Ceci n’est pas un blogue

Lacock courses function rather as a club, with the many regular followers meeting in different combinations and locations at each event. In recent years we’ve taken to sending an occasional newsletter, two or three a year, mainly to announce new courses as we publish their details on this website; keen to keep people reading to the end, we’ve filled out the bare list of places and dates with snippets of news, thoughts, aperçus, anecdotes and the odd joke, in good parish magazine style. So what follows is not exactly a blog but an edited selection from Lacock newsletters in recent years. If you are not on the mailing list and would like to be, let us know by email.

April 2021
These newsletters have become rather irregular for obvious reasons. Not much has happened though everything changed. A summer of isolation and relative inactivity had its appealing facets; a long winter with no music-making, no festivities and a much-curtailed social life was harder to bear. But work has gone on, and as in our case it has been mainly staying in touch with singing friends around the world, it has been its own reward. We now have to resign ourselves to the fact that the most we can hope for now is a smooth transition to a world in which covid-19 is less deadly; and as singers we have to accept that we will be at the very back of the queue.

Those of you who date back to the days when we ran the summer school here in Lacock or have been to the Corsham Winter School will know that my wife Deborah is a sculptor. The other day we were visited by a young Anglo-Armenian art dealer called Raffi Der Haroutunian, an admirer of Deborah’s work and keen to represent her. When he heard that I was something to do with music, he revealed that the composer Khachaturian was one of his godfathers. Khachaturian was a regular at his father’s Armenian restaurant in Kensington High Street, and when he heard that the infant Raffi was going to be christened the next day he blurted out ‘Well, I’ll be a godfather’, so was hastily added to those who had already been appointed. He died a couple of years later, unfortunately without bequeathing any royalties. It reminded me of when playing in a Robert Mayer Children’s Concert with the David Munrow group in the seventies I realised that my fellow passenger in the backstage lift at the Festival Hall was Sir Robert Mayer himself. Born in 1879, as a young man in Germany he had met Brahms. He lived for another ten years, remarrying at 101 and dying in 1985 at the age of 105.

More deaths, alas. Many of you will remember Roger Rees, an imposing figure with his resonant bass voice and standing well over six foot even into his nineties. He had a distinguished career in public administration in the north of England and was always willing to share his forthright views of the London government or ideas emanating from the London School of Economics, though always expressed with a sly smile. How typical to discover after his death that he had been quietly and anonymously supporting poor students at his old Cambridge college ( https://www.christs.cam.ac.uk/news/very-sad-news-mr-roger-rees-obe). Peter Harper was an eminent geneticist and a very useful tenor. He and Elaine were always especially valued on courses not only for their voices and excellent company but also for their wide knowledge of the natural world. I particularly remember a trip with them to the dramatic island nature reserve of Little Tobago a few years ago. He wanted to turn down his knighthood and was only persuaded to accept it for the prestige of his university department (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2021/feb/15/sir-peter-harper-obituary). Alan Lumsden wasn’t particularly a Lacock figure but was a big influence in my earlier playing career and led an interesting life. I have put a personal memoir on the Lacock website (http://www.lacock.org/html/body_alan_lumsden.htm).

I have had plenty of time for walking this winter, and keen to adhere to the ‘stay local’ strictures have spurned the charms of the Marlborough Downs and Cotswold valleys, instead trudging round the villages in our clay vale. Happily, the Wilts & Berks Canal, the Capability Brown landscapes at Corsham and Bowood and the Corallian and greensand escarpments are all within reach. After one ten mile stint I needed to extract a stone from my boot and found a convenient bench in the village of Whitley. I sensed that the locals were giving me a wide berth and a range of old fashioned looks, from the pitiful to the downright hostile. It occurred to me that my lockdown stubble, while making a young man appear virile, debonaire and à la mode, cruelly has the reverse effect after a certain age. A missing tooth can’t have helped. Only when I came to repack my knapsack did I see that my water, which I carry in an old plastic gin bottle from Madrid airport, had been standing on the bench beside me.

August 2020
Strange times. When it became clear that it would not be possible to hold courses in the spring and summer I found the new routine – or lack of it – oddly stimulating. I set out to enjoy my involuntary sabbatical. Five months in I am really missing the sheer thrill you get from singing together in a group and the large chunk of social life that comes with it. In general our policy has been to reschedule courses a year on, and it is heartening that nearly everyone enrolled has been happy to wait the extra twelve months. We are very grateful for this loyalty, which made it possible for us to pay the directors half their fee this year, when they were originally expecting it. As most of them are freelance musicians with children and mortgages, this policy has gone down particularly well and we say a very big thank you to you all.

January 2020
We’re very pleased to have published details of a couple more courses the coming autumn. The first is a return, after a four-year gap, to the old Venetian port of Trogir, just along from Split on the Dalmatian coast in Croatia. It is one of my favourite places to go to sing: a miniature Venice with nearby swimming beaches, good food and wine, a bustling harbour and markets. Patrick Craig has come up with another stonker of a theme, the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, with settings of politically-motivated texts from both sides of the sectarian divide, by Byrd, Gibbons, Tomkins, Weelkes and others. The dates are 6 to 11 of September and all the details are on the Lacock website.

