09 February 2007

Evensong with the BBC Philharmonic

Wednesday February 7, 2007, 4:00 pm: Evensong at Durham Cathedral with the BBC Philharmonic and three choirs, broadcast live by the BBC to 250,000 listeners.

We arrived one hour early. The Cathedral was already full. Programs were handed out. Stewards hastened to-and-fro. One was of particular interest. I shall call him James, for he passed so quickly his name tag was a blur. A tall, thin, elderly man proud of all the activity in his charge, James walked sprightly past several times, bent slightly forward to get him there faster. On the first pass he whispered over my head (to no one, but everyone), “Nowwww, what’s next-hhh...” and scurried from here to there fulfilling his objective like a wind-up toy that bumps into the wall and returns. From our seats 21 rows back, I could observe James’ busy schedule. He ushered another elderly steward all the way down the nave to the front, stopped at the crossing, pointed his telescopic arms first to the right, then to the left, dispensed instructions, then returned down the length of the nave, eagerly clearing his throat, ready to tackle his next critical task. The lady steward appeared to understand, showed a few people to their seats and made her way to the back much slower than James, bent to osteoporosis and the weight of a small purse hung across her chest. Neither were seen again till the end, standing with the collection baskets at the back of the Cathedral.

Ten minutes before broadcast, we were warmly welcomed by the BBC producer who had read music at the University of Durham. The evening honored composer Charles Hubert Hastings Parry, probably best known for his arrangement of “I was Glad,” which, in our programs, opened evensong as the introit. Parry also wrote the alternative tune to the congregational hymn we would sing, “O praise ye the Lord! Praise him in the height”... We were also told that Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (never Parry, C. Parry, or even C.H.H. Parry; sometimes Sir Hubert Parry) received an honorary degree in music from the University of Durham in 1894. The BBC producer then graciously closed his talk with this beautiful prayer by George Herbert:
Thou hast given so much to me,
Give one thing more—a grateful heart;
Not thankful when it pleaseth me,
As if Thy blessings had spare days,
But such a heart whose pulse may be Thy praise.

3:55 pm. The producer exited. Everyone watched the red bulb which would light when we went live. I have never seen the Cathedral filled to capacity and yet so still. Not a whisper, not a stir. Only the occasional irresistible light hack—the nervous, check-if-I-still-have-a-voice ahem-cough-cough. It caught like a yawn, and several echoed their throats. Apart from this ripple, there was no sound. No one moved. We endured five minutes of a stillness that seemed longer than the hour-long program of scripture readings, first from the Old, then the New Testaments; the Magnificat (sung); Simeon’s Prayer (sung); the Apostles’ Creed (recited by all); the Collects—a prayer sung on one note by the Succentor, the Reverend Gilly Myers; the congregational hymn; the blessing; and finally the Voluntary (Pomp and Circumstance March No. 6 by Edward Elgar). At the conclusion of this rousing piece, the same silence returned. With outstretched necks we watched the red light. As soon as it blinked off, after slight hesitation, we broke into applause.

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