Eton Choral Course Report 2015
Ralph Allwood (Director of the Eton Choral Courses)

I would like to start by quoting a letter sent to me by one of the teachers on Course 5 in Durham, who has been teaching for us for a good many years:

“During the past decade or so that I’ve worked on the Eton Choral Courses as a singing teacher, I can honestly say that I’ve loved every single course. Comparisons are perhaps invidious. Still, if you’ll permit me, I’m bound to say that, for me, this year’s Eton Choral Course in Durham really does deserve special mention. Simon Toyne is of course very well known and loved on the Eton Choral Courses, going right back to the time – almost thirty years ago – that he first took part in a course as a participant. This year’s Durham course was led by Simon. It was the first time I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of working with him, and a very real pleasure it was too. Among both the staff and the course participants at Durham, I was surely not alone in finding Simon to be a truly inspiring course leader. His excellent musicality and complete generosity of spirit were not the least in having made this year’s Durham choral course such a resounding success.

The whole nature and feel of each Eton Choral Course is different. For me, this is one of the main attractions of teaching on them: one never quite knows what one will get. Chiefly, this is due to how the course participants end up working and interacting with each other. Inspired by Simon’s sterling example, this year’s Durham course participants were an absolute delight. There was little, if any, cliquey behaviour. Instead, they pulled together in the most friendly and supportive way. It was quite wonderful to see several individuals blossom under this spirit of benevolence at large. Of course, this also meant that the course worked together quite superbly as a choir. A particularly strong tenor section did us no harm either. In the final course recital concert, Simon had the course choir perform a couple of pieces in the round, backs to the wall, in the magnificent Chapter House of Durham Cathedral. One of these was Holst’s Nunc Dimittis, a piece I have known and loved since my early teens. The Durham course’s performance of this fantastic music was the best I have ever heard. Each of the singers stood about an arm’s length apart and the glorious sound they made soared into the domed ceiling of the Chapter House. It was truly special and the amen in particular was extraordinary. More than a few of us were undone by it. The Organist of Durham Cathedral James Lancelot’s great generosity in terms of the welcome he gave us at Durham and also his considerable help behind the scenes were noteworthy too. It was perhaps a given that the eminent British baritone Sir Thomas Allen CBE (who grew up in Seaham, some twelve miles from Durham) would give a good course masterclass but he was absolutely superb. He pitched his masterclass perfectly, challenging each of the singers, yet also working with them so supportively and very humbly. It was a privilege to witness.

I have never seen a member of music staff on an ECC taken more to heart by a course than Nicholas Freestone, who is about to end his tenure as Organ Scholar at Wells Cathedral to take up the same position at St Alban’s Abbey. After the course informal concert had brought proceedings to an end, the participants spontaneously gathered round in a circle and chanted Nick’s name! This wonderful tribute was surely everyone’s thanks to Nick for his superb direction of his consort groups, not least in arranging music for them to perform. The course consort group workshop, led and coached by James Burton, was also the best I have witnessed on an Eton Choral Course. Jamie knew exactly what to say to help make each of the already terrific contributions even better: yet another inspiring afternoon. As one of the three course singing teachers at Durham, I must also make special mention of my two superb singing teacher colleagues, Paul Keohone and Kate Woolveridge. I’ll declare an interest here and say that Paul is one of my oldest friends. This was his third Durham Eton Choral Course. Paul’s hard work and complete dedication to his students on the course were a joy to witness. This was Kate’s first Eton Choral Course and she is a major find, in my humble opinion. Invited to teach on the Durham course by Simon, with whom she had worked on National Youth Choir of Wales courses, Kate made the journey from Cardiff (where she teaches at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama) to join us at Durham. Her hard work and – again – selfless dedication to her students on the course were magnificent. In particular, Kate’s vocal warm-ups (which take place at 8.40am, for those who don’t know) were – once again – the best I have ever seen on an Eton Choral Course.

Eton Choral Courses change young people’s lives. They are a fantastic thing and I have never taught on one that was less than truly inspirational. But this year’s Durham course was particularly special. The chemistry was simply perfect and everything came together to make for a truly memorable week in this most beautiful of English cities. Bravo tutti!”

