Farewell to Stephen Darlington – interview in Oxford Mail

We were delighted that the Oxford Mail visited us to interview Stephen Darlington on the occasion of his retirement. James Roberts of the Oxford Mail writes:

One of Britain’s best known choral conductors, who directed the theme music for The Vicar of Dibley, is retiring from his job in Oxford after 33 years.

Professor Stephen Darlington has been Christ Church Cathedral organist since 1985 but is retiring this summer, with a series of events marking his departure.

The cathedral choir has gained international recognition under Professor Darlington, including performing the music for the BBC comedy.

In recent years the conductor has helped establish the Christ Church Cathedral Music Trust, which offers scholarships to choristers to ensure the choir continues to attract the best voices.

The conductor, 66, has spent half his life as Christ Church organist and admits it will be hard to say goodbye.

He said: “When you take on a job at that age you don’t think how long you’re going to stay somewhere.

“But there are certain moments you realise you’re conducting in Christ Church for the last time.”

In addition to overseeing the cathedral choir, Professor Darlington is Christ Church’s director of music and is in charge of academic music.

The choir has become renowned for its quality and variety and Professor Darlington revealed this was his aim from the start.

He said: “I’ve tried to commission a lot of types of music from different composers.

“The great thing about working with young people is that they haven’t got the established prejudices that one develops when you get older.

“They don’t have the feeling that there’s one way of approaching music making.”

Professor Darlington’s passion for young voices was one reason he helped spearhead the cathedral’s music trust, which is more than halfway to its £13m target.

The trust funds up to 100 per cent of school fees, including the £63,500 Stephen Darlington Organ Scholarship.

Professor Darlington said: “The object is to create the opportunity for music making accessible to all.”

One of Professor Darlington’s more unusual projects was recording The Vicar of Dibley’s theme music with Howard Goodall, who also composed the themes to Mr Bean and Blackadder.

The pair, both former Christ Church undergraduates, are good friends and as a result Professor Darlington’s choir was asked to perform the sitcom’s soundtrack.

It is one of many reasons the cathedral is honouring Professor Darlington by holding special events.

Concerts were held on Friday and last night, while a celebratory Evensong at 6pm on Saturday sees the conductor take his final bow.

The service is open to the public and will be attended by former pupils and singers to give Professor Darlington the best possible send-off.

He said: “I think they’re very likely to raise the roof.”

Please click here for the online version of this article.

BBC Choral Evensong at Christ Church Cathedral

On Wednesday 20 June the BBC were with us at Christ Church to record Choral Evensong from Christ Church Cathedral.

The service was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 in their weekly Wednesday afternoon slot, with the choir conducted by our Director of Music, Stephen Darlington, and organ playing by Sub-Organist Clive Driskill-Smith. The full music list is available below:

Responses: Byrd
Psalm 104 (Hawes, Martin)
First Lesson: Isaiah 5 vv.8-24
Canticles: St Paul’s Service (Howells)
Second Lesson: James 1 vv.17-25
Anthem: The Twelve (Walton)
Voluntary: Toccata quinta (Frescobaldi)

If you missed out on hearing the live broadcast, or would like to listen again, the service will be repeated on BBC Radio 3 this Sunday at 3pm, and will be available to listen to on BBC iPlayer for a further month.

BBC Radio 3’s Choral Evensong is the BBC’s longest-running outside broadcast, and will mark 92 years of outside broadcasting this autumn. Its enduring popularity is reflected in the fact that it is one of the most frequently requested programmes on the Listen Again service on the BBC Radio 3 website, which, combined with listeners tuning in live on Wednesday and Sunday, means that around 250,000 tune in each week.

Göttingen Handel Festival

The Cathedral Choir have just returned from the famous Göttingen Handel Festival where they gave two concerts, the second of which was conducted by Christ Church alumnus Laurence Cummings. This spectacular concert consisted of performances of Handel’s Choice of Hercules and the Dettingen Te Deum with magnificent soloists and the wonderful Göttingen Festival Orchestra, one of the outstanding Baroque orchestras of our time.  Both of the choir’s concerts received standing ovations and glowing reviews.

Please see the links below for photos, reviews, and further details:

Review of concert in Duderstadt

Review of concert in Göttingen

Göttingen Handel Festival Facebook page

Review of concert at Saint Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, New York

We were delighted to spot this glowing review of the choir’s recent performance at Saint Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, New York!

I must admit that Christ Church Cathedral Choir–performing at New York’s St. Thomas Church 5th Avenue last week to kick off a final tour with retiring Music Director and conductor Stephen Darlington–knocked my socks off with the first part of its program.

