All of us in the musical trades have perforce ended this year more IT-savvy than we began it. But I’d like to award a personal palm to Bristol Choral Society who at the beginning of this year engaged me and Stephen Jackson to be judges for their first Carol Composition competition, in memory of Mary Otty, whose mother sings in the choir. Bristol Cathedral was booked for a live finale in December, at which Stephen and I would hear the choir sing the five chosen finalist carols, and pronounce our verdict.
By the end of this summer seventy composers had heeded the call, and sent in new carols from around the world, which were shortlisted down to five. I need hardly explain what happened next. With Covid restrictions apparently about to continue through the autumn, a new, more health-secure live venue was chosen. I was still really crossing my fingers for a live visit to hear this lively choir. But as the date approached, lockdown restrictions suddenly tightened. Whereupon, quite amazingly and with little time to spare, BCS moved the whole event online, necessitating personal recordings by ninety of its singers being recorded and mixed into performances for Stephen and me to listen to. Given that all this music was new to everyone, and complex in places, that was quite an ask for an amateur group. A cheerful online event, followed by over 500 people, presented these recordings, introduced by their composers.
Thrust into an online breakout room, Stephen and I deliberated. All five carols were lovely to listen to and original in conception, which is an unusual feat, considering the amount of clappy-happy yuletide fare which emerges at this time of year. The online feature I didn't enjoy was having to announce our decisions and reasoning without personally speaking to the composers afterwards, when it would usually be possible to give them more nuanced feedback and perhaps some words of encouragement to the runners up. In the end we awarded first prize to Pamela Slatter, whose piece struck us most strongly as being “definitely a carol”. (It was reassuring that this carol also won an audience vote carried out independently of our deliberations.)The work by James Williams, more of a Christmas motet, but a very fine one, came second. And there was much energy and beauty in the other music by Mark Chaundy, Jamie Brown and Matthew Heyburn. Many congratulations also to BCS and conductor Hilary Campbell. And thanks to the Otty family, some of them watching in New Zealand, who had sponsored this Mary Otty Prize 2020.