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main music departments events and news

Dido & Aeneas

I’ve heard that one of my predecessors, Harold Jones, used to put on operas during his time as Director of Music at Monkton. Was I dreaming or did I hear Boris Godunov mentioned? Surely not?!

Either way, it’s a long time since Monkton produced a opera, and so we are very excited to be staging Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas this February. It’s going to be in an unusual venue too – St Michael’s Church in Monkton Combe, which will add further dramatic potential to our production.

Tickets are now available via our online booking form here.




House Music Festival, 2014

My first five years as Director of Music at Monkton have flown by. In 2009 I inherited a music department which was, in physical terms, little more than a shed; in fact, when it was built in 1959, the ground floor was the bikeshed! Being involved in every detail of the planning and building of the new Music Centre has been the most extraordinary experience, and indeed a huge privilege. However, exciting as this has been, the real challenge was always going to be to turn an educational vision – “enabling every pupil to find their own voice” – into a reality. Reflecting on this year’s House Music Festival, just three weeks into term, it is clear to see that things are really beginning to move in the right direction now. And with the addition of two new music staff, Peter Wilson-Lambert (Assistant Director of Music) and Richard Mainwaring (Recording Studio Manager) we now have plenty more hands to carry that forward. There are exciting times ahead.

The Choir who can’t sing has, in retrospect, played a much bigger part in all of this then I ever imagined it would. Those boys who, in year 10, sang in the choir at the black tie dinner to celebrate the opening of the new Music Centre, are now in year 13. In House Music two years ago, Grove House took this model and surprised everyone by giving one of the stand-out performances of the evening with When you say nothing at all. The following year two of the other boys’ houses followed suit (although the Nutfield girls won the Vocal Ensemble), and this year, all four boys houses presented a house choir with a minimum of three parts. Most of them were boys who rarely, if ever, set foot in the music department, but all of them were totally committed to standing on stage and singing in front of the whole school. Many are ‘graduates’ of the Choir who can’t sing! Three years ago, even the weakest performance from last Saturday night would have won them the Vocal Ensemble trophy. Except that the bar is now higher – much higher. Farm’s rendition of Hey Yah by Outkast on Saturday night was simply amazing.

The House Songs were not only wonderfully entertaining but really well sung too! It’s a funny time of year, the run up to House Music. Wandering around the school campus at 5.15 on a Monday afternoon, you can hear riotous whole house singing coming from the Dining Hall, the Bewick Lecture Theatre, the Chapel and Assembly Hall, with The Beach Boys merging seemlessly into Chaka Khan or ELO! Five years ago, the girls took their singing very seriously, as they still do, but there were great swathes of boys in each house who really weren’t prepared to play ball. This Saturday night I watched the most unlikely boys giving it their all.

farm ELO

Saturday’s winners, Farm House, singing ELO’s Mr Blue Sky

What I love most about Monkton is seeing young people learning to be themselves, learning to be content with who they are, and being confident to express that. And if you listen to the cheer from the capacity audience at the end of the Farm boys’ performance of Hey Yah (and yes, this is taken straight from the live performance on Saturday night) I think you’ll agree that this says it all.

Chamber Choir CD

I am delighted to announce that our Chamber Choir CD is now on sale. Recorded live in the Bowerman Hall on 8th May.

As one parent wrote to me after the concert:
Many, many thanks for such a wonderful concert this evening. I’ve been to a fair few concerts over the years and this one ranks as one of the very best. The quality was superb and the range of pieces was great too. I could have listened for a lot longer.
The CDs are just £3 although of course you can give more as all profits will go to our school charity, The Genesis Trust; please email me to reserve a copy Huge thanks to Ben Thompson on doing a splendid job of recording and producing it!

cd cover

Piano Festival 2014

As I have continued to wrestle with the whole issue of music practice, perhaps the most common question which has come around again and again is this: what motivates children to practise? There are a few possible answers, but one is of course to have a target to aim for.

For some, an exam is the obvious target, and although these are important, I often feel that they can in some way be a bit of a let down. As I write, I have just finished a second day of music exams in which I have accompanied no fewer than twenty students (including nine Grade 8s). Although they have been really enjoyable, I can’t help feeling that all this preparation just to sing or play to one person, who sits looking necessarily critical and scribbles for most of the time, is a bit of an anti-climax, even when the exam goes really well.

By contrast, I was hugely inspired by a book which I read during half term, Play it again by Alan Rusbridger. Although this is principally an account of how Rusbridger went about learning to play Chopin’s Ballade No.1 in the sameplayitagain year The Guardian took down The News of the World, Rusbridger returns again and again to the theme of amateur vs professional music making. In short, if we play the piano, it can be hugely enjoyable to hear other people play, and in many respects it doesn’t matter whether they are better or worse than us; we share the common experience of knowing what it feels like to play, of what is difficult, of what it is like to be crippled by nerves when we perform for others, of how much work goes into preparing a performance. Or even just hearing a piece which we really like and thinking ‘I wonder if I could play that?’

Our Piano Festival began on Saturday afternoon with a visit by Peter Donohoe, who quite by chance happened to be playing at the Holburne Museum in Bath on that same evening – the penultimate recital in a series in which he is playing the complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas (the final one is on 5 April, see you there!) This was no formal recital, and indeed over the course of an hour and a half Peter gave us some extraordinary insights into subjects as diverse as Soviet Russia in the 1980s, perfectionism, memorising music, the perils of Wikipedia, and the inability of a modern-era London cabbie to get from the Southbank to Paddington Station without a satnav! He hadn’t even decided what he was going to play to us before he sat down at the piano, and after playing Beethoven’s op.101 he asked for requests; Chopin’s Ballade no.4 followed, and then the first three pieces in Brahms op.118, and then to finish, Scriabin’s Sonata no.5 (Peter’s own ‘request.’) And in much the same way as when Andrei Gavrilov visited last term, it was just an amazing privilege for us to enjoy hearing a world class pianist in such intimate surroundings. Peter’s relaxed what would you like to hear? approach was just about as far removed from a professional recital as you could imagine, but so much more engaging and personal. Just wonderful!

And so to Sunday’s Piano Festival, a full 4 hours of piano playing. Classes were designed to ensure that everyone had a chance to play – hence the Band Class for those who prefer to pick out chords (complete with drums, bass and vocals), a Duet Class for those who were reluctant to play by themselves, the Over 24s Class (!), and even the b.1809-10 Class – music by Mendelssohn and Chopin! Most of the classes included members of staff playing alongside pupils – some exceptionally proficient, others less confident. My hope was for our young pianists to realise that playing the piano is something which lots of other people do too – their History teacher plays Khachaturian no less, and our new Deputy Head is partial to a bit of Mendelssohn! Unlike competitive music festivals, most of our afternoon was simply about playing to each other, and I was absolutely delighted by the number of pianists who put themselves forward – nearly forty in total. All had clearly prepared for their performances, and their combined effort in aiming for their individual targets has been to participate in an afternoon which has given so much encouragement to everyone present. Yes, playing in public can be scary, but managed carefully it can inspire us to persevere too.

Huge thanks must go to our adjudicator for the afternoon, Melanie Spanswick, who had some excellent advice for everyone who played, and who judged the only competitive part of the day, the final Piano Prize Class. Our six ‘finalists’ were Livvy Belchambers, Fiona Boddington, Cora von Siemens, Paul Karamura, Dan Watt and Freya Elsy, with Fiona’s performance of March from Tchaikovsky’s Seasons chosen as the winning performance. The prize for the best newcomer went to Gabriella Watt from our own Monkton Prep School who played the slow movement from Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata.

monkton piano

Piano Masterclass with Andrei Gavrilov

One of the great benefits of having such a fine piano in an equally wonderful hall is that we are able to attract some amazing musicians to come and share their gifts with us. On Monday we had the huge privilege of welcoming one of the truly great pianists in the world, Andrei Gavrilov to Monkton to give a masterclass.

Andrei has had an extraordinary career and listening to him talk about music, never mind playing the piano, was utterly captivating. As well as the masterclasses he also recorded a video interview with a friend of mine, Melanie Spanswick, who has over the past year or so interviewed some 25 world class pianists. Andrei’s interview will shortly be posted here, and is well worth watching! Melanie has also posted a blog following Andrei’s visit on Monday.

For my part, rather than paraphrase what Melanie has already written, a few personal reflections on Monday evening.

fi and andrei rwu

Fiona’s lesson with Andrei, on Chopin’s Nocturne no.20 in c# minor, was actually deeply moving. That might seem like a strange thing to say about a lesson, but over the course of half an hour he opened a door into Chopin’s world which left us feeling almost like we were actually there; the prayer-like sobriety of the opening chords; the middle section being like a memory or a dream, unreal. And the combination of his vivid description and his own mesmerising playing created such a strong image that Fiona’s playing was transformed. It is all too easy for some who can (and Andrei can, all too easily!) to say ‘it goes like this!’ I have seen many masterclasses and lessons where, despite numerous demonstrations, the student still really doesn’t quite know what the teacher is wanting. Not here – Andrei’s musical imagery was so clear that we were all in no doubt at all.

The other moving part of the evening was Andrei’s performance of Prokofiev’s fiendish Suggestion diabolique op.4. There were only about 8 or 9 of us in the audience at the end of the session, and although I have been to many piano recitals in the past, none have really compared to this. He wasn’t obliged to play, but he did play, for just a handful of us – amongst friends if you like – because he wanted to. And what a performance. I was lost for words, and I think I probably embarrassed myself with the look of shock on my face when he finished! Andrei, on the other hand, just jumped up from the piano stool with a big grin, said it was time to go, gave us each a big hug, and made his exit. I have a new hero!

House Music 2013

And so, perhaps reflecting the Circle of Life, House Music is over for another year. As predicted, it was a vintage year. And also, as predicted, not everyone agreed with the results!

In sport it is generally very straightforward to decide who the winner is. In football it is the team who scores the most goals, and in the long jump it is the person who jumps the furthest; although sometimes the underdog pulls something extra out of the bag, or just gets lucky, and the best side does not win. Even still, the winner is not disputed because their victory was quantifiable.

In musical performance, however, it’s not so easy. On Saturday we were treated to no less than 25 different performances, and the variety was extraordinary. The instrumental items were That’s the way I like it, The Pink Panther, a James Bond medley, Titanium, Twist and Shout and Yammin’ out.  The latter was ‘scored’ for violin, piano and beat-boxer, and I sympathised with our adjudicator as he scratched his head and wondered how to compare this on a like for like, quantifiable basis with That’s the way I like it; personally I quite enjoyed the Afro wigs and the shameless posing! Then again, the Bond medley was extremely well rehearsed, and Twist and Shout looked and sounded the part too. Criteria: Which would I buy a recording of? Which would I want to see again, and again… Which was the most accurate? Is it really that surprising that we don’t all arrive at the same winner?

The standard of vocal ensembles this year was really high. Eight days a week (Farm) was very assured and the tight choreography really enhanced their performance, whereas Eddystone’s delightfully understated rendition of Homeward Bound was, for me, a highlight of the evening. Clarendon gave us some lovely harmonies in Say a little prayer, whilst Nutfield’s choice of repertoire, a medley of Disney songs, ensured that there was plenty to tug at the heart-strings. Grove’s I can be your hero proved that their formula from last year still works, and I think it’s fair to say that what School’s Misty Mountain/Hit me baby remix lacked in refinement, it more than made up for it in entertainment value! Which one would I most like to see again? All of them! But all for different reasons, and each of them valid as far as I’m concerned.

I hope that the one thing which everyone would agree on is that it really was an amazing evening of entertainment, Monkton at it’s best.


Ken Burton and the London Adventist Chorale

Thursday 4th April, 7.30pm in the Assembly Hall at Monkton SENIOR School.

The London Adventist Chorale is a group of young musicians and vocalists dedicated to art of Spirituals, Choral, Classical and Contemporary sacred music. The choir was formed in 1981, as a church-based choir with choral excellence, presenting its unique tradition to a broader audience.

Ken Burton

Under the helm of Ken Burton, Principal Conductor, the choir was awarded the prestigious title Sainsbury’s Choir of the Year 1994 – 1995.

In 2012 they were invited to take part in Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s Jubilee Concert. The internationally-known choir sang two gospel songs – one especially composed for the event – before an audience of more than 12,000 invited guests at Buckingham Palace, London, and 40,000 more that gathered outside, and syndicated to more than 50 countries worldwide. Under the direction of Principal Conductor Ken Burton their performances have seen them performing internationally.

Tickets are £10.00 (£7.50 for concessions). Group Booking: Purchase five tickets and get one free. To make a booking contact or 07738 084 719.

See you there!!