Tag Archives: Chamber Choir

The fifth element: Blest are the Pure in Heart by James Webb

As part of its programme of contemporary works this year, the University Chamber Choir has been developing Blest are the Pure in Heart, a strikingly colourful anthem by James Webb published by Chichester Music Press.

The piece reflects the tone of the text (Blest are the pure in heart, for they shall see our God) in revelling in the sparse beauty of the open fifth, first heard at the opening in the sopranos and altos; the tenors and basses reply with the same interval on the dominant, creating an overall chord built now on fourths; the upper voices re-present their initial fifth, prompting the lower voices to respond with another open fifth, now on the mediant, which creates a contrasting combined sonority of a first-inversion major seventh. The simple juggling and combining the same interval at different transpositions creates three different gestures within the first two bars – an evocative start to the piece, which then unfolds in a more melodic fashion, but with the harmonic language still underpinned by the prevalence of the open fifth. It’s as though the music is trying to work out how best to respond to its first chord, exploring options in order to find the most suitable; its dissatisfaction with the first two (wonderfully colourful!) choices becomes the catalyst for the rest of the piece’s gradual unfolding.

Later still, when the opening returns, the music unfolds to include a flattened sixth, a small harmonic moment of great expressive power; the piece concludes with a final presentation of the opening gestures which now resolve into the tonic major, but hovering in second inversion, giving the end a wonderful sense of weightlessness.

A former producer with BBC Radio 3, James Webb also won the inaugural  BBC Young Musician of the Year Composers Award in 1992; his music has been performed by groups including London Voices, the Delta Saxophone Quartet, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

At its dress rehearsal this week in preparation for singing at the University Carol Service in Canterbury Cathedral next month, the Chamber Choir made a recording of the piece:

We are very much looking forward to performing this work in the resonant acoustics of Canterbury Cathedral and elsewhere as part of the Choir’s repertoire during the course of this academic year; it will work especially well in the evocative surroundings of the Cathedral Crypt in May.

Find out more about Chichester Music Press here.

New year, new Chamber Choir

With two days of auditions over, this year’s University Chamber Choir is underway and preparing for a particularly busy calendar of performing commitments throughout the course of this academic year.

Comprising both undergraduate and postgraduate students from across the University community, this year’s ensemble consists of eighteen singers, who will be working towards the usual events in the choir’s annual choral calendar, as well as some exciting new events (about which more anon…). Our first public engagement will be the University Carol Service at Canterbury Cathedral in December, always a magical opportunity for the Choir to take flight publically for the first time.

Later in the year, we’ll also be singing Choral Evensong at the Cathedral, and giving our annual concert in the Cathedral Crypt; also in the diary are a return to St Michael’s Church, in Hernhill, for a meditative sequence of music and silence by candlelight in Breathing Space, a performance at Wye Church, and the performance of a new piece for choir, strings and electronics, for which rehearsals will start in November.

This year, the Assistant Conductor is second-year Hannah Ost, who also MDs with the Musical Theatre Society, and recently completed a busy summer working at the French Woods School of Performing Arts in New York.

It’s a relief for us to be finally up and running – we’re looking forward to the year ahead. See you along the way…

Between two worlds: O Vos Omnes by Sarah Rimkus

The University Chamber Choir is forever tackling contemporary works as it develops its repertoire for the annual Crypt Concert, and this year includes the haunting O Vos Omnes by the American composer, Sarah Rimkus, in its programme.

The motet is a setting of a text for Holy Saturday in Lent,

O all you who walk by on the road, pay attention and see if there be any sorrow like my sorrow. Pay attention, [all people] and look at my sorrow, if there be any sorrow like my sorrow.

and treads a wonderfully ethereal line between medieval plainchant and a sparse yet colourful modern musical language, rich in open fifths. The harmonic language unfolds in a slow procession of colours, as though the listener is passing a series of stained-glass windows, that is highly expressive, yet wonderfully understated; the recurrent motif, first heard right at the opening, is built from the melodic line, broken up across voice-parts and with notes extended such that a four-note cluster chord arises as a vertical incarnation of the linear melody. It creates a wonderfully ambiguous tonal landscape, as the listener is moved across harmonic planes without ever quite knowing how they were taken there; it’s only with the return of the melody, hummed gently above a tonic pedal, at the conclusion of the piece that our feet touch the ground once more.  In places the music unfurls in steps of an open fifth to build very stark sonorities, answered by lines that rise and fall like plainsong above a pedal-point, creating tension between motion and stasis. There’s a yearning quality to the shape of the melodic line, which, for all its motion, cannot escape the tyranny of its starting note.

