I grew up in a church choir and throughout my twenties and early thirties I sang in various professional ensembles in London. Apart from the Christmas period, this time of the year was always the busiest, with churches packed for the Holy Week and Easter services and some of the most sumptuous music of the religious calendar on offer.
This year, for the first time in more than eight centuries, UK churches are shut at Easter. Instead, the Archbishop of Canterbury will be leading the first national digital service from his kitchen.
When social distancing came into force, many musicians I know, working in both religious and secular venues, lost all their work overnight. A number of them were among the first to answer the recruitment call when supermarkets set out to hire thousands of extra staff shortly before the lockdown came into force.
Yet, while the choir stalls and concert stages are empty, musicians’ ingenuity is by no means spent. It has been a joy to hear of and from many people engaged in wonderful music-making during this time of self-isolation. And so, in solidarity with all those who will miss performing and hearing live music this Easter, I’m sharing five of my favourite musical lockdown moments.
1. Virtual Bach
Shortly after the lockdown came into force, the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, was supposed to be leaving for a tour of the Netherlands. Instead, however, the university had been shut and everyone sent home. To mark this, the choir recorded and released a virtual performance of one of the movements of JS Bach’s St Matthew Passion, which they would have been performing on Palm Sunday. It is a testament to the musicianship of these young people and their wonderful director, Graham Ross, (as well as the wizardry of modern technology) that they managed to deliver such a moving and beautiful performance from home.
2. #UriPosteJukeBox: 3+ Little Birds
Celebrated musical duo pianist Tom Poster and violinist Elena Urioste (who happen to be married) have been making the most of their time self-isolating together to create daily arrangements of tunes requested by their followers. This marvellous rendition of Bob Marley’s ‘Three Little Birds’ features seven other famous musical birds hidden in the music – how many can you spot?
3. Virtual recordings during Quarantine: Befreit, Op 39. No. 4 – R. Strauss
Part of a series of recordings made by musicians working together remotely, this video features award-winning pianist and conductor William Vann and coloratura soprano Julia Sitkovetsky performing Strauss’s exquisite art song. Quite a feat when you’re in the same room, let alone in different streets!
4. The Choir of St Mary’s Hendon, Orlando Gibbons ‘Drop, Drop Slow Tears’
A bit of a personal one here. This is the choir I grew up in (directed then, as now, by music critic Richard Morrison) singing at the last practice they held before lockdown, when social distancing guidelines were already in place, obliging them to stand 2m apart.
5. MNEK ‘Quarantine’, Coronavirus EP
Perhaps the purest form of lockdown music, this series has been created by British recording artist and producer MNEK, working alone to loop his voice. Funny, beautiful and ingenious, these songs capture a lot about what it’s like to live now.