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Eton Choral Courses 2009


"Thank you. That was the best week of my life" is the comment we hear time and time again from young singers as they say goodbye after an Eton Choral Course. This year the six courses had a recession-defying 12% increase in applicants, a total of 435.  We are immensely grateful to The King's School, Canterbury for rescuing the 2009 courses by stepping in to host the first three courses.

The first, a larger choir for course 1 than ever before, was directed by Ben Parry. I was visiting conductor for Choral Evensong in Canterbury Cathedral which included Stanford's magnificent A major Canticles and James MacMillan's anthem, 'Christus Vincit'. The choir completed the course with a concert in St Mary Bredin church in Canterbury. Other visitors included Roderick Williams, who gave a vocal masterclass, and John Rutter, who rehearsed the full choir.

I directed the second, with a visit to King's Cambridge for Evensong directed by Stephen Cleobury and a broadcast of Choral Evensong from St Mary of Charity, Faversham. Musical highlights were the 8-part Hieronymus Praetorius Magnificat and Taverner Dum transisset sabbatum.

The third was the hundredth course since they began in Uppingham in 1980, and we sang some of the music from that course. Tim Byram-Wigfield, who had been the student organist on the first course and who is now Organist and Master of the Choristers at St George's Chapel, Windsor, directed an Evensong at St Mary of Charity, Faversham, for which he wrote the delightful introit.This, at 80 singers, was the largest course. One quiet evening we sang the Durufle Requiem and Parry: Blest pair of sirens to ourselves and an appreciative verger in a calm Canterbury cathedral.

The fourth course, directed by Ben Parry, was held for the first time in splendid, incomparable Durham, with accommodation shared between St Chad's and St John's Colleges. Highlights included Choral Evensong conducted by Neil Taylor (Director of Music at Sheffield Cathedral) and a recital conducted by Ben, both in the cathedral. I visited the course for a day and shared full choir rehearsals with Ben. Durham Cathedral's own esteemed Director of Music, James Lancelot, took a full choir rehearsal. Musical highlights included Britten's Antiphon, Gibbon's 8-part setting of 'O Clap your hands' and an eccentric contemporary setting of Psalm 1 by Giles Swayne.

The fifth course was held, for the third year, in Trinity College, Cambridge. We had full use of the Chapel for all our activities, rehearsing Britten's Hymn to St Cecilia and Eric Whitacre's Cloudburst as the main repertoire. David Goode and Henry Fairs taught ten organists on this course. They visited six other colleges to play the organ, and accompanied the choir. Madeleine Lovell conducted Evensong at Queens' College followed by a delightful reception in the President's Lodge, and Mike Brewer, Director of the National Youth Choir of Great Britain, visited to take an unusual and effective choral session particularly geared to vocal animation. We ended with a recital and informal concert in Trinity Chapel. This was an unusually rewarding course, with particularly appreciative students on a steep learning curve, in wonderful surroundings.

The final course was held at Queen's College, Oxford. Again a very big course, it was characterised by remarkably devoted staff tending a wonderfully focused group of singers, extremely keen to learn. Ben Nicholas directed Evensong at Merton, with a moving performance of "Lord, let me know mine end" by Hubert Parry and Bruce Pullan visited from Canada to give two performance master classes and present his own excellent choir, 'Sarabande'. We ended with a recital in Queen's Chapel which included the Bach motet Komm, Jesu, Komm. Owen Rees gave us exceptional support, and it was delightful to have the daily use of the chapel.

This year the proportion of state school pupils attending the course again increased, this time to about two-fifths of the total. The courses are served by outstanding staff. Dedicated and experienced singing teachers with enthusiastic and highly capable assistant music staff are backed up by imaginative and energetic administrators. I would like to pay tribute to those behind the courses who aren't seen day by day, but enable it all to happen from the outset, in particular Philip Highy and Martina Prokesova. Next year we hope we may increase to seven courses.

Ralph Allwood

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DATE POSTED: 01 September 2009

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