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Sounds amazing

BILL NEWMAN talks to
Jeremy Backhouse,
Director of the Vasari Singers


Having caught the choral bug as a chorister at Canterbury, Jeremy Backhouse went to Liverpool University and formed his own choir. He also gained useful experience when he took over from the conductor of the University Singers for a year when she became pregnant.

The real break however came a few years later. Backhouse was working for EMI as a freelance editor and in his free time was singing bass in the London Symphony Chorus. Tired of endless Carmina Buranas and Beethoven Nines, he and a dozen or so colleagues broke away in 1980 to form the Vasari Singers.

A few pieces of Italian polyphony and a couple of madrigals into their first rehearsal, someone pointed out that they had a concert coming up but no conductor. Jeremy volunteered to fill the gap until they found someone else. He's had the job ever since.

From modest beginnings with concerts in country churches, the Vasari Singers gradually expanded their repertoire, honed their technique and increased their original complement to thirty, appearing in increasingly prestigious venues such as St John's Smith Square and Canterbury Cathedral.

The Vasari Singers at Potton Hall, February 2003
The Vasari Singers at Potton Hall, February 2003

It was time, Backhouse decided, to see how they measured up against the country's finest. So in 1986 The Vasari Singers entered the Sainsbury's Choir of the Year Competition.

Although they reached the quarter-finals, Jeremy realised they weren't going to win over audiences however well they sang. They looked amateurish, all huddled together for security. He soon fixed that and suggested new gowns for the ladies. Two years later, they tried again.

Three hundred choirs enter the auditions of the Sainsbury Competition in April each year. The quarter-finals take place in September, with the semi-finals and finals in November. At each stage the choir must present a ten-minute programme and is assessed as much on stylistic variety as on technical expertise.

The Vasari Singers have always favoured an eclectic mixture of early and contemporary music, including jazz arrangements, but Jeremy is particularly pleased with their programme for that semi-final: the Gloria from Poulenc's Mass in G, a partsong by Stenhammer, Jannequin's Chants des oiseaux (with all its onomatopia) and, Love is here to stay. This time they won.

Fame has not spoiled them. They still give country church concerts, where a typical pot-pourri might include Italian madrigals, folksong arrangements, 'something challenging' as Jeremy puts it, and a few goodies -- Swingle hits perhaps, or some Blues.

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Copyright © 15 November 2003 Bill Newman, Edgware, UK


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