The Prague Advent Choral Festival 2008
"Ve are screwed," announced the spokesman for the Grupo Coral De Proenca-A-Nova as he got up to introduce his choir as they were about to sing in the Gala Concert of the 2008 Prague Advent Choral Festival.
The audience broke into a warm gale of laughter and immediately took all of the choir members to their hearts. My choir which had partly been the cause of this statement looked vaguely embarrassed, but also elated, joined in the clapping and laughter, too. We are the Elmbridge Choir, 120 strong, and we had been invited, much to our astonishment, I think, to this amazing Choral festival celebrating Xmas in Prague.
We have only been together 3 years but in that time we have gained a reputation for enthusiasm and fun. We all just love singing and our repertoire reflects that. Abba, Queen, Shania Twain, Westlife, Dolly Parton, our songs were those that you would sing in the shower and here we were singing alongside 11 major choirs from Austria, Finland, Hungary, Norway, Germany, Poland Rumania and, of course, Portugal.
It was such an exciting experience for everyone. I had never been to Prague, anyway and discovered what all my friends had said, that it was a very beautiful city. Well, the Old Town was. The rest of the city was like any other cosmopolitan city and one would never have suspected its recent communist background. It had its M & S, its Zara, C & A, Debenhams even Tesco although it was not like any other Tesco I had been in. The Old Square is the most memorable location and that is where we had to sing, twice.. We were scheduled to perform two twenty minute slots out in the open in the middle of the Xmas market. It is a magnificent venue. It really is square and it's also surrounded by large, square, medieval towers one of which houses the famous Prague Astronomical Clock with its moving figures and bell-ringing skeleton.
Now it looked even more spectacular. A covered stage had been erected right next to the city's Xmas tree which was lit with 70,000 lights the most spectacular of which was a number of translucent tubes which made the lights inside seem to run down the tree. The effect was quite magical as from a distance it looked as if it was snowing. The stage looked rather out of place as it was a black monstrosity and, with our numbers, only accommodated half the choir. The huge 1st Soprano section had to stand on the ground in front of us. Well, when I say "ground" they actually had to perch themselves precariously on the large pile of Xmas tree branches which had been spread and piled up in front of the stage to make it look more festive.
Our first session was not up to our usual standard, it seemed to us, because we only had one microphone which was designed for one soloist but unfortunately it was live all the time and its position, just between two individuals, a tenor and a bass, meant that their 2 voices could be heard sometimes above everyone else's. Actually one of those was mine and I am sure that it was me singing off-key from time to time. Singing out of doors is very different from singing in a hall and was a new experience for most of the choir.. The wall of sound that is one of our trademarks disappeared as our voices were wafted away on the air. You cannot hear the rest of the choir so it seems sometimes as if you are singing on your own which can be quite scary.
We had got the microphones right by our second slot on the next day and we felt much more confident. Mind you, the first day could not have been as bad as we thought it was, however, because at least one person came up to one of the 1st Sopranos and said that she had enjoyed us so much the day before that she had to come back to hear us again. Other choir members, too were approached in the street to be told how much our singing had been enjoyed. We were pretty visible for the whole of our stay because the choir finances had been stretched to buy us all red scarves, bobble hats and gloves. So nobody ever missed us.
We caught glimpses of some of the other Choirs doing their bits in the Square but the highlight was the third event, a Gala concert to be held on the Saturday afternoon in a large hotel just outside the city centre. This was another adventure as we decided to take the underground. Yes, 120 people with no knowledge whatsoever of Czech taking the subway all together. Well, we did not actually lose anyone (although there was a small panic for a few minutes when we thought that we had) but we got to the right station at the right time on the right day so the organisation must have worked at least. Of course when we got there we discovered that all the other choirs (a half or a third smaller than us) had arrived in their own coaches! Typical.
What was interesting, though, was the contrast to the city centre. When we emerged up the steps from the tube station we all felt that we had stepped back into Communist Eastern Europe. Now, I do not really know why I say that because all we saw was open scrubby grassland, large featureless uncared for blocks of flats and empty dual carriageways. Perhaps I have watched too many spy films.
The hotel ballroom was large and modern with a low stage along one of the long walls and it is here that we began gradually to see the other choirs. A motley lot but most, like us, respendent in their choir costumes. The only other UK choir was the prestigious Cambridge University Musical Society Chorus and they were the only group not In any form of costume. When their time came to sing their Conductor had the grace to admit that they were rather "dressed down."
As we listened to each choir several things became apparent. They all were performing acapella and the standard of musicianship from each one was extremely high. They obviously all felt that they were representing their country because their 10 minute programmes centred almost entirely on their own national carols and Xmas songs. They were superbly performed but did not stir us in the way that they they stirred their own countrymen. Everyone seemed very serious. Virtually no one smiled and the performances tended to lack that entertainment factor that every performance needs.. Technically excellent but rather worthy and, I hate to say the word, boring, after a while, I'm afraid.
However, by the time the interval came and we had listened to 5 superb choirs we were all quite anxious, I think because our strength is our enthusiasm and enjoyment rather than, say, musical ability the quality of these other choirs quite overwhelmed us. On top of this we do not generally sing accapella. We take our recorded backing tracks with us wherever we go. Suddenly, we all began to suspect that we had misunderstood the rules and that we might have to ditch our recorded music. We make enough mistakes with the music so what would we have done without it?
We were due to start the second half which was an astute piece of organisation because we needed most of the break to sort out our huge numbers on the stage. As we stood there nervously, our conductor introduced us brilliantly because he immediately addressed our concerns when he described us as a community choir without an audition process. At his words, "All of us have just joined together for the sheer joy of singing," the whole audience (which was substantially smaller because we were on the stage) broke into loud, sustained applause, no one clapping louder, it seemed to me, than the Cambridge University Choir. He then added that, "We were the entertainment." More applause and laughter.
Our songs were competely different. We only sang two; the first being a Zulu Xmas song which has become one of our trademarks. Our musical director is South African and used to run choirs in Soweto and the townships back home. He has always thought it a delicious irony that an almost exclusively white middle class group from Surrey should sing African songs. For our part we are extremely grateful for it because they are wonderful to sing. All of the choir dance to the rhythms and heavy beat and our audiences absolutely love them. So it was here. We followed it with a humorous and lively interpretation of Jingle Bells during which one of our soloists (an ex-professional singer touches top C) which generated more applause as she sailed up there.
The final applause was ecstatic. Suddenly the hall came alive and we were followed quickly by the only children's choir in the festival, the Vlasterele Orastiel Choir from Rumania all of whom were dressed in black and white national costume. They looked fabulous so how could we resist them particularly when they sang Amazing Grace to which they added their own poignant ending.
It was at this point that the Portuguese Choir walked on to the stage. In broken English (although better than my Portuguese) their representative asked plaintively what they were supposed to do now as they "were following the show-off choir from England and the beautiful children's choir from Rumania. VE ARE SCREWED!" Of course, they weren't as they proceeded to sing their national Xmas songs but the audience was different now. Everyone shouted and hollared again because we all felt so excited and full of warmth towards them. Actually, at the end of the afternoon they approached our MD and issued an invitation to the choir to come to Portugal.
So the afternoon ended with a bang rather than a whimper. At the end we formed a huge choir as we mingled different nationalities together to introduce ourselves to the other choirs and then sing carols together. For all of us it had been a wonderful experience, four days we will never forget