There are photos at the end of this post.

What a day! Saturday 24th April was long, busy and tiring but all in a good cause.  For me it was the culmination of a 3 year dream - to bring The Open University Choir (with the bonus of Quorum) to sing in our church with our Willis Organ.  It has been several months in the planning, and thankfully this all paid off on the day.

Several organ fund committee members and Open University Choir Committee and friends were doing things in preparation during Saturday morning and in the preceding days - during the week the staging boxes had been brought into the church, and the background and exhibition screen had been partially erected on Tuesday night to test it out.  On Friday afternoon the chairs were all turned around and after Parish Singers we brought additional chairs from the church school.  The exhibition screen was finished on Saturday morning.

This concert was one of few times the OU choir, of which I am a member, has been asked to produce a full evening's programme of music, as normally the lunchtime concerts on campus last an hour.  Consequently rehearsal time during the final week took more time and commitment than normal, but the choir rose to the challenge with good humour and enthusiasm. We had a long fruitful rehearsal on Tuesday evening in the church, then a lunchtime rehearsal at the OU on Thursday.  We met for our final rehearsal at 2:30 pm in the church, and although we had a break for refreshments (tea and coffee served cheerfully by Marian and Dai), we didn't finish singing until 5:30 pm.

The choir had originally agreed to come to the church because there were major building works at the OU, making it uncertain as to whether our usual on-campus venue would be available for our Spring concert.  As it happens, the OU building works finished on time and budget so the Old Lecture Theatre (now called the Hub Lecture Theatre) was actually available, but by then arrangements were far advanced for our off-campus adventure.  Ironically the building works for the new Parish Hall started the Monday before the concert which did create some interesting changes to the way we normally manage concerts at the church, but despite this the concert proceeded without a hitch and was a gloriously memorable event for everyone present.  It was great for the choir to sing in the favourable acoustic of the church compared to the rather dry acoustic of our on-campus accommodation.

The concert, which was called "From St George's to St Mary & St Giles" celebrated the history of our Willis organ in its former home, as it included three pieces composed by William Bowie who had been the last organist of St George's, Edinburgh before it was closed because of dry rot.  The connection between William Bowie and the OU choir is Bill Strang (the OU choir’s conductor and long time Music project officer at the OU) who, as a child, was in the Royal High School Edinburgh choir under William's direction during the 1960s.  William had turned his attention to developing the school choir after St George's was closed, and some of the pieces we sang were sung by the school choir when Bowie first wrote them (they were not written for our Willis organ which was by then in Stony Stratford).  In addition, whilst researching the history of the organ and the church in Edinburgh, Bill had discovered that the first Minister of St George's, Andrew Mitchell Thomson, had written a famous Scottish Psalm which our Willis would have accompanied at least 4 times a year, so it seemed fitting that the OU Choir should resurrect the connection between the organ and "Ye gates, lift up your heads on high" once more.  Hopefully this psalm and setting will become part of the St Mary & St Giles Parish Singers repertoire - it is a good joyful sing, and manageable by a congregation.

William Bowie's three pieces were hard to learn and at times we've had difficulty believing that "Welcome Happy Morning", "Three Masts" and "Faith" would ever sound convincing.  But in this past week, they finally gelled:

"And what is faith?  Faith gives substance to our hopes, and makes us certain of realities we do not see"

We found this certainty in our singing on the night and every piece came across well.

Quorum was invited to join us for the Gabrieli because several of their singers are in the OU choir and their repertoire was a good compliment to what we sang.

In addition there were two organ solo pieces played by Paul Daggett.  Paul accompanied the Bowie and Britten pieces, whilst Kevin McConway accompanied the others.  Quorum sang their pieces unaccompanied.

Bill introduced each piece that was sung with interesting contextual information which supplemented what was written in the extensive programme that was printed by the OU.  He also cleverly highlighted our pipe sponsorship scheme by pointing out that the Trombone he had sponsored was played in one of the Bowie pieces.  Unfortunately a few people had difficulty hearing Bill because we hadn’t given him a microphone even though he had rehearsed speaking loudly in our church.  We’ll definitely fix that oversight for future concerts.

