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Eton Choral Courses 2014 | October update

From the Director of the Eton Choral Courses, Ralph Allwood MBE:

Thank you so, so much for a magnificent summer of Eton Choral Courses.

After leading a workshop for the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain this summer, John Rutter CBE visited Course Five in Durham to work with the choir. He was moved to write:

“The Eton Choral Course changes lives, opens doors, reveals new horizons. When I come in as a guest to work with the singers, I go away inspired and renewed. Over the years it has become a pillar of our cultural life in Britain, with the wonder of music setting an example for us all.”

We held six Eton Choral Courses this year during July and August, two in Eton, then one in each of Malvern, Cheltenham, Durham and Cambridge. In addition to Evensongs at King’s and St John’s Colleges, Cambridge; and Merton, Queen’s and New Colleges, Oxford, the courses broadcast two services this summer on BBC Radio.

Course students have the great privilege of visits from the best in the business, of course, many of whom have been on courses themselves when young. This year English baritone Roderick Williams and legendary British mezzo Sarah Walker led vocal masterclasses, as did “contemporary hero of British choral music”, Bob Chilcott (The Observer).

Course One was held at Eton College, and welcomed some organ students to join the singers. It was a strong group musically, and we managed to attempt some challenging pieces, including William Walton’s The Twelve. Andrew Nethsingha visited to give a thoughtful two hours of advice on choral singing and help on our pieces. Alexander l’Estrange ran an excellent workshop for the consorts, and we visited Merton College, Oxford to Sing Choral Evensong, directed by Ben Nicholas. It was particularly exciting for the choir to sing with the wonderful new organ in the Chapel.

The choir for Course Two was particularly strong vocally and quite adept at sight reading. Early on in the course we broadcast a live Sunday Worship on BBC Radio 4. Bob Chilcott visited to conduct a rehearsal, in which the choir sang some movements of the Fauré Requiem, as well as a sing-through of Bob’s own Nidaros Jazz Mass. David Lowe held a stimulating vocal masterclass, working with three students on their chosen song repertoire. We were lucky enough to visit King’s College, Cambridge to sing Choral Evensong in the beautiful chapel with Director of Music, Stephen Cleobury. During the day, we also rehearsed in the chapel of Clare College. Greg Beardsell (Deputy Artistic Director of the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain) led a magnificent consort workshop, with some strong performances from all groups. On the final day, the choir performed a recital in Eton College Chapel, including performances of major choral works including Mendelssohn’s Hear my Prayer and Parry’s Hear my Words, before retiring to the Concert Hall to give the final Informal Concert.

On 2 August, Course Three gave an impressive choral recital of British secular music at Malvern College, conducted by Course Director Tim Johnson, for the ancient and revered Three Choirs Festival, held this year in Worcester. They sang Choral Evensong at New College, Oxford; conducted by Edward Higginbottom. This was, in fact, Edward’s last service as Director of Music in the Chapel before retiring from the post, and so a particular privilege for us. Roderick Williams visited the course to give a superb vocal masterclass and Ben Sawyer did an excellent job leading the close harmony workshop. The choir also enjoyed inspiring rehearsals with Graham Ross (Director of Music, Clare College Cambridge) and Ralph Allwood. A large range of music was covered, with a particular emphasis on secular music. The repertoire for the week included Rodney Bennett’s A Farewell to Arms for cello and choir, Vaughan Williams’ Three Shakespeare Songs and Elgar’s From the Bavarian Highlands.

Course Four was held in Cheltenham, and had as its central aim a recorded broadcast of Choral Evensong for BBC Radio Three from Cheltenham College Chapel. The Anthem was Nicholas Maw’s masterpiece, One Foot in Eden Still, I Stand. We sang the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis written for King’s College, Cambridge by Herbert Howells, as well as his very challenging Responses. The choir rose to this challenge admirably, with some extremely hard but rewarding work. We sang the six wonderful psalms set for the 27th evening, Psalms 126 to 131. Nigel Short gave a marvellous two-hour rehearsal to the choir, and the revered Sarah Walker gave a two-hour masterclass in which she excelled herself with humour and excellent advice. We also had the privilege of singing Choral Evensong at Queen’s College, Oxford under the expert direction of Dr Owen Rees.