Born in Washington in 1990, Sarah has previously studied with Morten Lauridsen, and is now based in Aberdeen, where she is currently studying with Paul Mealor (whose Ave Maria will also feature in the programme). Her music has won numerous awards, and is performed around the world, including at the Cheltenham Festival and Buckingham Palace. Her evocative setting of O Vos Omnes, hovering between the old world and the new,  will be a luminous gem when the Chamber Choir performs in the Crypt of Canterbury Cathedral in a few weeks’ time.

http://www.sarahrimkus.com

O that we were there…

Congratulations to the University Chamber Choir, which sang as part of last night’s University Carol Service.

Image: Matt Wilson / University of Kent

Amidst a Cathedral plunged into darkness, lit only by the dancing flames of over a thousand candles clutched by the congregation, the Chamber Choir opened the service with the energetic rhythms of Verbum Patris Umanatur by Ronald Corp; after the assembled congregation then rose, the voice of second-year soprano Fleur Sumption (pictured above, front row, second from left) lifted clear into the vaulted arches in the opening of Once in Royal David’s City – and Christmas was well and truly here.

Later in the service, second-year Matthew Cooke (right) made a fine conducting debut, leading the Choir in In Dulci Jubilo; the Choir’s final solo carol was the enchanting Star of the East by Russell Hepplewhite. The Choir also lent its voice to several descants in the congregational carols too; even the basses…

Image: Matt Wilson / University of Kent

The annual University Carol Service is a wonderful occasion, each year bringing members of the University community together in words and music, closing with the people filing out of the Cathedral’s great West Door to take their candles out into the wintry night. Thanks to all the singers for their commitment to last night’s service; it all resumes next month as the Choir focuses on Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater and a mix of contemporary works as part of a colourful programme for its Crypt concert in March.

From all the Choir: a merry Christmas!

Image: Matt Wilson / University of Kent

In review: Matt Cooke on the Sing for Pleasure conducting course

Each year, thanks to the generous support of one of our musical alumnus benefactors, we send the in-coming student assistant conductor of the University Chamber Choir on a course, ahead of facing the choir for the first time in October. This year, second year French and Business Administration student Matt Cooke (pictured, far right) found himself travelling to Keele University for the week-long Foundation Course run by Sing for Pleasure. Here, Matt reflects on how he got on, the real use for mirrors and folk-dancing…


Back in May, having shown an interest in become the new student conductor for the University Chamber Choir, I was asked to audition. Facing a choir with which I have sung and which I’ve respected so much over the past year was probably one of the toughest things I’ve had to do; describing it as walking into Lord Alan Sugar’s boardroom would be an understatement! Regardless, I was pleased with how the audition went and consequently overjoyed to find out that I would be taking on the role. I couldn’t wait to start choosing repertoire and to attend the Conductors course itself.

Two weeks before I was due to attend the Sing for Pleasure summer school, a pack of music arrived at home containing the four pieces of music that I would have to prepare for the week’s course. I’ll be honest, looking at these scores I was a bit confused as to why the pieces were so simple. A musical round of 4 bars hardly seemed a challenge compared to Rachmaninoff’s Bogoroditsye Dyevo, which I’ve chosen to tackle this autumn with the choir. Nevertheless, I recorded the chosen pieces into Garageband and proceeded to ‘study’ them in the lead up to the course.

I had spent a week prior to the course performing up at the Edinburgh Fringe; arriving at Keele University for the start, it was safe to say I was exhausted, but regardless I couldn’t wait to get started. The 7am start was daunting enough, but after the huge buffet breakfast followed by a strong black coffee, everything didn’t seem so bad! After breakfast we had a vocal warm-up, which every participant on each of the different courses attended. Each warm-up session focused on different warm-up techniques to engage different choirs in different situations. This was followed by a one-hour choral session taught by the tutors. We looked at a Mass written by Ariel Ramirez, called Misa Criolla. It was a challenging piece of music in its own right, but not only did we have two days to learn and perform it, it was written in Latin-American Spanish, which surprisingly didn’t come naturally to many of the choir!

