Friday, 31 May 2013

Launch of the Gresham Centre

Voces8 is an eight-voice a vocal ensemble founded in 2006 by ex-choristers from Westminster Abbey. Since then the ensemble has not only gone on to gain plaudits and record eight discs, but they have developed strong outreach and education activities through their Voces Cantaibles Music (VCM) foundation. The educational and outreach work of VCM has developed to such an extent that they are taking over the Church of St. Anne and St Agnes in the City of London to develop as the Gresham Centre, as a base.

Last night (30 May 2013) there was a gathering at the church of St. Anne and St. Agnes, Gresham Street, to celebrate its new role as the Gresham Centre which VCM is developing with the Diocese of London. There was, of course, entertainment. The children of Hackney Borough Youth Choir sang Bright Eyes. They are one of the first groups with whom started working some five years ago. They were followed by the slightly older girls from the Greycoat Hospital School who sang a lively a cappella medley based on Say a little prayer for me.


The VCM stable consists of two professional groups, Voces8 which sings mainly classical repertoire (from Renaissance through to contemporary), and Apollo5 which is a five voice a cappella group singing swing and jazz. Both groups contributed to the entertainment. The smartly 1950's-styled Apollo5 sang a delightful number celebrating the joys of coffee, whilst Voces8 gave us a beautifully controlled performance of Borodiste Dysevo from Rachmaninov's Vespers.

It was then the turn of the assembled audience to contribute. We were divided into four groups, having been given an envelope on arriving based on our voice type. Each group was led by a member of Voces8 and after a relatively short period of time we had a nice four-part vocal piece going. An example of the sort of work VCM's education arm does regularly.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire (who is Chair of the Board of the VCM foundation and, as a treble at Westminster Abbey, sang at the Coronation) talked abut the power of music and the way it can help children concentrate and focus. He described how Voces8 and VCM have come a long way in seven years and how he was approached by a group of ex-Westminster Abbey choristers before Voces8 was founded, even then outreach and education in state schools was a strong part of their ethos. They work with a large number of schools to develop techniques and training and Lord Wallace talked of the foundation's ambition to be able to fill St. Paul's Cathedral with children singing.

The Gresham Centre represents a major new venture and VCM intends to use it as a base, to bring choirs together and to bring children from outside London. The statistics are pretty impressive, VCM currently reaches some 20,000 students every year worldwide, and they have reached 120,000 in total since 2006, investing over £1 million in music education and delivering workshops all over the world.

Paul Smith, who is CEO of VCM and sings in Voces8, started out as a treble at Westminster Abbey. He talked of the importance of engaging children through music, encouraging them to learn through music as well as having a good time. He went on to say that they were blest that the opportunity to use St. Anne and St. Agnes had arisen and that it had all happened quickly, starting six months ago. Their ambition is to fill the church with workshops, teacher training programmes, recordings and concerts.

The Bishop of London, the Right Revd and Right Hon. Richard Chartres, spoke of how singing together creates community and should be at the heart of education, that currently civilisation is preoccupied with numbers divorced from harmony to society's detriment.

Finally all the performers, adult and children, conducted by VCM's education director, joined together to sing the theme song from Skyfall.

The Church Of St Anne and St Agnes : Gresham Street, EC2 1941, Dennis Flanders (courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)
The Church of St Anne and St Agnes : Gresham Street, EC2 1941,
Dennis Flanders (courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)
In fact VCM does not officially take of St. Anne and St. Agnes until today, and it was admitted that work needs doing on the fabric of the church. The church was built by Sir Christopher Wren after the Fire of London, but the present day church is mainly the result of re-building after severe damage during World War II. It was rededicated in 1966 and contains a number of original fixtures and fitting, plus some from other war-damaged churches. Since 1966 it has been home to the Lutheran congregation; they are now moving to share the church of St. Mary at Hill.

Last nights supporters came from a wide variety of areas, city institutions and churches, foundations and educational establishments as well as from the music world showing that VCM has strong support for its work so I look forward to hearing about the development of the Gresham Centre. For further information see the VCM website.

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