How do you prepare to celebrate the marvelous results of 10 years fundraising for pipe organ restoration? With musical concerts of course!
At our first Pipe organ open day in September 2014 I approached one of the many visitors and asked him if he would consider bringing a certain choir back to sing with the organ when it was restored. Apparently Bill Strang spent the journey back home that day planning out the possible programme of music for the concert, not knowing at the time that it would become the inaugural choral and organ concert with the restored Willis pipe organ.
In 2010 The Open University Choir gave its first concert in St Mary and St Giles church with the Willis organ - it was a resounding success though an enormously complex concert to arrange. I didn't think at the time that it would ever be possible for the choir to return as it primarily sings in lunchtime concerts on campus rather than full 2 hour programme Saturday evening concerts off campus. However it had been clear that the choir enjoyed singing in a good acoustic with a large pipe organ so the committee knew that this proposal would be greeted with enthusiasm by the members.
In the meantime we were negotiating with other performers for organ recitals and the first organ and orchestral concert.
A date was set for MK Sinfonia to come and play with the organ in November 2015 and we thought that concert would be the first actual concert with the organ, however the restoration work took longer than expected and a testing and bedding in period was requested by the organ builders. So the MK Sinfonia concert programme was changed and it was wonderful to host them on 21st November - the first time a full sized orchestra had played in the church in living memory. They return on 2nd July to play with the organ in the final 'Restoration Celebration' concert.
The organ festival which was planned for September 2015 with musical director Jonathan Kingston was shifted to September 2016 and Jonathan agreed to come and give the opening organ solo concert on 30th April to coincide with the same weekend as Bishop Jonathan Goodall blesses and re-dedicates the restored organ.
A date for the OU Choir concert was set for 23rd April - the same weekend as our 2010 concert (which was 24th April 2010). However instead of choosing a programme to fit with St George's Day or Shakespeare's birthday, Bill chose a distinctively Scottish programme focusing on works associated with St George's Church in Edinburgh from where the Willis organ had come in the 1960s, along with music associated with The Open University (by John Rutter, Liz Lane and Bill Strang). This resulted from the research work into the history of the organ, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. There was plenty of correspondence between Anna and Bill who helped with the research.
Originally Bill had planned to include Liz Lane's piece 'Spirit of Africa' in the programme instead of the three Bruckner motets however this would have involved the piano as well and we knew that space would be at a premium because of the amount of brass and percussion required. Instead Liz offered to rearrange her piece 'Antiphonary' for the instruments which would be used at the concert. Paul Daggett was the obvious choice to accompany the choir as he had done so at the 2010 concert.
Rehearsals started in January 2016 in St Michael's church on campus. At the end of January, Bill, Anna, Liz (OU Choir chair) met with Fr Ross in St Mary and St Giles church to discuss the layout for the concert. We were delighted to be given permission to use the same layout as in 2010, with staging just below the organ console gallery, making it easier for Bill to conduct the choir and organist and giving the choir a wonderful backing for singing. This meant turning all the chairs in the nave and the Blessed Sacrament chapel to face the back of the church and bringing staging blocks and screen from The Open University.
In early March we had an evening rehearsal in the church with the organ (without the staging) to get the feel of the pieces in the acoustic and a test recording was made by John Page which helped with subsequent rehearsals.
On Monday 18th April the choir returned to the church for the second evening rehearsal - this time with brass and percussion as well as the organ. Some of the percussion instruments were hired from Milton Keynes Music Service and were stored in the Parish hall during the week. We had a long intense and fruitful rehearsal getting to know what the complete sound was like and we all knew it would be an exciting concert.
Our Thursday lunchtime rehearsal back on campus polished a few corners. On Friday afternoon Stuart, Robin, John and Anna built the large backing screen which had been made for the 2010 concert by the late Haydn Lloyd - it took 3 hours to assemble, wedge securely under the gallery and paint. At the same Daniel and Pete turned all the chairs in the nave.
On Saturday afternoon the choir, brass, percussion, organist and conductor assembled for our final rehearsal. During the afternoon Liz Lane arrived to hear us and her piece being rehearsed. We had been corresponding via twitter during the week as excitement grew for the concert and I was very pleased to see that she played some of the percussion parts in the piece during rehearsal as the young percussionist could not be with us for the afternoon.
More photos of our preparations for this concert can be viewed at https://www.flickr.com/photos/78058413@N06/albums/72157667113762750
Words by Anna Page, photos by Eleanor Page and Anna Page