SACC 1997-2007: Memoirs of an M25 Man

(As a resident of rural Surrey I had no choice but to negotiate the world’s biggest car park on a weekly basis. In fact, I think I missed only one committee meeting and one rehearsal as a result of traffic issues and was a few minutes late two or three times. Some members had more problems with Thameslink!)

It is always difficult, in any sphere, to chose a replacement for a long-standing and much respected person and then to be that chosen replacement. When Richard’s retirement was imminent the Choir went through an exhaustive and exhausting advertise/interview/audition procedure and an appointment was duly made. Although I was on the shortlist, it wasn’t me.

However, things did not work out quite as planned and hoped for. Perhaps the new man’s week-by-week rehearsal persona did not match the promise of his one-off audition. Perhaps the Choir was too resistant to change. Perhaps he tried to change too much too quickly. Perhaps a bit of all three. Whatever the reason, after a year the then Chairman, Gabrielle Shepstone, phoned me to ask if I would take over, in the first instance, for the Choir’s concerts in March (linked to a Worms visit, which I also did) and November 1997 (Bach’s Christmas Oratorio). A different conductor would do the Summer 1997 programme. Meanwhile, the committee would decide what to do next.

When rehearsing any choir or orchestra I have always felt it important to send them away feeling good about themselves and the world in general and wanting to come back next time. Although I inherited the first programmes I conducted I was given a distinctly helping hand in this regard as the March 1997 programme was to include Haydn’s late Te Deum in C. This is a work which, like most Haydn, would put a smile on anyone’s face, so it was the first thing I rehearsed. We all went home happy and we all came back the next week. During the summer the committee duly deliberated and offered me the permanent conductorship. I thus began rehearsals for Christmas Oratorio as the Choir’s Maestro.

I was attracted to SACC in the first place by the fact that it was not just a 3/4 concerts a year chamber choir. (I was already conductor of the Esher-based Ripieno Choir, and neither were/are they.) The links with the Wormser Kantorei and the St Cecilia Festival provided opportunities to work with and learn from other choirs and conductors and I particularly valued the relationships I had with Tobias Ihle and Stefan Merkelbach in Worms. On the occasion of his final visit to St Albans as conductor of the Kantorei Toby made a memorable speech explaining that his enthusiasm for choir-twinning (WK also have partners in France) stemmed from his belief that it was better to sing together than shoot at each other. It was his great sincerity as both man and musician that impressed me. Stefan was closer to me in both personality and general musical style and also proved a most congenial colleague.

Devising programmes for the Choir was something I enjoyed, though it was always a challenge. My basic approach was to combine pleasure and education for the Choir with composer anniversary commemorations and series of concerts that featured the music of a particular composer (though not to the exclusion of others who inspired or complemented them). There was also the challenge to find repertoire that Geoff Ward and the many other experienced singers in the Choir did not already know! Other factors were a desire to explore the widest possible repertoire, the need to accommodate the WK and St Cecilia links and any particular one-off occasions that may have arisen such as SACC’s 40th Anniversary concert (January 1998), the 2001 collaboration with the Zemel Choir and the 70th Anniversary of the NFMS/Making Music (2005).

Each of these occasions included newly-commissioned music. For SACC’s 40th birthday Malcolm Singer responded splendidly to my request for ‘a two minute whizz-bang’ with an inventive setting for double choir of Jubilate Deo. He also wrote the SACC/Zemel Choir joint commission The Mask of Esther, an extended cantata with a particularly rich libretto by Michelene Wandor. In 2005 SACC was one of a number of amateur choirs, all members of the umbrella organisation Making Music, who jointly commissioned The Kestrel Road from Peter Maxwell Davies. Although I understood why he wrote it in the way that he did, I thought it was a pretty poor piece and certainly much less rewarding for the choir than Malcolm’s Jubilate.

Other one-offs were the CDs, Christmas across the Centuries (2001) and Mixing Their Music (2004). The first of these was a wide-ranging programme which paired settings of the same text from different centuries, the second a more conventional cross-section of the Choir’s repertoire which nevertheless included two first recordings (a Te Deum setting by Kenneth Leighton as well as the Singer Jubilate) and a comparative rarity – Howells’s A Sequence for St Michael.
Amateur choirs put a lot of effort into rehearsing and it is always worth seeking out opportunities to perform beyond the basic concert series so that one set of rehearsals can enjoy the rewards of more than one performance. One of the joys of visits to Worms was always the chance to do a SACC concert in the sumptuous acoustic of the Liebfrauenkirche. Closer to home I also savoured ‘awaydays’ in Norwich and Lincoln Cathedrals (lunchtime recitals) and Westminster Cathedral (Saturday evening mass) as well as the less exotic surroundings of Radlett and Old Welwyn.

