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France tour proves a complete all-round success

On tour with FYC, by Graham Noakes

Now back on English terra firma, it’s time to reflect on what an amazing six days we have just spent in Paris and the Dordogne.

In a busy but never frenetic programme put together with imagination and flair by current parent Sophie Budd, FYC had the opportunity to perform in four very different church acoustics, from the dramatic spaces of Notre-Dame in Paris to the small but perfectly-formed church of St Vaast in the Dordogne village of Villac.  And with plenty of opportunities in between for sightseeing, ball games and making Easter chicks in a chocolate factory in nearby Terasson (which also happens to be Sophie’s home town), everyone came home tired but extremely happy.

The choir consisted of 38 singers (35 girls, 3 boys) and the adult group comprised Sophie (as tour leader), together with Jo Tomlinson, Matthew Rickard, Sarah Burston, Alison Nicholls, Neil Ferris and Graham Noakes.

Saturday
After an early start, leaving Farnham at 6.00am, we had a straightforward journey in bright sunshine, catching an earlier ferry and reaching Paris in late afternoon.  ‘Home’ for the first leg of the trip was the FIAP Jean Monet in the southern part of the city.  A cross between a youth hostel and a hotel, the accommodation was ideally designed for young groups such as FYC, including a self-service canteen and a large meeting room (complete with piano) where we could rehearse and chill.

After checking in and some much-needed fresh air and exercise in the nearby Parc Montsouris - with cakemaster Neil doubling as head of games - we returned for supper and then bed.   

Sunday
Having discovered only the night before that our ‘tourist day’ coincided with the Paris Marathon - and that much of the city centre’s roads would be closed - several ‘Plan Bs’ were hurriedly hatched for the day.  As it turned out, our original ‘Plan A’ went surprisingly smoothly, with traffic flowing freely clockwise on the Paris périphérique taking us to Sacré Coeur without a hitch. (We saw a number of runners as we passed under one of the many bridges spanning the ring road.)

With glorious sunshine showing off the iconic Parisian landmark to perfect advantage,  this offered the ideal opportunity for group photoshoots.  We climbed up to the Basilica to get the spectacular views across the city, but our initial plan to busk near the entrance met with the clear disapproval of an armed soldier - a common (and surprisingly comforting) sight during our stay in the capital - so discretion took over and we sang several flights of steps further down, much to the delight of the many tourists.

After a brief walk through Montmartre, past the Moulin Rouge, we had an excellent lunch in a nearby restaurant and it was then off on a similarly traffic-free coach ride to the Eiffel Tour and boat trip on a Bateau Parisienne.  The day finished back at the hostel with supper and traditional soirée of songs and comic turns by our highly-talented youngsters.  But for the fact that two of our younger choir members unfortunately got stuck in the lift before supper, it would indeed have been just about the perfect day!               

Monday
The big day for all us!  Despite a strike on the Metro (in competition with London Underground?) threatening further traffic problems, these did not materialise and we arrived early for our rehearsal.  This gave us the chance to walk around inside Notre-Dame and take in the spectacular scale and grandeur of the cathedral.  It was then down into the bowels of the church to change and warm up, before emerging for our 25-minute concert spanning five centuries of sacred music.

However much Jo and the rest of us had been looking forward to this tour highpoint, nothing had truly prepared us for how special it was going to be.  As in Périgueux and Sarlat later in the week, the vast acoustic would have starkly shown up any imperfections of tuning and ensemble, but FYC rose to occasion magnificently, filling the cathedral with its spine-tinglingly beautiful sound.  To say Jo was happy with the choir’s performance would be a distinct understatement.

Having repeatedly preached to the choir the importance of always staying together, especially in crowded places, I managed to get detached from the group as the choir went back to get changed and so had to join the visiting parents outside to wait for the choir to emerge.  Not surprisingly, they found this highly amusing (and definitely Twitter-worthy!) but it did provide the opportunity to confirm how much they too had found this such a special and memorable event.

