Christmas in St Andrews – How We’ve Missed it!
If there were a perfect way to celebrate the emergence from the restrictions of the pandemic, it was surely a Christmas concert with the Mevagissey Primary School choir at St Andrew’s. And that’s exactly what we were finally able to do on Friday 2nd December, along with the lovely ladies from Mevagissey Ladies Choir.
What a wonderful evening it was, the highlight of which was a medley of Christmas songs, beginning with the Ukrainian Bell Carol, performed jointly by all three choirs.
These joint Christmas concerts have been a feature in Mevagissey since 2012, although this was our first for three years for obvious reasons. How everyone responded! The packed audience was treated to seasonal songs from each of the choirs, and invited to take part in a couple of communal carols, finishing with a rousing rendition of ‘While Shepherds Watched’ sung to the popular Lyngham tune.
The event was notable for two other special moments. The first was the presentation to Assistant Music Director Mike Thompson of a Choir black badge, awarded to those who’ve given outstanding service to the choir. Mike has been heroic as our stand-in conductor since Graham Willcocks stood down in April, running our practice sessions and leading us at more than a dozen concerts. As Chairman Nick Nicholls said: “Without Mike, the Choir may well have folded”.
Mike receives black badge from Chairman Nick Nicholls
We are delighted to confirm that Graham’s replacement has now been found and Jimmy Cannon will be joining us in the new year. More about him in our next newsletter.
The second memorable feature was the appearance on the risers for the first time of Martin Starkie, our new Second Tenor, who passed his voice the previous week to become a fully-fledged member of the Choir. More on him later.
… and so to St Augustine’s
A week after our St Andrew’s Christmas date, last Saturday, came our final public performance of the year, at St Augustine’s in St Austell. As it turned out, this was the evening FIFA had designated for England’s World Cup quarter final. Sadly, FIFA were unable to postpone at such a late stage, despite the risk to their viewing figures.
St Augustine’s was the scene of our only indoor concert in 2021, a very successful fund-raising event for St Petroc’s, Cornwall’s biggest supporter of the homeless that prompted Father Michael to comment: ‘We’re building a nice little triumvirate here – Mevagissey Male Choir, St Petroc’s and St Augustine’s.’
In contrast, this year’s concert was our 20th public performance of the year, showing how far we have come. As at St Andrews, we elected to forsake our uniforms for more seasonal garb, which seemed to be popular with both audiences.
Our programme saw only one diversion from the Christmas repertoire, although it could be said that ‘California Dreaming’ is at least wintery! Highlights of the evening were a solo by friend of the Choir from West London, Emma Cartwright, who gave us a delightfully sassy version of Eartha Kitt’s ‘Santa Baby’ followed by an enchanting ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ and father and son Paul and Alex Pearce, as immaculate as ever with their ‘Silent Night’ duet.
Sadly, what should have been our final concert of the year, a private performance for the residents of Penrice House in Porthpean, was cancelled due to the treacherous road conditions but, all in all, it was not a bad year in the end.
What a Second Half!
It is sobering at this point to reflect for a moment on the circumstances in which we entered the year. We were still in the grip of the pandemic and many of our members were still reluctant to sing indoors, and we were all still doing PCR tests before attending our Monday practices. And then we learned that our long-serving Musical Director, Graham Willcocks, had decided to stand down after 25 years, setting us the summer-long, but ultimately rewarding, task of finding a successor.
As it turned out, we needn’t have worried. Our Christmas concert at St Augustine’s was our 20th public performance of the year, no fewer than many pre-Covid years.
And what a magnificent summer we had! Four of our five our Summer Concerts went ahead as planned in front of huge crowds on the Mevagissey harbourside in (almost) glorious sunshine. For the other, the third, we were driven into St Andrews by the threat of a high tide, but it was nevertheless performed in front of a full house.
The quay concerts, our first for three years, followed visits to Caerhays, Yealmpton and Padstow, all sandwiched by appearances at St Andrews for Mevagissey Feast Week in late June and a joint concert with the talented Penzance Orpheus Ladies Choir in September.
More of these later, but the most poignant moment of the year for all of us came on Friday 30th September when choir members and their partners gathered at Mevagissey Social Club to honour Graham Willcocks.
