How to broadcast a concert remotely

Tenebrae conductor Nigel Short on the challenges and thrills of presenting a programme of Easter choral music in this period of self-isolation

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Under normal circumstances, most professional choirs could put together a programme of music like ours on the day of the concert. But doing it remotely has proved a totally new venture for myself and Tenebrae’s singers – I didn’t have the first clue as to how it could be made to work. It wasn’t possible to edit one singer at a time; working on each voice to make it perfect before adding the next would have been much easier, but it would have been a lengthy process for which we simply didn’t have time.

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But perhaps the most startling thing about the ‘Sacred Songs’ project was the initial invitation from the BBC, asking if I would be happy to give it a go. In the midst of so much turmoil, it was wonderful to discover that there was an appetite to make something like this for the general public, who have been prevented from going to concerts or church services to hear music for Holy Week. We wanted the end result to capture the passion we would aim for in a live performance.

So how did we put it all together? The sound engineer, Mike Hatch, suggested I begin by making a video of myself conducting the music, which would then be sent out to the singers. They would watch it and record themselves on their phones, singing their own voice part but without hearing anything else.

I can’t speak for the singers, but for me personally the first challenge was to try and be relaxed and not move around at all whilst conducting. I was asked to keep my head still, to keep my hands as close to my body as possible, and not to move my feet at all, as too much movement would be distracting in the film.

When I’m with singers in a room, we feed off each other and support each other with eye contact, physical movement, and generous or robust hand gestures. If you take away all the audible and visual contact you’d normally have in a concert scenario, and also the physical energy and emotion you can feel when standing close together, you’re left with nothing but whatever you hold in your head as an ideal rendition of a piece.

I’ve never been a director who tries to shoehorn all the musicians into my own ideal version: I’ve always been more interested in spontaneity, drawing on the moments of magic which occur with each particular group of individuals. For me, the very best ensembles aren’t the ones who practise over and over again to give an almost identical performance of a piece every time. That’s too clinical and stops the music from breathing and being really alive.

No, the best ensembles are the ones that are truly in the moment and can react spontaneously to unexpected triggers. It’s our skill as communicators to make the music come off the page and that’s the most exciting bit of what we do.

All these vital aspects of performance were removed from the process we were now attempting, and so I am the first to salute the genius of the audio engineer Mike Hatch and executive producer Ben Weston, who have worked tirelessly to help us craft and hone the whole performance. It’s 20 individual performers doing their own thing, but in as sensitive and communicative a way as possible.

I was gobsmacked when I saw the film for the first time. Who ever dreamed up that venue should be an architect, and I wish the space was real rather than virtual so we could go there and perform the music together. My lasting impression of the experience, though, is that no matter how extraordinary the technology we have at our disposal these days, hearing and performing music ‘live’ is the most enriching experience and the way to transport us to another place in our hearts and minds.

Sacred Songs: The Secrets of our Hearts is on BBC Four on Easter Sunday at 7pm

The programme will include:

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JS Bach: Wenn ich einmal so scheiden
Lobo: Versa est in luctum
Allegri: Miserere
Purcell/Croft: Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts
Parry: My soul, there is a country
JS Bach: Ach Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein