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A piece from 'Cherwell Life'

Starting a new choir is never an easy venture, but it is especially welcome now. Choirs and choral singing were an industry hit harder than most by Lockdowns. Venues closed, singing at all was deemed dangerous, and several false starts later, most choirs found they had spent two years in the doldrums. The entertainment industry generally has seen hard times, which are not getting any easier. So why start a new choir now? We asked Helen Swift, the Musical Director of ‘VentiQuattro - 24’, what led her to this, and why now?

H: It is tough, sure, but I’ve never shirked a challenge. Everyone found the Lockdowns hard, and there were times when we really couldn’t see a way out. But we also found out why we do this. ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder’ perhaps, but we not only missed the fun, the friendship, the camaraderie - we found we needed it most during the Covid and hard times. Singing is recreation for some, most, really, but strong unaccompanied voices feed something fundamental in all of us. Look, things are not getting better quickly or even much at all in some ways. Inflation is just another kicker after so many since 2020. We need to find the fun again now more than ever. We’ve just found out why singing is not only good for the singers, but essential for everyone’s wellbeing, physical and mental.

I: Some say audiences are down by 30% and several choirs have packed up. Is that true?

H: It has been tough, no question. For a while there, it seemed like an almost existential challenge. A number of good choirs in the Oxford-Warwick area have already or are packing up. All choirs work in 3-5 year cycles, and changes are inevitable, though. Lockdowns have accelerated succession decisions for some. There’s been a change in attendances to some degree too, but it will come back. I don’t think anyone’s expecting fearful octogenarians to come to cold churches any more, but there are plenty doggedly refusing to be told what to do any more too. It’s about quality of life, first and foremost, and this last has been one of the best attended Christmas music seasons for some time.

I: The challenges are coming thick and fast, though with inflation too. Is that a worry?

H: It’s a worry certainly that venue costs have risen as heating and lighting costs go up. Insurances have risen too. There is a hesitancy in people signing up, too with more people coming on the day rather than committing in advance. That’s probably a hangover from the Lockdowns, and these things add to the stress involved. Amateur and semi-professional choirs have always run on a breakeven basis, however, so there will have to be changes. The days of ten-pound tickets are numbered, probably. But that’s on us too - we have to really justify why people should take time out, devote a whole evening to coming to a concert, risk cash and comfort on time out that’s under pressure increasingly. We have to get better; much better, and that’s why we’re taking a really fresh look at the whole customer experience with ‘24’.

I: There are lots of good professional choirs now coming through now – many will have heard of The Sixteen, Stile Antico or Voces8. Is that a help or a hindrance?

H: A help, massively. But the driver here is not just good singers – we’ve come back to tunes at last, and the modern repertoire is just superb. It’s well worth spending £40-100 and a trip to London to see these headliners at their best, but there are good options for semi-professional groups here too. We would have started ‘24’ with or without Covid, but that experience has added a sense of urgency. The classical a cappella repertoire is rarely heard by most people, but when they do hear it done well, it always knocks their socks off. Barbour’s Adagio, Tavener’s Athene, and Allegri’s Miserere have been breakthrough pieces from the film world. These are only teasers, however, for a repertoire now that is rich and rewarding like never before. We put an enormous amount of time and effort into making it the best possible experience. It’s over seventy thousand individual hours of rehearsal and practice by this talented group to make sure we can bring people moments of solace and joy. It’s a shame we only do each concert once, really, but we’re looking at that too.

I: Classical music is often seen as an elistist pursuit, though. Are you just preaching to the choir?

H: A few decades ago… maybe. I know a lot of people who found much of the 20th Century music hard to listen to, and the Byrd and Tallis pieces, well ‘stuffy’. It can be when it’s not done well. But when people find, for example, Holst’s take on folk songs and then follow through to Paulus’ Road Home, they’re overjoyed. The new breed of composers from Whitacre and Gjeilo in the US to our very own Jackson and MacMillan offer a fantastic range of uplifting and soulful music. You won’t find it in churches or schools much, if at all, nowadays, so it’s incumbent on us to get it out there.

VentiQuattro is Italian for ‘24’ which means we draw on 3 voices for every part (SSAATTBB). We can tackle 4 octaves, 2,3,4 or more divisions of the choir and pieces from 1523 to 2023. We’re aiming to bring the best of the classical a cappella repertoire to a wider audience. Sure there are some Tudor pieces, but those were brutal and lively times, so we’ll be singing O Clap Your Hands with an Elizabethan swagger – much more Pirate than Pontiff. People will know Holst’s Planets well, but he composed one of the most uplifting choral crescendos ever written in his Nunc, that’s there too.

We love to compare how renaissance, classical and contemporary composers treat the same theme differently, so our first concert will take Byrd’s Miserere Mihi and sit it alongside the epic Allegri/Mozart treatment (complete with high Cs) and then see how MacMillan breathes new life into it for a modern audience. There’s real timelessness in the story of David and Bathsheba that’s probably a tad cheeky to explore on a royal weekend, but so be it.

There’s something for everybody. Sarah Quartel is one of the best composers for female voices currently, and we see how our own Gabriel Jackson treats light and life alongside Whitacre and Gjeilo. These are all ‘accessible’ pieces – audiences love them. They feed the soul.

The group of singers we have for 24 is quite superb. They’re all experienced with auditioned choirs from London, Oxford and beyond, with a real commitment to showing the fun in this repertoire. We’ll be performing in Adderbury, Banbury and Warwick in due course, but we’re kicking off with the Grace & Light concert in Adderbury on May 6th. That’s a fantastic acoustic, we’ll be mixing fun and reflection with singing in the round, in mixed voices, and as split choirs. We also include interval refreshments in the £20 ticket price to keep it simple and ensure everyone can have a great evening out.

I Is there a special highlight for you?

Ooh so many. MacMillan’s stirring treatment of the raunchier parts of the Bathsheba story has been a revelation to me, and the first time the High C emerges from the choir in Allegri is quite superb; see Clare College’s version on Youtube here at around 1.50. You might spot me there, as I sang that in Clare as a student, and it just gets better. But there’s something for everyone here: Gibbon’s Tudor romp is great fun, Whitacre and Quartel’s Lux are sublime, and the chaps do a wonderful job with Vaughan Williams’ Turtle Dove too. Don’t miss it live - it’s better when you can feel the breath on your shoulder.

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