For the latest amateur classical music listings in and around Portsmouth, including Fareham, Petersfield, Chichester, Havant and Hayling Island

Change of guidance, what can you do?

The UK government has reduced the number of people being able to meet socially in a group to 6, from 14 September. However, there is still an open question as to whether music groups would be affected by this or not.

Currently, the list of exemptions from this rule includes sports (indoor and outdoor) and youth activities, but not other community activities, such as music groups.

We have been given to understand that the guidance will be updated by 14 September, so there is a small chance to influence it.

If you feel strongly that music groups should be exempt from the rule of 6, as exercise classes are, then you should write to your MP without delay asking that community arts/community music groups, organised by businesses and charitable organisations, in controlled settings should be exempt from the restrictions on social gatherings, in the same way that sporting and youth activities are.

Here are some of the arguments you might wish to put forward:

  • Research has now been undertaken which shows that musical activities are no more dangerous than loud speaking in close proximity; effective mitigations are therefore now possible, in terms of ventilation, face coverings, rigorous 2m social distancing etc.
  • Musical group activity creates some of the same benefits as sporting activity does, e.g. on respiratory and immune systems, helping many people who cannot undertake other forms of exercise
  • The mental health benefits of group music activity are now proven beyond doubt and are crucial at this time when the nation is reeling from 6 months of pandemic and the prospect of renewed restrictions in the winter, combined with difficult economic prospects; restricting groups again right now would deal a further blow to the mental health of millions across the UK who participate in such activity
  • This is formal activity in strictly controlled settings, rigorously risk assessed by a committee of people or similar, or a business owner, responsible for the well-being of participants, undertaken only with risk mitigations in place and enforced.

Choral ballads and difficult discussions: Approaching anti-racism in choral culture

In January 2020, I started preparing the University of Portsmouth’s choirs for a concert called Songs of Pride, Freedom and Resistance: Decolonising Choral Culture but I was not at all prepared for the protracted and important debate about racism and white privilege that it would ignite amongst our choir.

Coronavirus and the lockdown of the university put paid to the concert but, to my mind, the discussion provoked by the programming is one that everyone involved in choral music should be having and one that has become all the more urgent with the death of George Floyd and the emergence of antiracist campaigns like Black Lives Matter. I want to share some of that debate with you in the spirit of encouraging an anti-racist choral culture in Portsmouth and beyond. First, I should set the scene.

I am a 44-year-old white-European male conductor and academic who became interested in connections between music and concepts of race during my postgraduate studies at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in the early 2000s. My PhD (2010) was about figures in jazz culture, like Duke Ellington, who led famous bands and wrote music for those ensembles that represented black history and experience as an act of race pride.

I went on to write a book, The Recordings of Andy Kirk and His Clouds of Joy (2019), which aimed to show how Kirk’s band defied expectations of what an all-black ensemble should sound like and thereby challenged the racism that prevailed in recording and dance-hall cultures of the interwar period. So, it was perhaps inevitable that I would bring such academic interests into my choral direction work but, as we will see, my own identity makes such an enterprise problematic in itself.

The programme I devised for the aborted concert was founded on the Choral Ballads by the black-British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), who is best known in choral circles for his trilogy of works that includes Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast (1898). Coleridge-Taylor composed a set of three Choral Ballads for his 1904 trip to the US to conduct the Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society of Washington DC. Later, he expanded that set to five for the 1905 Norwich Festival and also reworked one of the original movements for female voices and baritone soloist.

All of this music is very well written for choir, with orchestra and soloist. Unlike much of Coleridge Taylor’s other choral writing, which tends to be mostly homophonic, it makes really good use of counterpoint but is nonetheless tuneful and accessible. In many ways, it is a fantastic choice for any mixed-ability choir like ours and a great opportunity to introduce them and an audience to a great black-British composer.

The Choral Ballads are all settings of anti-slavery poetry written 1842 by the white-American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882). Despite their noble intentions, however, the ballads are not without their problems: the lyrics include words used to describe black figures that are now considered highly problematic, albeit archaic, and the exoticism in the musical language is as much rooted in the colonial past. However, it was the words of the Choral Ballads that sparked the debate about whether and how we should perform these works and others in the programme. Here, for reasons of clarity, is a quotation of Longfellow’s text from the opening bars of the third ballad:

Loud he sang the Psalm of David!
He, a Negro, and enslavèd,
Sang of Israel’s victory,
Sang of Zion, bright and free.

