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An audience (with the Copenhagen Royal Chapel Choir)

Matters spiritual aren’t really, as they say, my ‘thing’. (In all honesty, I’m not too hot on the temporal, either). But recently, what with a local recital under discussion, surprise correspondence from an erstwhile colleague at Hampton Court, and then, of course, The Wedding (watched grudgingly, I hasten to add, though I stood for the anthem), the sacred realm – musically, at least – has been more than usually on my mind.

So I was very much looking forward to Monday night’s concert by the choir of the Royal Chapel, Copenhagen – ‘Angelic sounds of European choir music (in Sri Lanka and India 2011)’.

Pulled from a longer list on the night, the repertoire ranged from Western stock items – Rachmaninov’s Vespers, Mendelssohn’s Jauchzet dem Herrn – to a lively (and educational) Scandinavian Songs 101. Some of this was kitschy sleigh-ride stuff (recall Grieg’s loathing of his own cartoonish Scando-sketches); some legitimate folk variation on North-European choral themes.

But it was good to see them really pushing Danish music, both sacred and profane (even better not to sit through the usual hackneyed playlist of ‘classical favourites’). The chirpy Danish ficto-patois of So many beautiful flowers (Hans Hansen). Or the beautiful, hummed Born in Denmark (Poul Schierbeck), a choral(e) lullaby in the finest post-Bach tradition. Midsummer Night’s Dance (Hugo Alfvén) had something of the King’s Singers about it, its bucolic carolling just half a pint of Carlsberg away from an all-out drinking song.

A chapel choir is only as good as its choristers – and these guys were good. Very good, at times… just not particularly demonstrative. In the Rachmaninov, for instance: the noise was too nice; the entries too gentle; the ‘allelujas’ too timid (the word is tantamount to speaking in tongues, for heaven’s sake [lit.]).

The gents, similarly. Bit players, but deserving (they were outnumbered about 3:1), they eventually got a moment to shine on their own, in Peter Heise’s male-voice song Smiling Moon. As one might have expected, the singing was technically neater; but with only twelve of them – singing in a Harvard glee club kind of croon – it lacked even the quiet momentum provided by the massed trebles.

A clean and reliable sound, then, worthy of any provincial cathedral or a decent university chapel, but up there with King’s, Cambridge, and the Vienna Boys’ Choir (as the MC averred)? They were not. And ‘Angelic sounds [etc.]’ wasn’t simply mealy-mouthed and clichéd; it was untrue.

What the event sorely lacked was any hint of transcendence. It was – how to put this? – just music. Mostly good music, and nicely rendered; but heavenly? No.

There were, I think, two reasons for this.

The first was the sense of occasion. There wasn’t any. Under blazing house lights (why?) the choir’s already modest vocal forces (half the number featured in the publicity shots) began to look and sound, frankly, small.

Perversely, the usually-accommodating Wendt chose this night to come over all unreceptive. Sure, it was sold out (NB further damping the sound); but why not have the gig in one of Colombo’s several stone-built and resonant fit-for-purpose concert halls (sorry: ‘churches’)? The small-scale folk stuff wasn’t too badly affected, but the Rachmaninov ‘Alleluja’ needed the sympathetic ring of ancient walls, and Morten Lauridsen’s O magnum mysterium – one of the few pieces of genuinely famous Scandinavian sacred music – just CANNOT be performed anywhere but in a church context.

Choir director Ebbe Munk evidently felt that the front ranks needed spurring on a bit (one or two had left the stage by this point; but that’s routine for touring boys’ choirs), and he stepped down off the podium and got right in their faces. But nothing much changed.

In the circumstances, they can be forgiven for having misplaced their mojo. These boys will without doubt have been told time and again that they are ambassadors for their country. Someone ought to have told the audience likewise.

The cultural great and the music-loving good were everywhere you looked, but most of the assembly behaved as though they were there under sufferance. The lack of ceremony accorded what, musically speaking, constituted visiting dignitaries was nothing short of a disgrace.

In shameless disregard for the billed request to be seated 15 minutes early (I had always assumed the start time spoke for itself), folk were still entering 40 minutes in, and making a fuss about it, too. Evert Taube’s Nocturne was still in the beautiful fade-out when a) the applause shot the hell out of the diminuendo, b) the Wendt’s flunky was on stage, wrangling the piano for the next item, c) a child – who had been talking throughout, undeterred by parental attempts at control (literally: there were no attempts) – decided he wasn’t getting enough attention and upped the ante. In the Lullaby at Sunset (Carl Nielsen), a gentle piece full of minutely calibrated harmonies, bugger me if a man in my row didn’t try to hum along. His voice, for the record, was not up to the task.

There was, at the outset – needless to say? – the usual injunction regarding mobile phones. (Actually, it wasn’t that usual. The compère’s attempts at light-heartedness were so clunky and painful it was like having an ’80s handset dropped on your foot. But the point was made.)

Notwithstanding this, the gentleman next to me felt compelled to play with his iPhone from start to finish. He caught up on his vital correspondence – a couple of dozen messages, I’d say – and then, when he’d run out of people to Facestalk, he just moved the cursor round and round the menu. Sure enough, the damn thing eventually rang. It was on ‘silent’, and he tried to muffle it under his leg – but between the buzzer function and the seat of his wooden chair it still sounded like he had a hornet trapped in his shorts. (If only…)

No sooner had accompanist Mette Christensen begun her token solo (Chopin’s Nocturne) than another phone went off, loudly and at length. There were, I estimate, conservatively two audible phone-calls per piece. Something of a record, even here.

In the quiet moments, I could hear the beeps of a lady behind me laboriously tapping out an urgent SMS. It took so long I began to wonder if she was using Morse.

I’ve always thought it a miracle more choirmasters aren’t up for aggravated assault, and Munk is to be sincerely congratulated for breezing his way through all this with impeccable good cheer. Still, when he announced, by way of an encore, that the choir would sing a traditional and bloodthirsty Danish song about a Viking who lopped off seven heads with one stroke, I suspected I knew what he was getting at.

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