Then came the long journey down to the beautifully scenic Dordogne where we were to stay in the CIS (International Residential Centre) in Salignac. We effectively had the centre to ourselves and once again it was ideally-suited to our needs: with separate chalets and a central refectory, it proved a relaxing and well-located start-point for our activities over the next few days.  The staff were extremely accommodating throughout our stay and we certainly were not going to starve, with generous breakfasts, main meals and packed lunches.               

Tuesday
The morning was taken up with sightseeing in Sarlat, one of the prettiest towns in the region: in the afternoon we then had a tour of the internationally-renowned Bovetti chocolate factory, where everyone got to make their own chocolate Easter chick - as well as taking advantage of the highly-appealing shop!

On to the nearby village of Villac, where FYC was to give an evening concert in the striking little church of St Vaast.  A full rehearsal in the afternoon proved essential as Jo, Matthew and the choir battled to come to terms with a very tricky acoustic: time well-spent as it turned out, as the sound was spot-on during the performance given to a packed church.  The concert of sacred and secular music included solo performances by Tabitha Chapman, Hannah Larkin, Charlotte Gill and Amélie Budd and the appreciative audience showed its pleasure with a standing ovation - followed almost immediately with a second after the obligatory encore.       

We were made very welcome during our short stay, including a drinks and nibbles reception in the sale des fêtes (village hall) after the concert.  And we all got to meet Sophie’s mum!  The final - and completely unexpected - icing on the cake came as the church elders insisted on giving us the retiring collection, which we graciously accepted. 

Wednesday
An early start as we had a 75-minute journey to Périgueux where the choir gave another short recital in the cathedral.  Again the acoustic was astonishing, with the choir providing an especially magical moment in the climax of Maurice Duruflé’s motet, Tota Pulchra Es.  As we arrived, the church was filled with the glorious sound of an improvisation by the incumbent organist Christian Mouyen.  Impressed by the choir’s performance he invited FYC back to give a full concert and thanked us as we left in the best way possible with another improvisation especially for us.

After lunch by the river at Les Eyzies, it was on to Sarlat again for a shared Concert Spirituel with the local Ensemble Vocale de Sarlat, which finished with a joint performance of César Franck’s Panis angelicus.  Again the audience demanded more and FYC obliged with a repeat performance of Alexander Tilley’s In Flanders’ Fields, following an explanation of the words in French by our host choir’s conductor, Bernard Podevin.

Another short reception and it was back to Salignac for supper, packing and bed.    

 Thursday
A long day’s travel back to Calais almost came unstuck with a long delay in getting round Paris, but we made the (almost empty) 8 o'clock ferry with less than five minutes to spare. It was only when in the ship’s cafeteria that we learned this was in fact the last sailing of the day - something which we were glad we hadn’t known earlier when sitting in a Paris traffic jam! Just another piece of the jigsaw falling perfectly into place.    

Finally, a word about our coach and drivers.  As anyone who has been on an FYC tour will confirm, having a good rapport with the driver is essential to make it work well.  We were fortunate to have three great drivers over the six days: in Andy in particular - with us for almost all the time we were in France - we could not have asked for a more amenable and friendly companion who always as flexible as we needed him to be with a programme which almost inevitably required some tweaking each day.  (A Southampton supporter he even came to terms, if grudgingly, with Sophie’s admission that she was a Pompey fan!)       

In what was her first tour as FYC musical director, Jo was full of admiration for what the young singers achieved throughout the week, both individually and collectively.  So, all in all, a very happy tour, one which was successful both musically and socially and in which everyone worked hard and played hard to outstanding effect.

Something Old, Something New

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 Farnham Youth Choir’s first concert of the new season was held at the lovely church of St Alban’s in Hindhead on Sat 15th Oct in front of a full and appreciative audience! This was a new venue for the choir which performs more frequently in Farnham.

The evening began with choir members coming out to the audience members and greeting them, before starting a "Festive Alleluia" in an almost flash-mob style. Once regular choir positions had been resumed, we were treated to sacred music from 16th century up to 20th century, as well as pieces involving choir actions such as clapping in a Spanish style for "Yo Le Canto" and looking fearsome and warlike for "De Bello Gallico".