Normally when we hold concerts in St Mary & St Giles a choir stands in the semi-circular sanctuary area but this is far from the organ and synchronising between the two carries a significant time lag which can be overcome with hard work, but is challenging.  For this reason Bill decided he wanted to put staging on the floor between the font and the back of the gallery, and turn all the chairs around to face the organ.  We turn chairs for organ recitals so the audience can see the organist.  The choir was facing the high altar which was lit up and looked splendid.  The programme was designed to make good use of our galleries (Bill had attended Spem in Alium last year and could appreciate the possibilities), three pieces in the second half used split choirs and soloists to brilliant effect:

  • Jauchzet dem Herren alle Welt, SWV 36 from Psalm 100 by Heinrich Schutz used 2 choirs facing each other with an echo effect
  • Antiphon Op 56b by Benjamin Britten used three soprano soloists in the gallery while the choir stood on the stage below
  • Magnificat in 12 parts by Andrea Gabrieli used a male choir on the stage, a female choir in the south gallery and a mixed choir in the north gallery.

The Magnificat was a wonderful way to end the concert.  I was in the south gallery and quietly came down the stairs when the audience was applauding to make the thank you speech and present gifts.  I stood at the side for a moment and suddenly had to compose myself - it had all gone so well and now it was over.

I would like to thank the following people for their various contributions to the success of this fundraising event:

Bill Strang, Director of Music

The Open University Choir

Quorum

Toby Hill, Quorum Conductor

Paul Daggett, Organ

Kevin McConway, Organ and rehearsal accompanist

The Open University Choir Committee

Haydn Lloyd and Stuart Pearson for the Exhibition Screen

Mike Davis and The Open University Porters for staging box transport

The Stony Stratford Library and Lesley Salter

The Crown, The White Horse, The Cock & The Bull pubs for their facilities

St Mary & St Giles CE Junior school for the free loan of extra chairs

Odells for selling vouchers and the use of their van

Fr Ross Northing

Andrew Storer, St Mary & St Giles Director of Music

The Organ Fund Committee for all their hard work behind the scenes

All members of the parish who have helped in any way
with selling vouchers, setting out chairs,
refreshments, and tidying away afterwards

Unfortunately Fr Ross, who had intended being at the concert, was unable to be with us because his wife Janet was ill, he took her to hospital whilst we were singing and she is now recovering from surgery.  Thank you Fr Ross for allowing us to turn the insides of the church around for this event and permitting the exhibition screen which temporarily blocked the view of the high altar from the West door.  The exhibition about the organ, St George’s and William Bowie was very popular and interesting, and the screen was a useful backdrop for the choir and the sound.  The layout worked well and everyone who has spoken to me on Saturday night and Sunday morning about it has said how much they enjoyed the music which took advantage of the temporary layout.

We had about 240 people in the audience, with over 70 people performing, close to the capacity of the church for this concert due to the layout.  We had more people at Spem, and consequently raised more at that event.  I’m pleased to say that the organ fund has benefitted by the addition of a further £2,125.73 as a result of The Open University Choir and Quorum giving their musical talents to our cause.

It seems appropriate that the day after St George’s Day we put on a concert that celebrates the link between our church and the former church of St George in Edinburgh (now an archive office).  A personal postscript is that my childhood church was the Cathedral of St George in Cape Town where I served at the enthronement of Archbishop Desmond in the height of the Apartheid era – I too have come “from St George’s to St Mary & St Giles”.

The programme:

  • Jubilate Deo (1961) by Benjamin Britten – OU Choir
  • Welcome, Happy Morning! (1968) by William Bowie – OU Choir
  • In pace by John Blitheman (c 1525-1591) – OU Choir
  • Organ solo – Rhapsody No 1 by Herbert Howells – Paul Daggett
  • Call to Remembrance by Richard Farrant (c 1525/30 – 1580) – Quorum
  • Lord, give thy Holy Spirit to our hearts by Thomas Tallis (c 1505 – 1585) – Quorum
  • Prevent us, O Lord by William Byrd (1543 – 1623) – Quorum
  • Jesu, meine Freude, BWV227 (1723) by JS Bach – OU Choir
  • Interval
  • Jauchzet dem Herren alle Welt, SWV36 from Psalm 100 by Heinrich Schutz (1585 – 1672) – OU Choir
  • Ye gates, lift up your heads (1814) by Andrew Mitchell Thomson – OU Choir
  • Three Masts (1966) by William Bowie – OU Choir
  • Faith (1967) by William Bowie – OU Choir
  • In spiritu humilitatis by Giovanni Croce (c1557 – 1609) – Quorum
  • Rex gloriae by Andrea Gabrieli (c 1510 – 1586)
  • Organ Solo – Nun danket alle Gott by Sigfrid Karg-Elert (1877 – 1933) – Paul Daggett
  • Tristis est anima mea by Johann Kuhnau (1660 – 1722) – OU Choir
  • Antiphon, Op 56b (1956) by Benjamin Britten – OU Choir
  • Magnificat in 12 parts (pub. 1587) by Andrea Gabrieli – OU Choir and Quorum