Farewell to our Maestro
A members’ social evening at the club provided us with the opportunity to show Graham how much we all valued the part he had played in making us the Choir we are today and, as a token of our appreciation, Chairman Nick Nicholls presented him with a beautiful whisky decanter and glasses (plus a bottle to go with it, of course!), a commemorative shield and a card signed by all current members and many former singers.
The Members of Mevagissey Male Choir both past and present would like you to accept this Whisky Decanter Set as a token of their appreciation and thanks for your outstanding contribution to the Choir over the past 25 years. Your inspiration and talent as our Musical Director have been key to our Choir’s success in maintaining the high standards of choral singing established by its founders, and have enabled us to build an eclectic repertoire of music while retaining our unique “Mevagissey sound”. You have helped make us all very proud of our Choir and, with one voice, we wish both you and Denise a long and happy ‘retirement’.
Visibly moved, Graham treated us to a couple of brief anecdotes about his pre-Meva singing career and one or two memories of his early days with our Choir. Sadly, Graham’s lovely wife Denise was unable to pick up the gorgeous bouquet awaiting her as she had had a fall the day before and cracked her ribs. Our best wishes were sent home to her with Graham and flowers.
Earlier in the evening, a number of our members had entertained the near-100 strong attendance with a few songs, musical pieces and sketches that demonstrated hitherto unsuspected talents within the Choir and its supporters!
But … back to those quay concerts. It was the first time in three years that we had been able to make our weekly August appearances on the harbourside, a tradition that had begun in 1987. Four out of five this year were performed in front of huge crowds on the quayside in (almost) glorious sunshine.
For our first, on 3rd August, we were delighted to be joined by Mevagissey Ladies Choir, which had recently reformed under the leadership of Helen Hereward, wife of our own Bass, Les. And what a wonderful contribution they made! The ladies sang three pieces and the two choirs joined together in a rendition of ‘Edelweiss’.
Our second concert, on 8th August, was memorable for a different reason; the award of honorary Choir membership to Gerald Goode. Gerald is a long-time supporter of the Choir, normally recognisable with bucket in hand as, over many years, he has collected donations on the quay and elsewhere on our behalf. Gerald, who in his younger days toured the country as a top-ranking snooker referee, is a popular presence at our concerts and his efforts on our behalf are much appreciated by the Choir.
The combined threat of a high tide and a heavy shower drove us into St Andrews for our 15th August performance, where it was sweltering. The other (the third) was driven into St Andrews by the threat of a high tide, but nevertheless played in front of a packed audience.
Our repertoire was the same as for the first concert, with the exception that the unaccompanied ‘Calm is the Sea’ replaced ‘Every Time I Feel the Spirit’. The reason? Accompanist Matt Fox had damaged his finger and was understandably reluctant to reprise his wonderful solo in ‘Spirit’. Our performance that evening was also remarkable for having only three top tenors.
We were back on the jetty for the fourth and fifth, with the fourth notable for the launch of our latest and long-awaited CD, ‘We Rise Again’. Comprising 11 of the Choir’s most recent and popular songs, including their 11-minute ‘Back to the ‘60s’ medley.
Most of the tracks were laid down shortly before the pandemic but only in the past few weeks has it been possible to apply the finishing touches, enabling the album to be available for the 4th and 5th of the Choir’s Summer Quay Concerts in Mevagissey Harbour. Priced at £10 each (plus P&P for those outside the UK), it can be purchased by logging on to the ‘Buy Our CDs’ page on the Choir’s website – www.meva-choir.co.uk although it is possible to download a copy for just £5. Individual tracks can be downloaded for £1 each.
Pic Quay 5
To complete the picture, each concert was rounded off by a visit to the Fountain pub just off the harbour, for more informal singing, as per tradition.
Kings of the Castle
But we had been busy before we got to the quay. In mid-June, with a couple of outings at St John’s in St Austell and a wonderful evening at the Minack behind us, covered in the previous newsletter, we found ourselves at Caerhays Castle. It was here, in 2019, that we had helped the resident Williams family launch their inaugural Summer Fete, little knowing at the time that plans to make it an annual event would be temporarily scuppered by the pandemic.