Another great find is a former convent in the middle of Lucca, where Robert Hollingworth will lead a consort week from 21 to 27 of September. Some of the time we will sing all together in a double choir and the rest as consorts with one or two voices to a part – you can choose which you prefer. Robert will be assisted by four invited Lacock scholars. The nuns left in 2015 and the building has a sympathetic private owner, finding a variety of appropriate uses while preserving as much of the fabric and contemplative atmosphere as possible. There is accommodation for twenty-five people in single rooms.

Since I last wrote we have had enjoyable courses in our Andalusian venue Jimena de la Frontera, a trip to Italy with weeks in Venice and Rome and most recently our long-established winter school just up the road from us in Corsham, where the Town Hall is an unrivalled venue in terms of comfort and convenience. The week is always marked by a New Year’s Eve party at Cantax House, with a festive dinner followed by a Victorian-style concert party with songs and recitations. Shortly before midnight we traipse out into the garden to hear the bell ringers in the church tower tolling the funeral knell for the dying Old Year – usually punctuated by some oaf unable to wait a few more minutes to let off his fireworks. Then at midnight the New Year is welcomed with a full peal, toasts are drunk, Auld Lang Syne is sung and no one is left with any doubt about the appropriate time to say goodbye and return home to bed.

Lacock is a traditional sort of place. When the late squire died he left instructions that on the day of his funeral the landlord of The George should set up a barrel of beer on the high pavement we call ‘the brash’, and hand out a foaming tankard to every onlooker as the coffin passed. A nice feudal gesture, though one recalling that passage in Great Expectations, when Pip has heard that he is being whisked away for a more glamorous life in the city: ‘As I passed the church, I felt (as I had felt during service in the morning) a sublime compassion for the poor creatures who were destined to go there, Sunday after Sunday, all their lives through, and to lie obscurely at last among the low green mounds. I promised myself that I would do something for them one of these days, and formed a plan in outline for bestowing a dinner of roast-beef and plum-pudding, a pint of ale, and a gallon of condescension, upon everybody in the village.’

For the past few weeks Ex Cathedra have been in rehearsal for a performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis with the CBSO in Birmingham Symphony Hall this coming Sunday, 26 January at 4pm. It is a great privilege for me to be asked to sing with this brilliant young choir, many of whom are students at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and already capable of having a convincing go at the solo parts, which indeed they are often asked to do in rehearsal. Jeffrey Skidmore sometimes exploits this superfluity of talent and asks a whole section to sing a passage usually assigned to a soloist. The strangely thrilling resultant effect has become one of the hallmarks of the group.

September 2019
Our main summer school next year will be in Edinburgh in the middle of July. The young conductor, singer and musicologist Rory McCleery will direct a programme of music found in Scottish 16th century sources, including Robert Carver’s 19-part O bone Jesu.

Rory is someone we had been wanting to meet for some time, and it turned out that he was just as keen to meet us. By a nice coincidence his father-in-law is my fellow serpent player Stephen Wick. When Rory came to Lacock to talk about the Edinburgh week I was able to dredge up a photograph taken when Steve and I – alongside some other oddities – joined the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a recording of Peter Maxwell Davies’s opera Taverner, some time back in the nineties. The complex atonal score was quite a challenge for the small band of early instrumentalists, whose normal fare was nothing more frenetic than a pavane or canzona. Our blood ran cold when after the first run-through the conductor Oliver Knussen, a great bear of a man who died before his time last year, turned to the cornettist and asked if a certain semiquaver was marked with a flat as in his score, because what he heard was a natural. Nothing escaped his ear. Some of the upper parts were impossibly complex, but mercifully for Steve and me the serpent parts were relatively sedate.

 

The forty-part week with Gabriel Crouch (and Lacock scholars Robin Datta and Connor Cobb) in Ludlow was an exhilarating experience and our performance in the round was much appreciated by the gratifyingly large audience. And most recently we were in Jimena de la Frontera for Patrick Craig’s programme of psalm settings. I’ve just realised that our first venture in this characterful part of the world was a quarter of a century ago. Andalusians love a bit of noise: one morning it sounded as if the house removers across the narrow street from the church were throwing furniture onto the pavement from an upper window. It seemed rather fitting to be singing ‘Lord let me know mine end and the number of my days’ with what sounded like the destruction of Valhalla going on in the street outside.

June 2019
The second is a return to Tobago in February for another Singing in Castara directed by Justin Doyle, assisted by young conductor and former Lacock scholar Sarah Latto. We never intended it to be an annual event (and there almost certainly won’t be one in 2021), but once you’ve been there and escaped the tail end of a northern winter it’s very easy to get into the habit. Justin always comes with three generations of his family and this year will be the last before his boys are in full-time school. That was one excuse for a return visit: the other was a suggestion by some of the villagers that we get together with local musicians for a one-day festival at the end of our course. ‘The Castara Song Harvest’ will feature our group along with a small number of Tobagonian choirs, the village African drumming ensemble, a steel band and will showcase some of their culinary traditions such as barbecued fish from the bay and bread baked in clay ovens.

