The Singing Estate: What Happened Next - Tuesday March 27

the singing estate: what happened next
19.15–20.00

Twelve months ago, conductor Ivor Setterfield transformed 40 residents of Oxford’s Blackbird Leys Estate into a choir fit to perform at the Royal Albert Hall with G4. The experience had a profound effect on everyone involved, but what has happened to the singers one year on?

Fivearts Cities, a joint initiative between Five and Arts Council England, has been working in Oxford over the past year with Oxford Contemporary Music and Oxford Philomusica to encourage people to participate in the arts. One year after the work began, one of the scheme’s main projects – the Blackbird Leys Choir –is still going strong. Thanks to Oxford Philomusica, the choir now has a new choral master, Andrew Stewart, and a new conductor, Marios Papadopoulos, who are preparing the singers for a string of other concerts.

On his return to the city, Ivor Setterfield is delighted that his protégés have embraced classical music with such fervour, and he now wants them to spread the word. Hoping that they will become “ambassadors for the idea of singing being good for people”, Ivor wants them to recruit a new choir – one that will fill the Oxford town hall and perform the Hallelujah Chorus in a one-day event called ‘Oxford Sings’, to be broadcast on radio. But there is very little time to organise this – will his singers be able to convince the citizens of Oxford that they’ve got what it takes?

Soprano Kayleigh, who was just 16 when the project began, is sent out on to the streets to kickstart the campaign by canvassing public interest. This is an impressive feat for Kayleigh, who suffered from a lack of confidence a year ago. Ivor recalls how Kayleigh progressed from a nervous girl to a confident singer, and she agrees: her experiences in the choir have inspired her to follow her dream of a career on stage and enrol on a theatre course. So many of the choir have benefited from their experience – even those who left the choir, like tenor Bobby and bass Colin, who used what they learned in their own musical projects. Ivor wants more people to enjoy similar experiences by taking part in ‘Oxford Sings’.

However, before this can happen, Ivor learns that he and the Blackbird Leys Choir have received a special invitation to attend the Annual Achievers reception at Buckingham Palace, where the choir will perform for the Queen and Prince Philip! It’s the first time that the choir has performed for an audience since their triumphant Royal Albert Hall concert – and this time it’s by Royal appointment!

The new choral master, Andrew Stewart, who has prepared the singers over the previous weeks, comes along to calm nerves and conduct. As well as performing carols as people arrive at the reception, the Blackbird Leys choir also perform the Hallelujah Chorus in the Music Room for the Queen. The group is ecstatic: “One of the best days I’ve ever had,” announces 72-year-old Eric.

With ‘Oxford Sings’ only two days away, Kayleigh and Alun get a spot on local radio to encourage singers to attend. And everyone’s hard work pays off when the day of the event dawns and the town hall is filled with hundreds of singers. This provides a huge task for Ivor, who divides the singers into bass, tenor, alto and soprano sections and splits his time between them. The singers, who range in age from young children to a 98-yearold lady, are then joined by the Scarborough in Song Community Choir, who have travelled five hours to be here and are excited about the chance to “experience a choir on a grand scale”.

When the hectic day of training, rehearsals and nerves comes to an end with an astounding rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus, conductor and choir alike are overjoyed at their achievement. “That was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life,” says one singer. “It was fantastic.” “I looked at the faces and there was just happiness everywhere,” adds a beaming Ivor. “Music makes you well. Music makes you happy.”

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