Choir Retrospect July 2003 to June 2004

In recent years the opening concert in October of our winter series in St John’s, Smith Square has provided an early test of the ‘new’ Choir. This time the programme featured sixteenth-century music from before and after the Reformation: a taxing sequence of Byrd, Tallis, and former choristers, Gibbons and Tye, was delivered with panache.

In November the Choir gave a concert in Chapel as part of the sixtieth birthday celebrations of Kingsman, Robin Holloway, the distinguished and versatile composer. His own Missa Caiensis was the centre piece of the programme, which also included some of Robin’s favourite music by Brahms, Cornelius and Wolf. This was part of the Cambridge Festival, whose administrator, Gillian Perkins, mother of former choristers John and Oliver, also arranged a stimulating singing day at the school for children of our own choristers’ age range. There was much fascinating interchange, and our visitors were able to join in the singing at the end of Evensong later in the day in Chapel.

The Remembrance Day Requiem saw a number of former choral scholars in Chapel, and whom it is always a pleasure to welcome.

A repeat of last year’s Birmingham programme was given to a capacity audience in Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall in early December. The annual Founder’s Day concert was repeated in Smith Square. Christopher Genz (1992) was the excellent soloist in Britten St Nicolas, and Andrew Marriner (C1963-1967) gave an outstanding performance of Clarinet Concerto. A highly enjoyable trip to Amsterdam saw the Choir make its debut at a pre-Christmas concert in the Concertgebouw. Much preparation went into the performance on Christmas Eve of this year’s carol commission by Harrison Birtwistle (words specially written by Stephen Plaice). This piece included a passage where the boys had to stamp, clap and shout: not much to practise on that front. A caller to BBC Radio’s ‘Feedback’ programme in January said that whoever programmed this piece should be locked up in a dark room and never let out. (I continue this report, nonetheless …).

In February the whole chapel community was deeply saddened by the death of the Dean, Christopher Ryan. The choral scholars sang Evensong at his bed-side shortly before he died. Purcell Funeral sentences and Fauré Requiem were sung by the full Choir at his Requiem Mass.

The early part of 2004 saw the gradual departure of no fewer than three Year 8 boys through voice change. Fortunately, Charlie Phillips was captured on tape by EMI in Fauré’s Pie Jesu just in time. This was part of a CD featuring the boys which will be released later in the year. It also includes Charlie in duet with Fergus Thirlwell, another excellent soloist.

After a ‘bumpy’ two or three weeks, the remaining boys, with the senior probationers, were on their feet again. In March, the CD of Rachmaninov Liturgy of St John Chrysostom was launched at Smith Square. The Gramophone critic later wrote: "This recording is, without a shadow of a doubt, a triumph. There is no comparable rival to this disc. If I had only this recording on my desert island, I’d consider it a foretaste of Paradise."

Bach’s St Matthew Passion was given on Holy Saturday with the Academy of Ancient Music. Hungarian music was performed in Chapel to mark the accession of Hungary to the EU and the Choir travelled north to give the opening concert of the Perth Festival in May. At about that time, the Choir was thrilled to be rehearsed and conducted at evensong by Sir David Willcocks, in a performance of canticles written by David himself. I was delighted that the present generation of choristers and choral scholars were able to witness his extraordinary qualities of musicianship at first hand.

At the Honorary Degree Congregation in the Senate House in June, we joined with the Choir of Clare College. Cleo Laine and John Dankworth received degrees on this occasion.

A concert in the magnificent parish church of Cirencester followed upon the annual joint Evensong with St John’s, and later in July the Choir of Gonville and Caius College joined us for a recording of music by John Rutter with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Two concerts at the Cultural Centre in Hong Kong concluded another stimulating year.

Stephen Cleobury

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