Year of Jubilee

Lecturer Rachel van Besouw, who in her day job does research on music for cochlear implantees, has been singing with the university’s community choir.  Following the choir’s latest successful “Year of Jubilee” performance at St Michael’s Church in the heart of Southampton, she describes her experience as a newbie alto (photos courtesy of Duncan Borthwick):

Year of Jubilee
Year of Jubilee soloist Cleveland Watkiss

Since the University of Southampton Voices’ (USV) inception back in October 2012 a colleague (and fellow muso), Carl Verschuur, had been egging me on to get involved. But, the rehearsals on a Wednesday lunchtime always seemed to clash with teaching, seminars, supervision meetings, research meetings, last minute deadlines and exam boards… and so I kept putting it off, until this year.

This year I decided to get better at protecting my lunch hour for my own wellbeing and sanity. On a Wednesday in January I left the office just before 1 pm and headed across to the Turner Sims, not really knowing what to expect and slightly worried that, with my untrained voice, I would stick out like the Two Ronnies in the Plumstead Ladies’ Male Voice Choir!

That first rehearsal (and all of the rehearsals that followed) was fantastic. I found Harvey Brough‘s enthusiasm infectious and quickly discovered that the USV choir was a great way to meet people with a passion for music from across the university. Any inhibitions that I had dissolved pretty quickly; in the USV it doesn’t matter whether or not you can read music or sing in perfect harmony, as long as you are up for having fun, and Harvey makes sure of that.

Justin Butcher, as Fisk Treasurer, George L. White

With the help of music student, Joe Beckhelling, and demos on Harvey’s SoundCloud we rehearsed 12 pieces from The Year of the Jubilee: The Story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers by Harvey and playwright Justin Butcher. I attended the weekly rehearsals without fully realising how soon we would be performing in public. In what seemed like no time at all we were suddenly selling tickets for a performance at St Michael’s Church, Southampton on 3rd May 2014, 140 years after the original Fisk Jubilee Singers performed in Southampton at Hartley Hall.

The Year of the Jubilee tells the moving story of how the Fisk Jubilee Singers, an ensemble of African-American students from the Fisk University, toured across the U.S. and Europe in the late 1800s under the direction of George L. White, Fisk’s treasurer and music director, to raise much needed funds for the University. Their repertoire included the spirituals “Steal Away to Jesus”, “Go Down, Moses” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”.

Soloists Emily Dankworth, Melanie Marshall and Cleveland Watkiss

On the day, we were rather awe-inspired to be joined by star soloists, Emily Dankworth, Melanie Marshall, Cleveland Watkiss and Austine Abiagam, Justin Butcher, a talented semi chorus and quartet of fantastic musicians. The overall sound of the USV, together with the band, soloists and semi chorus was amazing. Having not sung in a choir before, it was reassuring (and interesting to experience) that despite me being far from note perfect, the choir as a whole sounded great (some highlights on the video below).

Harvey conducting from on top of two wooden stools (out of shot)!

There’s an interesting metaphor in there somewhere that perhaps management could take note of – that despite individual imperfections, a lot can be achieved as a team with an enthusiastic and motivating animateur and conductor, who is willing to invest considerable time and energy, take the risk… and conduct whilst precariously standing atop two wooden stools gaffer taped together (I really hope someone has a photo :-).

I can’t think of many activities at University that get staff from different disciplines together willingly over lunchtimes and for the best part of a sunny Saturday afternoon/evening. I’m now really looking forward to next semester’s rehearsals and would encourage anyone, who like me, had been putting off joining the USV due to work commitments, to protect that lunch hour and get involved!

Soloist Emily Dankworth

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