Arts producers are often on the prowl to find modish new inner city spaces for performing in. Regent Hall, the Salvation Army’s home right next to Oxford Circus, is probably not for them. (Like the fabled BBC Maida Vale Studios, it was once a roller-skating rink.) But for the last few years I’ve enjoyed visiting this venue for an annual concert, given by the choral ensemble Blossom Street, who perform entirely new music composed by Royal Academy students. A genuine selection of ‘the public’ assembles to listen, attracted also by Regent Hall’s cheap and homey café. It’s rather wonderful to be there when these two groups of people, students and visitors, meet each other in song.
The new music has been written and rewritten between rehearsal sessions throughout the previous term, directed by conductor Hilary Campbell, with occasional commentary by myself. It’s a very thorough and serious version of that much misused term ‘workshop’ and I end up admiring everyone involved – composers, singers, RAM persons in the background – for their patience while it’s going on. I would say it really bears fruit, and I thought this year’s collection the most beautiful so far. Several students seemed already well-versed in choral composition. Alex Woolf’s version of a Marian text showed great textural variation amidst a relatively simple setting. Marco Galvani found an almost psychedelic variety of musical images for a poem by John Keats, absolutely true to that super-rich poet; while Louise Drewett showed a similar understanding of Wordsworth, with thoughtful, reflective harmony.
Robin Haigh told us that he had never written any choral music before, but his witty distillation of all Shakespeare’s mentions of the word ‘toad’ (there are quite a few) into a beefy madrigal was an immediate hit. Robert Laidlow’s The Kokako Starts to Sing developed slowly and posed a challenge for the singers with (as you would expect) some strangely pitched birdsong, but proved to be a noble iteration of poetry by Sarah Broom (1972-2013) – look her up if she’s new to you as she was to me. Leung Hin Yan Austin’s Tranquil caused us concern last term; it needed bells (graciously provided by Austin) extra singers (zounds! two of the composers admitted to being able to sing) and ‘offstage’ placements. Heard at last in the big space it required, it sounded magnificent, and I admired Austin for his faith in what he had created, politely making sure all through the workshops that the piece developed as he intended. That too is a musical skill.
Pictured – on the café wall of Regent Hall, a tribute to Bandmaster Herbert Twitchen