We battled repeatedly through a thorny section of Grayston Ives’s Requiem. “Don’t worry,” quipped Jeremy Jackman, “by the time you go to bed tonight this will be so familiar that it will have turned into an earworm… oh, wait a minute, you’re not going to bed tonight, are you?”
Nervous giggles might have turned into stifled yawns by the performance hour of 3am, and even droopy-eyed snores by the time we’d workshopped and performed a further three Requiems over the course of the next 24 hours, but what an incredible occasion Requiem To Cancer proved to be. Around 150 singers, some from as far afield as Canada, Portugal and Ireland, had gathered at St Paul’s in Covent Garden (otherwise known as the Actors’ Church) to play their part in raising funds for Cancer Research UK, and have an almighty sing into the bargain. I was looking forward to meeting up with many of my old friends from Run By Singers holidays, and at events such as this you can’t help but make new ones too. The sense of teamwork and mutual care was touching.
Not only did Jeremy take us through the first Requiem, a new-to-all-of-us piece by his old chum from King’s Singers days, but also a specially-commissioned anthem, All Will Be Well. Its composer, Will Todd, tweeted his disappointment that he couldn’t attend but I think we did his lovely work – at once gentle and life-affirming – proud. Carrying a message of comfort and support, it was delightfully accessible (aka not too tricky) and a great way to kick off proceedings at 8pm on Friday. It would bookmark the various personnel/repertoire changeover points during the 24 hours, and bookended the whole event as well, welcoming and sending us away with feelings of hope.
Another phrase of Jeremy’s summed up the situation rather well around 2am: “It’s a funny old time to sing.” Strange though the hour was, it didn’t stop Ives himself turning up for the run-through, which added a frisson of challenge. A list of family and friends lost to cancer preceded the performance, and as my father’s name was read out it added an extra emotional edge too. After just a few hours’ workshop (with refreshment breaks and maybe the odd snooze for some) we may not have been note-perfect but went for it with a gusto that belied the disrupted rhythm of our body clocks.
From 4am we were on more familiar territory, with Bob Porter taking us through John Rutter’s Requiem. First though, just in case our voices weren’t already warmed up enough by the previous eight hours, we launched into Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, which any choral singer worth their salt knows off by heart. Glorious harmonies filled Inigo Jones’s church, such an interesting building with plaques right, left and centre commemorating actors galore.
Mid-workshop as we prepared the Rutter, glimmers of daybreak could be detected, heralding a dose of light relief as we indulged in a run-through of Fauré’s Requiem. Needing no preamble or rehearsal as it’s so well-known and beloved of choral singers, it was just pure joy and also poignant in that our rendition was dedicated to all those who are currently dealing with cancer.
Our Rutter performance was preceded by a nice extended breakfast interval. Singers spilled out into the many smart eateries around Covent Garden and I felt suitably revived by a plate of scrambled eggs and smoked salmon, enjoyed in the company of Maria and Henrietta. Returning to the church, we found a chamber orchestra had been set up, adding visuals as well as fresh sounds. Hopefully a change was also as good as a rest!
Midday and time was marching on. Just eight hours to go. A change of conductor – Neil Ferris this time for the rousing Verdi Requiem – would surely breathe new life into my now flagging stamina? The spirit was more than willing but it was having difficulty convincing the eyelids. The sleepless night had caught up with me and I hit a bit of a low point, so it seemed sensible to snatch a power nap. No way was I going to give up altogether! The organ loft may not sound the obvious place for a doze but curling up under an adjoining bench turned out to be ideal during a half-hour tea break. With the faint murmur of voices drifting through my earplugs, just getting my head down for a short while did wonders and all I’d missed was a cuppa.
In addition, Neil had a very encouraging approach. He recognised the really tall order of the challenge we’d risen to and congratulated us on keeping going, but he wouldn’t let us settle for mediocre. He gave us lots of helpful instruction on getting through the Verdi in style, to make the sound bloom. While Simon Wood was gathering coins and notes into his donation buckets, we gathered choral insights by the bucketload thanks to Neil, Jeremy and Bob. We also had first-class input from accompanists, soloists and instrumentalists throughout the whole event – their details can be found on the Requiem to Cancer website, as can the donation button for anyone still wishing to support.
As we approached 8pm once more, a list was read of cancer survivors. This spoke volumes for the importance of research into the disease. The morning after, following a good night’s sleep, devoting 24 hours’ singing seems a small contribution to have made but together we’ve done something very worthwhile. See you in 2020!