Following the huge success of Ben Parry’s visit last autumn, last night Monkton Combe Choral Society (MCCS) were put through their paces by another choral legend, Ralph Allwood. Until last summer, Ralph was Precentor and Director of Music at Eton College, and his reputation for inspirational work with choirs, the world over, is indeed enviable. We were not disappointed!
From my perspective, I was delighted to hear Ralph underlining so many of the points which I myself go on and on about! However, at the same time he offered just as many little touches of detail which I could see made an instant difference – either things I had missed, or else things I had tried but hadn’t quite hit the mark. One example: in the very opening chorus of The Creation there is one chord which the choir nearly always sings flat. I was encouraged to hear Ralph telling the choir that in nearly every performance of The Creation that chord is flat! Two solutions – humming that three note phrase (it just seemed to raise the level of critical listening) – and aiming to sing it slightly sharp, out of tune in fact. And it worked! Another example was just the smallest detail of ensuring that those little words are formed well; like ‘the’, with the tongue behind the top teeth so that it sounds clearly. So apparently insignificant, but the difference was instant and brilliant. There is so much to be learned simply by watching someone else at work, and for me last night this was a genuine pleasure.
One choir member said to me afterwards “Was Ralph on a mission to leap around even more than you do at rehearsals?! Goodness, what energy you conductors have!!” Ralph was certainly on form (complete with red braces!) and he was not afraid to challenge, to demand even. The choir was surprised by some of the tempi which he chose, but responded wonderfully to those demands and with their trademark enthusiasm. Aside from the singing, Ralph also took the time to highlight some of the extraordinary moments in the piece as a whole; Haydn’s initial inspiration for the piece, having looked through Hershcel’s telescope; the numerous short and yet undeveloped ideas in the orchestral introduction; “my very favourite moment, it’s somewhere on page 107!”
It was a great privilege for us all to benefit from Ralph’s wisdom and experience over the course of two swift hours. Ralph’s verdict: “They’re very good.” Knowing Ralph well, that is to be taken as a huge compliment. I hope that the choir now feels even more prepared for their performance on 17 June – should be a good one!