The choir was performing for the first time under the direction of Joanna Tomlinson who began regular rehearsals with them only 7 weeks ago. It also welcomed a new pianist, Matthew Rickard, who was given particular opportunities to shine in his accompaniments for Holst’s piece “To Agni” and the Spiritual, “Joshua”.

Many of the pieces performed during the evening were familiar works sung in previous years, but the audience were also treated to new pieces learned only in the past few weeks. The 14 new members who joined the choir in September performed confidently, having learned and memorised their parts in such a short period of time.

Another new feature of the concert was the inclusion of some more contemporary songs, including “Make You Feel My Love” by the recently announced Nobel Laureate for literature, Bob Dylan. The audience were sent on their way home with a lively rendition of the song “Happy”- appropriate for conveying the feelings of choir and audience alike, after this first outing of the season!

Laura Brown, director of The Octavian Singers.

A Q&A with our Musical Director, Joanna Tomlinson

Graham Noakes talks to Joanna Tomlinson about her vision for FYC, the connection between the choirs and welcoming Matthew Rickard our new accompanist. 

Q: When did you first hear about FYC?

JT: A colleague forwarded me the job spec for vocal coach back in 2013. I was new to the area then and didn’t know about FYC, but listening to the choir on YouTube really bowled me over.

Q: How would you describe your FYC experience to-date?

JT: What struck me from day one, and continues to impress me, is the quality of performance that FYC consistently delivers. David has always had high expectations of each cohort of young singers and they achieve because he passionately believes that they can.

Q: Looking ahead, what are the key issues for you as musical director? 

JT: Recruitment will remain a challenge as FYC responds to the pressures of a changing educational and social environment. Operationally I think we will become more streamlined, and forward planning will become even more important, as we look to build on our outstanding musical heritage.

Evolution rather than revolution will be key to staying relevant to tomorrow’s young singers and their parents. The good news for me in looking to achieve this is that FYC has an exceptional team of professional musicians, backed by a strongly supportive management team and enthusiastic parents. 

Q: How do you see the choirs working more closely together?

JT: In September, the move to Wednesday as the common rehearsal day will be critical in creating a more flexible environment in which both the choirs and the musical team can work together and learn from each other. The opportunity for parents of all choirs to meet regularly will also help here, and greater visibility across all the choirs on a regular basis also has the potential to further increase both the professionalism and aspirations of younger choir members.

Q: How will your experience help in achieving this vision?

JT: As a trained singer and performer in some of the UK’s top choirs, I understand the importance of developing sound vocal technique from an early age and how to achieve this. 

Having founded my own choir in London and worked with youth choirs in the UK and abroad, I also have direct experience of the importance of good leadership and management skills in driving change in a controlled and effective way.

And finally, although Julia Freeman has proved time and again that she is - without any exaggeration - one of the world’s great choral accompanists, I am very fortunate that Matthew Rickard has agreed to join us. I have worked with Matthew for many years and have no doubt that he will bring his own unique brand of sensitivity, energy and passion to this critical role.     

David’s spectacular ‘last hurrah’

The Anvil, Basingstoke - 9th July 2016

After 32 years at the helm of Farnham Youth Choir, founder/director David Victor-Smith bowed out in style with a final celebration concert at the Anvil, Basingstoke to mark his retirement.

All five choirs which make up FYC came together to reflect the three decades of David’s and his wife Gillian’s leadership, with the 75-strong alumni choir including five original members of the choir which began back in 1984. The music too contained songs from these early years right up to the first performance of a new arrangement for combined choirs and orchestra of The Music’s Always There With You by John Rutter, a long-standing friend of the choir who was in the audience to share in the special occasion.