For the Ludlow Summer School coming up in July Gabriel Crouch suggested, to go alongside the Tallis and Striggio 40-parters, an anonymous Spanish setting of the Ten Commandments set as a canon for ten four-part choirs. Panic set in in April when it dawned on us that the only scholar known to have edited the work wasn’t intending to be outstandingly cooperative. The only thing for it was to edit the work myself. Soon I realised some of the difficulties: the only copy of the book it was published in is in a library in Madrid, the source of the text was unknown and to cap it all it is in an obscure system of notation without clefs or note lengths called Spanish number tablature. It is known only from three publications in the mid 16th century, so it was a bit like learning a language which has just three speakers. Luckily any ten-part canon is going to be a repetition of a simple chordal pattern and it all fell into place quite easily. The internet led me quickly to facsimiles of both the music and the text. The Ludlow group is now just about quorate – we may be able to slip in the odd extra voice so let us know if you still want to join us in July.

Before the Ludlow Spem in alium I get to sing the work with Ex Cathedra in Bath Abbey on the 9th of July. This is an excellent choir made up of young professionals and students of the Birmingham conservatoire, filled out when the occasion demands by some of Jeffrey Skidmore’s old mates. We usually rehearse at the Birmingham Oratory, where once Jeffrey got the librarian to let him and me inspect the manuscript of The Dream of Gerontius. On another occasion I was walking through the church in my concert black trying to find the rehearsal (it was in the adjacent hall) when a very anxious-looking Irish lady rushed up to me with the unexpected question: “Father, are there any relics of Cardinal Newman here?”

We’ve had some good courses recently. Aidan Oliver was a big hit at the Corsham Winter School. Unfortunately, others have spotted him too and has just been made chorus master at Glyndebourne, a more-or-less full time job, so I don’t know when we will be able to get him back. We had an excellent group in Tobago. There was a memorable moment in the final concert when – in mid Kyrie – we were almost knocked sideways by a blast of reggae from a house a few doors away. Luckily one of the village elders was in our audience. He went and had ‘a quiet word’ and calm was miraculously resumed.

January 2019
The Lacock Scholars are as active as ever; many of you will already have their latest CD, Duarte Lobo’s six-voice Requiem coupled with commemoration motets. It can be bought from their web site
www.lacockscholars.org . I was surprised to see a two page on Tallis and Byrd in the Christmas edition of The Economist. All their articles are anonymous and I haven’t checked, but it must have been the work of Lacock Scholar Soumaya Keynes, who is on their staff. Here she is at the 2015 Trogir Music Week in Croatia, with (centre) conductor Andrew Parrott and co-scholar Stuart O’Hara.

 

September 2018
All three of us are not long back from another memorable summer school – this time with Justin Doyle – in the excellent town of Ludlow. Each time we make more helpful contacts with the townspeople. The mayor came to the final concert to receive the Proclamation that alto Ruth Bamberger had brought with her from the city of Ludlow, Kentucky. The local singers are very supportive, offering accommodation for our scholars, putting up staging for the concert, taking part themselves even, though the jolly evening they had suggested in the Ludlow Brewery, alas, proved too difficult to organise.

 Finally, we are delighted to announce that Lucy has been made a grandmother by a new arrival in Vienna, so expect a few future Lacock courses in that part of the world.

 

May 2018
We’ve just put details of two courses next winter on the
www.lacock.org web site. The first is our traditional winter school, held between Christmas and the New Year. This time it returns to Corsham in Wiltshire. The conductor will be Aidan Oliver, a friend and colleague of Justin Doyle’s both as a chorister at Westminster Cathedral and as a choral scholar at Kings College Cambridge. Last autumn The Wallace Collection organised a workshop on the Victoria Requiem to mark the opening of their exhibition “El Greco to Goya” and they asked us to find a conductor (and, in the event, most of the participants). Aidan’s was the name that came out of the hat and he was an immediate hit. We signed him up for the winter school there and then. His programme features two late Renaissance composers he considers unjustly neglected: Johannes Eccard and Peter Philips. Certainly they are little performed these days and we look forward to having our horizons widened.

Is there such a phenomenon as the Lacock effect? Andrew Carwood had directed a number of Lacock courses when he was made director of music at St Paul’s cathedral, despite not being an organist (he told one incredulous interviewer on the radio, “I don’t even know how to switch the thing on”). Then Justin Doyle was made principal conductor of the Berlin Radio Choir after a few dates with us. Earlier this month Carlos Aransay breezed into the course in Venice and announced that he had just been appointed conductor of the National Chamber Choir of Mexico. To cap it all, when we had only just asked Aidan Oliver to conduct the winter school, he was made chorus director of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus. These are all major international appointments, and too many to be mere coincidence. Uncanny.

