Our Trip to the North

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First year medic and soprano choral scholar, Hattie Hunter, reports on the wonderful few days spent in her home county of Yorkshire.

Departing from the dreaming spires of Oxford after our concert in aid of the Muze Trust with The Choir of Merton College, we began our expedition up to the dreamy fields of North Yorkshire in two rickety minibuses. Having rejected the idea of balancing our stuff on the roof, we were buried under a thick blanket of bags, suitcases, and the odd radiantly grey choir jumper. Mark’s trusty Radio 3 minibus clattered up the motorway quite zippily, but unfortunately, Alice’s Radio 2 minibus was limited to the approximate speed of a cow. This necessitated long and frequent breaks.

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After getting lost a couple of times, befriending an inquisitive cat, and getting lost a few more times, we eventually arrived at my house for a veritable feast – a combined effort from all of our kind hosts. We (read: most of us) were up bright and early the next morning to travel to Ryedale school (Tom’s host Helen made him toast to eat in the car). Although it seemed doubtful at first, the school was indeed found to contain children, and we had a super workshop with Cantarla, the school’s girls’ choir. We worked on a few pieces together, including Howells’ ‘Like as the Hart’, and Britten’s ‘Hymn to the Virgin’. It was going really well until Mark terrorised a girl by forcing her to conduct, so we had to leave while she was rushed to hospital*. Cantarla then treated us to a groovy rendition of the Agnus Dei from Bob Chilcott’s ‘Little Jazz Mass’, before a hearty lunch in the school canteen, where we all committed a massive faux pas by taking trays for our food. According to the Ryedale students, nobody ever does this twice.

After lunch, we went to Ampleforth College – mine and Max’s old school. Incredibly, it was sunny and warm, so everyone went outside to the enormous expanse of grass in the valley, where we watched the rabbits running around, played a 30 second game of frisbee, and spent half an hour trying to rescue the frisbee from a tree. Meanwhile the organ scholars stayed inside to test out the alarmingly loud trumpet stop.

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The concert, at 7.30, was a great success, and we managed not to be too mystified by the 6 second echo. The audience, who awkwardly didn’t clap for the first few pieces in fear of upsetting the monks, were startled into ovation by Bertie’s incredibly weird organ piece, and clapped delightedly from that point on. One audience member even remarked that we were better than The Sixteen (although she didn’t specify what of). After a heated stream-jumping competition at a local pub, where Declan C treated us to a remarkable impression of a frightened Wildebeest fording a river, causing a pedestrian on the other side of the road to produce his umbrella*, it was time to head back to our generous hosts for another night.

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On Tuesday, we made the most of the choir’s National Trust membership (purchased for our visit to the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland) at Rievaulx. The choir’s resident cathedral enthusiast, Xann, was overjoyed to finally visit a place that she had wanted to visit since she was a small child. However, as the choir doesn’t have English Heritage membership, we were limited to Rievaulx Terrace, and couldn’t descend the sheer drop to the Abbey. Xann looked on wistfully…

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After a quick amble round the picturesque market town of Helmsley, we then continued over the moors to Stockton-on-Tees. We were met at St Cuthbert’s Church by Fr Cooper and Margaret, who had prepared us lots of delicious sandwiches and cakes. The church’s enchanting orange carpet provided a dramatically different acoustic to Ampleforth, which worked well for our more twiddly numbers, and we had a rapturous audience, their clapping uninhibited by the prospect of irascible monks. After the concert, a quick sandwich top-up, and ‘Goodnight Sweetheart’ as a final encore, we set off back to Jesus, arriving in the middle of the night, with everyone’s necks stuck at strange angles, and with a suitcase imprint on my face.

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* DISCLAIMER: Some statements in this blog post may be exaggerations or total figments of Hattie’s imagination.


St Matthew Passion

Rehearsing for the St Matthew Passion

First year Choral Scholar Amatey Doku interviews soloist Madeleine Shaw, chorister Harry Shapiro and Senior Organ Scholar Ben Morris about Jesus College Choir’s performances of the St Matthew Passion with Britten Sinfonia.

Madeleine Shaw, Mezzo-soprano

Soloist Madeleine Shaw

Amatey: You have performed Bach’s St Matthew Passion with Jesus College Choir once before. What was the memory of that experience?