The men and boys of the choir–a 500-year-old institution founded in Oxford, UK, numbering just 27 voices–not only filled every inch of St. Thomas with amazing sound, as if they were many times that number, but performed the first half the program of British choral masterpieces a capella, and did so without a hitch.

These works included alternated works by John Sheppard (c. 1515-1558) and William Byrd (c. 1540-1643), with a solo for organ by Buxtehude thrown in for good measure. The pure sound of the choristers–soaring here, haunting there–was breathtaking, most spectacularly in the selections from Byrd’s four-part “Mass for Four Voices,” dating from 1592, an extraordinary example of English renaissance music from the time of the Tudors, ie, specifically the age of Elizabeth I.

According to the program, this was the kind of music performed in Catholic houses, against the edicts of the English Church (thus, it was published secretly and without title pages). The four-part composition was divided in three sections (the Kyrie and Gloria, then the Sanctus and Benedictus, and, last, and perhaps most formidable, the Agnus Dei) and shows the composer’s significant dramatic range. With no musical ensemble to hide behind, the chorus’s work was completely exposed and, under Darlington, came across as vigorous, yet brilliantly expressive.

The second half of the concert was filled with what might be called “crowd pleasers”: in particular, works by Purcell and Handel. I was particularly taken with an unfamiliar (to me at least) Handel, “Zadok the Priest,” an anthem composed for the coronation of King George II in 1727, which has since been sung at the coronation of every British monarch and is known as a British patriotic anthem. It seemed an unusual choice for non-Anglophiles, like myself; but in this assured performance, it was simple, yet powerful.

As if to say, “Now for something completely different,” the choir ended the concert with “Love is here to stay” (also known as “Our love is here to stay”), written by the Gershwins for “The Goldwyn Follies.” It was the last song written by George Gershwin before his death in 1937 and, here once again, the purity of the choristers’ voices gave the music a very special, lovely quality that I’ve never heard before.

Music Director Darlington–in this case, the title means chief organist of Christ Church Cathedral as well as conductor–has commented that anyone who hears the choir “senses that every member is singing from the heart.” That was certainly the case at the St. Thomas concert, which was a fitting sendoff for one of the UK’s leading choral conductors.

Richard Sasanow, BWW, 11 April 2018

Please click here to see the review on the BWW website.

Day 8: Hosanna to the (David)son of David(son)

Our eighth day on tour dawned gloriously, not least because there was nothing in particular to rise for and Sam and I were therefore able to enjoy a much-needed lie-in. After eventually making our way into Davidson with an Uber, Sam unfortunately immediately discovered that he had forgotten all his concert clothing. Ten minutes later, I realised that I had left my gown at home, so we got another taxi (a Lyft this time) straight back to pick up all our belongings, before eventually returning to join other members of the choir at Summit Coffee a mere hour after we had originally arrived in the town centre. We’d been to Summit on a previous tour, but I was pleased to see that they’d added such beverages as a ‘Red-Eye’ (filter coffee with an extra shot of espresso, because obviously we all need that) and a ‘Glacier Gulp’ (chocolate milkshake with espresso, because, again, of course). We had a very pleasant stroll round the extensive grounds of Davidson College – Will Anderson was in charge of navigating, and offered such helpful directions as ‘so the football ground must be…over there!’ (pointing directly at the goalposts a few metres away). We also found a swing, several exciting sculptures, and a wide concrete area which turned out to be absolutely perfect for playing Doris-Ball – do watch the video for Ed’s guide to how to play this unique game at home.

As ever, it was soon time to rehearse for the evening’s concert in the spacious surroundings of Davidson College Presbyterian Church, for which we were joined by around 150 local singers for some items in the programme. Stephen seemed very pleased with the sound of the massed forces – especially the music which also contained parts for brass players! After a hearty supper of meatloaf, a lot of vegetables (we’ve discovered on tour in the USA that it is very important to vegetables wherever you can), cobbler and cake (equally imperative) we returned to dress for the concert, at which point laid-back lay clerk Tom Lowen discovered that he had forgotten his black trousers. An announcement duly went out to the audience, and an anonymous female donor very kindly offered him the use of her spare pair of slacks – amazingly he managed to make them fit (as it were), although they did give him a flared look which is yet to come back into fashion in 2018. Thus attired, we sang the concert to a large and appreciative audience – this was the first time we’d performed Howard Goodall’s Sure of the sky on tour (having recorded it last month) which some attendees clearly found particularly moving. We concluded the evening by retiring to a local hostelry with some other millennial Davidson residents, which we thought would prepare us well for our 5.30am wake-up the next morning.