  Our Tuscan fortified hamlet of Gargonza proved as magical a venue as promised, and though there were a few teething problems, it looks like becoming a regular Lacock haunt. The young owner, Neri Guiccardini Corsi Salviati, is engaged in a heroic struggle to find a suitable use for his family’s inheritance and is hands-on to the extent of pouring wine (his family’s production, of course) in the restaurant when the need arose. It only occurred to me after we left that he is a descendant of Jacopo Corsi, the Florentine noble who, with Jacopo Peri, wrote the first opera, Dafne (now alas mostly lost), a decade before Monteverdi’s Orfeo.

 Earlier this month we were invited to a concert in St John’s Smith Square to mark Europe Day, 9 May, a date known only to employees of the European Union. Among the other guests were a few figures from the world of music, but they seemed mainly to be staff from the embassies of the member states. The Bulgarian ambassador gave us the benefit of his views on the geopolitical situation while the orchestra waited to strike up with the overture to the Marriage of Figaro. The concert finished with the ‘European Anthem’, with everyone on their feet in the manner of a fifties cinema. At the end no one knew what to do: applause seemed inappropriate and you couldn’t just turn round and go; so we all stood there, silent and motionless, for what seemed like a whole minute. In the circumstances, a poignant and emotional adieu.

 Next Sunday, 3 June, the garden at Cantax House will be open for charity (mainly Macmillan nurses and Amnesty International, under the National Gardens Scheme) from 2 to 6pm. We will all be there, either manning the gate or the tea stall, leaving Deborah talk to the hard core horticulturalists. We would love to see you if you are in the area.

January 2018
Just back from a most enjoyable week in Ambleside, singing alternating with walking in the snow-clad fells – a good new venue, to which we’ll surely return, with a welcome sprinkling of good new singers. So the first thing we want to say is thank you to all those of you who have suggested new places or who have spread the word about Lacock courses to their friends. Keep up the good work!

We’ve just put details of two new courses on the www.lacock.org web site. The first is another August summer school in Ludlow – they work so well as a venue, the magnificent church and the town itself, that it is difficult to tear ourselves away. Now the local choral society has become very supportive and has offered to host an evening for us in The Ludlow Brewery. The theme of the course is ‘A Venetian Vespers’ with music by Monteverdi, Gabrieli and their contemporaries, and it will be an ambitious programme with divided choirs, soloists from a group of Lacock scholars, cornetts, sackbuts and the all rest; the music is symphonic in scale and it’s a sheer joy just to be able to sit in the middle of it all, with the different sonorities breaking over you from all around. Justin Doyle will direct, assisted by David Hatcher and Greg Skidmore.

The other is the much-heralded visit to Seville – a week of Guerrero and Morales under the excellent young conductor and counter-tenor Gabriel Díaz. The problem with Seville was finding a church to hold the course. The archbishop, despite having no problem with graven images, seems to have a marked antipathy to the performing arts and has placed a fatwa on polyphony in his churches – a disappointing turn of events, given that his predecessors have spent good money to commission it. The Orquesta Barroca de Sevilla has come to our rescue and is letting us use the church in the centre of the old city that they use for their rehearsals and recordings. Both Seville and Ludlow are likely to be heavily subscribed, so we’ll wait until mid February before allocating places, to ensure that we get a good balance of forces, young and old, new faces and old Lacock hands.

There seems to be a natural law that if a person looks after a church for any length of time it turns from a community asset into a private fiefdom. To us, a sexton or worse still a ‘development officer’, complete with a slick video presentation, is often a figure of dread – one lives in fear of what new obstacles he (usually) can strew in your path. It was Evelyn Waugh who claimed that servants of the religious were, as a class, of ‘abnormally low mentality’. He did not know why this should be – whether it was that good people in their charity gave jobs to those whom no others would employ, or whether, being poor, they got them cheap, or whether they welcomed inefficient service as a mortification, or whether unremitting association with people of superior virtue eventually drove sane servants off their heads.

Our series of concerts at The Music Room at Grays in Mayfair was great fun and – we may say – something of a success. Emma Kirkby kicked off in marvellous form and then came back in the audience every week to support the young singers lower down the bill until she had to go off to a job in Australia. The Lacock Scholars were stunningly good in a programme of madrigals by Monteverdi and Gesualdo and the series ended in a real climax with the celestial combination of counter-tenor and harp, a world-beater when they are musicians of the calibre of Patrick Craig and Frances Kelly. They had got together for the first time in response to our invitation, and now intend to carry on performing as a duo.

The Lacock Scholars continue to flourish (I notice that Google has classified their genre as ‘easy listening’), with performances coming up in Hampstead, Sussex University, St Cuthbert’s Earls Court and Holy Trinity Sloane Square. This weekend they are recording the six-part Requiem of Duarte Lobo. All their activities are at www.lacockscholars.org. They would particularly love your support at their next outing if you are in reach of north London. Greg Skidmore writes: “Our first concert at Christ Church Hampstead is at 6pm on Sunday 4 February. It will contain Byrd’s propers for the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary (or Candlemas) as well as Sheppard’s amazing (and rarely performed) ‘Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria’ – a 14-minute mid-16th-century English powerhouse of a piece.”