Madeleine: My most vivid memory is of the choir. Their commitment to every aspect of performing the work was so moving. It was the first time I had sung the St Matthew Passion and I was blown away to be part of the ensemble of musicians Mark had drawn together. Also the intimacy of the College Chapel lent itself so beautifully to the musical forces telling the text.

Amatey: You have known the conductor Mark Williams for some time. When have you worked with him before?

Madeleine: We have been friends for many years and he played at my wedding 5 years ago. I’ve sung at so many other weddings of mutual friends with Mark at the console and have many wonderful memories of him improvising on very eclectic combinations of melodies in a bid to entertain the congregations whilst waiting for the bride.

Amatey: As well as singing in Jesus College Chapel there will be a performance at Bury St Edmunds. Do you have personal connections with Bury St Edmunds?

Madeleine: My father was a Canon in the Cathedral for 15 years.  I grew up in the Close, was exposed to all the music making, made life-long singing friends and the rest is history. 

Harry Shapiro, Head Chorister

Head Chorister Harry Shapiro with his fellow choristers

Amatey: When did you last perform the St Matthew Passion?

Harry: About 4 years ago we sang the St Matthew Passion at King’s College with King’s College Choir. At the time I was quite a young chorister so I wasn’t too sure about all the notes but now that we’re doing it again it’s easier because of that experience.

Amatey: The mixed choirs also sang with Britten Sinfonia recently. What were your memories of that performance?

Harry: We performed Handel’s Messiah with them just before Christmas and it was a really good performance. It is an excellent orchestra and there was something exciting about us all singing and performing together.

Amatey: What is the most challenging thing about singing a piece like the St Matthew Passion?

Harry: Throughout the piece you always have to be alert and ready to come in at the right moments.  The notes and the rhythms are not always that difficult but singing in German can be a challenge, especially when you have to use sounds which you wouldn’t normally make in English!

Amatey: Will you enjoy the performance?

Harry: Yes, I will enjoy the performance. I really like performing and I like the piece, especially the last chorus.


Ben Morris, Senior Organ Scholar

Senior Organ Scholar Ben Morris

Amatey: The St Matthew Passion is regarded as one of Bach’s greatest works, if not one of the greatest pieces ever written. Why do you think that is the case? 

Ben: The St Matthew Passion has such a range of emotional intensity. It is obviously a very long work based on a familiar story but it manages to sustain the emotion throughout so it draws you into the piece either as a performer, listener or spectator; it gives you a real involvement in the emotional drama of the piece.

Amatey: Which moment for you in the piece encapsulates his genius as a composer?

I don’t think I can choose just one so I hope you’ll let me choose one from each part. In the first part, near the end, when Jesus has just been arrested there is a very still and calm duet between the soprano and alto punctuated by the chorus calling for Jesus not to be bound. This then leads suddenly into the “Thunder and Lightning” moment which is an extraordinary moment of extreme intensity and tension which seems to come out of nowhere. In the second part, just after Jesus has died, bearing in mind that there would be many ways to set that part of the story, Bach chooses to use the “Passion Chorale” melody which has recurred throughout the piece, but it doesn’t seem repetitive because of the way Bach reworks it each time.  That moment is reworked to bring out the complete anguish of the situation. The way Bach is able to manipulate the one tune throughout the whole piece and bring it to a climax at that one moment is very moving and effective.

Amatey: You played with Britten Sinfonia for Jesus College Choir’s performance of Handel’s Messiah last year. What is it like playing with Britten Sinfonia?

Ben: For someone of my age and experience, it is both very daunting and very exciting; daunting, because they are such a high quality group and work very well within themselves. So to have to come in quite at the last and fit in with that seems quite scary. At the same time the musicality and ability of all those players affects you and draws you in which is also very exciting to be a part of.

Amatey: What should the audience expect from the performance?

Ben: I don’t think the St Matthew Passion is a piece you look forward to in the same way you look forward to other pieces. Obviously it is full of extraordinarily beautiful and moving music but at the same time its can be a difficult experience because of the emotional intensity and the sheer length. What you get from it is to be touched by the whole experience and brought into it as well as being able to experience the amazing music.

Rehearsing with the Britten Sinfonia


Bury: http://bit.ly/1gJIBnT | Cambridge: http://bit.ly/OdjmAp