Fund-raising concert for cathedral girls' choir

Tony CooperNorwich Cathedral Girls' Choir stage a fund-raising concert in Norwich Cathedral on Saturday They'll be sharing the stage with the Tallis Chamber Choir and Alexandra Players.Tony Cooper

'The times they're a changing' chanted Bob Dylan in the glorious and freewheeling Sixties but not for the Church of England, it seems, at that time. But change was most surely on its way and change was needed, depending, of course, on your political viewpoint.

English cathedral choirs in the Sixties were still the bastion of the male gender but thanks to a quiet revolution that has taken place over the past two or three decades a great many of our cathedral choirs now sport females in their ranks and in the case of Norwich Cathedral it can lay claim to its own girls' choir.

But you'll have to track back to the late Seventies to witness the 'freeze' in the attitude of the Church's hierarchy to discover that the first female chorister to make history by breaking into the ranks of men came not from the Church of England but from the Church of Scotland with eight-year-old Susan Hamilton being accepted into the choir of St Mary's Episcopal Cathedral, Edinburgh, in 1978. Now enjoying a professional career, she's a founder-member of the Dunedin Consort, a group that's receiving glowing press for their recent recording of JS Bach's St Matthew Passion.

But young Miss Hamilton is not the only female to break the mould and go on to enjoy a professional career. There's also Amy Carson, who was the youngest member in the first-ever Salisbury Cathedral Girls' Choir. She has subsequently sung with such prestigious professional outfits as Tenebrae, The Gabrieli Consort and The Sixteen while three years ago she starred in Kenneth Branagh's film of The Magic Flute, winning critics over for her role of Pamina.

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And Elizabeth Watts, who hails from Hethersett, has made her mark on the international opera stage to public and critical acclaim. A former Norwich High School girl she was one of the first members of Norwich Cathedral Girls' Choir joining in her mid teens. She gained valuable experience as a member of the choir (founded in 1995) before going on to London's Royal College of Music in 2002 to study with Lillian Watson on the advanced opera studies course at the Benjamin Britten international opera school. She graduated in 2005 with distinction and was the recipient of the Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother Rose Bowl, awarded annually for outstanding achievement.

Her career took off considerably after achieving great success in various international competitions. In the 2007 Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, for instance, she just missed out by a cat's whisker from carrying off first prize. This followed in the wake of a host of other prestigious awards including the 2006 Kathleen Ferrier Prize, the 2007 Outstanding Young Artist Award at the MIDEM Classique Awards in Cannes and a nomination for the 2007 RPS Young Artist of the Year Award. Her career has also been strongly helped by being chosen as a member of BBC Radio 3's New Generation Artists Scheme. A further boost came in the 2005/06 season when she joined English National Opera as a company artist in the ENO Young Singers' Programme. She made her debut as Papagena in Mozart's The Magic Flute and then went on to sing roles in Monteverdi's Orfeo and Purcell's King Arthur. Another highlight saw her sing the role of Flora in a concert performance of Britten's Turn of the Screw at the Cheltenham International Festival while recent appearances include the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra and BBC Symphony Orchestra. That's a quartet of some of the best orchestras in Britain.

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In fact, Elizabeth Watts puts some of her success down to the grounding she had as a chorister at Norwich. Many cathedrals established their girls' choirs in the 1990s and Elizabeth represents one of the first flowerings of that long-overdue addition to the choral tradition. "I learnt how to sing and how to listen," she says. "It was, I think, singing the Psalms that has taught me how to phrase the material I'm singing now."

Such an accolade as this underlies the importance of the Norwich Cathedral Girls' Choir to the well-being of choral music in the city and county. Entirely self-funded, members of the choir don't enjoy the benefits of the largesse raining down from the cathedral's endowment fund that helps the boys so much. So, to aid their needs, they'll sing for their supper as and when needed.

And such an occasion has arisen and currently the senior girls are busy in rehearsal for a fund-raising concert in Norwich Cathedral on Saturday, June 13, 7.30pm. They'll be sharing the stage with the Tallis Chamber Choir and Alexandra Players, conducted by Philip Simms, who have been giving annual concerts in Norwich Cathedral for the 900th Anniversary Appeal since 2003. These have been organised by Christopher and Judith Lawrence whose eldest daughter, Anna, was a member of the choir from 2001 to 2007 while their youngest, Alexandra, joined in 2003, and will be leaving this year.

Now the target for the appeal has been met the Lawrences are channelling all their efforts in helping to raise funds for the girls' choir. It's their way of saying a big 'thank you' to the cathedral for the great musical education and experience that their daughters have enjoyed.

A programme of baroque music will be sung to include two cantatas by JS Bach - the lovely and inviting Peasant Cantata complemented by Ich habe Genug - while this great German composer is again represented in the programme with a further two choral pieces - Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied and Lobet den Herrn alle Heiden. The guest soloists are Lynda Russell (soprano) and David Wilson-Johnson (bass). And completing a rather attractive and entertaining programme will be excerpts from the Ode for St Cecilia's Day by GF Handel in celebration of the 250th anniversary of his death.

Rehearsing for this concert on top of their weekly rehearsal stint keeps them on their toes. On Tuesdays they're at the cathedral for evensong and a rehearsal while a straight rehearsal is taken on Saturday mornings. And all the girls are required to attend. So it's a firm commitment.

As well as their cathedral duties they also perform in churches and other venues throughout the county thus helping to represent the cathedral in its outreach work in the community. And in addition to this they take on foreign tours. Over the past few years they've enjoyed escapes to Belgium, Holland and the USA while they have visited a great many parts of the UK. In celebration of their tenth anniversary, for instance, the choir undertook a high-profile tour of Malta along with the men from the cathedral choir. This enabled the girls to perform a much wider and more challenging repertoire than they would if travelling alone. All in all a total party of 41 including conductor, organists and parent helpers as chaperones made the trip. The total cost came to around �20,000. That's why their fund-raising concerts are so important.

As well as being a very educational and rewarding experience for the girls, touring to foreign places has many other benefits too. For example, it promotes the unique quality of English church music abroad as well as helping to raise the profile of the city and county.

The choir has also enjoyed the experience of broadcasting on national radio and television including BBC's Songs of Praise and live Choral Evensong relayed on BBC Radio 3.

And in addition to this they have made three CD recordings with the most recent, In Tune with Heaven (where else!), receiving public and critical acclaim while they are often invited to participate in major arts festivals as well as singing in churches of other denominations.

It's generally accepted that the Norwich Cathedral Girls' Choir is a much-praised and welcome addition to the cathedral's 900-year-old musical tradition. Long may it continue!

Tickets for the fund-raising concert on June 13 are priced from �7.50 to �15 and are available from Norwich Theatre Royal box office on 01603 630000.

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