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New Forest Choirs

In under six years, Christchurch's choirs have created a formidable reputation, as David Callaghan discovers

According to the old musicians’ joke, the best way to get to Carnegie Hall is… to practise! That is exactly what the singers of the Christchurch-based New Forest Choirs will be doing as their musical director pulls out all the stops to raise the funds for them to take up a once-in-a-lifetime offer – a 28-minute showcase at the world-famous New York concert hall.

The New Forest Chamber Choir in full voice

New Forest Children’s Choir, a former BBC Children’s Choir of the Year, and its more recent sister group, the New Forest Chamber Choir, formed just 18 months ago, have been offered a place in the Carnegie Hall Distinctive Debuts season. The only thing standing in their way is a lack of funds, and musical director Alison Russell-Hayward has already been forced to defer the offer to April 2015.
‘This would be an amazing experience for the choirs because it’s not just Carnegie Hall – we’d also have our own concert at St Patrick’s Cathedral and perform for the British Consulate,’ she explains. ‘There’s television interest in us as well, but the financial commitment is a major stumbling block. We’re not a rich person’s choir and times are tight so we will have to wait and see. But I’m not going to give up easily.’

Alison Russell-Hayward with a choir member before a recent concert

With a proliferation of reality television choirs troubling the pop charts and countless copycat groups springing up in village halls and community centres, the broadening interest in collective singing is a double-edged sword, according to Alison. On the one hand, there is undoubtedly a bigger audience, but on the other the ‘anyone can do it’ message underplays the level of skill and hard work required in the pursuit of excellence. ‘People sing for all kinds of different reasons and for many just having a go is enough, but it’s not for me. I’m unable to do anything unless I can strive for the absolute best,’ she tells me between sips of Earl Grey – black, of course, as it’s better for the throat.
She’s aware it may sound otherwise, but the observation is not intentionally judgemental and it’s backed by her choirs’ achievements. Within months of starting in 2009, the children’s group was awarded the Hinton Pitt Singing Trophy at Christchurch and District Arts Council’s Performing Arts Festival, winning the singing section outright. A month later it won its class at Bournemouth Music Competitions Festival.
In 2010 the choir won the BBC Children’s Choir of the Year at the Royal Festival Hall and a year later came second in the Junior Children’s Choir section at the Llangollen International Eisteddfod. In 2012 it was placed joint Choir of the Day in the open category at the Choir of the Year heat in Basingstoke; while the Chamber Choir won its class at Bournemouth Music Festival in its first competitive outing. Along the way, Alison has seen her choirs featured several times on television, including a show with the ubiquitous Gareth Malone for CBBC’s The Big Performance and appearances on ITV’s This Morning and BBC’s Children In Need.
But all are trumped by securing the patronage of John Rutter CBE. One of only two composers commissioned to write new works for the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton in 2011, his piece – ‘This Is the Day Which the Lord Hath Made’ – is now in the New Forest Choirs’ repertoire. ‘He gave us permission to use it after hearing some of the recordings for the BBC Children’s Choir of the Year and spending a day singing with him as part of the Big Sing event at Lighthouse. He’s a wonderful man and so supportive. When he agreed to become patron of the children’s choir I was ecstatic, but then he also agreed to be patron of the chamber choir. Along with the birth of my daughter and getting into the Royal Ballet School, they are the best days of my life.’

All the choirs' singers start as soloists before being brought together as a collective choir

A graduate and former Principal of the Royal Ballet School, Alison left when she had her daughter, Hettie, who’s now fifteen. She moved to Christchurch in search of a better quality of life when Hettie was seven and expanded her work as a singing teacher into a fully-fledged choir about four years ago. ‘The choirs were not part of the plan at all. I’ve been very blessed to have enjoyed two very successful careers, first as a dancer with my own company – we used to re-stage historic productions – then after I stopped dancing professionally at 29 I was appointed Principal of the Royal Ballet School where I had trained as a girl. That was an incredible job, very high pressure and publicly accountable, but to be in that world was the most amazing thing.
‘I left the job when Hettie was born at 24 weeks. She was in hospital for six months and needed a great deal of care when she came out. Once her health had stabilised I was producing shows and even when we came to Christchurch I continued working in London, but really the point is to embrace everything that’s wonderful about being here – the sea, the clean air, the Forest – so the choir has gradually become my job, although I don’t earn from it.’
Alison has recently started a training choir, working with singers from the age of three. She trains all her pupils as soloists then brings them together to blend as one sound. In that way she has been able to integrate children’s voices with those of adults in the chamber choir.
‘It’s quite unusual, but very effective,’ she tells me. ‘I don’t believe just anyone can sing, which is why I like to work with singers over time and bring them on. When they’re very young you can give them exercises to get the resonators in their heads working, then you can progress them. I also teach movement because singing for an audience is very visual, it’s a performance, but you have to have the right movements and not be over-choreographed.
I don’t like to repeat myself, I always want to be moving forwards.’ ◗

❱ For details of forthcoming concerts, or to help
the choir raise money for their April 2015
Carnegie Hall appearance, please visit newforestchildrenschoir.co.uk

credits

Pic 1 Siân Court: www.skcphotography.co.uk

Pic 2 Siân Court: www.skcphotohgraphy.co.uk

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