Reviews and Press

February 2015 OXFORD TIMES

‘An extraordinary coming together’ at Town Hall

Drawing blood: The Oxford Orpheus Choir at Oxford Town Hall, where they play on Saturday. Giles Woodforde talks to the man who leads a choir from rehearsal to showtime in a day

‘Without the luxury of protracted rehearsal time, I have to think quickly on my feet — literally — and avert any possible disasters I see looming!” says Oxford Orpheus conductor Robert Dean. “Fortunately, my work as an opera conductor gives me an advantage here, as there is no predicting what can sometimes happen on stage to divert musical concentration in the singers.”

Robert is describing Oxford Orpheus’s annual Come and Sing concerts, which have been raising money for local charities for the past nine years. Last year more than £6,000 went to the Oxford MND Care and Research Centre at the John Radcliffe Hospital, and this same cause is being supported this year. With only one preliminary workshop held in advance, Orpheus rehearses and performs a large-scale choral concert all in a single day — a process that would normally take weeks, if not months.

“You do feel slightly terrified when you’ve got a performance in only a few hours’ time,” admits choir member Peter Shaw. “Robert Dean’s skill is in showing you that you can do it — or rather that we can all do it together. He raises our expectations, and gives us the confidence to tackle these works.

“I’ve been in choirs all my life, and have sung in a lot of shows for Oxford Operatic Society. The Come and Sings have presented some great opportunities to tackle serious, artistic works that I sometimes hadn’t done before.”

Peter has sung in all nine Come and Sings, as has alto Jo King. They began with Handel’s Messiah in 2006.

“I sang when I was at school, and then not for decades,” says Jo. “ I started with a ‘non-singers’ choir made up of people who thought they couldn’t sing! So the Come and Sing, being a one-day event, was actually a big step for me. But I did know quite a lot of the Messiah from way back at school — it was a bit like taking up bike riding again after a long gap.”

This year it is Beethoven’s Mass in C and Haydn’s Mass in Time of War. How, I ask conductor Robert Dean, does he choose the works?

“I must personally respond to the music. If I am enthusiastic about it, I can more readily communicate that enthusiasm through words and gesture: beseeching, pleading, drawing blood — if necessary! — and a commitment to the task in hand.”

“At the end of a very long day, I want the singers to have enjoyed themselves, but also to be enriched by their participation in an extraordinary coming together of like minds and voices, singing choral masterpieces for a common cause.”

This truly is an “extraordinary coming together”: singers now come from all over Britain. Your neighbour may well be a complete stranger — so, as singer Jo King puts it cheerfully, “You are jolted out of any comfort zone you might have from rehearsing standing next to your familiar friends.”

Oxford Orpheus
Oxford Town Hall
Saturday, February 21

Giles Woodforde talks to Leo Pitt about a concert with a difference Oxford Times February 2014

“It’s almost impossible to believe that we are celebrating our eighth Come and Sing event with this concert,” says Oxford Orpheus organiser Leo Pitt.

“These are always exciting occasions for us if only because of the element of the unknown. As well as raising money for charity, the all-important contribution of the choir is the raison d’être of the event. Yet it is also the most mysterious: the fact that once we announce the repertoire, singers miraculously sign up and pay to spend a joyous day of music-making on a specific work, is a minor miracle in itself.”

This year’s Come and Sing concert is on Saturday, February 22, and features Dvorak’s Stabat Mater. As always the choir will have put in an intensive day’s rehearsal with conductor Robert Dean before the performance itself that same evening. The choir and the Oxford Orpheus Orchestra will be joined by four soloists: Anna Jeruc-Kopec, Clare Presland, Andrew Goodwin, and Ashley Riches, all young professionals making their names as opera singers.

“It’s believed that Dvorak began writing the work as a reaction to the death of his daughter Josefa,” Leo Pitt explains. “In fact two of his other children would also die by the time the Stabat Mater was completed. It’s no wonder that the music speaks eloquently of the deepest sorrow and of grieving for the dead and dying. However, it is far from unremittingly gloomy music: there is much light and shade in the use of choral and solo forces in its 85- minute duration.”

