Sunday, 25 March 2018

Counting steps

I’m presently on my way back from singing in the synagogue choir. I decided to walk down the stairs at Holland Park tube. It gets the blood flowing. There’s always a sign at the top and the bottom of the staircases in tube stations which says how many steps there are. As one of those people who almost obsessively counts things, I’m often horrified about how off the mark the step counts actually are. That said, Holland Park correctly advertises 123 steps, so I’m not sure why I’m recounting this story!

I think I’m right in saying that Covent Garden tube is the deepest of all the stations on the London Underground, and therefore is the one with the largest number of steps: one hundred and ninety three, if Wikipedia is to be believed. I discovered this to my cost, as a teenager, on my first trip to London without parents. I came here for the day with school friends, Tammy and Natalie. We’d have trained it down from Bedford. I can’t remember anything about the day other than that it was my idea to exit the station via the stairs. I still have a photograph of the girls looking incredibly grumpy - about half way up! They were furious with me.

I think we went shopping in Oxford Street. I have a vague memory of going to Top Shop by Oxford Circus and being astounded by how big it was. I’d never seen a shop so large. I was such a hick from the sticks!

Singing in shul went by without major incident. There were two singers there who I didn’t really know, one of whom was a bit of a stickler when it came to the pronunciation of Hebrew. He picked me up on something I was singing, and I felt slightly embarrassed.

We were performing some repertoire from the “Blue Book”, which is the Orthodox Jewish equivalent of Hymns Ancient and Modern. The book was collated and published in the 19th century but, unlike its Christian equivalent, it’s never been updated. This is an issue for several reasons, the first of which is to do with the page layout. In order to conserve space, those paper-conscious Victorians made the decision to cram the words in all over the place, none of which are below the bass line, which makes sight-reading near impossible. The other issue is that the pronunciation of certain Hebrew words has morphed over time. Many o’s (but not all) have become a’s and t’s occasionally migrate to s’s. So the task of the chorister becomes that much more difficult.

Passover starts on Friday, so we were also singing repertoire associated with this festival, one of which had been arranged by a former cantor at the synagogue who was a little, shall we say, slap-dash with his writing. The arrangements he turfed out were always very poorly executed: badly-voiced and confusingly laid out on the page. I once picked him up on the fact that he hadn’t written any words below the bass line, despite the bass part singing entirely different rhythms to the rest of the ensemble. “What would you like me to sing here?” I asked. “Sing what you want” he answered snappily, “I don’t care.” I can’t remember what I said in response, but it was plainly incendiary as it rapidly escalated into an argument where he petulantly felt the need to point out that he wasn’t being paid to do the arrangements which, of course, was like a red rag to a bull for me. A self-respecting composer should do their best regardless of whether they’re being paid. If choristers are handed a hot mess of a score, then they will be unwilling, and, in fact, unable to perform to a high standard. And so it came to pass today with his dreadful arrangement, which descended into chaos because the music gave us no clues about what it wanted to sound like!

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