ZOOM. Boom! What a boon this now ubiquitous electronic embrace is for singers, artists, musicians, whatever.
Musical director Ewa Salecka and her Prima Vocal Ensemble are a case in point. In a year when the York choir’s tenth anniversary celebrations “haven’t quite turned out as we expected”, nevertheless as many as 90 singers are still rehearsing weekly, gathering remotely, virtually, every Tuesday night to “sing and socialise”.
Tonight will be the latest such opportunity to make room at home for a Zoom session, led as ever by the exuberant Polish-born Ewa, who settled in York in 2009. “I’ve been using Zoom for five years now,” she says. “I started by doing vocal teaching that, whichever technique, was possible through this form of media, and I now do one-to-one sessions on Skype and Zoom.”
Ewa, by the way, had been spending the day teaching university students online before doing this interview. Turning her thoughts to her mixed voice choir Prima Vocal Ensemble, she is delighted with how the members have taken to the Zoom sessions.
“I remember hearing the Government’s announcement shutting down non-essential activities and thinking ‘what can we do now?’, but we didn’t waste even a week,” she says.
“The day after Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered the Coronavirus lockdown, with everybody largely confined to their homes, I launched the Prima Virtual Ensemble.”
She wrote to choir members to say: “We all need human contact to maintain our mental health, and so this is the time to embrace the technical world”.
“I just hoped they would embrace this technology that so many people had never heard of – and they have!” says Ewa.
“It’s not straightforward to set up Zoom for 90 people – whereas with one-to-one sessions it’s easy – and so I was a bit cautious with a large group where everyone’s internet plays to different rules.
“On the Friday, I had my first test session, then on the Saturday we did a rehearsal ‘as normal’, but remotely, sorting out the technical options for everyone, with help available for the less technically minded. Since then, we’ve reverted to Tuesday rehearsals from 7pm to 8.30pm, and the response has been really positive.”
Through their first decade, Prima Vocal Ensemble have sung at Carnegie Hall, New York, and the Royal Albert Hall, London, atop Alpine mountains and in European cathedrals and “underground” churches.
They have performed world premieres and collaborations with choirs from Europe and the United States; taken part in competitions, concerts and festivals in the UK, USA, Italy, Poland, Spain and Hungary, and sung with tenors Russell Watson and Aled Jones and The X-Factor’s 2013 winner and musical actress Sam Bailey.
As part of the tenth anniversary celebrations, Ewa had organised a June concert at the Riley-Smith Hall, Tadcaster, and a trip to Berlin later that month, both now scuppered by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Instead, Ewa has put together a special repertoire for the Zoom rehearsals, comprising old favourites, new material suitable for on-line sessions and topical works, such as Lean On Me to mark the March 30 death of American composer Bill Withers.
“Choir members were thrilled,” says Prima Vocal Ensemble’s Christine Kyriacou. “Many said that in these difficult times it was extraordinarily comforting to see one another on screen and be able to chat and rehearse together from home.
“One member wrote to Ewa to say: ‘So good to see everyone last night. It is massively morale-boosting for people like me who live alone, and I think what you are doing at the moment is not only amazing but absolutely vital. When this is all over, we will look back on the efforts people like you have made to keep connected and treasure the moments.
“I’m saving all the photos you are taking of Prima Virtual Ensemble, hoping I can say, ‘Do you remember when none of us could meet up for rehearsals, yet we kept on singing!”
Ewa shares that enthusiasm. “I miss seeing everyone; we’ve built some really strong connections and we do miss making music together under one roof, but the feedback has been fantastic, and now I’m thinking of gathering the comments I’ve received and putting them into a piece of music,” she says.
The June concert programme will form the basis of a tenth anniversary celebration provisionally re-arranged for the Riley-Smith Hall on October 3. “We’re definitely going to produce something new for that concert from the Zoom rehearsals,” promises Ewa.
“Over recent years, people have played with this technology, producing virtual sessions, but it’s a massive thing to do, putting videos together, but I’m now thinking about how to put the resources together for the concert, though it’ll be more about celebrating still being together.”
Later this year, Ewa still hopes that Prima Vocal Ensemble will be able to support Russell Watson on tour, and two concerts with orchestra and soloists are in the pipeline too.
In the meantime, she reflects proudly on how Prima Vocal Ensemble have been transformed into Prima Virtual Ensemble. “Prima still meet online to support each other. We keep singing, keep rehearsing and we’ve even created our Prima support group for those who may need it as time progresses,” she says.
“At the end of the day, I’m sending a message of hope and creativity. We’re like-minded York residents sticking together, helping each other and not letting the lockdown beat our cultural spirit.”