Singing for the trill of it

[attach]4300[/attach]I like Gilbert and Sullivan. I first got hooked on G&S thanks to the cunning of one Bartholomew Simpson and the dulcet tones of Robert Twilliger. (And people say there’s nothing cultural on TV anymore!)

I like to sing.

So it seemed natural when I saw the listing in our online community calendar for the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s Singsation event, where for 10 bucks you could come out and sing Gilbert and Sullivan. I knew I needed to go.

Now when I say that I like to sing, my voice is, to put it charitably, a little ragged. In my younger days I did a lot of musicals, often soloing as one of the principals, but in recent years my theatrical performances have been almost exclusively in the non-singing realm.

So it was with a mix of excitement and nervousness that I set off to Yorkminister Park Baptist Church, at 1585 Yonge St.

Both the event listing and people I spoke to on the telephone led me to believe that this was something for everyone, but all it takes is one guy taking things way too seriously and what could have been an amazing morning becomes a decidedly unfun experience.

To warm up, I listened to H.M.S Pinafore on the drive in. I sang along to some of the pieces but tried to keep it in, so as not to overwork my voice.

[attach]4301[/attach]People were already milling about when I arrived. I got talking with volunteer liaison Daniel Parkinson, who filled me in on the five-year history of Singsation Saturday and how each year they do four more serious choral numbers (this year’s lineup included Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s St. John Passion), along with one lighter one in the spring.

Before he finished signing me in, he asked me which part I sing. I told him I wasn’t sure. He gave me a bemused look, as if to wonder if I somehow fancied myself a boy soprano.

“You should sing bass,” he told me. “You sound like a bass and this way there’s no reaching for the high notes.”

Before taking my seat I introduced myself to conductor Brian Farrow, musical director of the now-defunct Scarborough Gilbert & Sullivan Society. He led a similar Singsation workshop last year, for which he confessed he was quite nervous.

“You get a real mix of people,” he said. “There are some who sit in the front who have sung it more often than I have, and others that aren’t quite at that level.

“But we end up with enough good voices to have all the parts covered.”

Thank goodness for that. At least if I end up sounding like a wounded duck I won’t ruin it for everyone else, I thought.

I made my way over to the bass section. The chairs around me started filling up with men who said they are involved in the choir scene. A stroke of luck, to be sure. While my pitch might not always be good, I blend very well. As long as those around me can carry the tune I should be AOK.

The time came. The conductor took his place at the music stand set up before us. He told us that we’d be singing 11 pieces, from eight G&S works. He said that he selected them based upon the idea of how to create a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, as they all have similar types of songs and plot twists. Before each selection he told us how each fit into the overall plan, with an incisive humour that could only be employed by someone who either truly loved or absolutely detested Gilbert and Sullivan.

The first selection would be a good test of whatever chops I had left. It was the opening male chorus from The Mikado. Farrow explained that Gilbert, who wrote the libretto, often had his characters literally introduce themselves to the audience, as witnessed here by the opening line: “If you want to know who we are/We are gentlemen of Japan.”

The accompanist, Farrow’s father, Stan, played the opening chords and started into the swirling 16th notes that precede the opening line.

It was now or never.

I heard those around me draw breath. I did the same.

Then from the 30-odd of us the first notes flew forth. It took me a second to get my pitch right, as not only was I unused to reading bass clef but, not being as familiar with The Mikado as I am with other works, I had no idea where the song was going.

The good news was that I didn’t sound too bad. In fact, it sounded like I was blending pretty well with the voices around me. And there were some fantastic voices around me.

At first my eyes were focused solely on the words (although at one point my mind, like some cell phone auto-complete with a sense of humour, saw the words “vase and” as “Vaseline”, which I fortunately caught before it came out of my mouth), yet in so doing I was falling behind on the notes. It took me a few pages, but I seemed to get it worked out.

We get to the end and I thought, that was kinda fun. I didn’t go wildly off key, I was indeed in the right section and I didn’t accidentally sing about petroleum jelly.

The conductor took us back to work on a few parts, not to the point of perfection, but to the point of noticeable improvement.

He then moved the 100-voice choir on to other selections. Each one its own challenge — be it getting my mouth to wrap its lips around the archaic line “Now is not this ridiculous” from Patience, occasionally reaching for notes which I should have dropped down an octave, or realizing that the notes I’m used to hearing aren’t the ones I’m supposed to be singing. But I was relaxed, and having a wonderful time.

Before the break we came, perhaps quite naturally, to the Act I finale from Pinafore. This was a treat. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard this number, but now to have an opportunity not only to sing it but to pull apart its inner workings gave me chills as we sang.

At 29 pages, it was by far the longest piece we sang, and I don’t know how much time we spent on it, but we sang it through at least twice, leaving with a big smile on my face.

I was surprised to see how much time had elapsed. It was almost noon, but for that to be true the clock must have been running prestissimo for sure.

In the second half we had a go at the patter song from Ruddigore, which actually mocks the rapidity of the standard Gilbert and Sullivan patter number with the line, “This particularly rapid, unintelligible patter isn’t generally heard, and if it is it doesn’t matter.”
We all chuckled when Farrow pointed this out.

“You laugh now,” he told us in a mock chiding tone. “But you have to sing it.”

We took it slow for the first few runs and on the last time through the accompanist took the tempo up quite a bit, to the laughter of those about to give it a try.

As the finale of the day, we worked the closing number from The Pirates of Penzance, which was notable for the spontaneous solos, including from a tenor sitting a few rows in front of me, taking the part of the Major-General. His voice was well practised from having sung the role many times in the past.

As we broke up I spoke to our conductor, who congratulated me on getting through it. He said he saw me singing and I thanked him for not wincing. He laughed and said something to the effect that it would have been unprofessional if he did.

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s Singsation Saturday Choral Workshops are over for this year, but will pick up in the fall. Details of the 2011–12 program haven’t been announced but, sadly, after two years of Gilbert and Sullivan organizers will be looking for something else fun for people to come out and sing.

If you go: Don’t be intimidated if you haven’t sung in a while. Every one of the 100-plus people in attendance was friendly and there to have fun. It would help if you had some ability to read music. I’d almost say it was a requirement, but if you know the tunes well enough you might be able to get by.