Day 10 and Day 11: Chicago

 

Day 10 began, for most of the boys, at home with local families who had so generously offered to help host the choir. The small band who had found their way to a distant Marriott hotel met the rest of the group at Emmannuel Church, before travelling downtown to visit the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower. The choristers proved themselves surprisingly well-informed on the subject of supertall buildings, but knowing this was the 16th-tallest building on earth didn’t prepare them for quite how impressive it was. After a brisk, ear-popping elevator ride we emerged on the Skydeck at the top of the tower, where the boys took turns stepping into terrifying glass boxes that hung from the side of the building.

After ransacking the gift shop we made our way to Portillo’s, a temple to kitsch Americana complete with neon signs, checkered table cloths, and (legend has it) the best hot-dogs in the Mid-West. The obliging staff whipped up a fresh batch of frozen custard for us, which revived the boys in readiness for the afternoon’s rehearsal back at Emmanuel. This beautiful building has just earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places, and – with its soaring roof and striking stained glass – could easily pass for a cathedral. The packed audience couldn’t have given us a warmer welcome, and the choir was delighted to complete a clean sweep of standing ovations in the US (or should that be ‘ovations standing’?).

After dispersing to homestays the choristers reconvened on Day 11 at the Marriott Hotel in Burr Ridge. The unbelievably generous (and rather brave) staff had offered us the use of the hotel pool, which given the chilly rain outside was the perfect solution for our final morning. As I write, the boys are taking a brief rest in front of the TV and anticipating the arrival of the largest amount of takeout Chinese food ever ordered by man. We’re very grateful to George Tarasuk at Emmanuel for hosting us in Chicago, and to the brilliant staff at the Marriott for looking after us so kindly whilst wait for our flight home. A little light singing in the lobby (above) was the least we could do to say thank you.

 

Day 8 and Day 9: North Carolina to Chicago

 

The boys began Day 8 at leisure, tinkering with their coffee-machines and testing the acoustic limits of the hotel swimming pool. In the afternoon a bus conveyed us to Davidson College Presbyterian Church, where warm sunshine and picture-perfect blossom reminded us precisely why we love returning to this corner of North Carolina. After a seriously loud rehearsal with members of several local choirs (not to mention an impressive brass section), the choristers readied themselves for the performance by consuming meatloaf and chocolate cake. Thrilled to receive yet another standing ovation, the boys had just enough post-concert energy to pack their suitcases in preparation for an early start.

Roused at an unearthly hour to beat the rush-hour traffic, we were very relieved to arrive at Charlotte airport in good time for our 10.35am flight to Chicago. The final minutes of the journey across Lake Michigan provided the opportunity for incredible photographs of the city skyline, and the choristers were pleased by how quickly we exited O’Hare after their experiences at Newark. First priority: lunch in a café on Millenium Park. Our pancakes arrived in stacks of seven, our hash browns were measured in square feet, and several boys dined out of vessels suspiciously reminiscent of buckets. The choristers – ever alert – wandered straight out of the restaurant into the path of a roving Fox News crew. Within seconds the reporter was lured by the boys’ siren call, and before we quite knew what was happening they were singing ‘Our love is here to stay’ on live TV. A gracious group interview was granted before the group was filmed climbing onto the bus to be whisked away for a Very Important Trip to the shopping mall.

 

 

A diplomatic account of the final stages of Day 9 might mention that the choir faced certain logistical challenges, which nonetheless didn’t prevent a successful performance at the University Club of Chicago. It might gloss over the lost music, lost bags, desperate circuits of a bus that could not park, the dining tables under which the tired, sweaty choir members changed, the lift where Dr D disapparated, and the wedging incident in the revolving doors. Blitz spirit prevailed and all the lost things were (eventually) found again. Tired but victorious, the choristers wended their way to LaGrange to meet their homestays at the end of the evening. Luckily they were just about able to find room for dinner.

Days 6 and 7: Alexandria, plus coach to Carolina

Our sixth day on tour began a little earlier than I would have liked, as I awoke at 6.30am in order to reserve tickets for the newly-opened National Museum of African-American History and Culture. Some might say this system seems a little strange, but who am I to comment? In any case, it turned out to have absolutely been worth this relatively minor hardship, as the museum itself was really fantastic – genuinely one of the best I’ve ever been to. Do go if you get the chance (and have a reliable alarm clock). We also took in the Museum of African Art before making a return visit to Woodward Takeout Food for the Piggly Wiggly sandwich, which Ed and I had previously eaten when we were on tour here two years ago. It has definitely become larger in the meantime – so much so that Sam and Ed were unable to finish theirs, although obviously I saw mine off with room to spare.