Stuart MacIntyre (Eton Choral Course Tutor)

COURSE 1 (Course Director: Ralph Allwood)
The courses have been based at Eton since 1985. We started the summer with Course 1 here, rehearsing every day in the stunning buildings and making full use of the Music Schools, which are perfect for our purposes. We welcomed Linda Hirst to the Courses for the first time, for a Vocal Masterclass. As well as being a very well-respected and highly experienced singer and vocal tutor, she works regularly with Ralph Allwood at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, which is linked closely with the Old Royal Naval College Chapel in Greenwich. We travelled to St Paul’s Cathedral to sing Choral Evensong on 6 July, where the music included Howells, Gabrieli and Schutz. This was a great experience for the course, who really rose to the occasion. Another first-time visitor to the Courses this year was Suzi Digby, who came to lead the Consort Workshop on 6 July. Andrew Nethsingha came on a course himself as an organist, and is now Director of Music at St John’s College, Cambridge. It was a pleasure to welcome him back to the Courses again this year for a Choral Workshop on 7 July. Our final event in Course 1 was Compline in Eton College Chapel, which included works by Sheppard, Tallis, Howells and Tavener.

COURSE 2 (Course Director: Ben Parry)
Course 2 was held once again in the excellent facilities at Eton College. From the outset, the choir was strong at sight reading, with a particularly fine soprano line. We were blessed with a magnificent teaching and assistant staff, including regular favourite singing teachers Robert Rice, Carys Jones and the legendary Peter Wilson. The choir sang at three formal events – an atmospheric and moving late night Compline service in Eton College Chapel early on in the course, and choral evensongs at St George’s Chapel Windsor (conducted by Ben Parry) and Magdalen College, Oxford under the direction of Professor Daniel Hyde, who remarked more than once on the fine quality of the choir. Chris Whitton was once again our organist, and impressed us all with his dazzling playing, particularly with the accompaniment of Judith Weir’s anthem Ascending into Heaven and tackling the failing organ at Magdalen! We had visits from the internationally acclaimed mezzo Catherine Wyn Rogers, who gave a wonderful vocal masterclass, conductor Paul Spicer, who rehearsed the choir in music by Parry and Leighton, and Jamie Burton, who led a fun and enjoyable consort workshop. The choir deported themselves brilliantly throughout the course, and were a great credit to themselves and the guest musicians they worked with.

COURSE 3 (Course Director: Tim Johnson)
Course 3 was held at Queen’s College, Oxford and directed by Tim Johnson. The 68 students included 3 organists, who were led by David Goode. Highlights of the course included compline at New College, a concert in Keble College Chapel, choral evensong at Christ Church and an organ recital at Merton College. Visitors to the course included King’s Singer Timothy Wayne-Wright who led a highly entertaining close harmony workshop. The young ‘celebrity’ soprano Laura Wright gave a masterclass and led a very successful question and answer session. Laura, herself a former choral course student, took up a place at the Royal College of Music before becoming part of the highly successful group ‘All Angels’. She is now a commercially successful solo artist. Owen Rees, Director of Music at Queen’s College, led an inspiring rehearsal in the beautiful surroundings of the college chapel and offered highly valued advice to potential Oxford applicants. Musical highlights of the week included Herbert Howells’ Take him earth for cherishing and Kenneth Leighton’s Magdalen Service.

COURSE 4 (Course Director: Ralph Allwood)
Course Four was held at Cheltenham College, which is one of our favourite venues and very popular with students and staff – we’ve had courses here for the last six years now. Cheltenham College manages to find space for plenty of green space, comfortable boarding houses and ample rehearsal rooms. We had three excellent visitors during the week. Clare Finzi visited to teach Alexander Technique, and Susan Gritton (winner of the 1994 Kathleen Ferrier Award) joined us for a Vocal Masterclass on 9 August. This was her first visit to a course after one of the courses in the 1980s convinced her that it was singing she wanted to do as a profession. Dr Geoffrey Webber, Director of Music at Caius College, Cambridge, visited on 11 August for a Choral Workshop in Chapel. He was very encouraging and effective, and gave excellent advice about the tortuous process for applying for a Cambridge Choral Scholarship. We were also joined by Christopher Bruerton (one of the King’s Singers) for an entertaining and informative Consort Workshop on 11 August. Our Annual BBC Radio 3 live broadcast came from Cheltenham College Chapel on 12 August, and included music by Rubbra, Howells and yes, Allwood. The fact that this course were able to nail Howells: Take him, Earth, for Cherishing in such a short time was a tribute to their exceptional musicianship. We also visited the beautiful Gloucester Cathedral to sing Choral Evensong on 10 August with Adrian Partington, who spruced up the music very effectively.

