Saturday, 20 October 2012

At one pm, the gentlemen of the Southwark Cathedral Choir drain their pints and ascend to the first floor dining room at the Market Porter where they stand in front of the fireplace and sing with robust tone the grace Be present at our table Lord to the tune of Old One Hundredth in an arrangement for three basses, three tenors, one alto and melody by Michael Haslam. The twenty-five Friends of Cathedral Music seated at two long tables for lunch hold the tune, but the professionals are a good match for them and the few other diners do not mind having their conversations interrupted by the impressive harmony. The choirmen sing in gratitude to the Friends who have endowed one of the layclerkships with a gift of £50,000, a larger sum than they have given to any other cathedral. I report that the choir has enjoyed a very good year producing two recordings and singing at the Queen's Jubilee, the Olympics and the commemoration of the 800th anniversary of the Great Fire of Southwark in 1212 when most of the borough burnt down including the church of Our Lady of Canons, then on the site of the present cathedral. The rebuild included a tower but no spire, so it was appropriate that one should have been added this year. It is called the Shard, made entirely of glass and can be seen for many miles around.

Some of the members bake a cake for tea in the cathedral library after Evensong. The cathedral caterers do not insist on our custom as long as our sponges, flans and gateaux are homemade and not from any other retailer. This is like the BBC and ITV not admitting each other's existence. Or to paraphrase God, they are a jealous cake provider. They also do not let me use the kitchen-cum-storeroom attached to the library so I have bring an old-fashioned scout-hut urn and crockery on a noisy trolley from the cathedral administrator's kitchen using the lift and an underground passage. The choirmaster Andrew Carwood, from a rival cathedral across the river, is guest speaker. He tells us he tends not to take on the precious children who have been trained for their auditions by voice coaches; he is interested in native talent. An important part of the audition is conversation. He wants choristers who are broadly enthusiastic about life and climbing trees, not just boring, one-dimensional music specialists. He complains about school music teachers who do not encourage children to sing with anything but chest register and of the candidates who turn up with belter hits from the musicals for their auditions.

A Friend raises the issue of the 'contralto' who has been added to the dep list at Carwood's cathedral and asks if it isn't the thin end of the wedge. Carwood ripostes that people who use the term contralto nowadays do so pejoratively, the the female in question is more than worth her place and has been called the 'best male alto in London'! The Friend switches to 'mezzo' and says he cannot believe the tone produced by a female can ever be the same as that of a male counter-tenor though the choirmasters present unite to differ. Carwood says that, in any case, because the days when a singer would be prepared to relocate for the sake of a job in a cathedral choir are over, establishments outside London cannot afford to be selective. The cakes largely disappear although there is enough left for me to take home and share with the family after I have clattered the trolley back to the distant kitchen and done the washing up.