The text below is taken from a speech given by our founder and first Music Director, Andrew Edwards, at a retirement party given in honour of his and Ursula’s vast work, over 36 and 24 years respectively, in developing the Academy into the wonderful, friendly and highly musical choir it became. It is reproduced here with Andrew’s kind permission.
The Academy has not been like the legendary Goddess Athene, who sprang fully-armed from the head of Zeus.
We’ve been more like an organism which has evolved over an extended period from something simple to something more extraordinary.
And in this Darwinian process of evolution there have, I believe, been five main stages.
Stage one, obviously, was the beginning. How did the Academy come to be?
It came into being in 1980 because St Mary’s Church, round the corner from our home, needed to raise money for repairs to the church roof.
Prompted I suspect by Sonia Elkin, then Church Warden, the Rector wrote to me (and doubtless lots of others) asking what ideas I might have for raising money.
My reply, as I recall, was: “Do forgive me: I have no ideas for raising money. But I do have an idea for losing some. Collect a group of singers and give a nice concert! “
That might have been the end of the matter. But the Rector’s response was: “Yes, please!“
So Sonia & I collected singing friends including John Veale, Margaret Bond and the Lewises, and gave a little concert.
And we didn’t even lose money. We raised £200 for the church roof, winning the rather predictable headline in the church magazine: “Choir raises the roof”.
Then we decided we’d meet again and give some more concerts.
From the outset we recruited small groups of players to accompany us as well as singing unaccompanied programmes. In the early years our players were mostly gifted amateurs recommended by my first wife, Charlotte, as leader, and by Alan Maries, as first clarinet; but we gradually developed the group into a professional orchestra of high quality which Charlotte has led in brilliant style ever since.
We relied in those early days on ticket sales to cover expenses. But that proved to be easier said than done.
A particular problem was that all the concerts we gave, just about, were preceded by torrential rainstorms (and even a blizzard on one occasion). So we lost much of our potential audience, and I was losing significant sums of money.
It was then that Roger Chadder came wonderfully to the rescue by inventing an ingenious underwriting scheme. 40 or 50 local people of goodwill agreed to underwrite us against losses up to a certain amount each year. After that we never lost money on the Academy.
We also formed the Academy into a charity. That and the underwriting scheme, taken together, opened the way for the choir’s future development.
2 HANDEL & PARIS
Stage 2, which I think of as Handel and Paris, ran from the mid-1980s to 1992.
In this period, we began doing quite big pieces such as Messiah, the Mass in B Minor and the St John Passion. as well as smaller concerts.
We also sang lots of Handel pieces, including Jephtha, Theodora and Hercules as well as Messiah.
The other great feature of Stage 2 was that we paid the first of three memorable visits to Paris, where we performed Jephtha, Theodora and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas in the great ballroom of the Ambassador’s house in the Rue du Faubourg St Honoré, where Berlioz in earlier times had married Harriet Smithson. The Duke of Wellington bought the house in 1814 from Naoleon’s sister.
These Paris trips were enormous fun. Later in the 1990s, however, a new Ambassador was appointed, and our Paris visits came to an end.
3 URSULA & THE BAROQUE
Stage 3 in the Academy’s evolution began with the arrival of Ursula in 1992 and included the launching of our Baroque Players and baroque styles of performance.
Ursula’s arrival was a moment of real transformation. We have of course mounted a joint act ever since.
Ursula knew a lot about choirs & orchestras, having earlier been the first paid employee of the Monteverdi Choir and a leading light in the founding of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh. As we all know, she has worked tirelessly for the choir these past 24 years.
One of her many achievements was to bring a new social dimension to our activities. Singing with the Academy began to be fun as well as a hard grind. Some of our singers actually began to enjoy it!
Alongside this, later in the 1990s, we launched the Academy Baroque Players. This Group brings together wonderful musicians from the country’s leading period instrument groups such as the OAE and the English Baroque Soloists. We owe much to our good friend Ally Bury, one of country’s most distinguished leaders of such ensembles, both for help in setting up the Group and for leading it on most occasions, with Susie Carpenter-Jacobs brilliantly deputising when necessary.
Since the late 1990s, the Baroque Players have accompanied our performances of the baroque and early classical repertoire, now extended to include Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 & Orfeo as well as all Bach’s major choral works and many of Handel’s, while Charlotte’s traditional orchestra has continued to accompany the later repertoire.