The Come and Sing concerts have a very impressive record of raising funds, and the recipient this year is the Oxford MND Care and Research Centre. It’s one of the largest motor neurone disease clinics in Europe, and one of the very few centres anywhere in the world where research into the disease is combined with clinicians seeing patients. The centre situated at Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital, and is led by Prof Kevin Talbot, a former member of the Oxford Bach Choir.

“We are trying to understand the fundamental causes of the disease,” he explains. “That’s terribly important because people clearly come and see us hoping there’s a treatment that will slow their disease down or even stop it.

“So the question is: why is MND so difficult to cure? There are many reasons, but one is that we don’t understand enough about the basic mechanics of what’s going wrong. At the moment we have only a very rudimentary idea about why cells of the nervous system might be perfectly normal for decades, then apparently suddenly degenerate.”

So the Centre, Prof Talbot adds, is focused on understanding the very earliest changes in the nervous system. This includes work with stem cells, and, perhaps controversially, with mice. “We have to study the intact nervous system. A mouse and a human have some similarities in the way the nerves and the muscles connect. So they are a very valuable tool. It’s up to us as scientists to make the case that this work is necessary.” “The third strand we use is the patients themselves. They often come to Oxford from far and wide, because they very generously want to engage in the research, and help us.

“We will get absolutely nowhere unless that happens. The more we know, the more complex the problem becomes. There is no simple answer here.”

Verdi Requiem 2008

GILES WOODFORDE talks to Robert Dean about conducting Verdi’s Requiem for a charity concert with a scratch choir

For the third year in succession, conductor Robert Dean is taking on a considerable challenge. In the course of a single day, he will rehearse a large scratch choir, and put on a performance of a major choral work that same evening.

Robert is a major-league professional musician – following a successful career as an opera singer, he has conducted over 100 performances for Scottish Opera, tours frequently in the US and Canada, and is Artistic Director of the Philharmonia Chorus, preparing them for performances under the stellar international conductors of the day. He is also Professor of Voice at London’s Guildhall School.

What, I asked him when we met up, keeps bringing him back to Oxford for these concerts, where singers are not auditioned, but simply asked to “come and sing”?

“I love any opportunity of getting people together to sing. There’s no doubt that it’s almost a spiritual event. With these performances, there’s this tremendous sense of everybody pulling together to make it work. That is so exciting.

“When I’m conducting an opera, for example, I feel very much that I’m a medium between the orchestra pit and the stage – the singers on stage can’t see, and sometimes can barely hear, the orchestra. You are the one person the music is channelled through. The same thing happens in a concert.”

As was the case with Robert Dean’s two previous “come and sing” concerts – Handel’s Messiah and Haydn’s The Creation – all proceeds will go to The Art Room, a charity based at Oxford Community School in East Oxford.

From a review by NICOLA LISLE in THE OXFORD TIMES February 2007

…….And what a glorious performance it was. Everybody – performers and audience – seemed in particularly buoyant mood, and there was an almost tangible atmosphere of good-humoured enjoyment……the greatest praise, perhaps, most go to the choir; …. Who, after only one rehearsal, produced a sound that was bright, joyous and thoroughly infectious. Haydn penned some particularly wonderful choruses in The Creation, and the singers here were clearly relishing every moment. Underpinning it all was a confident and meticulous contribution from the Oxford Sinfonia, with conductor Robert Dean in masterful control….!

ROBERT DEAN, Conductor, quoted in Oxford Times January 2009

“…..I look forward to the unbounded enthusiasm which all singers and the Oxford Sinfonia bring to this day of music making…it can result in some electrifying performances”

Sir Alan Budd on singing in the Art Room Come and Sing Creation.

Robert Dean is a genius. At the actual performance the sheer joy of the singing (is an ) experience hard to match. At the end of th performance, one member of the audience was heard to ask “what was that excellent choir?”

Sir Alan Ryan in the forward to the programme for the Art Room Come and Sing Elijah

Robert Dean is an amazing conductor…The combination of humour, exhortation and challenge produces a real determination to do the music justice, and leaves the performers with the exhilaration that comes from getting something magical right. This evening will, I am sure, leave everyone happily breathless just as last year did.