To some extent, I had anticipated the debate about the text as I had prepared a presentation about the Choral Ballads which put the language issues in the context of their time and I offered a number of options for the choir to consider. These included, not performing the work at all, acknowledging the historical context and keeping the language as it is, or changing the language as a political act of decolonisation. What I hadn’t anticipated was the way that these options split the choir into factions that each felt very strongly that we should or should not change the language or else not perform the pieces at all.

I tried, as best I could, to please everyone by suggesting in a follow-up presentation that we could overlay words in a glorious and performative cacophony so that singers could make their own decisions but, in retrospect, I can see why that proved unacceptable for some, especially coming from me. On hearing my suggestion, one of our black students stated that if we used the problematic words at all she would leave the rehearsal in offense.

Another was clearly tearful as she explained that she felt she was being told what to do by yet another white figure of power, when her life was full of that sort of experience. That depth of feeling shocked me and I suddenly became aware of my own white privilege and the impossibility of me, in my situation of power, leading us to an agreeable solution on my own. I needed help to get a decision and that lay in much better dialogue both with and between our singers about these issues.

As I realised that I could and should not just impose my will over the choir, we had several meetings in which we discussed the programme and the issues of racial representation that were bound up with its performance. Several of our white singers were of the view that we, as a majority white choir, had no business in performing this repertoire but our black students spoke very passionately about the importance of engaging with such music and pointed to the prevailing problem of white fragility (DiAngelo, 2018) when it comes to addressing such issues.

I also felt that not to perform the work would make us complicit in a long history of effectively, if unconsciously, whitewashing the choral repertoire. There were those that argued that history, however distasteful, cannot be changed and thus the original words of the Choral Ballads should remain but, in the end, we agreed that changing the text marked an important act of de-colonialism and anti-racism. Thus, the passage above became:

Loud he sang the Psalm of David!
He, a brother but enslavèd,
Sang of Israel’s victory,
Sang of Zion, bright and free.

It was an often-difficult and time-consuming discussion but it was one of paramount importance because it caused us all to reflect on how choral-society culture is essentially racist in the way it tends to avoid such matters by effectively excluding black repertoire (apart from the odd token such as Hiawatha) and those who would identify with it. There were some within our choir who despaired that we ‘wasted’ time on this discussion, when there was music to learn, and they urged me to use my power put a stop to it.

That conception of white privilege is, however, a part of the problem and if we are to embrace the challenges set by the Black Lives Matter campaign and dismantle racist structures in choirs as much as in every other part of society, then we need to be brave and have these difficult conversations around such problematic repertoire as a matter of course.

Embracing works like the Choral Ballads and the sorts of discussions about racism that they motivate is but the beginning of a much longer and more difficult journey that will surely challenge many of the established basic principles of ‘good’ choral practice. Such principles include treating the conductor (as much as the composer) as some sort of power-wielding white male god, considering musical rehearsal as more valuable than the discussion of deep ethical issues, and valuing history and traditions of practice and rigour as more important than the rights and feelings of those who are negatively affected by the exercising of white privilege and power. If choirs everywhere took time to reflect on such things and took steps to address them, we would quickly establish a much more inclusive and anti-racist culture.

Dr George Burrows is Reader in Performing Arts and Faculty Research Degrees Coordinator at the University of Portsmouth.


How can we bring back music groups?

#BringBackMyChoir and #BringBackMyBand campaign has been set up by Making Music UK.

The UK government guidance on reopening the performing arts published on 9 July has caused widespread disappointment, so we are now giving you the tools to make your views heard.

The guidance prohibits amateur groups or groups with amateur participants – unlike professionals – to play or sing together, except in the numbers of people currently allowed to meet in public.

It goes further to say that singing and playing wind and brass instruments isn’t even allowed in those numbers.

Read more at the link below.


Help with research into safe choir return

Researchers need your input into a survey about safety and risk management for choirs

A team of academics and choir leaders at Brighton and Sussex Medical School is conducting research into helping choirs get back into their regular activities, following coronavirus lockdown.

