Stepping off the train at Paddington for the first time in 12 months was an emotional moment: the blur of colours, rhythmic tannoy chimes, the sharp smell of cleaning fluid. It all came rushing back to me.
Walking through central London was an eerie experience — these deserted streets were busy in my memory — the familiar metropolitan buzz replaced by a quiet, ghostly aura.
On the approach to St. Gabriel’s Pimlico — where the NYCGB Young Composers and Fellows were to have our first in-person masterclass — a sudden surge of calm came over me. I expected to feel nervous and confused — instead, everything clicked into place. Standing outside the church were Ben Parry, NYCGB Artistic Director, and Ruth Evans, Head of Artistic Planning & Participation, chiming out warm hellos beneath double face-masks.
At first it was very strange to be surrounded by ‘new’ people — but these people were in fact not ‘new’ to me at all. The 8 Young Composers and Fellows of the NYCGB have been meeting for the last month and a half online, engaging in masterclasses, workshops, and rehearsals over video-call. For the first time, I was in the same room as composers Kristina Arakelyan, Anna Disley-Simpson and Alex Ho, and Fellows Elizabeth Leather, Shivani Rattan, Benedict Goodall, and - joining us live from the French Alps via Zoom - Michael McCartan.
How do you greet someone in-person for the first time, when you already know them? Do you say “nice to meet you” or “good to see you again?” I had to stop myself using the phrase “pleased to e-meet you” which has become a regular salutation over Zoom.
Once the dust had settled and we had all safely cocooned in our clear plastic ‘workstations’, it was strange how quickly I forgot all about the last 12 months of isolation. The joy of never hearing the words “you’re on mute!” and not seeing your own video-reflection staring back at you. Although I must admit, there were times I did miss making throwaway jokes in the chat-box.
Sitting together as a group for the first time, we shared our own favourite pieces for unaccompanied SATB in a discussion with NYCGB’s Artistic Director Ben Parry. The range of repertoire was huge! From the early English composer William Byrd’s ‘Ne irascaris Domine’ to Moira Smiley’s 2019 protest piece ‘Sing About It’.
Singing as an octet, we even brought some of the music to life. I was very nervous about this element of the day; I perform music because I enjoy it, not because I’m any good at it! Sight reading rhythm and pitch is very much a skill that needs to be constantly topped up — over the last year all aspects of my musicianship haven’t been nurtured, so it was a bit like being dropped into the deep end singing with some very fine musicians!
But quickly my apprehension was lifted — particularly during Dubra’s ‘Ave Maria 1’, which, luckily for me, was a lot easier to put together than the Byrd! The absolute joy of coming together and feeling like a part of a larger body of sound is an absolutely unrivalled feeling — we are so lucky to have been given this chance by the incredible people that run the NYCGB.
Throughout the session, we one by one had our photos taken by the excellent Ben Tomlin, who has the un-enviable task of ‘stitching’ our individual shots together to form a virtual group portrait. I’m very glad that I got the clippers out last week to hack away at my lockdown-mop!
In the afternoon we were joined by composer Jonathan Dove — what an experience! Jonathan shared his many insights about writing for voices of all types, from vast works for orchestra and choruses to intimate works for four solo singers. It was very inspiring to hear about his process, and to be given the chance to ask questions in such an open forum.
The day was brought to a close with a masterclass from conductor Joanna Tomlinson, an absolute expert in her field. Joanna covered a wide range of topics, from achieving a great vocal blend to typical troubleshooting advice when leading a choir. I was absolutely in awe of her immense knowledge and skill — demonstrating the subtle tweaks one can make to instantly bind a group’s sound together.
On the train back home, I was struck by the absolute rushing speed of the day — it seemed to have whizzed by in an instant. I could hardly believe it had happened at all. My brain is absolutely full of enough inspiration and information to keep me topped up until the next time we can all meet again. I am endlessly grateful to everyone at the NYCGB (especially Elizabeth Curwen for organising the day), Jonathan Dove, Joanna Tomlinson, Ben Tomlin, and my Composer and Fellow colleagues for such a thrilling, joyful, and memorable first outing.