TUNSTALL, not far from the Snape Maltings in Suffolk, is a village of only 510 inhabitants, but it needs to raise up to £100,000 for repairs to the roof of the 14th-century Parish Church of St Michael and All Angels and a more immediate need for work to make the building watertight.
The church is open 365 days a year and boasts the fastest WiFi in the village, thanks to a mast on the tower. The interior is fitted out with superb cream-painted Georgian box pews, and there is an 18th-century painting on canvas of the arms of King George III described by Pevsner (or possibly by his present-day successor James Bettley) as “impressive”.
Impressive, too, are the church’s acoustics, which perhaps inspired the idea of a series of concerts to launch the appeal; and the first one, ‘Raise the Roof!’, last month featured the Chamber Choir of Woodbridge School, directed by Claire Weston, a former member of the English National Opera. Most of the programme was unaccompanied, but where accompaniment was required it was provided by the School’s music director-designate Christopher Milton, of necessity on an electronic keyboard that perforce sometimes resembled a honky-tonk piano, sometimes (rather delightfully) a harp.
But the singers were the stars in music ranging from an opening group including Finzi’s My Spirit Sang All Day and Stainer’s “God so loved the world” from The Crucifixion, to a series of popular arrangements by John Rutter (Michael Finnegan, Sing a Song of Sixpence, Down by the Riverside), less well-known perhaps than his carols — and less instantly recognisable as “Rutter” — but good and deserving to be heard.
Miss Weston is an inspiring conductor who shapes the music and cajoles her singers to get inside a piece and appreciate how individual parts contribute to the whole. It is seldom that one sees a group so clearly enjoying itself while at the same time delivering such confident sounds. Enjoyment and expertise communicated itself to the capacity audience to a degree that one might overlook the men’s tendency to shout, the snatched endings of some phrases, or a curious pronunciation of the “oo” vowel sound (to, truth, etc.) as “ew”. We also heard an upper-voices subsection of the choir, called Cantabile, singing arrangements including The Rose and Over the Rainbow. Enchanting.
The barbershop group, a male quintet from the choir, stole the show, however, with polished and idiomatic singing and presentation — not least in their encore, an arrangement of Bridge Over Troubled Water — all selected, rehearsed, and prepared, apparently, with little or no intervention from music staff.
School groups are subject to annual change, as some pupils leave and others move up, and it was poignant that this was the group’s final performance, for all five of the barbershop singers will be leaving school in the summer. The audience was brought to its feet and the acclamation was well deserved.
It would have been difficult to follow this with singing of a more conventional kind, so it was a brilliant solution at this point to have an instrumental piece played by Harrison Perkins — a young saxophonist as well as a singer — a fiendishly complex movement from Paule Maurice’s Tableaux de Provence, dispatched with aplomb.
At the end of the concert, Miss Weston made an impromptu and moving appeal for the recognition of church buildings in the community and the many uses to which they can be put, as well as their importance as venues for music and musicians of all kinds. It was timely and well expressed.
May the rest of the series be equally rewarding, for performers, audiences, and the Tunstall Church roof appeal.