Federation Festival Report – Wells 2016

The Federation of Cathedral Old Choristers’ Associations held their annual Festival at Wells this year. We are delighted to be able to publish a report on the event by Colin Charter below.

FCOCA. Federation Festival 2016, Friday 29 April – Sunday 1 May

The Wells Cathedral Choir Association hosted the Festival at relatively short notice and I joined the more than eighty FCOCA members and guests from twenty-one OC associations who attended. It was an opportunity to re-visit the smallest city in England, population just over 10,000, with undoubtedly one of Britain’s most imposing Cathedrals and one of the foremost choirs in the country. Boys first sang there in 909 and the full choral tradition dates back over 800 years. Today the choir consists of 18 boys and 18 girl choristers (two separate choirs), and 12 Vicars Choral.

FCOCA registration was conveniently at The Swan hotel, where I, along with many of the delegates attending, had booked to stay. All events were within very easy walking distance and I had opted to start the weekend with a tour of the Cathedral, leaving the adjacent Bishops Palace and gardens for the following day. The iconic view of the 12c Cathedral is of the magnificent early 13c West Front with its galleries of medieval sculpture. Inside, ones attention is immediately drawn the strikingly massive modern looking Scissor Arches, they are in fact a mid 14c solution to sinking tower foundations. The medieval clock in the North transept, the Jesse window in the east end of the Quire, and the climb up the well-worn steps to the stunning Chapter House. So much to take in on a short tour.
Back to the hotel for Tea and a formal Welcome, and then to the Cathedral for Choral Evensong sung by the Girl Choristers and Vicars Choral under the direction of Matthew Owens, Organist and Master of the Choristers. The service featured music by Gabriel Jackson, the Preces and Responses, his Canticles: Truro Service and the Anthem: Justore animae, which was commissioned to celebrate the 1100 th foundation of the Diocese of Bath and Wells. Evensong was followed by a Chapter Reception and Welcome in the N- transept by the Vice-Dean, interrupted on the ‘Quarters’ by the Wells Clock and its jousting knights tournament.
We moved back to the hotel for Dinner before returning to the Cathedral Lady Chapel for Compline with Festival delegates invited to join the singing of plainsong and the Vicars Choral, directed by Matthew Owens, singing the Nunc Dimittis by Richard Gough and an Anthem by Franz Bielb

The following morning I joined a tour of the Wells Cathedral School, founded 909, one of only four specialist music schools in the country. The 700 girls and boys are evenly integrated from Nursery through to Sixth Form. Students attend as Day students or as Boarders, with Cathedral Choristers receiving bursaries. The highlight of the tour was to go inside what will be the new world-class music and arts venue. A £9.4m purpose built concert hall featuring a 350 retractable-seat auditorium with exceptional acoustic properties, state of the art visual and sound recording facilities, teaching and observation rooms, and an ability to link performances and classes with other venues word-wide. A resource that will benefit many primary age children through the School’s community outreach programme.
Before lunch a group Year 10 students provided us with a Showcase Concert in the current Concert Hall. Piano, cello and flute soloists performed St Francis walking on the wave – Liszt, Cello Suite No 2 and a Prelude – Bach, Danse de la chevre – Honegger. The cellist and the flautist, sisters, then combined to play three short compositions of their own, the concert finishing with a young mezzo soprano singing three pieces from Frauenliebe und –leben, Op. 42 by Schumann. Amazingly talented and confident students illustrating the benefits of a specialist teaching environment.
In the afternoon we were treated to an Organ Recital by Jonathan Vaughn, the Assistant Organist who played compositions by Christopher Tambling, Hubert Parry, Herbert Howells, Percy Whitlock Cuthbert Harris and Edward Elgar. Then back to the Concert Hall for Tea.
Evensong was to be sung by the combined Boy and Girl Choristers Choirs, the Vicars Choral and Old Choristers from Wells and visiting Associations. There was a closed rehearsal in the Quire before the Service which featured the Preces and Responses – Richard Ayleward, the appointed Psalms for the day with chants by John Bertalot, Christopher Robinson and C. V. Stanford, Canticles: Stanford in C and the Anthem: Hallelujah (from ‘Messiah’) – G. F. Handel. A mighty sound under the masterly control of Matthew Owens. The retiring Voluntary was Fantasia and Fugue in G – Hubert Parry.
Good music and good food and good company are always major features of a Festival so now is was off to change for the Pre-Banquet drinks and Civic Reception at the Town Hall. After being directed by the Town Crier we were warmly welcomed by the Mayor of Wells and then suitably entertained by the Senior Choristers, boys and girls, directed by Matthew Owens. We then enjoyed an excellent dinner, locally sourced and generously served. Two verses of the National Anthem were then sung following the Toast to HM The Queen. The guest speaker, Dr Barry Rose OBE admitted to having passed the age of 80yrs and proceeded to humorously relate his progress from a church organist and choir member to a Choirmaster and Cathedral Organist. His experiences leading to Guildford, St Paul’s, the BBC and St Albans kept us, an appreciative audience, well entertained.

Those Old Choristers who had offered to sing the challenging Messe solennelle – Charles-Marie Widor with the Boy Choristers and Vicars Choral at Sunday morning Eucharist had an early start, Rehearsal in the Nave at 9.00am. The service, at 9.45am was very well attended and included the Motet: Surrexit a mortuis – Widor , and the Voluntary: March on a theme of Handel by Felix-Alexandre Guilmant.
After the Nave service refreshments for the entire congregation were served in the transept. Thanks to the host Association were extended and farewells exchanged. A small number of Old Choristers, including myself, who had a relatively short journey home, stayed for Matins in the Quire sung by the Girl Choristers and Vicars Choral. The music included the Gabriel Jackson- Preces and Responses, and The Festival Te Deum in E and Jubilate Deo in E flat by Benjamin Britten with the Anthem: Easter (from ‘Five Mystical Songs’) – Vaughan Williams.

And so my Festival experience came to an end, it was all that I had expected and much more. We were fed a feast of good music from the superbly balanced and blended voices of the Wells Choirs and the talented performing students from the School where in such a well-founded environment all the musicians have access to exceptional opportunities and experiences. The fellowship enjoyed with old choristers from a variety of choral foundations coupled with the English choral tradition being maintained at a level that could only be admired will encourage me to go to the Festival in Norwich in 2017. (9th – 11th June)

© W. Colin Charter 2016.