Following the Choral session, we had the first technique session, where all of the foundation conductors came together to focus on the basic gestures and patterns. Firstly, we started on the correct hand position. ‘This can’t be too difficult’, was a phrase that was shortly shot out of my head the minute we started! After what seemed like an eternity of extreme concentration and focussed practise, we began our individual workshops where we split into two smaller groups (picture left) and began work on our prepared pieces. As mentioned above, the pieces didn’t seem particularly challenging, but I soon realised that even the simplest of pieces were a challenge when it came to practising the correct hand gestures and techniques learnt from the previous session.

What really made these sessions so helpful and rewarding was supporting our other class mates during their section of conducting. It was particularly useful to identify common errors, and how to fix them. It was soon found to my surprise that I talk and waffle too much and move too dramatically for music that doesn’t need such gestures. Who’d have thought it! Our tutor Ruth showed us a technique to combat this. I had to stand up against the wall whilst conducting. This kept my back and shoulders against the wall, supporting a good posture, meaning that my beat pattern was the focus of the singers, rather than an over-expressive shoulder.

After a freshly prepared lunch, we moved onto what was perhaps the highlight of my week. We were asked to sing for the Intermediate 2 level conductors, where they were conducting a new arrangement of some Barbershop classics. Having never sung Barbershop before it was great to find out how much I enjoyed it. The session flew by, and before dinner we had an hour of personal preparation and practise. The week has shown me that a mirror is not just for spending hours doing one’s hair, but also to repeatedly go over gestures and beat patterns for practise! The evening’s entertainment was folk-dancing. Admittedly folk dancing isn’t my strong point, but after a couple of drinks, and a disregard of my dignity, we all had a great laugh and what a fantastic ice-breaker that was!

Day two was much the same, with a vocal warm-up followed by choral and technique session. We focused on 2,3 and 4-beat patterns and looking at how to start pieces which begin on an upbeat,  on the bounce-anacrusis and single anacrusis, and how to use them in each time-signature. Following another brilliant Barbershop session and practise session in the mirror, we had Monday night’s entertainment, the first of two informal concerts, where anyone could offer to perform something if they wish.

Tuesday, was a repeat of Monday, with the addition of the formal concert. Wednesday, was a particularly good day with the afternoon off to practise and perhaps a little nap. The evening was taken up by the dress-up, sing-along version of the Sound of Music. It was great fun to see the weird and wonderful costumes that people had made, a particular highlight being the group who had dressed up as the mountains…

Thursday bought with it again more choral sessions this time lead by the advanced conductors. They introduced two more pieces, Vivaldi’s Beatus Vir and Emmanuel d’Astorga’s Stabat Mater, which were to be performed on the Saturday evening. Watching the skills and professionalism of the advanced conductors was a great motivation to see what we could be like in years to come. However, back in reality, we had chosen our pieces to perform in our foundation concert, I had chosen My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean but the other songs conducted by the others included the Welsh traditional All Through the Night and American Traditional Strike the Bell. After this we had bigger things to prepare such as the performance of the Barbershop chorus, which with huge over the top reactions and moments of comic singing, went down a treat for the watching audience with laughter throughout.

Friday was The Big Day for the foundation conductors. For the majority of us we’d conduct a choir for the first time in a concert setting (pictured above). Further rehearsals throughout the day, settled our nerves and we were all very excited to get on stage and perform. I’m glad and very proud to say that the whole concert was a huge success followed by a very relieved bow at the end of each piece! To follow a successful day, we had the second informal concert of the week. I performed in two acts, one of which was ‘Without Love’ from the musical Hairspray and myself and three other guys performed in Barbershop quartet of the song Shine on Me which was received with great laughs and applause

Saturday wasn’t as relaxed as we had hoped as we had last minute rehearsals with the advanced conductors and video feedback from our performances yesterday, where we got to watch our conducting and to reflect on what we had learnt during the week. Reflecting on my performance, I hadn’t quite eradicated the dramatic head and shoulder movements, but applied to the right piece I’m sure it could be quite effective, however for the time being I’ll leave Beethoven’s 9th to the professionals. Saturday evening brought a fantastic performance of the advanced conductors and both pieces of music. It was followed by the awards and then the end-of-course party. I won’t talk too much about the party for several reasons but, ordering over £150 worth of pizza goes to show how big the party was…

