sat 09/12/2023

theartsdesk at the Voces8 Summer School - musical oasis offers opportunities for all | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk at the Voces8 Summer School - musical oasis offers opportunities for all

theartsdesk at the Voces8 Summer School - musical oasis offers opportunities for all

Welcoming environment aids celebration of vocal music in all its forms

Milton Abbey, the home of the Voces8 summer schoolPhoto © Voces8/Andrew Wilkinson

It is a complicated business running a summer school for 170 people in the British countryside. Not only laying on a stimulating programme of musical events, providing pastoral care for the under-18s and interval drinks for the over-18s, but more basic needs.

As I arrived and was greeted by Voces8 Foundation CEO Paul Smith he was grappling with the news that a tree had come down on a nearby power line and there was likely to be no power to the site for 5 hours. This was a challenge both for the provision of lunch but also for the supply of electricity to the church so the organ could be used at Evensong. But such difficulties didn’t seem to knock Smith’s perennially sunny demeanour, nor the positive mood of the attendees, who took the sandwich lunch in their stride amid rehearsals for the afternoon’s chamber group concert.

The Voces8 summer school and festival is in its 10th iteration (with 2020, as in all similar lists, having an asterisk next to it), bringing people of all ages and from across the world to Milton Abbey in Dorset. I went down for a day to get a taste of the course from the perspective of the organisers, the artistic leaders and, of course, the participants. I was left with a sense of what was described to me as a “one week island” in people’s lives, the remote setting, with pretty much no phone signal or wi-fi, allowing people to forget the outside world and turn to music from morning till night.

The summer school also includes a mini-festival, with concerts open to the public as well as course attendees, including performances by Voces8, Apollo5, the Voces8 Scholars and the Academy of Ancient Music, climaxing in a final event bringing everyone together to perform Handel’s Israel in Egypt.

But for all the numerous number of people involved in the week, it is very much a family affair. Voces8 was started by brothers Barnaby and Paul Smith in 2005, and from my experience of brothers it is a miracle that they are still working together so happily after so many years, let alone flourishing and even further widening the scope of their activities, with the inception of a publishing arm and a sister group in the US. But I was also pleased to meet the Smith parents, who are also fully involved, their father John not just ferrying me to and from the station but, in between, robing up to lead the service of Evensong.A warm-up with Voces8 Scholar Ailsa CampbellThere is a genuine breadth of people at the summer school. I met Neil Valentine, who leads the youngest group of 8-15 year olds, some with little or no musical experience. They have been working on creating their own pieces on the theme of “our world” – their brand new song “The Rhythm of Seasons” to be performed at a concert on Friday, and which they are planning to film and release via the Voces8 website. I spoke to Henry (12) and James (10) from this younger group, who had come over from Belgium, sans parents, and enjoyed both the music and the chance to become more independent over the week. One of the adults supervising the younger group was Ewan, a Newcastle University student, who attended the summer school for the previous nine years and has now ascended to “pastoral intern”, supervising the children in their music, but also swimming and quiz nights.The overseas, and more senior, contingent seemed largely to have been recruited by attending Voces8 concerts and learning about the summer school there (there is otherwise no advertising of the week, which is oversubscribed). Sîan, who has lived in France for many years, has come since the first year, and says it has got bigger and more international, without losing its soul. Johanna, from Essen, has found the best thing to be the session openers: “Everyone knows warm-ups are boring, but I wish my conductor in Germany could learn some of these warm-ups.” They also appreciate the proximity of the Voces8 members, sitting right by them in concerts and being able to observe at close hand. Johan, from Sweden, echoes this: “The members of Voces8 are ‘down with the people’, they do not keep themselves separate.”

The splendidly-named Gwladys, from Brive in France, came with a group of youngsters who had won a young leaders prize, having made the connection with Voces8 via a concert. Her young charges included Yanis (13), who had auditioned with a Billie Eilish song but was now enjoying singing jazz and Handel, well outside his normal experience.The chamber concert at the Voces8 summer schoolThursday’s main event was the chamber concert (pictured above by Andrew Wilkinson), in which the smaller groups that had worked all week with a couple of Voces8 members, presented their work. This ranged from a rousing bit of Viadana from the “unconducted” group to a subtle re-imagining of “Mood Indigo” by Blake Morgan. I spoke to Blake and soprano Andrea Haines about their experiences of the week. Apart from the novelty of being in one place for a whole week (Voces8 give over 110 concerts across the world in an average year) and enjoying leading groups rather than just singing, Andrea mentioned how having the audience close during their concerts was great but intense: “they spot things, they see the eye contact, and we have long discussions in rehearsal afterwards about what they’ve seen.” But they both enjoy the “family vibe” that runs through the week.

Just before Evensong I had a chat to Adrianna (17) and Felix (16), who are both supported by the Future Talent programme, offering mentoring and guidance as well as a free place on the course. Felix has singing experience but outside his school, where there is no provision. Adriana enjoyed the combination of classical and non-classical music on the course. Both said they were nervous coming into the week about learning the music quickly enough, but having sat next to Adriana in Evensong she should have no such worries: she is already a very competent and impressive singer.Evensong at the Voces8 summer schoolThis final event was a novelty for me, and typical of the spirit of the week. Choral evensong is presented with the course participants as a massed choir, outnumbering the “congregation” by two to one. In an attempt to recreate a cathedral Evensong in every respect there was just one short rehearsal ahead of the service, and Paul Smith encouraged me – or, more accurately, instructed me – to sing myself. I have never sung in an Evensong before so, my limited singing ability notwithstanding, I gave it a go. Led by Voces8 member Christopher Moore (pictured above) with a mixture of encouragement and patience, it was a fitting way for my day to end: with everyone taking part, contributing according to their own lights in an generous-spirited atmosphere.

Neil Valentine, the activator who has worked with the group for many years, describes the course as “open and welcoming” with Voces8 having no prima donnas, and as a consequence the week being a “warm musical blanket”, which was very much what I found. There was Voces8’s overriding commitment to choral excellence, but within a supportive environment that allows singers to develop in their own way. As I got back on the train, and all my missed messages from the day started to ping through, I kind of wished I’d been able to stay longer.


Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters