Making Music's manager in Scotland, Alison Reeves, reflects on an uplifting Adopt a Music Creator (formerly Adopt a Composer) premiere from Aileen Sweeney and Helensburgh Oratorio Choir.
Like so many people, I’ve been anxious about going to live music events since restrictions eased. I’ve read the science, I’ve unpicked government guidance, I’ve written risk assessments, but I’ve still felt a little hesitant about putting myself back out there. So I was excited – but also timid – about attending my first live concert experience in almost two years.
On 28 November, I was invited to attend the world premiere of Aileen Sweeney’s ‘Breathing Place’, performed by Helensburgh Oratorio Choir: the product of their Adopt a Music Creator pairing. Much of the funding for the project came from Creative Scotland, particularly to support the participation of a group from a rural community. They were due to complete their project in spring 2020, but… well, you know.
Throughout the pandemic, Aileen and the choir stayed connected and they were able to start rehearsing the piece again in August 2021. I was keen to see how they’d coped with returning to this collaborative way of working after a long break from singing, with all the complexities of risk-assessed, in-person singing.
'There were no tickets, so no touch points to worry about, but there was a retiring donation to make up for the loss of income. I did have a programme handed to me but I wasn’t worried about that – I was only on aerosol alert!'
Public transport was the first challenge to contend with, but travelling on a Sunday evening meant the service was quiet. I appreciated the early finish of the concert; even though a train was cancelled that evening I was still able to get home at a reasonable time. The venue was close to the train station and bus stops, with parking easy on a Sunday.
Everyone was masked when I arrived but still smiling underneath. One friendly wife of a tenor had a brilliant mask with a clear panel, so I could see her welcoming grin and I felt so much happier after having a chat. There were no tickets, so no touch points to worry about, but there was a retiring donation to make up for the loss of income. I did have a programme handed to me but I wasn’t worried about that – I was only on aerosol alert!
The venue was a beautiful old church, but recently renovated so comfortable and warm. Nowadays I appreciate these big old spaces for all the air above me, and the interior doors were also left open throughout. As well as ‘Breathing Space’, the choir had chosen to perform ‘Vivaldi Gloria in D’, which I thought was a really smart choice as it’s a piece that they and many of their audience know well. This setting had a relatively small accompaniment – a quartet of strings, trumpet, oboe and harpsichord – keeping stage numbers manageable for social distancing. The choir themselves kept a 1m distance which didn’t seem to have any impact on their cohesive performance - they were well blended.
'Music is healing and I was reminded that getting out of my house, meeting new people and hearing a new perspective on the world is also revitalising.'
And then the moment finally arrived: the piece itself, and what a wonderful work it is. The words – drawn together by Martin Raymond from the choir’s writings ontheir relationship with the local landscape of Loch Lomond – tell of the love and connection the singers have to their rich rural world, and their anxieties about the threats it faces. The lyrics appeared on screens above so we could follow and appreciate, coupled with images of the landscape they were singing about.
Words about breath and air are scattered throughout, and there is humming and breathing and the strumming of piano strings – reminding us of the breathing of the trees and the need for clean air and reduced carbon. It was obviously complex to sing, but the choir was brave and the performance confident. I was moved to tears underneath my mask.
So thank you, Helensburgh Oratorio and Helensburgh Parish Church, for making me feel so welcome, included and safe. I found myself able to relax, and in the right headspace to sit back and connect with this excellent work. Music is healing and I was reminded that getting out of my house, meeting new people and hearing a new perspective on the world is also revitalising. I’m really hoping I’ll be able to enjoy a few live Christmas concerts this year – it will be my gift to myself.