Overall I can’t praise and recommend Sing for Pleasure enough for the thorough and professional attitude that all the tutors have to the teaching and development of every participant. The tutors are fantastic and incredibly willing to teach and help but also friendly, making this week not one to forget. I can’t wait to book onto the next course. The week has taught me so much that will benefit many people for the years to come. I would even go as far to say, that it has inspired me to pursue a career in conducting and music, if I were to continue my training. A huge ‘thank you’ to everyone who made the week a fantastic week and to those who enabled me to attend this course, I am incredibly grateful!

It’s oh so quiet…

The Chamber Choir resumed rehearsals earlier this week, having had a break over Easter; the choir is preparing for two performances in June as part of Summer Music Week, the Music department’s annual festival which bids a musical farewell to the academic year. It’s a busy time for the singers, with revision and examinations and dissertations all exerting pressure – and with only five rehearsals left, rehearsal time is at a premium.

The first concert is a revisiting of the programme the Choir performed in the Cathedral Crypt back in March, which includes Fauré’s richly-hued Requiem and several tricky contemporary pieces. With so little rehearsal time this term, and members missing rehearsals as they prepare for exams, it’s an opportunity to rehearse and to perform without having the additional stress of trying to learn new repertoire. But – and this is where the magic begins – returning to pieces that you’ve already learned and delivered in the glare of the public eye is a fascinating experience; you know the pieces really well, and are confident in them because you’ve already aired them in public, and so the level of performance improves from the previous concert. There’s a new-found freedom in revisiting them, a surety that comes from trusting that you can deliver them, which leads to increased confidence, which leads to greater freedom – and so it continues. At this point in the academic year, the choir is really flying; a rich, assured ensemble sound, a tremendous pleasure in knowing the pieces will come off the page successfully.

And yet…there’s always something new, some new direction the choir takes, some undiscovered aspect to its performing that emerges. And this week was no exception; as we picked started our first piece, the dynamic level reached new depths of piano and pianissimo that were entirely unpremeditated; we hadn’t elected to explore singing much more quietly than before, but there was an empathetic, collective response that found us singing much more intimately than we ever had before; and it worked. As the rehearsal unfolded, this contrast appeared in other pieces, and was particularly exciting. Where had it come from ? As the conductor, I certainly hadn’t asked for it; instead, it emerged as a result of the choir’s renewed confidence and trust in one another and in the music; the singers know the pieces extremely well, and can afford to take more risks, broaden the dynamic scope, push with greater energy, bolstered by their confidence in the unity of ensemble sound. The effect of reaching a much quieter sound served also to heighten the contrast with forte passages, which felt much louder (and more exciting) without our having to exaggerate them.

That’s the best and worst thing about this point in the year; having worked so hard together since those first early steps in October, the choir has become a fully integrated musical unit, and is at its apex; in a few weeks’ time, the group will disintegrate as members graduate or go on a year abroad, and that will be that. I’m reminded of that line from Blade Runner: ‘The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long.’ This choir is burning very brightly now – we have only a few short weeks left in which to enjoy it, but enjoy it we shall; next month’s revitalised programme will be quite something.

The Chamber Choir performs at St Peter’s Methodist Church, Canterbury on Friday 9 June and in Colyer-Fergusson Hall on Saturday 10 June; details here.

Images: Molly Hollman

#EarBox: lunchtime concert at Studio 3 Gallery this Friday

The University Chamber Choir is busy preparing for its annual concert in the Crypt of Canterbury Cathedral on Friday 3 March, and as a curtain-raiser the choir will perform in the sonorous acoustic of Studio 3 Gallery this Friday lunchtime, 24 February.

Continuing the #EarBox series exploring the dialogue between  music and visual art, this Friday’s event will see the choir perform amidst the gallery’s latest exhibition, Soft Formalities. An exploration of line, form and colour in painting, tapestry and ceramics, the gallery will host an equally exploratory programme of choral music, ranging from the stark, haunting beauty of Tavener’s setting of William Blake’s The Lamb to an almost-minimalist dream awakening by Alec Roth; there’s also a tour de force Lithuanian folk-song for double choir by Vaclovas Augustinas, madrigals by Lassus, richly colourful pieces by Peter Warlock and Alexander Campkin, and more.

