Greetings from Great Western Railway – getting ahead of myself with notes from yesterday’s session and plans for next week. Thank you for a rushed but useful rehearsal. The church was chilly and we were rather cramped, but we did cover some useful ground (see last week’s Notes as we managed everything apart from For unto us…). When we return to St Mary’s on December 8th we will set up as close to concert formation as we can, with due regard to distancing, ensuring no one is left out on a limb.
The Annual General Meeting was swift and I presented my final Conductor’s Report which can be found here:
CONDUCTOR’S REPORT 2020-21 SEASON
Following the masterclass on public speaking by Boris Johnson – our Prime Minister – on Monday, I will be making no references to cartoon characters, will not imitate any kind of motorised transport and have carefully numbered my pages to keep them in order.
It is a pleasure to present my conductor’s report for the 2020-21 season – which is to be my last! My first must have been in Autumn 1998, but I have no record of any until 2001, which was rather perfunctory, and contained the bold statements: ‘The sound continues to be good and poor tuning has been eradicated’ and ‘Everyone rises well to challenges’. Remarkable progress over four years.
(NB ‘Tuning’ refers to performances and your ability to attain it. Rest assured that to this day, in rehearsal poor intonation is still achievable!! – update: November 2021)
I am not treating this report as a ‘leaver’s speech’, but it does present an opportunity to reflect a little on the choir’s enormous achievements and progress over 24 years. BTW, my first concert with CNCS was 24 years ago this week – Nov 22nd 1997.
So, what exactly is the season on which I am reporting? The last 18 months have been incredibly challenging, and dates & timelines get blurred. I did submit a report to the zoom AGM in November 2020, which referred to Belshazzar’s Feast from November 2019, the Christmas concert (Chilcott’s ‘On Christmas Night’) and the beginnings of the Rossini Mass and music festival appearance in March, before lockdown on the 23rd.
Throughout the summer and into the autumn of 2020 I stayed connected with posts from The Man At the Front which were designed to inform, educate, and entertain (BBC’s Charter!!) in an effort to keep bodies and souls together as we couldn’t sing. During that year, in July, we very sadly lost Peter Barber, a bass who together with Wendy, had been in the choir for 20+ years. This loss inspired some digging deep into the publication he edited and produced for many years – Leading Notes – and I was able to quote from it in the blogs – a reminiscence project I enjoyed very much.
As the 2020/21 season began, we very nearly got back together in November for a Return to Singing, but were thwarted until December 17th for ‘one night only’! It was fun, but very strange – wearing masks and standing 2m apart. Not at all a real singing experience, but better than being isolated at home on zoom I feel. A small working party worked hard to set this up, mindful of the pandemic and all the H&S requirements, and I would like to express my gratitude and say ‘thank you’ on behalf of everyone to the team for their dedication and planning make this happen. Sadly, we had to lock down again, but a robust process was in place for the future.
In February of this year, I attended Shauni McGregor’s funeral and, as one of the thirty mourners permitted by covid rules I was honoured to be present as a close friend and representing the choral society. It was very fitting, and a great mark of our affection for Shauni that so many of you gathered outside the school to pay your respects as she took her last journey to the church in Shipton. To those of you who don’t know, Shauni was our accompanist and assistant conductor for many years, conducting a Mozart programme in 2006. Her most profound impact on our musical achievements was as the fixer for soloists and instrumental players, drawing on friends and contacts from a professional career in London. This choir would simply not have become the choir it is without Shauni, and she is a huge loss to the community of Chipping Norton.
The summer of 2021 came, I kept blogging – something I really enjoyed BTW, and we geared up for Return to Singing 2 in May. Unfortunately, the government ignored the amateur music sector, and we were subjected to harsher rules than sport and night clubs, so couldn’t resume singing. I was heartened by the tenacity of the choral organisations (ABCD and Making Music) and some choir members, writing to MPs and the Culture Secretary to plead our case, seeking justification for the apparent ‘discrimination.’ No one got a satisfactory response, so we continued twiddling our musical thumbs and joined online choirs, workshops, and masterclasses.
We finally returned to singing on July 7th, then met every Wednesday to resurrect the Petite Messe Solennelle by Rossini, postponed from April 2020, and performed it on August 14th in Deddington Church.
We were supported by Stewart Taylor (my predecessor at CNCS) on piano and Anne Page, Harmonium, both of whom had been booked for the 2020 performance. Moreover, they had both performed the same piece with us in 2003! In that year’s conductor’s report, I wrote: ‘Very exciting and hugely enjoyable. We have the capacity to capture the appropriate flavour of any piece we do. The choir is reasonably mouldable and cooperative and is much better at doing what is asked than it used to be! The vocal soloists were a little disappointing but produced the goods. Anne and Stewart were fantastic and made a significant contribution to the effective performance.’
Much of that comment applies to the August performance but this time the soloists were amazing (James Berry, Philip Costovski, Lorna Day, and Isla MacEwan), the choir was brilliant and totally committed, having really absorbed what was expected of them, and the whole experience was utterly thrilling after such uncertainty and a long absence. Well done all.
Despite the chaos and frustration, isolation and grief, this last academic year has been one of calm endeavour with a triumphant return. We are still here, with new members and growing, able to prepare for a concert in four weeks’ time and looking forward to a bright new future.
My annual reports over the last 24 years (despite some gaps) have steadily got longer, more fulsome in their praise for the choir’s singing and more challenging in expectations and ambition, which have resulted in some spectacular performances – Bach’s B Minor Mass, Belshazzar’s Feast, Elgar’s The Music Makers and Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem in the last 5 years. In my report of 2014/15, I wrote:
‘Thank you all once again for working so hard since January, I’ve enjoyed the journey. We chose Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius as a challenge and could have avoided it – too difficult, too expensive – but I’m reminded of the final verse of Robert Frost’s The road not taken:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.’
And finally… The process for appointing my successor is strictly this year’s business, but now is an appropriate moment for me to say thank you to everyone for contributing to it so openly and with such sincerity. You have made a sound choice in Ben which I am happy about, and confident you will continue to grow with fresh challenges.
None of the above over 24 years would ever have worked so effectively without the many committees and volunteers, for which an enormous thank you. I have always been supported and encouraged by the committees, none more so than this year, which has been particularly challenging, requiring a lot of extra time and duties, thank you. Strong leadership matters, both on the conductor’s podium and in governance and each committee has enjoyed good leadership from their chairs. Thank you to all of them.
Leadership from the chair has never mattered as much as it has this year! Eric was appointed at the 2020 AGM believing his largest challenge that of emerging from the pandemic after not singing for nine months. In January we met for a walk by the canal in Cropredy to chew the fat and put the world straight, finishing with a whisky in the churchyard. Already exercised by the uncertainties ahead, he met my bombshell that we were moving to Devon, with remarkable restraint. Although dismayed and upset, he characteristically turned all our conversations to what the future might look like and how we would get there, determined to maintain and cherish what we have all created. Eric, you reefed the sails well ahead of the storm and have guided us to calm and safer waters, thank you.
What we will do on 01.12.21
Rehearsal is at Holy Trinity Church, London Rd at 7.30.
Parking available in the Primary School playground.
Britten: Movements 1, 4 and 7
Messiah: Worthy is the Lamb/Amen chorus