September 2017
For a long time we have been looking for venue that could match Monteconero for its splendid situation, beautiful surroundings, a place where a group can stay together for a week cut off from the outside world and wallow in music. Now we have found one: Castello di Gargonza, a fortified mediaeval village surrounded by a vast hunting estate in the Chianti hills of south Tuscany, between Siena and Arezzo. The old houses are now run as a hotel by the charming and cultured family that has owned it over the generations. We can sing in the church and also the frantoio or olive mill, which has been made into a comfortable rehearsal room. The inaugural Lacock course will be directed by Patrick Craig and will run from 15 to 21 April. The repertoire will range from Willaert and Manchicourt to Morten Lauridsen. All the details are at
www.lacock.org.

On my way to Monteconero this June, I headed for the shortest queue for the passport check at Pisa airport, but soon realise that, as the passengers at the desk were a large family with the mother in a burqa and the father having some sort of argument with the official, it might not be the fastest moving. Another Englishman behind me, whose appearance suggested that he had lived life to the full, had the same thought and we went and joined another, by this time much longer, queue. After a few moments he said, “Excuse me, but I’ve been trying to place you. Are you perhaps a university lecturer or a representative of The British Council? It’s not just your dress [stone linen suit, by this time rather crumpled, round gold-framed spectacles], but also your general demeanour. Am I in the right sort of area?” I felt flattered, though I would have been happier, at my age, with professor rather than lecturer. I had just enough time to assure him that he was, before I was beckoned forward.

Last week I had a text from Eamonn Dougan to say that The Sixteen were singing in Lacock that evening. I had heard nothing about it so couldn’t quite believe it wasn’t a cruel hoax until I had phoned their office to check. Indeed they were – a private concert sponsored by a City magnate who had recently come to live in the village. Harry Christophers and all the rest came to tea after the rehearsal. With their encouragement we gate-crashed the performance. The vicar assumed we were friends of the patron and ushered us to the best reserved seats at the front of the church. The performance was of course mesmerising and Harry was charm itself: no wonder corporate sponsorship has poured into his organisation over the decades.

 

Finally, if you have been to Lacock and met Deborah and her work, you may be interested to know she has some pieces in a major exhibition in Chester cathedral, which continues until mid October. Here’s what the critic Georgina Coburn had to say about it.
‘One of my favourite meditations on the nature of Nature was Deborah van der Beek’s series of bronzes a little larger than life size; Glaring Cat, Cat Catching Bird, Stalking Cat prowling the inner passageway of the Garth or garden courtyard. Their open forms feel like reconstructed debris, reminiscent of desiccated cats deliberately placed inside walls of buildings for protection. Here van der Beek highlights the darker, predatory aspects of their nature. These feline forms are animated by encrusted three dimensional lines of a first drawn response, capturing the artist’s ambivalence towards their untamed hunting prowess. However, as creatures of the earth they resist moral judgement, complete and sacred in their perfected design.’

June 2017
We are very lucky to have a solid core of regular supporters, with some of your allegiances dating back to the last century. We are continually grateful to you all, especially those of you who have passed the word on to other singers or have recommended new venues or conductors. Lacock functions as a club, but we are alert to the dangers of cliqueyness and are always ready to welcome new members. Last year’s bring-a-man scheme has been a great success, so we repeat the offer: anyone receiving this newsletter may recommend a male singer not previously known to us (that is to say, not already on the mailing list) for a place on a course free of charge, as long as he fulfils the criteria for that course.

You may have noticed that some of our courses are for ‘invited singers’. The details are not put on the web site but there is not meant to be anything secret about them. The sort of people we invite are those that seem to be natural leaders of their sections, the ones that get asked to sing short solo passages or would be happy to sing in a one-to-a-part semi chorus. That generally means they have had some vocal training and are reliable readers. The ‘music parties’ are generally smaller than the other courses. The cadre of invitees is always changing: many newcomers are recommended by people already in the group, but you are also free to suggest yourself. If you think you would fit the bill and would like to be invited to one, just let us know.

Years ago when Andrew was living in London he had a friend in the unusually fortunate position of having a music room that seated 200 a stone’s throw from Bond Street tube station. Together they put on a run of lunchtime concerts featuring among others Emma Kirkby and the Hilliard Ensemble. The year was 1979 and the series opened with Alfred Deller; he died a few weeks later in Bologna, so that was his last London appearance. Having been out of touch for almost four decades, the friend sent us an email a few weeks ago, suggesting a new series this autumn – probably Thursday lunchtimes in October and November. We’ll let you know the programme when it is arranged. Expect a few familiar Lacock names!