The concert is free to attend and starts at 1.10pm in the gallery in the Jarman Building; if you can’t make it in person, the concert will be live-streamed here.

Join the Chamber Choir either live or online, as it presents a concert exploring dreams, sleep, desire, dance and lullabies in the echoing space of Studio 3 Gallery this Friday. More details here.

Hark, the glad sound: Chamber Choir at the Cathedral

For the University Chamber Choir, December means but one thing: the candlelit magic of the annual University Carol Service in Canterbury Cathedral.

This year, the Choir performed three pieces; second-year Doug Haycock led the Choir at the West end to begin proceedings with Tavener’s The Lamb, and from the steps to the Quire, Deputy Director of Music Dan Harding conducted the richly expressive Sleep, Holy Babe by Alexander Campkin, and Andrew Carter’s arrangement of the slow movement of Peter Warlock’s ‘Capriol Suite’ into the beautiful Lullaby, My Jesus.

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The Chamber Choir in rehearsal at the West end of Canterbury Cathedral

The opportunity to perform in the majestic acoustic of the Cathedral Nave is one to relish; that first point in the afternoon rehearsal, when we sing our first phrase and hear it travelling the length of the Nave, is a remarkable moment each year. After all the hard work in rehearsals from when the Choir first forms in mid-October, it’s a chance to really spread your wings, to open out the ensemble sound into that mighty reverberation and listen as it recedes amongst the pillars.

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The University community comes together each year at this time, to celebrate the Christmas season and being together, with carols sung in different languages to reflect its international identity; it’s always an event towards which the singers look forward with great anticipation, that moment when the Cathedral is plunged into darkness as the lights are turned out, and the Choir’s first notes rise to the dark recesses of the vaulted roof above a sea of candlelight.

loveless_crew_carol_service2Congratulations to the Choir, and to second-year Alice Scott (pictured above, fourth from the right) whose opening solo to Once In Royal David’s City lifted clear and bright above the heads of the congregational candles to begin the service. Christmas is here.

Circle time: in rehearsal

At last night’s rehearsal, we spent a large part of the time with our backs to one another, not looking at each other, not watching the conductor.

Before you ask, no, we hadn’t had a row; we were working on singing as an ensemble, listening to one another, keeping an internal pulse so that we all moved together, and not waiting for others. That shared, indrawn breath that anticpates the start of a phrase; that sense of not waiting for your neighbour to sing, but taking the lead; last night was largely about developing an ensemble instinct.

When you’re all facing outwards, standing in a circle, there’s no eye-contact, no conductor to watch, no ability to wait for someone else; you have to take charge of your own line, count strictly, enter with confidence; there’s also a need, at pauses or at the end of a verse, to breathe together. Listening becomes crucial: there’s no other way to establish contact with anyone else, and the need for everyone to count rather than rely on a conductor to lead the beats of the bar is critical to keeping the music flowing.

img_0960There were moments where this worked very well; there were also moments when words ended at slightly different times amongst the voices, consonants tripped early and peppered the sound, and some entries were rather hesitant. The more we do of this, though, the better we will be as an ensemble.

Assistant conductor Doug worked with the Choir on establishing consistent vowel-shapes in works by Hassler and Purcell, on using the right sounds and avoiding diphthongs.

img_0962It’s four weeks until we sing in the glorious Nave of Canterbury Cathedral for the University Carol Service, and so last night we drew out that seasonal favourite, ‘Carols for Choirs,’ to look at the second verse of, you’ve guessed it, ‘Once in Royal David’s City.’ The Carol Service is such a fantastic occasion, I’m definitely not taking that night off…

Playing with space: workshop day for the Chamber Choir

The Chamber Choir had its termly workshop day on Saturday, a concentrated rehearsal period that offers scope to work for longer than our customary weekly two-hour period, and really drill down into the nitty-gritty aspects of the music we’re singing this year.

