When I was first asked to get on board as pianist for The Events, I’ll be honest, I thought it sounded like a totally bonkers project. Don’t get me wrong – it seemed right up my street. I work frequently with community choirs and large-scale creative projects and I was instantly intrigued. But I couldn’t see how they were going to pull this off. A different choir every night? That is some challenge.
I love a challenge so I said yes.
Several months down the line, and about fifty choirs later, and that challenge is exactly why I am so thrilled to be a part of this team.
My role as pianist is to conduct and accompany the choirs on stage during the show. Unlike the two actors, there are four pianists who rotate throughout the tour. It is our job to make the choirs feel secure so that they can watch (and enjoy) the action as it unfolds before their eyes and not be worried about when to stand up and sing. We are with them from the moment they walk on to the moment they leave the stage.
I love ‘Super Mondays’ - now there’s an unusual statement! Each Monday all choirs performing that week attend a mass rehearsal with pianist and assistant director Polina. Sometimes there are as many as 150 singers in the room and there is a lot of buzz and anticipation. We go through all the music, putting it in context. I love seeing the singers come together. It becomes a real thing for them and their hard work in learning the music starts to pay off as they learn more about the inspiration for the play and how the music fits into the plot.
On performance night, the choir has an hour to go through all the material again on the stage and meet Neve and Rudi. Rehearsal starts with the all-important Health And Safety Chat by the lovely stage manager Jess Banks - it is useful to see her demonstrating how high the steps on the rostra are, it is. A short vocal warm up to get the singers physically and vocally prepared and we’re off. Polina picks on unsuspecting volunteers in the choir to read out snippets of script throughout the play. Cups of tea (real tea!) are allocated for the ‘tea break’ scene (this always goes down well). The ominous Shamanic Ritual scene is left mysteriously (and purposefully) under-explained…and it’s then time to get backstage and have a quick snack before show time.
Each show is wonderfully different. Having a new choir each night means that they bring with them a totally different character and vibe showcased especially in their own song that starts the show. Using local choirs on tour allows us to tap into the community of each place we visit.
I love watching Rudi and Neve perform up close. They are captivating each and every night. Amazing. And I get to notice particular things being so close to the action. This sounds weird but on a night performance in Bristol, I noticed that Neve doesn’t blink once in her ‘torture’ speech – that’s about 3 minutes of no blinking. UNREAL. I love watching the choir watching them; they are always hooked.
As a conductor, I have learnt heaps from this project. Conducting from the piano is very different from conducting away from the piano. You have to rely less on hand and whole-body gesture. Eyes and head become very important. You find yourself doing a lot of head-bobbing and my eyes have nearly popped out of their sockets by the end of Gavrilo Princip. Eyebrows take on new meaning.
Working with so many different choirs on the same music is a bit like having a controlled constant in a science experiment. Hello GCSE physics! You notice which musical quirks and nuances remain the same each night and which change with each choir. With such limited time with the choir, you learn fast, effective ways of getting what you want from them, streamlining your gestures to come up with big, bold universal signals that work for everyone. It’s not the same as working with your own choirs who know you and all your peculiar ways.
All in all, The Events has given me the opportunity to be part of a stunning company and an award-winning play; it’s introduced me to fellow pianists and MDs who have inspired and informed my own work; but most importantly, it’s made me so happy to see the community choir celebrated at the heart of the play and so integral to it. Through this project, I’ve met hundreds and hundreds of singers and encountered many different choirs each with their own soul and character. What they bring to each performance is different because they bring themselves. And I can’t fail to be moved each time I hear every single choir sing that final, beautiful song We’re All Here.
Jessie Maryon Davies
Pianist, vocal leader and arranger