An English Heritage Grade 1 listed building, Caerhays Castle sits in beautiful gardens overlooking Porthluney Cove between Gorran Haven and Portholland on the Roseland peninsula, and is famous for hosting the largest collection of magnolias in the UK. The fete, which made good use of all the grounds around the castle, had something for everyone, Flower Festival, Treasure Hunt, Dog Show, traditional games, and many stalls. And, of course, music, supplied by us, and others. All proceeds went to Cancer Research.
We were asked to perform in front of a good crowd in the courtyard, where we gave 40 minutes on what was a pleasant afternoon. Mike selected an upbeat mix from our repertoire, including new favourites like ‘You Are So Beautiful’, ‘Mr Blue Sky’ and ‘California Dreaming’, while bringing back a couple that we had not sung for a while, ‘American Trilogy’ and ‘No arms Can Ever Hold You’.
Like the Minack, of course, Caerhays is an outdoor venue, and we were still more comfortable performing in the open air. And clearly everyone else was enjoying their first summer of freedom in three years. The castle grounds, not to mention the approach roads, were choc-a-bloc!
Feast Week Returns After Two-Year Famine
However, our next performance would be indoors, our first totally unrestricted indoor event for 28 months. Fittingly, it took place on our home territory in St Andrew’s, where we once again played our traditional part in Mevagissey Feast Week. Until the pandemic, we hadn’t missed this event since 1975!
Mr Blue Sky is always popular!
Yet again, as throughout the rest of the summer and autumn, we were all immensely grateful to Mike Thompson, appointed by Graham as Assistant Musical Director, for taking on the responsibility of conducting us when we were fully aware that he would rather have been taking his place in our Baritone section.
We were joined for the concert by two guests, Isaac Salaman a Year 11 student at Penrice Academy, and the latest beneficiary of the Choir’s bursary programme, under which we make donations to help fund the musical education of deserving youngsters, and Rachel Best, another talented local singer, who performs all over Cornwall singing songs from wartime, the ’50s and ‘60s.
Isaac Salaman Rachel Best
So successful was the event that we were able donate over £930 to Mevagissey Feast Week Committee, who responded with a ‘a massive thank you for the wonderful concert’.
Yealmpton and Padstow
In early July we were off to Yealmpton, our third visit to the little Devonshire village having performed there in 2017 and 2018. Once again, we were warmly welcomed by Shirley Dziuszka, once of Mevagissey, and her fellow villagers, who, as always, were generous with their hospitality.
George Phillips adds his moving harmonica accompaniment to ‘Tell My Father’
Later in the month, on the 23rd, we headed for Padstow, and Prideaux Place, home of Peter and Elisabeth Prideaux-Brune. Nestling in wooded glades, far above the madding summer crowds of Padstow, Prideaux is a splendid example of an Elizabethan country home, and its sloping lawns and deer park rang with songs of the sea, of love, and of loss, as we ran through highlights of our summer repertoire.
The lawn in front of the East wing of the Prideaux-Brunes’ glorious home, had been the venue of our only proper concert during the pandemic, and we were delighted to be invited back for a post-pandemic performance. Although light rain fell across Cornwall, and pursued choir members, friends, family, and supporters, as they made their way to the venue, barely a drop fell once we were there. Those that braved the trip were treated to feast of music, in beautiful surroundings. Even the ever-loyal regular supporters felt that it was one of our best concerts in recent times.
A superb venue, lovely hosts, really helpful staff, a great audience, and a magnificent backdrop for our Choir – we can’t wait to return!
Come September, and we found ourselves singing inside a boxing ring! We had been invited to take part in “Man Down”, a charity event organised in support of men’s health. The venue was the Mevagissey Arts Centre (MAC), where we gathered at 3pm on Saturday 10th September, before clambering up the ringside steps and on to the canvas to be greeted by a huge crowd of paying customers many seated at tables.
A knockout performance at the MAC!
Given our age profile and mobility issues we did well to avoid more serious injury than the boxers themselves, and there was a worrying moment when the shout of ‘Seconds out’ threatened to leave us short of a quarter of the choir.
Our twelve-song programme drew hugely appreciative comments, and we were to learn later that entire event raised over £15,000!
