The Sixteen, 32, 64, 922, 282 … and 1081

Spent this evening in a nine hundred year old building listening to some two hundred and fifty year old music.  Helped me put in perspective the fact that within a few months when I fill in a customer survey like the one in the concert programme tonight I’ll be ticking an age range that ends with 64!

St Albans Abbey (1077) was the nine hundred year old (in fact 932) building and the music was a suite of coronation anthems by the man of the anniversary moment GF Handel.  So the music was from 1727, (in fact 282 years old – flukily same 32 years error in both approximations).

The performers were The Sixteen, the choir and orchestra founded and conducted by Harry Christophers, and who featured in a beautiful BBC4 series last year called “Sacred Music” which I bumped into, and found engaging, and which reawakened a fairly fallow following of classical music.  Delighted therefore to find them performing at my local neighbourhood 900-year old cathedral, and with religious coronation anthems being right up my ideological street I could hardly decline.

The setting was spectacular.  The sun went down during the performance so the quality of light changed smoothly during the evening, with the grey sunlit stones turning sandy yellow under the electric lights from the wrought-iron chandeliers in alternate arches, which created a dark-light pattern to mirror the segmented shadings of the many romanesque arches in the Abbey.

Shame the music was indifferent really.

Of course the music itself was great, and I strongly suspect the performers were very good too, but the acoustics were pretty awful especially for the major choral pieces.  It takes sitting in a long narrow stone box with a high ceiling to make you appreciate a modern concert hall, which I therefore now do, all the more.  Musing on this I noted that the acoustics for the organ solo were very much better, leading me to hypothesise that one of the reasons organs work well in a church-like environment is that they are loud, with each note un-nuanced and emitted from one point, all of which probably help with the fact that the sound waves then get bounced every which way.

So: learnings – St Albans Abbey, beautifully atmospheric venue, but book early to get a seat in the block at the front and arrive early to get a seat near the front in order to get the sound waves while they’re fresh and before they’ve been handed down from an inconveniently spaced number of surfaces.  And I’d like to hear The Sixteen in a purpose-built concert venue.

The epilogue to this was that as I was driving home, by a further fluke, there was a programme about Handel and I tuned in at the point where they were playing a superb recording of Zadok the Priest, so I got that full blast as I was thrumming along the A1081, and with recent memory of the words was able to join in to the fullest.  Amen.

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