In June 1982, the already existent Church ‘Special Choir’ of 17 members decided to form a separate choral group to explore a more wide ranging choice of music. An announcement was made and, on 26th August it was possible to send out a note stating that a ‘decently balanced choir of some 30 voices’ had been recruited, that the first rehearsal would be at 7.45 pm on Friday 10th September and that the performance of Haydn’s Little Organ Mass would go ahead as proposed on December 5th. In the event, a solo soprano, 27 singers and a small string ensemble with organ obbligato gave a creditable performance of the Haydn Mass, appropriately incorporated into a liturgical celebration of Holy Communion.
A Promising Start
The membership list for that first performance included the then vicar Christopher Clarke and his wife Christine and other worthies such as Pamela Vivian, Mary-Elise Domvile, Patricia White, Delle Fletcher, the Wilsons, the Nappers, the Bronsdons, the Newports and the Lloyd-Jones’s. The second venture of the youthful All Saints’ Singers was a cathedral-type choral evensong given on 6th March 1983; displaying characteristic courage (foolhardiness?), the choir chose as the centre-piece for that service Parry’s glorious coronation anthem I was glad when they said unto me.
A Pattern Established
On 27th November 1983, the first ‘proper’ concert was given, taking the form of Music for Advent with music by Haydn and Holst. Numbers in the chorus were now up to 31 and the string orchestra numbered 11, including the youthful leader Dawn Neller whose six years’ experience with us in no way prevented her from subsequently becoming a valued member of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The pattern was established that we should normally give two performances each year, one at Advent and the other on Passion Sunday. By and large, this arrangement has continued down to the present day – as has the practice of closing down for the summer months.
The first AGM took place on 21st April 1983 at the White House (home of Faith Wilson) where such meetings have been held ever since. Pamela Vivian (the first Treasurer) was elected chairman and Patrick Salisbury (the founder) was formally appointed Music Director.
The Institution of a Vocal Coach
When the distinguished singer and teacher April Cantelo came to live in the village in 1993, she generously undertook to act as Voice Coach to the society. Our membership has fluctuated over time but reached the record number of 56 singers (twice the size we began with) for our first full-length Messiah in 1989. Lindsay McKenzie was our accompanist and continuo player up to 1996; subsequently, Simon Park and, more recently, Philip Agg, Geoff Cowan and Ian Miles have played harpsichord or organ as required. From 1989 to 1999, Caroline Halliwell (née Beecham) led the orchestra; thereafter, we have had several leaders but, in December 2001, we were delighted to welcome to the post the highly experienced Sue Lynn.
Venture into Music Theatre
In November 1995, inspired and ably directed by April Cantelo, the Singers gave a semi-staged presentation of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. For many, this was an entirely new but supremely rewarding experience; outstanding performances were given by Maggie Peers (Dido), Kiyoko Saito (Belinda), Angela Ayers (Sorceress), and Kazuo Saito (Aeneas). Patricia White designed and made the costumes, the Orsino Ensemble played and Patrick Salisbury directed the performance from the harpsichord.
Thirty Years and Growing
Over our 30 years’ existence, we have performed more than 150 different choral works, mostly with orchestral accompaniment; additionally, the orchestra has contributed 40 purely instrumental pieces, some of them directed by the leader, Sue Lynn. The most frequently featured composer has been Purcell with J S Bach a close second, Handel third, Mozart fourth and Haydn fifth. We joined with the Cumnor Choral Society and the Oxfordshire County Youth Orchestra to perform Haydn’s Creation in 1990. Other memorable works we have given include Britten’s St Nicolas (in 1987), with the choir of St Helen’s, Abingdon, Rossini’s Petite Messe Solenelle (1992), a programme of Music and Majesty (1998), Bach’s St Matthew Passion in 2001 and a programme of British Music 1879-1954 in 2004. The 20th Birthday Concert on 1st December 2002 included performances of Britten’s Ceremony of Carols and Rutter’s Magnificat.
Down the years, we have employed over fifty vocal soloists for our performances. A majority of these are local in origin and have served us well; some, like Sheila McCarthy, Andrew Carwood, Mary Plazas, Jeremy Huw Williams, Lorenzo Carola, Quentin Hayes and Natasha Marsh have already achieved international acclaim. We have been extremely fortunate with our soloists and are much indebted in the past to April Cantelo’s advice in securing their services and over the past few years to Tony Furze and Sue Lynn. We are also committed to encouraging local talent such as the excellent soprano soloist, Anna Shackleton.
Staging a choir and an orchestra for performances in a smallish church inevitably presents problems. Fortunately, early on in our existence, John Gay constructed platforms on which the choir could be deployed in tiered seating and part of the orchestra (usually the brass and percussion sections) could be raised up to a position in a side aisle where they could still see the conductor. Although John and his wife subsequently moved to France, another John (Napper this time!) and his faithful band of helpers continue to erect the necessary structures so that, on the night, all our singers and players can be suitably deployed.
Serving a Changing Society
The fluctuating nature of our community here in Sutton Courtenay means that a small number of our members do tend to move on at the end of each season, some relocating in this country and others returning to their homes overseas. We benefit from the cosmopolitan nature of our society and, even if some of us do not have English as their native tongues, we all unite in the universal language of music.
Patrick Salisbury’s Valedictory Concert
Patrick’s last concert as music Director was in March 2008 and he gave a memorable performance of Handel’s Messiah with Mozart’s orchestration for several additional wind instruments. The concert was a resounding success and a great tribute to the enormous contribution that Patrick made to the choir’s life. He still follows the choir’s activities closely and is President of The Friends of the All Saints’ Singers.
After Patrick’s resignation, we experienced a querulous year or so. Then, from 2009 to 2012, our Music Director was Caroline Hobbs-Smith, a key member of the Oxford County Music Service. She succesfully developed the musicality and spirit of the choir and our performances consistently gained very good reviews.
From 2012 to 2015, our Music Director was Gulliver Ralston, the Director of Music at The University Church, Oxford and Director of Music at the University of Roehampton in west London. His bonheur, élan, virtuosity and sense of musical line brought out the best in the choir and we performed some much admired, enjoyable concerts. Gulliver was very ably supported in rehearsals by Peter McMullin as repetiteur. Gulliver’s increased responsibilities at Roehampton , including Friday evenings when we rehearse, unfortunately led him to leaving us, but we are still keep in contact with both of them. He was then followed in 2015 by Alex Berry, Assistant Organist at Magdalen College, Oxford University who successfully worked on our musicality and performance skills, including the demanding and rarely performed ‘Miserere’ by Zelenka. He has left us to take on the post of Director of Music at Bradford Cathedral.
This year we are fortunate to appoint Sebastian Thomson as our new Music Director. Steeped in the English choral tradition, Sebastian is a very experienced choral director and a highly accomplished organist. Our recent concerts have been very well received and we look forward to Sebastian enhancing our choral skills and concert performance.