After the Paris trips ended, we paid several Cathedral visits to Hereford, Gloucester, Southwark and Canterbury, with the wonderful Norman Harper playing the organ for us. These too were huge fun but required a lot of organising.
4 THE MOVE TO ST JOHN’S
Stage 4 in the choir’s evolution was moving our headquarters from St Mary’s Church to St John’s Church. This took place in 2000.
St Mary’s Church, for all its merits, is not ideal for music-making. The V- shaped roof and low chancel arch deaden the sound, and there is very little space to accommodate orchestras as well as singers.
Meanwhile, our old friend Robin Stevens had taken over as Vicar at St John’s and urged us to make St John’s our home.
We had wanted for some time to make this move. St John’s is a wonderful space and its barrel-shaped roof produces a wonderful acoustic for all except the largest and loudest repertoire.
Here too, however, performing space was a problem. The pews could not be moved so as to accommodate an orchestra. Nothing daunted, however, Robin Stevens arranged for the front pews to be made moveable.
This was a decisive change for which Robin deserves our heartfelt thanks.
Since 2000, therefore, St John’s has been the Academy’s base, and we have been able to accommodate sizeable orchestras here as well as a choir of 50 or 60 singers.
As a result of this, the whole enterprise has had room to flourish, and our choir and orchestras have sounded far better than they could ever have done at St Mary’s. We were able further to increase our focus on big pieces such as:
Haydn’s Creation and late Masses
Mozart Requiem, Mass in C Minor, Kyrie
Beethoven Mass in C
Schubert late Masses and Lazarus
Berlioz L’Enfance du Christ
Poulenc Gloria and Stabat Mater.
A particular highlight of this period was our celebration of the Trafalgar bicentenary in 2005 at the church of St Mary’s Merton, from where Nelson went to take command of the British fleet at Trafalgar. We performed Haydn’s Nelson Mass there with Rachel Nicholls, and my friend Admiral Sir Jeremy Black talked engagingly about Nelson and Trafalgar.
Also in that period we paid memorable visits to Stowe, Eton and Buckingham.
5 WIMBLEDON INTERNATIONAL MUSIC FESTVAL
The next and last great milestone in the history of the Academy to date was the launching in 2009 of the Wimbledon International Music Festival.
The Festival was born, I’m happy to say, in our house.
My old friend from Oxford days, Anthony Wilkinson, generously offered to devote his great skills and energies to upgrading some small concerts which St John’s used to promote during Tennis fortnight into something more like a festival.
But St John’s had no resources for such a task. So I took Anthony aside and we talked together at 15 Highbury Road.
“Anthony”, I said: “if you want to promote a Festival, forget the St John’s summer concerts, and found an Anthony Wilkinson Festival instead”.
Anthony accepted this advice but exacted his revenge by saying I would have to serve as Chairman. It was 5 years before I managed to escape!
The Festival was a huge task, not least in the early years. Under Anthony’s inspired direction, however, it has of course been an enormous success.
For the Academy, moreover, the Festival has been nothing less than a godsend. It has brought us a high profile, full houses, and the ability to engage still higher-profile artists when necessary, with some sharing of costs.
Anthony insisted from the start that we must have top soloists and players to an even greater extent than before. And the highest possible standards. He really put us on our mettle.
And the choir and orchestra have risen magnificently to the occasion each time.
The Festival and the Academy also jointly procured and bought a substantial amount of extra staging so as to enable us to have a raked stage for choirs and a big and handsome flat stage for Festival recitals and chamber music concerts, the latter capable of bearing a Concert Grand Piano.
This joint initiative dramatically enhanced St John’s position as a premier venue for most Festival and Academy concerts. So it is that the Academy has given a major concert at the Festival every year since 2010.
I believe this has been hugely to the advantage of the Festival as well as the Academy and St John’s: a real, three-way “dream ticket”. Our Festival concerts have sold out each year, and each year people in the audience have written or said to us that our concerts were their top favourites in a much-loved, star-studded Festival.
The seven Festival concerts we have given since 2010 are:
Bach Mass in B Minor
Purcell Dido & Aeneas, Come ye sons of art away, Celebrate this Festival etc
Bach smaller pieces, including Jauchzet Gott, Komm Jesu komm, Gottes Zeit, Schlummert ein & Magnificat,
Haydn Nelson Mass, Mozart Exultate Jubilate, Rachmaninov Vespers Music,
Monteverdi Vespers of 1610: in Sacred Heart
Bach Christmas Oratorio
As the list indicates, our performances of the great Bach pieces have won special favour, the recent Christmas Oratorio concert not least.
