I’ll add some pictures when my desktop comes out of storage next week…
The formation of X24 – an elite choir consisting of former members of The 24 – was an exciting event and produced a great concert last weekend. The one thing missing was any sense of the early years of The 24, the foundation of the group and the struggle that brought it into existence before its multiple China trips became the stuff of legend.
It had always struck me as bizarre that the university had a ‘Chamber Choir’ of some 70 voices, and early in my time at York I suggested renaming it the University Choir, with the University Choir then becoming a Choral Society (it has several hundred singers). This didn’t go down well and subsequent attempts at change by me and others also failed, and I gather than the Music Department still has a chamber choir that needs a very large chamber.
The problem, apart from an almost unchanging repertoire and an embargo on guest conductors, was that there was no opportunity for the music department’s most talented singers to flourish and experiment. My first attempts to do something about this were continually stonewalled by the committee which I actually chaired (I never was much good at chairing committees) but eventually York Vocal Index got off the ground (thanks Ed Jessen for the name): a sixteen voice conductor-less ensemble which Bill Brooks and I both sang in. It was difficult to keep the number up, especially men, and after a while it morphed into a women’s choir. It had to meet at the same time as official Chamber Choir so it wasn’t possible to be in both, which made it quite difficult for enterprising singers. Nevertheless the Women’s Choir flourished and memorably collaborated with the German ensemble Singer Pur. Ivan Moody wrote a new work for both groups, and we renamed the choir Arktouros after Ivan’s piece. We tried to work as far as possible without a conductor, a revolutionary concept at the time and based on my experience of a lifetime of singing in small ensembles.
I continued to press for a real chamber choir with no success, until one day Roger Marsh appeared at my door and suggested I should start a proper chamber choir and call it The 24. Roger was responsible for getting me to York in the first place and has always had a knack for knowing when to take risks so I then began to audition the first mixed chamber choir. It was a struggle at first – we still had to rehearse at the same time as the official Chamber Choir so students couldn’t be in both, but working in a completely different way – as a vocal ensemble rather than a conventional choir – eventually produced exciting results. There was often an improvisatory element which gave more responsibility to the singers, and there were some especially memorable performances of Josquin’s huge canon, which had more parts than we had singers so would morph into improv.
I was keen for the choir to travel, especially after our collaboration with Singer Pur, and was delighted when my great German Geordie friend Werner Schuessler suggested a joint project with his German singers. We had a terrific time in Germany, and worked with the German choir in York the following year with a fine joint concert at Everingham. It was always difficult to fund overseas trips (as it still is), but fortunately the German promoters paid me a conducting fee, which turned out to be enough to cover everyone’s airfares.
The last concert with me at the helm was a celebration of the music of Veljo Tormis, the legendary Estonian composer. This was a huge undertaking, working in Karelian, Estonian and Finnish. Tormis had visited the department a couple of years before on the occasion of my Pärt and Tormis project (we sang to him in the kitchen), and the Estonian Embassy brought him up to oversee our final rehearsals. The BBC was sufficiently impressed to give us a slot on In Tune, and York had its first experience of music by this extraordinary composer.
Towards the end of my time at York I became very busy with gigs (which is partly why I left) so I persuaded an initially reluctant Bill Brooks to become joint director. Bill had been an enthusiastic supporter of my various attempts to get a chamber choir off the ground right from the start, and we began to lead alternate concerts. When I left it became Bill’s choir, and thanks to his dynamism it’s now the elite choir I’d always hoped it would be, and able to hold its own with any professional choir in the land. The birth of X24, the brainchild of Naomi Leveton, is an indicator of the huge reservoir of talent that has flourished under Bill’s leadership.
It was a great weekend, and quite touching that the birth of new choir was witnessed by Bill, Roger and me – and let’s not forget those first members who laid the ground for such success, often in somewhat trying circumstances.