The whole evening, which also marked the retirement of FYC accompanist Julia Freeman after 30 years, was excellently kept on track by presenter Lt Col Stuart Watts OBE, husband of former Girls’ Choir Director and FYC vocal coach, Catherine Watts. The first half reflected the qualities which have made FYC concerts so entertaining over the years. The Junior Boys’ and Junior Girls’ Choirs, first in turn and then together, beguiled the audience with characterful performances of repertoire well-chosen to show off their skills in giving every song its own special character.

However, not surprisingly perhaps, the Training Choir - with some members as young as six - stole the show with their performance of I Once Saw an Elephant by Vo Fletcher, combining singing and actions to hilarious effect.

In sacred and secular songs spanning five centuries, the main Youth Choir itself showed why it had won so many national and international awards over the years, and in the second half was joined by alumni of each appropriate vintage to sing some old favourites. These included The Water of Tyne, the Northumbrian folksong arranged by Michael Neaum which first put FYC on the national map when they won the Sainsbury’s Youth Choir of the Year competition in 1992.

This reflected the greater party atmosphere of the whole of the second half of the concert, in which the Alumni Choir performed Rutter’s The Sprig of Thyme and was then joined by the Youth Choir and junior choirs in varying combinations. The choirs’ renowned breadth of repertoire was reflected in performances ranging from Mozart’smotet, Ave Verum Corpus, conducted by David’s successor as Musical Director, Jo Tomlinson, to a long-standing FYC favourite, Jerome Kern’s Can’t Help Lovin’ dat Man.     

Following presentations to David, Gillian and Julia, the audience also got the chance to join in with a rousing performance of Parry’s Jerusalem, including a special descant written by David himself. The perfect sign-off.

All roads led to Rome

Rome in April! What could be more attractive? The opportunity to visit iconic places previously only read about: the Sistine Chapel and Vatican, the Colosseum, Forum and Pantheon. Add to this the chance of ‘happening upon’ Bellini and Michelangelo statues and Caravaggio and Rafael paintings - and being able to test the marvellous acoustics of so many romantic places, with not only the appropriate repertoire in your head but the means to recreate it right then and there with your choir friends! 


Include the opportunity of singing to packed audiences in contrasting venues and to experience the privilege of singing in a Mass in the magnificent Basilica of St Peter’s in Vatican City and you have the makings of an unforgettable tour! Rome was experiencing sunny, warm Spring weather when the thirty-one choir members, supported by six staff, arrived. This helped immeasurably with moving the group around the busy capital city using the metro and on foot - by far the most effective modes of transport. For some choir members, so much walking came as a surprise but saved them from the excesses of pasta, pizza and ice-cream. (The choir were well-fed during this tour!) 


For David, Julia and myself, this was to be our 27th and final tour with FYC. Our combined touring expertise was supported by three other staff members. Assistant Director Jo Tomlinson took the role of pastoral care (when she wasn’t warming the choir up vocally!) and choir mum Sophie Budd, whose experience of taking teenagers abroad on language courses proved invaluable, organised the FYC uniform. Leading the adult team, and touring with FYC for the first time was Fiona Blair, a friend of Jo’s whose day job is working with students at Reading University. Fiona’s meticulous preparation coupled with her ability to dot the i’s and cross the t’s meant that there were few surprises other than those of which we could have done little to pre-empt. Rome also proved attractive to many of the families who decided to holiday at the same time as the choir tour and to attend FYC’s public concerts: one in a school (where the platform was shared with three Italian choral groups, two of which were from the Donna Olimpia Music School), the other in a church (Sant’ Eustachio, near the famous Pantheon).


On both occasions, the concert was delayed while extra chairs were found to accommodate the crush of people. The enthusiastic audiences certainly enjoyed the English choral sound and were impressed by the way the choir could switch from sacred to up-beat secular and folk songs with
seemingly natural ease.


And FYC didn’t just sing in concerts. They delighted tourists whenever they burst into song. After hearing the choir perform in Santa Maria Del Popolo, (home of wonderful paintings by Caravaggio and Raphael) a priest-in-charge told the young people “Caravaggio and Raphael created great art with brush and palette: you do so with your voices!”

Gillian Victor-Smith