January 2017
Sorry that this is the first newsletter since June – something we can’t quite justify or explain. Apologies to those of you who thought they might have been struck off the list and also to those who didn’t notice the Monteconero details until it was too full.

We have just announced details of two new courses on the Lacock web site www.lacock.org. The first is the long-awaited Ludlow Summer School directed by Eamonn Dougan, assisted by Greg Skidmore, from 13th to 18th of August. This will take a glimpse into the brilliant musical world of 17th century Poland, when its wealth and prestige attracted musicians from all over Europe, particularly Italy. On the menu will be large-scale works for two, three or more choirs from the lavish musical establishments at the courts in Krakow and Warsaw, so as for last year’s Monteverdi Vespers there are places for choral singers, soloists, renaissance instruments of all sorts including continuo. Ludlow works brilliantly as a venue – a small town set in delightful countryside, with enough places to stay and eat, a foodie paradise, interesting independent shops and most importantly from our point of view, quite the most helpful and welcoming people running the church in the whole of Christendom.

 The other is a return to Jimena de la Frontera in southern Spain from 17th to 22nd September for a week with Robert Hollingworth. The repertoire will be Spanish renaissance music and we hope to put some of the composers and specific works on the web site in the next few days. We were going to wait until then before sending out this newsletter, but since Robert let the cat out of the bag in an email to Fagiolini Friends last weekend there has been such clamour to enrol, we thought it would be only fair to let everyone know. Jimena is one of the famous pueblos blancos of southern Spain, but very much still an unpretentious working town where the relaxed rhythms of Andalusian life are undisturbed by intrusive tourism. 

Since we last wrote in June we have had the wonderful Monteverdi Vespers week in Ludlow with a team of Lacock scholars soloists including a soprano from Veracruz in Mexico, and some brilliant young instrumentalists, the Schütz week in Trogir, which incidentally resulted in at least one of the scholars being offered work with Erik Van Nevel’s professional group Currende, and the winter school in which we gave the world premiere of Will Carslake’s ‘Duel of the White-Necked Ravens’ with stunning performances by Lacock scholars Catherine Shaw (soprano) and Sarah Latto (piano). In fact the Lacock Scholars’ star is still very much in the ascendant, with recent appearances at the Brighton Early Music Festival and an Advent concert to a packed audience at Lacock church in addition to their regular London performances at St Cuthbert’s, Earls Court. Their first CD, a selection of music from their last season, came out in November, with stunning performances of, inter alia, Mouton’s Nesciens Mater and a couple of movements from Duarte Lobo’s six-part Requiem. Copies of the CD (£10) are available from their web site www.lacockscholars.org.

June 2016
These newsletters seem to be getting longer. We send them to you because you have been to, or expressed interest in a Lacock course. If, having tasted the waters of the Pierian spring, you have decided to exercise your talents in other directions and would rather not be on the list, simply send a reply with “unsubscribe” as the subject.

The most recent courses have gone particularly well – the winter school with Greg Skidmore, Tobago, Ghislaine’s well-attended voice workshop and Venice with Robert Hollingworth. It was of course wonderful to while away the end of the European winter in a Caribbean fishing village: everything fitted so well that I have asked Justin Doyle to lead a return visit from the 28th January to the 4th of February 2018. I had an inkling that he would be inclined to accept as he had named this year’s programme “Tallis in Tobago, part I”. Despite his recently-announced appointment as principal conductor of the prestigious Berlin Radio chamber choir, he has promised to keep those dates free for us.

I had a bizarre experience after our final concert. A well-dressed lady somewhat younger than myself came and introduced herself with the winning chat-up line: “Hello, I’m Jenny Agutter. I’m sure I know your name.” I don’t think we discovered why she should, but it turned out that she had been a regular visitor to Castara Bay for several years. I mentioned that we would try to interact more with the local community on our return visit – Justin would be just the person for it, and she talked about outreach schemes that she had set up, including an ambitious-sounding production of The Tempest with the local primary school. We promised to keep in touch to coordinate our efforts.

January 2016
The Lacock Scholars go from strength to strength and in fact have a performance in London tomorrow (if you’re reading this today). It’s at 6 o’clock in St Cuthbert’s, Earls Court and all the details are on their own web site,
www.lacockscholars.org . The Scholars are getting noticed far and wide and have been asked to sing at the Brighton Early Music Festival this autumn. They are also preparing for a recording in May. It’s very Lacock that their director is Greg Skidmore, himself a sort of proto-Lacock scholar. We’ve always taken any opportunity to promote from the ranks: the directors JanJoost van Elburg and Carlos Aransay first came to Lacock courses students, as did the instrumental tutors Martin Lubenow and Kina Sellegren; in a way the list also contains the director of our very first course in 1986, Harry Christophers, who sang in the choir Andrew had formed in London, Coro Cappella. Last time we mentioned a possible plan to found a charitable trust to support the Lacock Scholars financially and allow them to widen their activities. Having taken a few soundings, though, it seems that the administrative burden of running a Trust might be something better avoided and we might go for a more informal scheme. Several kind souls have kindly offered to make a financial contribution to support the Lacock Scholars and if you would like to join them please let Andrew know.