We were soon back to the Seminary to rehearse for the evening concert – as the programme was the same as for New York, it was only necessary to top and tail a few items and cover a couple of issues – as well as get used to the acoustic, which was rather different to Friday’s. After a few post-rehearsal rounds of Doris-Ball, for which Stephen deigned to join us (he is surprisingly good at this sport) we had an energising dinner of meatloaf, vegetables and cake. The concert itself was very successful – we are by now very familiar with all the music and the whole thing felt particularly organic and fluid. It seems the audience felt the same way, as we received a standing ovation at the conclusion (making it two out of two so far) . A post-concert reception followed before we retired (not out) to the Seminary’s convivial bar.

The next day we drove all the way from Washington to Davidson, North Carolina. This was a rather long journey, which was temporarily improved by the discovery of ‘Fried Chicken Eggs Benedict’ on the menu at lunch, then brought back down to earth by the arrival of said dish. Ladies and gentlemen, I implore you, if you find yourselves at a Cracker Barrel in the near future – do not order this meal. Upon arrival in Davidson, Sam and I were taken out by our wonderful host to a lip-smacking barbecue joint and then on to a microbrewery where we drank beers with flavours such as a brown mocha, a sour lemon and mint, and a tropical IPA – a really excellent conclusion to a long day. Tomorrow – concert number three!

Day 6 and Day 7: Virginia to North Carolina

 

Things seemed to have moved at a languid pace for a few days, but on Day 6 the choristers were transformed once more from ambling tourists to professional performers. This metamorphosis was aided by the breakfast of the boys’ dreams, and – having been reminded not to eat more than they could lift – the pancake-filled choristers spent most of the day working hard in preparation for the evening’s concert.

The performance was streamed live on the internet, which was just as well since there wasn’t a spare seat in the house! A warm welcome from the Dean of VTS was matched by two rousing standing ovations from our delighted audience. The boys were only too glad to accept an invitation to the post-concert reception, where they discussed the highs and lows of being an international celebrity (and managed not to drink any wine).

On Day 7 the kind folks at VTS produced fresh blueberry waffles for our final breakfast. The choristers bade a sad farewell to the dining hall’s groaning tables, and climbed aboard a coach for the long journey south. Along our route the boys stripped bare a Cracker Barrel gift-shop in Virginia, and piled into the drive-thru of a North Carolinian Wendy’s to pick up restorative milkshakes. We were pleased to notice a slight improvement in temperature at each rest stop, and by the time we reached Davidson it was finally possible to remove our hats and gloves.

We were delighted to be met at our hotel by Lisa Gray of WDAV, who has played such a vital role in bringing the choir to this part of the world over the past decade. The boys were soon checked into their rooms (or rather ‘suites’, since our palatial accommodation includes lounge, kitchen, bedroom and showers the size of a bus stop) and sitting down to a sumptuous dinner of pulled pork and beans. They certainly slept soundly tonight!

Day 5: Except the Lord build the White House

Sunday was to be our only day on tour entirely free of musical obligations. We breakfasted on blueberry bagels, fruits (for which our gastric systems were all very grateful), yoghurts and various toasts – our illustrious conductor managing to not so much toast his toast as entirely cremate it. It was a gorgeous day in Washington and we split up to do various gorgeous things; some went to explore the city while others began their day at the Museum of American Art, where we were lucky enough to see the recent Barack Obama portrait and a hallway made entirely out of fabric.

When in unknown cities, I always enjoy researching the best places to get lunch, which is normally a fairly successful approach but has also given mea reputationfor leading friends to restaurants which are unfortunately closed. Today’s search of the Internet had thrown up a barbecue restaurant in Columbia Heights, which is not very central, but I insisted that we go there anyway because that’s the kind of chap I am. Fortunately I was entirely vindicated in this, with Will Anderson declaring it ‘the best brisket I have ever had’, which somewhat tempered his earlier comment that I was ‘the worst friend he had ever had’.

We of course then needed to walk off the effect of several pounds of meat inside us, so we set off to take a turn round all the monuments that Washington has to offer. This was rather a stop-start process, as different members of the groups had to go to the toilet seemingly every ten minutes, but it did at least mean we were able to rest our weary feet every so often. It is currently cherry blossom season in DC (I had previously had no idea that this was a thing) and we were delighted to be able to walk through the blossoming trees for over a mile, before ending our day at the Museum of Air and Space (I can confirm that it is indeed full of both airs and spaces).

Our evening was spent at Nationals Park watching the Washington Nationals take on the mighty New York Mets at baseball. Cockney choral scholar Nick Cornforth tried his best to repurpose various Fulham football chants for the baseball with various degrees of success. Although not quite cricket (as it were) it was still immensely enjoyable and we were very sorry to see the Nationals lose by only one run (a point? a goal? Who knows). Do watch today’s video as it is full of exciting and stimulating content. No, honestly.