COURSE 5 (Course Director: Simon Toyne)
Course 5 was held in the atmospheric surroundings of St Chad’s and St John’s Colleges in Durham, and was led by Simon Toyne. Set on the Castle hill, the participants of the course woke every morning to a spectacular view of the Cathedral, a place which soon became a home-from-home. The Course Choir’s first performance was Evensong to a large congregation in York Minster, singing the canticles in D by Bairstow (written for York Minster) and Stanford For lo, I raise up. The following day saw a masterclass given by the world-renowned baritone and opera director (and local man) Sir Thomas Allen, a truly inspirational few hours for all of us; this was followed by singing compline (Bruckner motets, Holst Nunc Dimittis and much plainsong) in Durham Cathedral to close the day. Many participants were so moved by the experience that they stayed in the building afterwards to soak up the unique atmosphere. We then welcomed James Lancelot, Director of Music at the Cathedral, who put the choir through its paces in Samuel Wesley’s rarely heard (and virtuosic) double-choir motet In exitu Israel – James was a wonderfully hospitable host for us in Durham during the course – and also Jamie Burton, who took a highly entertaining and informative Consort Group workshop on the penultimate day. The course finished with a Saturday evening recital to a packed Durham Chapter House. The choir revelled in the resonant acoustics, with a selection of works by Tavener being especially effective. A surprise treat came at the end of the concert, when the audience were siphoned into the Cathedral via the back door, to hear the entire course (including staff) sing Parry’s Blest Pair of Sirens, accompanied by James Lancelot on the Cathedral Organ.

COURSE 6 (Course Director: Ralph Allwood)
Course 6 was a superb course, on which we welcomed 73 excellent young singers. The standard was exceptionally high throughout the week, and we were fortunate to be able to focus our efforts on several highlights during the week. Iestyn Davies, who described the course he had attended when a young singer as decisive in his considering the music profession, came to do a Vocal Masterclass in the Divinity School at St John’s College. We were also joined by two Cambridge choral directors for Choral Workshops during the week: Mark Williams (Director of Music at Jesus College), and Stephen Cleobury (Director of Music at King’s College). It was a thrill for everyone to have the rare privilege of singing in the glorious King’s Chapel. Stephen went on to direct our recital at King’s College, which included works by Parry, Tallis and Howells. We also sang Compline services at St John’s College and at Queens’ College. The final full day of the course was very long, even by Eton Choral Course standards: rising at 06:30 am we started the day with a live Radio 4 broadcast of Sunday Worship from St John’s College Chapel. We then travelled to Eton to take part in the annual Reunion Day for all students from Eton Choral Courses this year, which is now held each year in aid of the Choral Course Foundation. We then travelled back to Cambridge and ended the Course with a Consort Workshop, led in his very effective quick-fire manner by Dominic Peckham. St John’s College hosted us exceedingly well, allowing us full use of their wonderful facilities, including a formal dinner in Hall. We are most grateful to Chris and Mary Dobson for generously inviting the entire Course to a reception at the Master’s Lodge during the week and to Duncan Dormor, the Dean, for his generous-hearted encouragement, and for the use of the wonderful St John’s Chapel for so many of our rehearsals.

I would particularly like to pay tribute to four highly reliable and effective organisers, without whose tireless work none of us (440 of us including staff) would have had the fun we did:

Timothy Teague, who set up the timetables for all of the Courses and made the minute-by-minute arrangements, which worked throughout perfectly, to the minute.

Amy Cross, who dealt with all of the applications and their disparate demands with care and sensitive understanding.

Janet Lennon, who arranged DBS clearance for all the staff, a laborious and complex task, undertaken with diligence and care.

Philip Highy, who highly effectively took the administrative and financial helm, telling us gently but firmly just what we could and couldn’t spend, and paving the way for the success of the courses.

Ralph Allwood
Autumn 2015

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