Singing in the Choir: more D-cup, please!

Monday, 9 January 2017

One of my favourite sounds in the world is listening to the Summer School choir warm up as I walk across the courtyard. The noise filters through the 500 year old stone walls, taking the edge off the chortle and squeak off early morning voices.

I wasn't always outside. Sometimes I was in there, with them, chortling away myself. In fact, as soon as we could be trusted to sit for an hour without burping, whining or making other obnoxious noises my brother and I were sent off to the choir, under the eagle eye (and ear) of family friend and Dartington alumna Judith Jackson. Every morning at 9.15 we’d shuffle into the Great Hall and take our seats in the soprano section, puffed up with importance and delight. Not boring school choir singing. Real singing in a real choir of grown-ups, and directed by an Important Person. It was there I learnt to sing Latin texts (Gloria in ek SHELL sees, DAAY oh) and how to count bars rest (one two three, two two three, three two three). I even learnt the trick of looking meaningfully at your neighbour when you make a wrong entry...

The choir has been a testing ground for many conductors but for some memories from the earliest days, over to my father, Jeremy Wilson:

"It must be a daunting experience for a Summer School novice to stand up for the first time in front of a choir which has become an institution, most of whose members feel that it belongs to them, and who have known so many previous conductors for comparison.

"When Colin Davis (later Sir Colin) first came in 1951, it was not as a conductor but to teach and play the clarinet.   In 1952 he again taught clarinet and did some chamber music coaching.   It was not until 1953 that he was finally to take up the baton and face the choir with exerpts from Stravinsky’s “Rake’s Progress”.   The Friday evening performance was on August 21st, just predating its official U.K. premiere at the Edinburgh festival on August 25th.   A first for the Summer School.

"Neville Marriner (later Sir Neville) brought the newly formed Academy of St Martins in the Fields to the Summer School in 1965.   They played without conductor, being led by Neville playing first violin.   It wasn’t until the Academy was asked to accompany the choir, replacing the usual piano duet accompaniment, that Neville started conducting.   He returned to conduct the choir from 1967 to 1970.

"When, in 1975, Mark Elder (later Sir Mark) conducted the Verdi Requiem the accompaniment was piano duet, as was usual before the 1980s.   The pianists were Jeffrey Tate and David Harper, playing on two large Steinway grands.   When it came to the brass introduction to the Tuba Mirum, they managed to produce a more spine-chilling and earth-shattering crescendo on two pianos than I have ever heard from a full orchestra, before or since.

"And then came Simon Rattle (later Sir Simon) who conducted Janacek’s Glagolithic Mass in 1976 and, in the following year, Britten’s War Requiem.   He was a stimulating choir trainer, never settling for second best.   Turning to the contraltos he would cry 'No, no. I want it richer.   Let’s have some more D-cup sound.' ”


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