The organisers described it as a truly inspiring event, and sent their thanks to the Choir with the following message: ‘It was hairs on the back of your neck standing on end’.
Two weeks later, on Saturday 24th September, we welcomed the Penzance Orpheus Ladies Choir to St Andrews for a joint concert. Despite a disappointingly low audience turnout, the evening went well, with our performance of Angels particularly well received. The ladies, conducted by Stephen Lawry, whose dry humour was a feature of the evening, sang beautifully, and were accompanied in one piece by their Assistant Musical Director, Bex Gibson, on the flute.
The formal evening proceedings were rounded off with a joint rendition of Morte Christe, after which the ladies were invited back to the Fishermen's Institute for a pasty supper, followed by some shanty singing.
Penzance Orpheus will be marking their 70th anniversary next year and we look forward to hearing more about the celebrations.
October saw us back in St Andrew’s for the traditional Harvest of the Sea service, followed by a trip to Penzance to sing with Mousehole MVC at Chapel Street Church, where a highlight was a joint performance of ‘Morte Christe’ and ‘We Rise Again’.
November saw us in St Andrew’s, Tywardreath, where we delighted to welcome Barnstaple MVC, who thrilled us in particular with their interpretations of a couple of Gilbert & Sullivan numbers.
A rousing finale saw the two choirs combine for ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ and ‘Morte Christe’.
Barnstaple MVC Chairman Tony Blake later wrote to say: ‘Please pass on to your colleagues our thanks for a great concert last night. This was our first trip away since the start of the pandemic, and it was wonderful to sing with you all. Thank you for your hospitality and comradeship which contributed to a lovely evening and a successful trip for us. We look forward to being able to arrange a return visit to us here in Barnstaple’.
Heating Engineer Martin Warms Up the Second Tenors
And so we look forward to a new start in 2023, with a new MD and a paid-up membership of 51, a number we are delighted with given the problems other choirs have had in holding on to singers over the past couple of years. Indeed, we are pleased to say that we are still attracting new members, like Martin Starkie, Martin came to us just a few months back, prompted by wife Julie. ‘She had been trying to get me to find a new interest after leaving the Scout Association after twenty odd years’, he says.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that singing became the preferred option given that Julie sings with Champagne Cornwall Chorus and The Drecklys shanty singers, two Cornish female groups, and that he includes attending shanty festivals as one of his favourite pastimes, along with motor homing and cars. He even had some history himself, having sung with The Brigadiers Choir, comprising members of the Boys Brigade and the Girls Brigade.
Although born in Yorkshire, Martin has lived in Tywardreath for the past 30 years, having moved to Mevagissey itself at the age of seven. He is the Compliance and Heating Manager with Ocean Housing, which means he’s responsible for ensuring all 4,200 properties have all their legal certification in place.
Martin has already become a popular member of the Choir’s Second Tenor section, and has lost no time in learning a big chunk of our repertoire, including his favourite ‘Tell My Father’ - although he chose ‘Tears in Heaven’ for his voice test. Two of our sadder pieces but then, as he says, ‘I have five children (three with Julie) and six grandchildren … and no money’.
Pic Martin Starkie Caption: Martin Starkie – despite what you might think!
2023 and Beyond
Among the many events that Martin and the Choir have to look forward to next year are a trip to St Mawes for the Roseland Music Festival in April, a joint concert with Abertillery Orpheus Male Choir in May, and a return to one of our favourite Devon venues, Noss Mayo, in June. As always, details of all our upcoming events can be found on our website.
And then, of course, the following year we shall be celebrating our 50th anniversary. The Hall for Cornwall has been booked for the evening of Wednesday 12th June 2024, so make a note in your diary now!
Meanwhile, if you just fancy a night out with the choir members, we are holding our annual dinner and dance at Carlyon Bay Golf Club next month, on Saturday 21st January. All Friends of the Choir are welcome but, to be clear, this is a social occasion, and not a singing event. Those interested will need to contact a choir member or reply directly to this email for a menu.
Finally, it is worth emphasising once again how much we all owe to Mike Thompson for filling the breach following Graham Willcocks’ departure. He has done a truly remarkable job. And we shouldn’t forget the contribution of Matt Fox, who has ably assisted Mike over the past few months.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all our followers. We look forward to seeing you soon.