In the heart of rural Gloucestershire, a group of Oxford alumni is meeting weekly to sing some of the most beautiful pieces in the chamber choir canon. They also go to the pub afterwards to catch up, share news and, of course, discuss music. Recent concerts have sold out and they are attracting alumni from all over the county. It is an alumni-driven initiative and a brilliant success story.
I am meeting Sam Tolley (St Hugh’s, 1987) from OUS Gloucestershire and the Standish Consort’s choir master (and Director of Music at Pembroke College) Mark Wilson. There had been rumblings about starting a chamber choir but nothing concrete until 2021 when Mark moved to Stroud. A lay clerk at Worcester Cathedral, he was looking for extra teaching work. A chance email to Sam from a friend who knew she wanted some singing lessons lead to the introduction.
‘We realised he was living 100 yards away, and we immediately invited him round for dinner,’ says Sam. It was one of those providential moments; 18 months on, OUS Gloucestershire has its consort and now, thanks to the connection, Pembroke its new music director.
Every member of the alumni group committee bar one is in the consort with the non-singer blessing the initiative for its positive impact. Ages range from mid-20s to retirement (one couple regularly brings their new-born infant to rehearsals). The diligent promotion of recent concerts with flyers and posters, Whats App and more, has resulted in new introductions. The consort has borrowed some singers from the other place and are open to applications from singers in the local community.
The repertoire is advanced. A come and sing Vivaldi Gloria gave latent singers confidence to step up. Word has spread and alumni - some of whom have not sung since school, let alone college - are dusting off their music sheets. A soloist for the Monteverdi Vespers (sung by Standish in December) describes it as that ‘sweet spot’ – an opportunity to learn again and get better.
Are there sensitivities if an alumnus thinks that they can sing, and cannot? Mark describes the audition process as ‘sufficiently rigorous’ to weed out singers for whom the music is too challenging, but both he and Sam insist that the choir is ‘supportive, inclusive and non-judgmental.’
It is in the DNA of Oxford students to embrace learning. ‘We enjoy the challenge,’ says Sam. ‘We are also super impatient, and we just wanted to get going.’ Mark acknowledges the dedication: ‘This is an amateur choir singing to a semi-professional standard because they want to do it; they are pushing themselves to achieve results.’
Mark acknowledges that the alumni choir has opened doors. Mid-pandemic he nearly gave up on music and considered a complete volte face - becoming a train driver (he is a volunteer on a local steam engine line) but involvement with the alumni choir opened doors. Pembroke’s Christmas concert attracted over 3000 views on Twitter alone. Working with the alumni choir has built his confidence - ‘They really helped me,’ he says. ‘I now feel I can talk to anyone.’ An Oxford alumni choral society can be surprising. Mark laughs recalling a recent rehearsal when he was interrupted by an English Literature alumnus offering some ‘Latin context’.
And the future? They are already talking about a Venetian tour and Mark would like to take on something ambitious such as Thomas Tallis’s, Spem in Alium (a 40-part piece that would involve other choirs). The ‘dream’ is for alumni groups across the country to set up their own consorts. An alumni choir festival could embrace even bigger works such as the Verdi Requiem