It’s 1992, the National Youth Choir of Great Britain are about five weeks into an eight week world tour and we’ve just arrived in Brisbane, on Australia’s east coast.
For most of the tour—don’t ask what happened in Sydney—we were relying on home-stay accommodation with local choirs and churches, mostly. The drill was the same whenever we rolled into a new city: drop off at a church or school, meet our hosts and then head back to theirs to settle in.
My best mate Danny and I were billeted together for the entire tour, so off we headed to our new host’s house in the outskirts of Brisbane.
NYCGB, my second favourite choir* in all the world, has just released Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis, conducted by Ben Parry.
As the email I received from NYCGB HQ this morning says,
Yes, Spem in Alium is that famous choral piece in forty parts, a Tudor titanic that still dwarfs most other English choral music half a millennium after its composition. But the truly remarkable thing about Thomas Tallis’s huge motet is that it manages to be intimate and personal, the full texture growing from and yielding to smaller-scale cameos. All the little details and the gradual shifts – and the climactic power – shine out from this new recording by the National Youth Choir, captured in the ideal acoustic of Tonbridge School Chapel.
If you are into early music, check it out, a blissful piece of choral music sung by a first class choir with that crystal clear NYCGB sound.
Because this week has been hectic, I’ve not had much time to think about my first Throwback Thursday feature. So here’s something from a wee writing project I’ve been working on, documenting my recollections of my time in the National Youth Choir of Great Britain.
This is from my first NYCGB course at St Elphin’s School, Darley Dale in Derbyshire in December 1988.
It’s a long story how, and I won’t go into it here as it mostly involves tales of vomiting while being interviewed by the BBC, three brain haemorrhages, bright lights and ambulance sirens, and not dying, but my dad was a member of a men’s Christian group that had the unlikely name of the Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship International. Or FGBMFI for short. Which even then is quite long. And even now I still will it to be the initials of some kind of furniture outlet for the Russian secret service; although technically that would be KGBMFI, not that they are called KGB now—it’s FSB. But I digress.
My dad phoned up a bloke in the Matlock chapter of FGBMFI and explained that his naive, shy and unassuming 17-year-old son would soon be attending his first National Youth Choir of Great Britain course in nearby Darley Dale and if it wasn’t too much of an inconvenience would he be willing to pick me up from Matlock station and safely deposit me at the door of St Elphin’s school?
“I know what he’s like,” he said. “Knowing him he’ll end up chatting to some pretty girl about the post-industrial fate of Greater London market towns. He doesn’t understand how taxis work. He’s scared of buses and I promise that he’ll not break your passenger-side window.”
I broke his passenger-side window.
I was trying to be helpful. I was trying to be neat. I had had no right to wind the window down in the first place. But I was too warm. I was nervous. I was flustered. I’d thrown my luggage into the back of his battered-looking, dark blue Nissan Cherry and quickly clambered into the front.
It was a damp and cold December afternoon. It was already dark. I was warm and the windscreen started to mist up.
“This is very kind of you,” I said as I reached for the handle and wound the window down an inch or two.
“You’re welcome. Don’t…!” he started. But I interrupted him.
“Is it far… to St Elphin’s?” I asked, trying to appear keen and friendly; trying to hide my nervousness.
It wasn’t far. In fact, if we’d bothered to do any research whatsoever then we would have discovered that the distance from Matlock station to St Elphin’s school was exactly 1.6 miles (2,574 metres). That’s about a 20 minutes’ walk, even with a suitcase.
Or a 3 minutes’ drive.
Three minutes later we pulled up outside the school entrance.
I think by that point I was now as surprised as he was at why my dad had felt that I needed a lift to the school from the railway station. It had seemed no time at all since I’d asked him if it was far to St Elphin’s, and actually arriving at St Elphin’s by the end of my question had kind of answered the question for me. I felt quite embarrassed. What must he think of me: this pathetic kid from Scotland who needed a free taxi ride effectively across the road?
I started to wind the passenger’s window back up.
“Don’t…” he started again.
But it was too late. A couple of tugs on the handle and I watched with a certain degree of horror as the window jumped off its runners and disappeared into the car door.
And that was the moment that I asked my question. The same question that I had asked a few years earlier when I sat on the bed of my brother’s friend Jonny and felt the bed legs snap beneath me; the same question that I was to ask again in 1992 in a garage in Brisbane, Australia, when (again) I sat on a bed and (again) felt the bed legs give way beneath me. My question: ‘is it supposed to do that?’
And the universal answer in such circumstances: … No!
I carried my suitcase up a couple of steps to the front door, turned and gave a grateful but apologetic wave to the Christian ‘taxi driver’ whose car I’d just vandalised and I stepped into the wonderfully grand entrance hall of St Elphin’s School, with its spectacular sweeping staircase and at the bottom of it an elaborate mahogany fireplace. The entrance hall was thronging with young people.
If you ever happen to stumble upon this blog post, to the guy whose car I unwittingly broke: I’m really sorry. You did, however, deliver me to door of my first NYCGB course where I met some of the best, loveliest friends I have ever known, so also a heartfelt thank you.
This past weekend I’ve been in London with some old friends (some going back nearly 28 years!) to sing with the NYCGB alumni choir at the Royal Albert Hall.
This was the first official outing of the alumni choir — obviously made up of former members of the various National Youth Choirs of Great Britain. Around 110 people turned up, including one alumnus and his son who is now also an alumnus!
We were made to feel so welcome and were included immediately as part of the family. It felt like coming home!
In all there were around 800 people singing, from boys’ and girls’ choirs, Cambiata Voices (boys whose voices are changing), training choir, main choir, chamber choir, fellowship octet and, of course, us.
Alone, we sang Five Negro Spirituals from ‘A Child of Our Time’ by Michael Tippett (1905–1998) with solos provided by fellow alumnae Kitty Whately (mezzo-soprano), Rachael Lloyd (mezzo-soprano), Paul Hopwood (tenor) and Roland Wood (baritone).
Having had about half a proper rehearsal of this five part piece I think we did not too bad, to be honest.
With the rest of the choir we sang two songs. The first was If I Ruled the World by Bricusse / Ornadel / Cullum, arranged Sam Coates. It’s the Sir Harry Secombe song arranged for choirs in a jazz style. Nice! What was really nice is that Sir Harry’s grandson was singing as he is also in NYCGB.
The final song of the evening was the gorgeous Lay a Garland by Robert Lucas de Pearsall (1795–1856).
And that was that. I bowed and left the stage, grinning from ear to ear. There is nothing in this world like singing with NYCGB. The sound is unique. The discipline is… well, okay, let’s not talk about our discipline. And the banter is heart-warming and side-splitting.
As many know, this year hasn’t been easy for me, but as I sat on the back row during the first half (and enjoyed my little snooze!) I realised that I was surrounded by friends whom I love and trust, and amongst whom I feel loved and supported. I phoned my mum this evening and thanked her for encouraging me to audition and supporting me through my time in NYC even though my dad had lost his job and money was really tight.
So, I want to say a massive thank you to NYCGB for including us as part of the family once again. And an equally enormous thank you to all the alumni who turned up and sang—seemingly they were turning alumni away on Thursday as we’d simply run out of space to seat everyone!