Two sad deaths to report. The first is Duncan Druce, a hugely gifted violinist and composer who was very much a fixture on the Lacock scene in the nineties. He was the kindest and most sympathetic of teachers, and it was an electrifying moment when in a tutors’ concert this quiet and introverted man picked up his violin and with some showy baroque piece turned into a fireball. He wrote “Earth, Sun, Moon”, settings of Three Greek Hymns translated by Shelley for chorus and early instruments for the Lacock Summer School in 1995. His death was widely noted in the press, including this obituary in The Guardian . More recently, many of you will remember the Portuguese bass Victor Amaro, who died at the beginning of December. Victor was the most charming of people with a great gift for friendship and brim-full of enthusiasm for music and life. He found us the venue of Obidos, where we held courses for several years, and we also have fond memories of him at courses in Lisbon, Lacock, Venice and Cholula in Mexico. It is a very sad loss and I’m sure many of you will want to join me in passing on condolences to Ana. To end on a brighter note, we are happy to tell you that two singers who have been frequent participants in recent courses, David Butler and Vivien Price, are now Mr & Mrs Butler.

September 2015
We are approaching the end of an event-filled year. Saddest was the loss of Mavis Brown, who died unexpectedly in the spring. She and Mike, a very welcome pairing of low alto and high tenor, were very much part of the Lacock landscape and had been coming to courses for over two decades. An organizer herself, she understood the problems of keeping thirty or more people happy for a week at a time and was a great moral support. She was also an astute spotter of potential leaders, and it was through her that, for instance, Justin Doyle joined the Lacock stable. At Mavis’s memorial service June, Justin introduced me to Will Carslake, which turned out to be another fortunate connexion: Will was able to step in at short notice when Justin had to cancel his appearance in Jimena because of ill health. The week turned out to be a ‘classic’, in which the repertoire, singers, director and venue all worked together to produce a very happy result.

Why are men more reluctant than women to join choirs? With our extensive contacts and now the Lacock Scholars we like to think we do better than most at achieving a workable balance of voices, but we rarely have to go looking for sopranos or altos. For 2016 we would like to make this offer: if you enrol for a course you may bring a male singer not already known to us free of charge, as long as he fulfils the criteria for that course. This may seem like foolhardy largesse, but so many Lacock singers become addicts we are confident it will pay dividends. (One is reminded of the Indian restaurant whose slogan was: ‘Just one visit is enough to make you regular’). Of course, if things get out of hand we may have to withdraw the offer at some stage.

The Lacock Scholars continue to flourish. In addition to providing excellent young voices on most Lacock courses, they now have a twelve-part consort which has just started a new series of performances under Greg Skidmore in St Cuthbert’s church in Earls Court in London. They are continuing the novel presentation developed last year. As they say in their welcoming leaflet, “this sequence polyphony, chant and brief periods of silence is neither a service nor a concert, though it has elements of both. Make of it what you will: perhaps an interlude of stillness in a noisy world; a stimulus to meditation or prayer; or an opportunity to let one of London’s most dramatic church interiors and music of the centuries overwhelm the senses.”

The Cantax House flood saga is almost at an end; the restoration is now finished and we will move back there very shortly, having been unhoused just over a year. Thank you for all the messages of support.

August 2015
In March we reunited our now dispersed family with a holiday in Tobago – Henry is in Los Angeles and it seemed only fair that for once the rest of us should cross the Atlantic. I was immediately struck by the thought that where we stayed would make an ideal Lacock course venue: an idyllic Caribbean fishing village with two glorious swimming beaches, surrounded by virgin jungle – the whole north east end of the island has been a nature reserve since the eighteenth century – a community hall to sing in and no large-scale tourist development. I was sure any of the Lacock conductors would jump at the chance of going there, so which one to choose? We’d want somehow to engage with the local music-making and gradually I decided that because of his time in Africa, the ties of his new family and his genius in coming up with brilliant choral arrangements of music from all over the world, Justin Doyle would fit the bill very well. Then in the cafe on the beach on our last day I was told I must meet that couple over there because their family was musical. Indeed they were: their daughter was a soloist with Opera North and her husband was a conductor. What, I asked, was the name of the conductor (wrong question!). I was so shocked to hear the name Justin Doyle that it took me a few seconds to realize what they’d said.

You may not have heard that Cantax House was flooded in the Great Storm of Wiltshire on 19 September last year. Since then we have been living up the road in Corsham while the house has been in restauro. So while Corsham has many things that may be said in its favour, life has been a little disjointed for the last twelve months. The work is almost complete and we’re planning to moving back in next month.