Our regular venue in St Albans was the URC church in Homewood Road, a flexible space with a reasonable acoustic and organ and a good hall for post-concert socialising. Other venues used for the concert series were the Cathedral (Abbey) and the chapel at All Saints Pastoral Centre, London Colney. I never felt entirely comfortable performing Baroque oratorios in the Abbey (Cathedral). The acoustic destroyed all work one might have done on details of phrasing in, say Bach’s B minor mass, and minor organisational niggles too often took the gloss off what should have been glorious occasions. More successful in my view were the ‘chamber’ programmes we did with music chosen to exploit the organ and/or the acoustic. The French programme which began with Messiaën’s O sacrum convivium and ended with Duruflé’s Requiem springs to mind as an example of the former. Of the latter, more anon. At London Colney we sang music by Victoria, and almost no-one else, though A Late Renaissance Christmas was based around a mass by Palestrina. If ever a repertoire and a building were made for each other these were they and especially the programme of Vespers music by Victoria (March 2002) remains a treasured memory.

Also special was the evening (October 2003) on which we sang all six of Bach’s motets! This proposal provoked a lively discussion at the preceding AGM (‘I do not think that this can be done’ – G. Ward). In the event it was marvellous. (‘David, I was wrong’ – G. Ward. Thanks, Geoff, for this and much besides.) The secret proved to be the order in which we sang them (don’t leave Singet to the end), the support of a brilliant cello/bass/organ team and the engagement of a gifted baroque flautist who played soothing unaccompanied dance movements between the motets to provide both singers and audience with a rest and a contrast.
Having referred to favourite concerts I might also refer to a favourite season. I would happily repeat 2004-2005 at any time, even though it included the Maxwell Davies commission. The first few rehearsals were taken up with the preparation of The Dream of Gerontius for the St Cecilia Festival, including the semi-chorus sections. Then we could tuck into my beloved Marc-Antoine Charpentier, whose tercentenary we were celebrating. His Messe à quatre choeurs, Salve Regina à trois choeurs and the exquisite Pastorale were a revelation to many and loved by all. Staying in anniversary mood, we then moved on to Tallis, born in 1505. Clearly, we had to sing Spem in alium, his 40 part magnum opus, but, equally clearly, we needed the help of a few friends to do so. The answer was obvious – to combine SACC with Ripieno to provide a body of 75 singers. In Spem SACC sang parts 1-25 and Ripieno 26-40. On the basis that we may never sing it again and the audience never hear it again the piece was sung at the end of each half of the programme. To complete the evening each choir also sang a Tallis ‘solo’ and there were works by Lotti, Lassus, Guerrero and Caldara in a minimum of 10 parts. The programme was sung in both St Albans Abbey and Guildford Cathedral (so four Spems altogether) and the Guildford clergy were still talking about it on Easter Day, a fortnight later.

And there were yet more anniversaries to come. A performance (in Worms) of Haydn’s Creation marked 50 years of the St Albans/Worms town twinning. While there SACC also sang a concert of Byrd, Tallis and Victoria. The July 05 programme contained, as well as The Kestrel Road, works by Elgar, Mendelssohn, Tippett (marking his centenary) and Parry’s monumental anthem Hear my words, ye people so the evening wasn’t entirely wasted.

Looking at the 05-06 and 06-07 schedules I find myself wondering why I stopped – perhaps I felt I’d peaked! But there were further major anniversaries coming up – 40th of the SACC/WK partnership, 50 years of SACC itself which would mean a major commission and it would soon have been my turn to conduct the St Cecilia Festival. I felt that this workload would have been too much on top of my demanding day job (Director of Music at Putney High School, where Music is something of a heavy industry) and by stopping when I did my successor had a year to get his feet under the desk before having to cope with all that. I also thought that the prospect of those special events might be a useful recruiting tool for the Choir.

So I bowed out with a programme of Magnificat settings, interrupted by Tony Crook’s skilful quasi-Bach tribute and rounded off by John Rutter’s joyful romp. For me the SACC years were important and hugely enjoyable. There were some Tuesdays when it was an effort to make the journey but it was always worth it. I really appreciated the warmth of the speeches at the Farewell Party, the personal messages in my ‘SACC Autograph Album’ and the gift of Surrey County Cricket Club membership. I can be at the Oval 25 minutes after leaving my office – a marvellous way to put the day into perspective. If I had to choose between an hour conducting Victoria and an hour watching Mark Ramprakash bat it would be difficult!

David Hansell