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Seven Choral Courses in 2010

This year we decided to move to seven courses because of the increase in demand last year.  Spread through July and August,  a total of 416 singers and 14 organists attended week-long  courses in Eton, Cheltenham, Oxford, Cambridge and Durham with thirteen resident and two visiting teachers on each course. Highlights among the services and choral recitals were two live BBC broadcasts and a recital for the Cheltenham Festival.

It was good to return to Eton for three of the courses after the disruption caused by swine flu last year. Course One, directed by Ben Parry, included a visit to St John's College, Cambridge for an exciting service directed by the College's Director of Music, Andrew Nethsingha, with music by Vaughan Williams, Howells and Bruckner. The choir was amused to hear Andrew telling them to sing as loudly as they wanted, as "that's what we do at St John's". They sang a recital in Eton College Chapel, including James MacMillan's atmospheric Mass and Britten's Flower Songs. Edward Higginbottom, of New College Oxford also rehearsed the choir and Sophie Daneman gave a vocal master class.

Course Two used the beautiful buildings of Cheltenham College. I was assisted as Director by John Bowley, Director of Music at Repton, and Paul Brough visited to give a highly musical choral workshop. Towards the end of the course we sang Evensong in a packed Westminster Abbey.  Rehearsing in Cheltenham College Chapel was central to our activities, and the musical highlight of the week was Finzi's Lo! The full final sacrifice, conducted by John Bowley, as the final piece for our Cheltenham Festival Recital.

Course Three started the day after Course One finished (Course Two being held concurrently in Cheltenham), directed by Ben Parry. They were a lively bunch of students who rose to the challenge of the usual busy schedule. They visited Jesus College, Cambridge to sing Choral Evensong with the Director of Music, Mark Williams, singing music by Stanford, Howells and Villette. The following day the choir broadcast Choral Evensong live on Radio Three from Eton College Chapel, with a performance of Wesley's extended anthem The Wilderness to mark the composer's two hundredth anniversary, as well as music by Blair and Bairstow. The course was rounded off with a recital in Eton College Chapel, including music by Weelkes and Victoria and repertoire from the two Evensongs.

We used Course Four to celebrate the 30th year of the courses since they began in Uppingham in 1980. With 72 singers it was a big course, and I was assisted as Director by Tim Johnson, Director of Music at Westminster School. They were a very musical group, and rose to the challenge of the extra music. Our first goal was an Evensong at St George’s led by Tim Byram-Wigfield, veteran of the first course in 1980 as student organist. His gentle approach drew powerful music from the choir. Susan Waters gave the vocal master class with an abundance of helpful ideas,  and Francis Grier the choral one. He is something of a legend on the choral scene, not having been regularly involved in it for 25 years. His session was outstandingly musical, and the choir responded extremely well. On Friday 30th 50 singers from previous courses descended on us to celebrate 30 years. They joined with a big Evensong at 5.15 (Parry: Blest pair of sirens, Howells: St Paul’s Service) and were served a splendid dinner in Bekynton. They decided to start an Alumni Society for past singers on courses. On Sunday 1st August we broadcast a "Sunday Worship" live for Radio 4.

Course Five started the next day in Trinity, Cambridge. At 75 this was an even bigger course, and I was assisted as Director by Howard Ionascu, Director of Music at The King's School, Canterbury. We had the constant use of Trinity Chapel to rehearse and perform in. They were a bright, highly motivated group. It was interesting that, in a show of hands, eleven of them said that they had changed their minds about which university to apply to as a result of the course. There was a higher proportion of state school pupils than the average of a quarter for all the courses. Hilary Davan-Wetton gave a highly amusing and helpful choral workshop, and Robert Rice presided over an excellent vocal one. We had the use of Trinity's wonderful chapel throughout the course, and visited Sidney Sussex to sing Evensong with David Skinner. The course ended with a recital in Trinity's chapel. The music for this included Bax: This Worldes Joie, Tallis: Videte miraculum, Vaughan Williams: Three Shakespeare Songs and Gabriel Jackson: Orbis creator optime. The blend produced by singing the Tallis in Trinity Chapel dispersed over its whole area facing in random directions was especially memorable.

Course Six began the next day in Merton College, Oxford. I was assisted by David Goode, who taught the ten organists. We mainly rehearsed as a choir in Merton's lovely chapel, particularly suited as it is to choral textures. The redoubtable Iris Dell'Acqua gave an amusing and really helpful solo singing master class. Owen Rees, Director of Music at Queen's College conducted the choir when we went to St Alban's Abbey to sing Evensong, accompanied by an assortment of organists rapidly changing place at the bench of the magnificent organ. The course ended with a recital in Merton Chapel with Britten: Rejoice in the Lamb and Whitacre: I Thank You God for most this amazing day was the musical highlight.

The next day, Course Seven began in St Chad's and St John's Colleges, Durham. We sang Evensong in the massive Cathedral and on the last day gave a recital in St Oswald's Church, with Howells' masterly Take him, earth, for cherishing as the highlight. David Lowe gave an enlightening vocal master class and Simon Carrington rehearsed the choir for two inspiring hours. Presents, hugs and tearful farewells concluded this year's final invigorating week.

One of the most moving aspects of the courses for me is to observe the gathering of sixty young people who suddenly discover fifty-nine like-minded associates, many of whom become friends for life. They quickly form themselves into a musically committed, intelligent and generous team, and all the staff agree that it is a privilege to teach them.I would like to thank all resident staff, visiting staff, hosts for “away” courses and the organisers at Eton for all their effective and imaginative hard work. Philip Highy efficiently and helpfully presided over the course organisation, gently and conscientiously assisted by Martina Prokesova. I am always proud of the very high quality of the staff booked by Vicky Savage.

Ralph Allwood

Date Posted: 05 September 2010
2010

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