Ben Parry has now for 17 years been directing one Eton course each year. He recently took over as director of National Youth Choirs of Great Britain. Thus the first ever collaboration between NYCGB and the Eton Choral Courses, performing at Hild Bede, Durham on 22 August, with John Rutter CBE.

Course Five in Durham, directed by Jamie Burton, was attended by over sixty singers this year. After a promising first warm up and rehearsal, the staff quickly became aware that there was a need for building the group’s confidence in sight reading. An emphasis was therefore placed on keeping to tempo in full choir, singers making confident mistakes and tackling the repertoire without recourse to note bashing. The results were generally good, and many of the singers reported that they felt their sight reading had improved throughout the week. The detailed work overseen by the consort leaders led to many tangible successes for singers in the smaller groups. The sung graces at mealtimes were well performed, and the lighter repertoire was given a brilliant masterclass by Ben Parry later in the week. This was then performed again at the informal concert with great success and the enjoyment of the singers. The course members were treated to a brilliant masterclass later on in the course by Robert Rice.

The choir’s performances included a short recital in the Castle Hall in Durham. The resonant acoustic and historic ambience was enjoyed by all. Repertoire highlights were Naylor’s Vox Dicentis and Bob Chilcott’s My Prayer, sung alongside Purcell’s Hear my prayer on which his new piece is based. The undoubted highlight of the week was singing a late night compline in a dimly lit Durham Cathedral. The choir enjoyed the challenge of singing plainsong psalms and concentrating on this unfamiliar and mostly sung liturgy. Just before the compline service, the Very Revd Michael Sadgrove (Dean of Durham) hosted a reception in the Deanery, extending a very warm welcome to all staff and students from the Course. The choir also gave a memorable evensong in Hexham Abbey (Blessed City, Heavenly Salem by Bairstow and Noble’s Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in B minor). Towards the end of the week the singers were introduced to new repertoire by John Rutter, and they then performed some of this together with the National Youth Choir which had just begun its residential course up the road. John conducted his own music and masterminded a terrific choral day, with guest artist Melanie Marshall’s beautiful solo singing to accompany. The NYC and ECC singers also performed to each other.

Course Six took place for the first time in St John’s College, Cambridge, with its magnificent chapel. It was meticulously organised by our (sadly) recently-retired Musical Administrator, Francis Williams. We were given a gracious welcome, not least to a reception and formal dinner, presided over by Professor Christopher Dobson (Master of the College) and his wife, Dr Mary Dobson. The legendary Christopher Robinson prepared and conducted Choral Evensong in St John’s, and we gave a recital in Trinity College Chapel. Julie Cooper visited to take an excellent Solo Singing Masterclass. Dr David Skinner, Director of Music at Sidney Sussex College, gave us a wonderfully informative two hours’ work on works by Gibbons and Weelkes. Tom Winpenny did an excellent job of leading the organists’ strand of this Course, having organised opportunities for the organ students to play on a number of Chapel organs in Cambridge.

In addition, there were three Junior Choral Courses this year, for 8 to 15 year olds, separately run. Rodolfus Choir, whose members are drawn from the last few years’ courses, gave recitals at Exeter
Cathedral on July 16th and for this year’s Three Choirs Festival at Worcester on July 30th and a recital entitled ‘Time and its Passing’ at St Dunstan in the West, Fleet Street. At the beginning of the summer, in late June, they formed the basis and majority of a huge chorus which sang Mahler’s Eighth Symphony in the Royal Festival Hall under Esa-Pekka Salonen.

But it is the resident staff on the courses, superb singing teachers and highly musical, motivated and energetic younger staff leading consorts together with the organisers of each course who are the heroes who should be sung. The closely planned structure of each course seems to lead to staff being able to give of their very best, and students being able to learn just what they need for massive improvement, and at the same time make dozens of new friends.

Members of all courses this summer performed a combined concert in Eton School Hall in aid of the Choral Course Foundation on 31 August, including a complete performance of the Fauré Requiem as this summer’s courses drew to a close.

I would like to thank Philip Highy and Martina Prokesova for their highly efficient management of the courses. I am extremely grateful to the Provost and Fellows of Eton, not only for their giving generously of Eton’s resources, but for their enthusiasm.

Ralph Allwood

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