As well as filling out the survey, the team is also inviting choir members to join them as researchers. If you’re interested, you can fill in your email address at the top of the survey and they will contact you. Or you can leave those fields blank if you’d prefer not to, and you can stay anonymous.

You can also keep up with the research by joining the team’s Facebook group which is automatically open to anyone who has been on Facebook for more than three months.

Click on the link below to complete the survey.


Support the Public Campaign for the Arts!

Something extraordinary just happened.

Against expectations, the government has announced an extensive rescue package for our arts and cultural organisations.

This follows an unprecedented groundswell of public pressure, including 150,000 signatures in support of the Public Campaign for the Arts.

Thanks to the package announced tonight by the government – including £880 million of grants and £270 million of loans in England, plus an extra £97 million, £59 million and £33 million for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland respectively – the cultural sector can begin its journey back to generating £32.3 billion a year for our economy. The arts can help to drive a creative recovery for the UK. And most importantly, they can continue to enrich our communities and all of our lives.

Please see the link below for further info and to read how you can support this initiative.


Open letter: Singing Network UK to the Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport

An open letter to Oliver Dowden MP, outlining the concerns of the 27 organisations in the Singing Network UK about the return to singing for the 40,000 choirs and their 2.2m participants in the UK.

Read more at the link below.


Giving voice – writing to our MPs to ask the government to stand up for the arts

Making Music Chief Executive, Barbara Eifler, outlines what we can ask MPs to support us with as we return to music-making.

Many of our members picked up on the article by Richard Morrison in last week’s The Times, asking why the government was not standing up for choirs and helping them re-open as the coronavirus lockdown eases. And many got in touch with Making Music about this, intending to write to MPs and other contacts, to try and get the government to focus on the problems facing music groups planning to meet again.

Barbara continues – read more at the link at the bottom of this page.

What can you do?

Now is the moment to write to your MP and ask them for help with these issues. There was a time when leisure-time music may not have been a suitable topic to raise, when the nation’s thoughts were focussed on daily deaths and overstretched keyworkers, but it’s now time to act.

Now that things are improving, those of us who have lived experience of the enormous benefits singing and playing together bring us have a duty, almost, to make sure that groups are able to come together again soon, to heal the souls of our members – and of the nation which has been joining virtual choirs and learning the ukulele while confined to their homes.

Not sure where to start with your letter? Download a brief summary of our submission to the parliamentary inquiry for inspiration: Summary of MM submission to DCMS.

Read a letter that Simon O’Hea (editor of Music in Portsmouth) has written to his MP: Letter to Alan Mak MP about music-making and lockdown
Here is the associated technical paper: The relative risks of inhaling virus-laden air for singers and players


Preview: “Songs of Pride, Freedom and Resistance” with the University of Portsmouth Choirs

CONCERT UNFORTUNATELY CANCELLED

The University of Portsmouth’s choirs bring together students, staff and townsfolk to sing under the direction of Dr George Burrows on Saturday 21 Mar at 7:30pm at St Mary’s Church, Portsea. In keeping with university culture, the choir perform mixed programmes that most often explore a topic or theme that is linked to staff research interests.

This programme brings together a mixed programme of choral music by a whole raft of composers from the past and present that represents the experiences of the racialized ‘other’ in different parts of the modern world. It also connects Dr Burrows’ research into racial discourse in jazz in featuring Mary Lou Williams’ choral music.

Williams’ was a brilliant jazz pianist and composer, who converted to Roman Catholicism in the 1950s and began writing choral music. Her choral masterpiece is St. Martin de Porres, a work about the first black saint. In 2019, Dr Burrows received a Berger-Carter-Berger fellowship from the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University to research Williams’ choral works for this concert.

Those works will be performed alongside Choral Ballads by the black-British composer, Samuel Coleridge Taylor, which are choral settings of Songs of Slavery by the American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that deal with the injustices of African-American slavery.

A new commission by the female Sri Lankan composer, Gayathri Khemadasa, turns the programme towards another part of the world where racial tensions have long prevailed.

On a lighter note, songs from hit musicals like Hamilton reflect Britain’s part in colonialism that led to much enslavement and racial tension.

Read Choral ballads and difficult discussions: Approaching anti-racism in choral culture by George Burrows on the Noticeboard.


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