How to conduct a Tallis motet in a cardboard cathedral

It's not totally sound-proof, but Christchurch's 'temporary' church will stand the test of time

2 November 2013

9:00 AM

2 November 2013

9:00 AM

To undertake a concert tour of New Zealand’s cathedrals at the moment is to be constantly reminded of the destructive power of nature and how dogged people can be when the chips are down. The list of buildings that the earthquake of February 2011 destroyed in the centre of Christ-church includes the Anglican cathedral, which, shorn of its bell tower and west end, will have to be entirely pulled down sooner or later. The square outside it looks like a war zone without the bullet holes. Other cities such as Napier, itself rebuilt after an earthquake in 1931 and made into an Art Deco jewel, are facing up to the reality of having to dismantle their principal buildings to make them quake-proof, as has happened in Wellington.

The immediate answer in Christchurch has been to throw up a cathedral made partly of cardboard, designed by the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban. I was asked to conduct a performance of Tallis’s 40-part motet Spem in alium in there recently, which caused me suddenly to become very interested in the acoustic properties of cardboard-clad spaces. There isn’t much to go on in this area of research, and I was only slightly heartened to discover that it is not the entire building which is made of cardboard, but only the casing of the otherwise metal supports that spring on both sides from the top of the chancel wall to the roof. Many other, more decorative pillars in the building, for example those of the choir-stalls and the entrance lobby, are also made of densely packed and highly polished cardboard pieces, which have become an iconic leitmotif for the building. But it is metal that holds the whole edifice up, and plastic through which the outside light shines in.

These columns had to be strengthened in the process of building, when rain got into them before the roof was completed, with predictable results. The other drawback of such materials is that they are relatively thin, allowing sound both in and out in a way one doesn’t expect from cathedrals. Walking away while a rehearsal was in progress, I was surprised to discover that I could hear every detail of the music at the next crossroads. Conversely, when I was standing conducting the concert, I could hear every detail of what was happening at the crossroads. The fact that the cardboard tubes are hollow can’t have helped.

Nonetheless, the notion of being surrounded by thick reels of parcel tape while listening to choral evensong has rather caught on as a modern way to worship, giving the people of Christchurch something to be upbeat about. They call it the temporary cathedral, but I’ll bet anything it is still there in 100 years’ time, rebuilt and preserved in some unobtrusive way, like so many temporary structures in their first incarnations. The sound in there wasn’t as bad as it might have been, either. For a piece of music that its composer may never have heard, performed in a country and on a continent that he didn’t know existed, in a building made of material he couldn’t have imagined, Spem has had an astonishing career. I wonder where the artefacts of our time will go in the future.

While I’ve been away, two significant appointments have been made in London’s musical world. Jonathan Manners, who is currently at the ENO, has been made chief executive of the Academy of Ancient Music. This is the period-instrument orchestra founded in 1973 by Christopher Hogwood and currently celebrating its 40th anniversary. The group has more than 300 CDs to its name, a body of work that has helped to define the revival of interest in the authentic performance of early music. It will be Jonathan’s job to show that after many years at the cutting edge ‘double A M’ still has a role to play on the modern scene. He has unusual talents that may help him: I once watched him reduce an obstreperous official to tears.

The other piece of news is that Huw Williams has been made organist of the Chapel Royal at St James’s Palace, where baby George was recently baptised. Huw’s new job was once the most prestigious and artistically satisfying in the business, and may be again if he can find a way round all the red tape that so restricts and blindfolds the workings of the Palace. The scholarship that the Chapel Royal boys receive for their singing is the most generous on the cathedral circuit, guaranteeing a supply of the best raw material available. Not to be allowed to tour, or even give concerts, is quite simply a waste of talent and someone’s money. If this is public money, the running of the choir should be investigated; but it probably isn’t. The waste of opportunity remains.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments