Brass bands and carol singers strive to spread cheer this Christmas

As London faces emptier streets this Christmas, many would expect the sound of harmonising choirs, trumpets and trombones to cease – but brass bands and carol singers are refusing to turn the volume down.

During a normal Christmas, the London Concert Chorus give their annual performance at the Royal Albert Hall.

As the lights go down and the chorus walks proudly onto the stage, choirmaster Georg Tormann considers those who have performed on the same stage: Pavarotti, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and Adele.

The chorus looks up to the 5,500 audience members with hairs raised on the backs of necks.

Tormann described the moment as magical.

This year, Public Health England are permitting choirs and bands to perform in “any indoor venue permitted to open”.

While it seems to be good news on the surface, audiences and congregations must not take part in any singing.

Outdoor performances require audience members to wear masks, capacity to be restricted, and distance between choir members.  

Tormann, 48, is from Bromley, and a teacher at Croydon’s Brit School, which is a performing arts school.

He is conducting the chorus for a video performance with 30 people two meters apart, having rehearsed on Zoom.

He said: “We’re going to send it round to members of the congregation to cheer them up this Christmas.

“The trials and tribulations of zoom are quite entertaining.

“Lots have said to me what a help it’s been for their mental health as they’re not going out at all.”

The London Concert Chorus is made up of amateur singers who normally start rehearsals in September for their 20 concerts across the festive period.

LIT UP LIKE STARS: Tormann performing ‘Oh Holy Night’ two years ago, as thousands of audience members lit up their phones. Credit: Georg Tormann

The Fulham Brass Brand, made up of amateur musicians, are also a group creating a video performance.

For them, Christmas tends to look like a performance in a musty church with mulled wine, mince pies and the scent of Christmas trees that are sold at the back.

Music director John Ward, 40, said “It’s strange not being allowed to meet weekly – we probably haven’t done that since war time.”

The band started to rehearse again before the November lockdown, with a two-metre space, sanitisation stations and bathroom procedures.

Ward said: “It’s sadly strange all turning up in masks, not able to give each other a hug and a kiss.”

The band’s performance is being filmed by seven cameras placed around a festively-decorated church, with an introduction by Connie Huq and Seb Coe.

The 12-minute film is due for release on 13 December.

Ward said: “It’s going to be such a weird, weird Christmas.

“The reason we’re doing this is to recognise it’s not a normal Christmas, but hoping it will feel a little closer to the Christmas viewers’ are missing out on.”

The live music industry has suffered this year, and the campaign Let the Music Play aims to alleviate the damages with an open letter written to Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden.

The letter is signed by musicians including Paul McCartney and Aled Jones, appealing for government help for the live music industry.

The live music industry contributes £5.2 billion to the economy annually and sustains almost 200,000 jobs. 

Some music groups are still planning for live performances.

Marianna Ritchie, 33, sings soprano for Colla Voce, an acclaimed London choir performing a concert in Pimlico on 12 December.

Ritchie, from Vauxhall, said: “Can you imagine not having music that is unique to Christmas time?

“It would be so bleak.

“We do all these things – decorations, music, candles – to uplift from the winter months.

“To finish it with a concert is incredibly important.”

BRINGING JOY WITH VOICES: Ritchie explained carol concerts are needed for this cold, dark time – especially as the whole year has felt like that. CREDIT: Charlotte Dugon

Andy Brittin, 51, is a conductor and trombonist of London City Brass.

The band is made up of amateur players, from NHS workers to corporate bank workers.

Brittin explained: “We’re a really mixed bag – one thing we have in common is that we’re all brass players, and enjoy the brass ensemble sound.”

Brittin has been playing since the age of 8, and intends to perform in smaller groups in the streets to spread cheer this Christmas.

He added: “We’re not doing this to make money

“We enjoy playing – we miss each other.”

PASSIONATE PLAYERS: Brittin, from New Malden, has been playing since the age of 8, and said the group play because it is their hobby. CREDIT: Andy Brittin

The brass band are used to strangers standing to appreciate their performances, but Brittin acknowledged there will be some changes this year.

He said: “We tend to get a crowd performing around us in the streets but we’re going to have to put a note out to tell people to keep moving.

“We want people to slow down and take in the music but not park themselves.”

While musical groups have been battling with threats of being muted this year, one thing is for certain: they will do whatever it takes for the music to be heard this Christmas. 

You can also read about a gay chorus performing at the Clapham Grand over Christmas here.

Featured image credit: John Ward

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