When the Covid pandemic hit, the Renaissance Choir – a small chamber choir based on the West Sussex/Hampshire borders – didn’t stop singing. Like many other choirs, the members reluctantly took to Zoom rehearsals for a while, but couldn’t wait to resume face-to-face meetings.
Chair Simon O’Hea told Sussex Bylines: “Covid made us realise how important music is to us. We’re good friends as well as good singers, and we wanted to maintain our reputation for making music of a very high standard, even during lockdown.”
In May 2021, choirs all over the country were devastated when a late change in Covid rules meant that choirs could still not meet in person, although pubs, hairdressers and shops were re-opening. The rule of six still applied indoors, but the Renaissance Choir had an original solution: “Our first face-to-face rehearsal venue was a barn, where we were serenaded by cows,” Simon explained.
As soon as possible, the choir met indoors “under carefully managed conditions” and even made a recording of Tallis’s If Ye Love Me from their own homes. The choir held its first post-lockdown concert in July 2021, “the first among local choirs” to do so.
About the choir
The Renaissance Choir was formed nearly 50 years ago by Ray Calcraft, a lecturer in Spanish who was fascinated by composers such as Byrd, Tallis and Palestrina. Ray’s original vision was to “put the beautiful music of the Renaissance period at the heart of the repertoire” and keep it alive. He was also keen to rediscover lesser-known composers of the time, such as the Spanish composers Guerrero and Vivanco, and make their music accessible to everyone.
The choir also performs work by modern composers such as Poulenc, Whitacre and Lauridsen. “A key aim in curating the programmes,” Simon explained, “is to establish the links between the music, artists and writers of a specific period.” There is a huge variety of music and “much of our music is performed unaccompanied, so there’s nowhere to hide!”
Musical director Peter Gambie, who has been with the choir for over 30 years, decides on the repertoire each year and works closely with Simon and other members of the committee to plan concerts. Peter describes his relationship with the choir as “a marriage made in heaven.” With only 34 members, there is a great deal of empathy between them all, “which results in high quality performances.” Simon added: “Even a twitched eyebrow (from Peter) brings the appropriate response.”
Concerts and tours
Prior to Covid, the choir performed up to five concerts a year and is gradually resuming this pattern. Overseas tours are a highlight and the choir has sung in remarkable venues, including St Peter’s Basilica in Rome and Notre Dame in Paris. It often collaborates with choirs in Europe, such as the world-class Monteverdi Korus in Budapest and Coro Santa Maria de Belem in Lisbon.
Because of its pioneering work in performing Renaissance Spanish composers, the choir is highly regarded in Spain and has sung in the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, among other venues.
Simon told us: “My most memorable experience is when I sang to a packed audience in St Peter’s Church in Utrecht in the Netherlands. You could have heard a pin drop.” Plans for concerts in Italy next year are already in hand and, closer to home, performances in Wells Cathedral and Glastonbury Abbey.
Choir members are drawn from West Sussex and Hampshire and are an enthusiastic and talented group. Looking at the views of some of the singers in a recently recorded film, it’s obvious that they value each other’s company as well as the opportunity to sing. One said: “We have a good laugh and bring lightness to the occasion, though when the singing starts, it’s taken seriously.”
With such a small choir, everyone knows each other well, especially as some singers have been members for many years. One choir member said: “The choir’s small size means that you get to know people quickly.” As another put it: “We’re like a big family. There’s a real mix of ages and experience.”
Like many choirs, the Renaissance Choir is predominantly female, and is always on the look-out for more male singers to join. A choral bursary is also available for young singers. They will be warmly welcomed.
Getting back to normal
It’s not surprising that the choir members missed the social as well as musical side of rehearsals during the pandemic. The enthusiasm and enjoyment of making music together comes through strongly as the singers talked about their experiences. As one explained: “At the end of the week, it’s an opportunity to be in a community of like-minded people.” Another said: “It’s wonderful when all those harmonies come together in a lovely blended sound.”
The Renaissance Choir’s next concert is Rachmaninov’s Vespers, on Saturday 29 October in Portsmouth Anglican Cathedral, joining with the Portsmouth Choral Union. Against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, “we’re performing this work as a prayer for peace and for suffering and aggression to end.” It’s a wonderful piece and the choir will relish the opportunity to sing it.
- Mass choir’s songs of peace for Ukraine – Viv Griffiths
- Bum note – does Johnson’s government hate choral singing? – Ruth McDermott
Many thanks to Jayson Winters for additional information.
If you’re interested in finding out more or joining the Renaissance Choir, see: https://renaissancechoir.org.uk/about/join-us/.