This year’s assistant conductor, second-year Doug, roused the Choir into an early Saturday state of wakefulness with a series of technical warm-up exercises, before moving in to rehearse the group in Tavener’s The Lamb. The piece sounds deceptively straightforward, hiding the angularity of the lines that weave around one another in ever-changing intervals and palindromes. We then worked on two Italian madrigals, one of which is Lassus’ The Echo Song which creates the illusion of a choir playing with (and mocking) its own echo, throwing material antiphonally between two choirs and which we’re hoping to exploit spatially to the full in the concert in the Cathedral Crypt in the spring.

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Second-year Doug rehearses the Choir

Perhaps the most rhythmically challenging piece we are performing this year is Augustinas’ Tykus, Tykus, which again pitches two choirs aganist each other in rapturous and cascading sections, driven by a fierce, almost tribal energy. We initially rehearsed in individual choirs (the other choir going for a well-earned tea-break), followed by putting both choirs together. You really have to know exactly where your line enters during this piece, with short phrases often scattered throughout the texture coming in on the half-beat; and the fact that we’re also singing in Lithuanian creates additional, linguistic hurdles for the choir to face.

In contrast, Doug took the choir through Purcell’s solemn Thou Knowest Lord, which has spaces in the music of heightened dramatic tension, as the Choir beseeches God ‘shut not Thy merciful ear unto our prayer.’ The morning ended with Warlock’s Lullaby, My Jesus, arranged by Andrew Carter, full of yearning chromaticism in the inner voices that need to be delivered confidently if we are to deliver the quite astonishing dissonances which Warlock unfurls throughout this highly expressive carol.

Lunch was dominated by the eager anticipation of this year’s home-made quiche made by Matt; last year, Inger had set the bar high and there was some pressure, but I’m pleased to say that Matt’s was every bit as good – at least, if the fact that it apparently disappeared extraordinarily fast is anything to go by.

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Great expectations from Quick Captain Matt and the Choir at lunch

Amongst the repertoire we rehearsed in the afternoon, the hynotic, dancing lullaby (a recurring theme amongst repertoire this year) And by Alec Roth; another two-choir piece, it combines circling ostinati with bell-like cluster-chords in a lulling opening, supported behind by sighs and sussurations in the second choir in a soundscape mimicking the sleeper’s breathing. Doug’s third piece, Hassler’s Cantate Domino, combines lyricism with a sprightly triple-meter middle section, which the choir is starting really to enjoy.

anthologyWe ended by playing with space in a literal sense, arranging the choir around the balcony of the concert-hall to sing Alexander Campkin’s carol, Sleep, Holy Babe. This is all about removing the safety of singing in close proximity, encouraging each singer to sing confidently, committing to their line and developing a rich ensemble sound.

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Panoramic shot of the spaced-out choir…

This took some getting used to, but when the Choir came back together to sing in formation, the effect was immediate; the singers felt more confident standing together, but still sang with the commitment to the voice-parts, and the result was a fuller sound. The Choir will be singing the piece next month in Canterbury Cathedral, so it’s important that they grow accustomed to filling quite a large space…!

It’s customary, on workshop days, to do the latter part of the day in concert-mode, i.e. with the dress-code and performance folders that we will be using on the night; it’s a particularly effective means of focusing the Choir’s attention on the fact that they will soon be performing in public, and to start getting used to standing, holding ourselves as a group. (It also allows everyone to check they have the right clothing in the right colour…). It definitely creates a mock performance condition, as we head towards our first engagement, singing in the Nave of Canterbury Cathedral to over a thousand in the congregation in the University Carol Service next month.

Getting into performance mode

Getting into performance mode

The afternoon ended with the Choir learning a carol, Sleep My Jesu, written by Jamie W Hall as part of a seasonal initiative to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Care under the #choirsagainstcancer hashtag. The choir took the piece up very quickly, and half an hour later we recorded a performance as a means of participating in the nationwide project to raise money for this very worthy cause. Considering that this was only the fourth time we’d sung through the piece, and the second without the piano, the group picked this up very quickly indeed! (Find out more about the initiative or make a donation here).

My thanks to all the singers for their hard work on Saturday, and for giving up a large part of their weekend to rehearse; we all came away afterwards with the sense that we are really starting to find our feet as an ensemble. There’s still some way to go, but we are heading in the right direction…