Singing Together - The Sitwell and Derwent Singers

PUBLISHED: 12:12 18 June 2013 | UPDATED: 13:01 18 June 2013

The Sitwell and Derwent Singers

The Sitwell and Derwent Singers

Ashley Franklin

Ashley Franklin attends rehearsals for the momentous anniversary concert by two societies

On Saturday 22nd June Derby Cathedral will resound to the performance of a choral classic by two distinguished Derbyshire choirs: The Sitwell Singers and Derwent Singers. The concert has been in the planning for over two years and also marks the 40th anniversary of the choirs’ last reunion, when they came together for the first time to perform the same work: Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610, regarded as one of the towering masterpieces of the choral canon.

There was an air of nervous eager excitement amongst the singers as I eavesdropped on the first combined rehearsal under the direction of Sitwell’s experienced conductor Malcolm Goldring. For the performance of the Vespers, the choirs will join forces with leading soloists and an orchestra playing authentic period instruments. It is a huge, prodigious undertaking, as Derwent’s conductor Richard Roddis, one of the tenor soloists in the concert, explains: ‘The Vespers is a great musical showpiece standing like a monument at the start of the baroque era, as Bach’s B Minor Mass does at the end of that era. The vocal and instrumental lines are often virtuoso and call for great skill from singers and players. For instance, two or more parts might have the same melodic line only half a beat apart. There are also some very rapid passages of notes, including repeated pitches, calling for great agility.’

The choristers are certainly aware of the demands of the work, says Sitwell’s chairman Helen Geary: ‘The Vespers is a vivid tapestry of solo voices, full choir and virtuosic instrumental passages and what makes this work so dramatic in performance also makes it challenging to rehearse. Rehearsing our parts out of context has been difficult but now we have come together, the piece has really come alive, and the concert is going to be absolutely thrilling for both performers and audience.’

The concert will certainly be a thrilling moment for two Sitwell singers, founder member June Harrison and Sheila Heathcote: both performed in the concert 40 years ago as part of Derby Cathedral’s Rose Festival, which involved renowned rose grower Harry Wheatcroft in a celebration of Derbyshire’s status as one of the major rose-growing areas of the country. As a result the Cathedral was festooned with roses.

The festival also celebrated the 1972 restoration of Derby Cathedral. The Rose Festival programme referred to the building as being ‘all glorious within.’ By all accounts it was a glorious performance of The Vespers, with the internationally-acclaimed Purcell Consort as soloists. It was a sell-out concert that resulted in queues stretching down Irongate with many people turned away.

One singular appeal of this new performance will be the engagement of top baroque instrumentalists on period violins, cello, ‘cornetts’, sackbuts (an ancestor of the modern trombone) and theorbo (a large bass lute).

‘I love the sound of period instruments,’ says conductor Malcolm Goldring. ‘There is a delightful freshness and lightness that modern instruments cannot touch.’

‘The players at this concert have a stylish, expert approach to the music,’ Richard Roddis points out. ‘Using period instrumentation changes the sound of the music drastically; the tones are purer and capable of surprising turns of speed. But it’s not just the sound: the musical phrasing can be entirely changed by the different shape of the bow for string players; and the nature of ornamentation on strings and wind, which is so much a part of this work, is changed by the capabilities of the instruments.’

As one of the soloists, it’s going to be a momentous occasion for Richard, as he explains. ‘It’s always a wonderful experience putting on a once-only performance – things happen; magic happens! And to feel that you’re reaching across the centuries, in touch with ancient genius, in a work like this is very exciting and humbling. You have to give everything!’

Sitwell’s Chairman Helen Geary feels the same excitement, though she can’t help feeling nervous – with justification: ‘I’m due to have a baby three days after the concert, although I have promised our conductor Malcolm not to add one more level of drama to the occasion by going into labour!’

Helen adds that the Vespers is an ideal introduction for anyone who enjoys choral music but has yet to experience it live: ‘It is incredibly rich and varied, full of moments of high drama but also passages of quiet beauty – all best experienced in live performance.’

As conductor Malcolm Goldring points out, there is the added sensation of experiencing live choral music at its most exhilarating: ‘A choir can produce sounds which can take the breath away by their intimacy and control, or can send shivers down the spine through their sheer power. Either way, an audience can experience a real “wow.” In this concert, the audience will hear all that!’

‘This is the two choirs’ first joint concert since the Vespers of 40 years ago,’ points out Sitwell’s Secretary Sheila Spilling. ‘It’s a shame, really, because both choirs have great respect for each other; in fact, some members have been both Sitwell and Derwent singers at varying stages and sometimes both at once. Hopefully the links we’ve forged might be something we can build on again in the future, rather than leaving it for another 40 years!’ n

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