Over 140 singers streamed into St Mary’s Church in Henley for a singing workshop led by well-known British composer of choral music, Bob Chilcott last Saturday. If the assembled singers felt sorry to be spending what promised to be the first sunny day of the year inside they were soon cheered up by Bob Chilcott’s fascinating stories from his life of singing, conducting and composing and his lovely sunny disposition.
The aim of the Workshop was for the singers to learn movements from three of Bob Chilcott’s own compositions: Songs and Cries of London Town, Like a Singing Bird, and A Little Jazz Mass. After a warmup where the singers were encouraged to focus on pitch, and some clapping in time, Bob started the Workshop proper. For the first piece, Songs and Cries of London Town, based on street cries in times gone by, the singers were told to ‘sing it straight, with not too much sophistication’ which came as a relief to many, and the singers relished some of the archaic words such as ‘hot codlins’ and ideas including the offer of a street trader to ‘very nicely cut your corns’! all set to Bob’s challenging syncopated score.
Bob Chilcott explained that his first time working with youth choirs in America was ‘a revelation’ and that he has a particular love of working with children and young people because their response to music is so fresh and unfiltered without any prejudice. After a recent conducting experience in America, a young girl came up to Bob and said “I like your music, but we sang something I really liked recently by a guy called Vivaldi. Do you know him?” The second work to be covered: Like a Singing Bird is a favourite amongst youth choirs across the world and includes a beautiful Scottish traditional ballad. Bob encouraged the singers to be as expressive as possible in our singing – both in this and in the other pieces. For any singer it is a privilege to hear from the composer himself how he would like the work to be sung and really brings the score alive.
Bob was also a mine of information. For example, the lyrics to Like a Singing Bird, are from a poem by Victorian writer Christina Rossetti and includes the lines; ‘Raise me a dais of purple and gold, hang it with vair and purple dyes.’ He explained that the word ‘vair’ means squirrel and that, it is likely that, in the fairy tale Cinderella, the slipper was originally described as being made of ‘vair’ or squirrel skin but this was mistakenly believed to be ‘verre’ – meaning ‘glass’ in French.
Bob was very kind to the singers. Repeatedly saying ‘well-done’ and ‘very good’ especially to the tenor and bass sections. Although the turn-out for these sections was strong, as is so often the way, they were fewer in number than the contraltos and sopranos. He also said he had been advised by fellow composer John Rutter never to compose a piece where the tenor section is split into two parts ‘because you might have to cut a tenor in two!’
The day continued peppered with Bob’s very entertaining anecdotes. How thrilled he was when he saw his name on the same billboard as famous Dutch conductor Bernard Haitink; how when he asked his mother what she had thought of a particular performance, her first response was: ‘where did you get those trousers?’ He also explained his connections with Henley. He sang The Messiah at St Mary’s back in 1977 for the princely sum of £15 and the Agnus Dei from his A Little Jazz Mass is dedicated to a couple from Abingdon whose son performed in a musical called Hooray Henley where the plot involves a murder during Regatta.
This last work in the Workshop is inspired by Bob Chilcott’s life-long love of jazz, his trips to the home of jazz, New Orleans, his extensive experience of performing with greats including George Shearing, Richard Rodney Bennet and John Dankworth, and his work as an arranger for the BBC.
Throughout the Workshop, the singers benefited from the beautiful playing of local pianist Anita D’Attellis. After tea and cakes provided by Henley Choral Society, there was a run through of everything we had been working on, and a rousing round of applause for Anita and Bob. I am sure the singers felt very lucky to have spent the day with the man The Observer described as ‘A contemporary hero of British choral music’ and who shares his knowledge and experience so generously.
The next Henley Choral Society concert features works by Bob Chilcott and Leonard Bernstein and includes the Henley Youth Choir on Saturday 24 June at the Christ Church Centre, Henley. Tickets and information www.henleychoralsociety.org.uk