhile I found myself standing in front of an orange microphone, in the front row of the chorus, absolutely centre stage. Clearly I and my fellow basses have good faces for radio. We shared our upstage area with the percussion section of the orchestra, and forty microphone stands and forty singers left no room for seats, so we were going to have to stand through the sound check, and through the concert. 

We had wireless headsets so we could hear what we were doing, and found these sitting on our microphone stands. So much for having to have them fitted. And most of us, having taken advice, plugged our own earphones into them. It took most of the soundcheck for the technicians to sort things out so that we could hear each other in the choir, but at least we could hear Gary Brooker clearly.

We worked our way through the set while the engineers did whatever it is that engineers do. Then we were led backstage, out and round the corner, to our dressing room, which was in a different building altogether. White or orange wristbands were our guarantee of reentry. We were given a bit over an hour’s freedom between rehearsal and show and some of us used it to refresh ourselves in the nearest bar, of which there are one or two around Tottenham Court Road and New Oxford Street. I have at home a very fine pair of loudspeakers (B&W DM7s, with electrostatic tweeters if anyone is interested) which my father bought from Imhofs of New Oxford Street in the early 1970s. The site of the shop (or just next door) is now an All Bar One, and that was a good enough reason to go there for a pint or so. (Also it was the first one we came to).

And then it was time to face the music. Four nights earlier we had sung at the O2 (a place where it is actually very difficult to find a decent drink) in front of an audience of 15,000, and behind an artist who, for all his artistic ability, never acknowledged our presence. The audience of 2,000 in the Dominion were, I rather think, considerably more discerning than those in Greenwich (and paid rather less for the experience). The venue certainly felt more friendly. And Gary Brooker name-checked us several times through the evening. I hope we lived up to his expectations. The concert flew by. Even with an interval spent squeezed into whatever backstage space would hold us, and the start of the second half when we had to redo the opening of A Salty Dog to cover a technical hitch (listening to the broadcast, even knowing what happened, you cannot hear the joins), we were finished before we knew it. We heard the applause, and felt the reaction of the crowd, although we could not really tell what we had sounded like at the time, hearing only what was in our earphones. But it was a great occasion to be part of, and I think I can say it was the concert I have most enjoyed in my time with the choir.

Part 5: Epilogue

I don’t suppose that many of the readers of these posts have listened to the version of Barcelona, performed by Katherine Jenkins and Alfie Boe (the album it is from is currently number three in the Classical Charts), or Susan Boyle’s Abide with Me. I have done so, because the Crouch End Festival Chorus provided the backing vocals (uncredited). We recorded our contributions in Abbey Road Studio One in the summer – alone, listening to a click track and the already-recorded orchestra and soloist, in short takes, repeating everything several times to get a choice of takes and the possibility of double-tracking. We sound pretty good in the finished product, although at times so low in the mix that you can hardly hear us.

Listening to Radio 2’s Friday Night is Music Night (in my case not on Friday, when we rehearse, but later, and several times, courtesy of the BBC iPlayer) is a rather different experience. Everything was recorded live, with no chance to correct mistakes (apart from redoing the start of A Salty Dog, for reasons that were nothing to do with the performance, as far as I could tell). This was when I got to hear what the concert actually sounded like – onstage we could hear ourselves and Gary Brooker through our earpieces, and whichever part of the orchestra was nearest to us, but not much else. Listening through the first time, all I could hear was the places where we didn’t get everything quite right. Subsequently I have tried to listen, if not with an innocent ear, at least attempting to hear the whole aural effect of the performance. Perhaps the professional choir on Live in Ledreborg are cleaner in their sound, although the BBC Concert Orchestra are more than a match for the Danish National Concert Orchestra. But the atmosphere of the Dominion Theatre comes across very well, and makes our version worth hearing more than once. (And I have recordings of several Crouch End Festival Chorus concerts that I have not yet brought myself to listen to). The music is certainly far more interesting than the crooning of Ms Jenkins or Ms Boyle.

I have come away from the whole experience with a great deal of respect for Procol Harum, and their music, and also a better understanding of how the sound of ‘orchestral rock’ is produced – the integration of rock band and classically trained musicians that can be so much more than the sum of its parts, when it is done right. I hope we get the chance to sing with the band again.

Thanks, Jack/Al

(The opinions expressed here are personal to our correspondent, and do not represent the official view of the Crouch End Festival Chorus)

Procol dates in 2014 | Procol Harum dates with orchestra

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