February 2013
When writing my prospectuses I am aware that I should be addressing the uninitiated as well as the old lags; I always try to give some indication of what it’s all about and what you should expect to get out of coming to a music course. A phrase I have fallen back on more than once is ‘an intense musical experience’, which seem to sum it up for me, so I have been very pleased to notice that several bloggards have recorded their impressions of Lacock weeks. The first was the Israeli music journalist Pamela Hickman, who has been to course in Spain and Italy. She has published lengthy interviews with Carlos Aransay, Patrick Craig, Guy Morley – one of the professional sackbut players who have accompanied courses in Avila and Leon in recent years – and (if you’re really interested) me. Her blog can be found at http://pamelahickmansblog.blogspot.co.uk/. Then there is Val Pedlar, who has started a blog entitled Choral Singing in Southport, which by a masterstroke of variable geography, now stretches as far as Monteconero: http://www.goodlistening.com.br/?m=201209. Finally, for an idea of what the Monteconero looks like from Brazil, Martin Hester’s blog Good Listening at http://choralsinging.wordpress.com. Martin came all the way from Rio for last year’s course, which is impressive enough. On the subject of Brazil, there may be a Lacock course there in a year or two. I’m sending Carlos Aransay there on a recce in April.

October 2012
After a break of seven years Lacock returns to the wonderful historic pueblo blanco of Jimena de le Frontera in April. Monica and Peter Becko have returned from their wanderings in the Near and Far East to their old juzgado or court house, one of the town’s most impressive buildings, which they run as an arts centre and which will serve as our headquarters. Patrick Craig has come up with a characteristically promising theme: contrasting the two figures of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene and their depictions in art, theology and music. The central work will be the Missa Maria Magdalene of Alonso Lobo. One of the many attractions of Jimena is the adjoining natural park of Los Alcornocales and the end of April is the best time for seeing its spectacular spring flora.

October 2011
If you’ve been to Monteconero you’ll understand why I find it impossible to tear myself away. It’s partly its fairy-tale situation, a monastery surrounded by oak forest on a mountain top on the Adriatic coast, but also that it has very much a family-run feeling about it: the current padrone, Augusto (his grandmother started the hotel in the 1950s) is always there, slicing prosciutto for the antipasto or perhaps even sweeping the courtyard. This year’s Music at Monteconero will be directed by Patrick Craig, whose programme is based on settings of When David heard. Recent Monteconero weeks have filled rather quickly, so don’t leave it too long if you’re thinking of coming, especially if you are a soprano or a bass.

 One of this year’s highpoints was leading the Victoria commemorations in his home city of Ávila . The culmination of the course was a concert in the cathedral on the actual date of the quatercentenary of Victoria's death. We performed the monumental Missa Laetatus sum with three choirs of twenty, five sackbuts of Il Nuovo Chiaroscuro and a bajón. The bishop and 700 other Abulense came to listen and the whole event made quite a stir in the Spanish press. The Victoria commemorations continue with two events in London organised by the Iberian and Latin American Music Society: a symposium on Saturday 29 October and a Victoria Requiem from scratch in St Peter’s Eaton Square, directed by Carlos Aransay on Saturday 26 November. You would be very welcome at both events.

February 2011
Details of the Victoria quatercentenary course in Ávila are now on the Lacock web site. The concert in the cathedral on the actual date of Victoria’s death will be the city’s main event to commemorate its famous son and Spain’s greatest composer – quite an honour to entrusted with. Carlos Aransay has come up with a programme which draws in the other notable composers to which Ávila can lay claim, Vivanco and Cabezon, and even its two mystic poets, Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross. Thanks to a tie-in with Caja Ávila, the local savings bank, our rehearsals will be in a Renaissance palace that now functions as an arts centre.

This perhaps is the point to mention that from time to time I am contacted by people who says that the entrance requirements to Lacock courses look a bit onerous these days and wonder whether they are good enough. I usually reply that if you have the self-awareness to ask, then the answer is probably yes. I purposely make the wording sound a bit fierce to put off those who just want a singing holiday with good company. Lacock courses are for those with a real ambition to work hard to improve their choral skills – wherever they are starting from – and leave the week better singers than when they arrived.

Of the courses that have been announce previously, The Corsham Voice Workshop with Ghislaine Morgan jut before Easter is more-or-less full; we could take just a couple more. Because of the nature of the course we are keeping the numbers fairly low. Eamonn Dougan’s deferred week at Monteconero filled up in a few weeks when it was announced last autumn. If a good tenor or bass came forward now we could probably squeeze him in, but I’m afraid we’ve been having to turn away sopranos and altos for several months. The course in Mexico kicks off in less than four weeks. There’ll be just over thirty of us: ten young Mexicans, two or three from the US and the rest from Europe. It’ll be a great thrill to sing music from the Puebla Cathedral Choirbooks in the cathedral itself.

Finally, having disappointed many by announcing that the Lacock choral evensong weekends in notable churches in the Netherlands were to stop, I am now delighted to say that Angela Thomas and Rosie Holder have agreed to carry on the tradition. I wish them well and have just heard that their first weekend will be in the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam (Sweelinck’s church) under the direction of Paul Spicer, on 3 and 4 September this year.