Antony paid us all a touching tribute after the Christmas Oratorio performance, which was of course Ursula’s and my last concert as Manager and Music Director, respectively, and we have since received many wonderful messages.
One of our greatest supporters, Anne Farquhar, made the lovely comment: “St John’s has become our Thomaskirche.”
Another great feature of these past few years has been that we have succeeded, I believe, in extending Festival standards and levels of excitement to our other concerts as well, not least our St Matthew Passion last year and our Beethoven, Mendelssohn & Wagner concert in February this year.
A final element in this last period has been the first performances of two new oratorios, not commissioned by the Academy but foisted on them by the Music Director who wrote them:
The Easter Story (2010) and
The Christmas Story (2015).
It has been a huge privilege for me to perform these pieces without risking financial ruin. And for that, as so many things, I’m hugely grateful.
The Academy web site includes summary lists of the repertoire we have performed over the past 36 years and soloists we have worked with.
6 A FEW THANK YOUS:
So there we are. That is the story so far, as we pass the reins to others.
For Ursula and me, at least, it has been a wonderful story. We’ve met so many marvellous people, and made or maintained so many wonderful friendships in these past 36 years. We hope and pray that these may continue.
And we owe so much to so many. So I’d like finally to say few words of special thanks from us both to everyone:
First and foremost, special thanks to all of you who have sung with us over the years: you have of course been the backbone of the enterprise, repeatedly identified by our supporters as the greatest stars of all in our concerts
Special thanks, next, to our wonderful accompanists, who have contributed so much to the choir’s success: Charles Dobson in the early days, Linda Marley, Anthea Fry, Norman Harper, and more recently Michael Higgins, Peter Bullett, and Max Barley
Special thanks to the soloists who have delighted our audiences and us many times, not least William Kendall, Paul Agnew, Berty Rice, Robin Blaze, Rachel Nicholls, Natalie Clifton-Griffith, Julia Doyle
Special thanks to Charlotte, who has led and helped to fix our orchestra from the earliest days and has never ceased to provide all manner of other help and encouragement. The Orchestra she has led was at its spectacular best in our February Beethoven concert this year.
Special thanks to Ally & Susie, who have encouraged and helped us to build up our great ensemble of Baroque Players as well, and to the players themselves: not least Michael Laird, and the star pupil Michael introduced to us, Neil Brough, who was our glorious first trumpet 10 days ago.
Special thanks, again, to Anthony Wilkinson, who has played such a critical role in the last heave towards the star-studded performances which we’ve been able to deliver since 2010.
Special thanks to some extremely generous supporters inside the choir and outside.
Special thanks to those who’ve sent us lovely letters & messages over the years and especially during these past few days.
Special thanks to those who’ve worked with us over the years as Chairmen, Treasurer, stage-builders, hosts for soloists and other helpers, especially Roger Chadder, Peter Stevens, Rob Cocovinis, Ken Boyt, Harriette Cahill and Margaret Bond (who must have stuffed fifteen thousand envelopes for us!).
And special thanks not least to those on the Choir’s Committee, which sprang gloriously to life a year ago after 35 years of hibernation and has laboured long and hard to prepare for a new and glorious future under the Academy’s new Music Director, Matthew Best,: Peter Stevens, Daniel Whitehead,, Roger Chadder, Alan Maries, Cathie Jones, James Mackintosh, John Veale, Anthea Fry & Margaret Bond.
Peter our Chairman (until a few minutes ago) and Dan (our new Chairman) have devoted enormous amounts of time and effort to winding up the ancien regime and preparing for the new dawn. I’m sure the others will agree that we are extra specially indebted to them both.
Finally, I believe someone once asked Billy Butlin (of Holiday Camps fame): “What do you most regret about growing old?”
Billy’s reply, a little grumpy perhaps, was: “Watching my successors make mistakes I would never have made”.
That is not at all a regret which Ursula and I are expecting to experience now. We’re expecting, on the contrary, to admire Matthew, the Academy’s new Music Director, Ingrid van Boheemen, the Academy’s new Administrator, and all our other successors for avoiding the mistakes which we’ve made and leading our great enterprise to new heights.
So we do wish you all well for the future. Ursula & I will do everything we can to help, without getting in the way.