Angel voices ever singing

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Bradford Cathedral has a new musical director of impeccable pedigree. Robert Cockroft explains why a burden of expectation sits on his young shoulders.

Alex Woodrow lifts his fingers from the keys of the slightly battered grand piano and glances towards a chorister.

“What did you do there?” he asks.

With rueful grin, the red-cassocked boy replies: “I missed a beat.”

The response is conciliatory: “Last time we used a different edition, the one today is bit more scholarly.”

Tudor church music is not without its perils but the boys, upright and attentive, sing on with strong, bright tone.

The hands rise once more from the keys. An eyebrow follows. “What does ‘coveting’ mean?

“Something like comforting?,” volunteers one boy.

“No, it’s when you really want something that belongs to others. Now, boys can we turn to Darke in F for Sunday morning?”

Alert, the choristers have the scores to hand. But hardly has the flow of music started than another question breaks it.

“How many minims in a dotted breve?”

“Three,” ventures a small boy. The maths of an older lad proves more secure: “Six.”

The bespectacled face at the piano beams. “Excellent!”

The Sanctus of Darke’s setting of the communion service floats through the song room at Bradford Cathedral. A plaque notes it was constructed in memory of Henry Coates, organist from 1893 to 1938.

Woodrow, who arrived as director of music in January, allows the music to run for a while before the gentle inquisition continues.

Pointing to his score he asks: “Why are we singing ‘hosanna’ here rather than ‘osanna’?”

The head boy, in a voice that suggests his treble days are numbered, responds prestissimo: “Because it’s in English not Latin.”

“Excellent! Now what’s this interval?” He plays a C rising to an F.

“A fourth,” comes the reply.

“Good. What sort of fourth?”

“A perfect fourth,” sir.

The music gently unfolds.

It is evening practice for six of the cathedral’s 11 boys and if they are still getting the measure of their boss – and he them – it is not apparent. The atmosphere is relaxed, the interplay cordial but professional.

Alex Woodrow, born in York and educated at Cambridge, is not only fresh to the role; at 25, he’s the youngest cathedral music director in the country – Anglican cathedral, that is. Another Yorkshire musician, Elizabeth Stratford, was appointed to Arundel Roman Catholic Cathedral at 23.

He first harboured thoughts of being a cathedral organist as a pupil at St Peter’s School, York, where he’d been captivated by the sound of the chapel organ at the age of eight.

Lessons began as soon as his feet could touch the pedals and he was playing for school services in chapel in his early teens and at York Minster by 15.

At 16, he was assisting with the playing and singing in the choir at St Olave’s, York, a church with a strong musical tradition.

He came to Bradford, a full-time post, following an organ scholarship at Magdalene College, Cambridge, postgraduate scholarships at Guildford and St Albans Cathedrals and the assistant’s post at Hexham Abbey, Northumberland.

He read of the vacancy in the Church Times and applied, he says, more in hope than expectation.

Part of the interview took the form of a session on a computer, responding to imaginary emails. “They contained all the issues that one might encounter these days.”

A more orthodox session, followed by tests at the organ and a half-hour rehearsal with the choir, convinced the Chapter it need look no further.

One senior church musician in Yorkshire says: “The appointment was wise and widely welcomed. Alex is an exceptional talent.”

The man himself says: “It was great thrill to be appointed. It is wonderful, it is great to be here.”

Not everyone in the organ loft at Bradford has been able to say that. On the vestry wall is a photograph of Keith Rhodes, a fine choir trainer who was in charge of the music for 18 years.

After differences surfaced over management of the choirs, the Provost, the very Rev Brandon Jackson, a progressive priest of abrasive style, dismissed him in 1981.

Rhodes’s wounded response was to set up an independent, itinerant choir, the Bradford Choristers, which depleted the cathedral stalls. The effects of the rift lingered for more than 25 years.

Andrew Teague, Mr Woodrow’s immediate predecessor, did much to achieve a rapprochement with the rival group and to improve standards but the eyes are on the new man to take things to a new level.

If he’s conscious of the responsibility, it doesn’t show. Away from the choirs – there are three – he shows a diplomat’s courtesy and tact. The face may be boyish but the energetic musical personality is matched by a firm resolve.

A priority of any choral director, he says, is to help choristers to arrive at their own understanding of what they are singing.

“It helps retention because it gives them ownership of the music.

“A strength of a cathedral choir is that it is one of the few environments where children can be treated as professionals,” he adds.

Hence the constant dialogue, musical and cultural, during the hour-long rehearsal. And at weekends, instrumental and theory lessons are given free.

These youngsters, whether they realise it or not, are learning a useful trade. Cathedral choristers often go on to be high achievers and it’s not hard to fathom why.

An immediate task, however, is one of separation.

At present the choral forces are 14 girls, 11 boys plus two probationers, 19 junior girls in a Saturday morning choir, 15 men and four women.

The Sunday morning choir used to mix boys, girls, women and men; the new plan is to have choirs for boys and girls each singing with adult altos, tenors and basses. Sexism?

“No, separation means that we can give each choir a distinct repertoire and allow everyone to reach their potential.

“It is easy for young boys to feel demotivated if they are singing against sixth-form girls of greater experience. The decision is pragmatic.”

No friction seems to have ensued and the choirs will sing together for major festivals and civic events and be rostered for weekday evensong and Sunday services.

A problem for parish church cathedrals like this one is the absence of an established choir school to replenish leavers. Hipperholme Grammar offers choral scholarships, but that apart, recruitment is a matter of footslogging and persuasion.

“It would be good to build up a critical mass from the local schools,” says Woodrow who lives in Little Germany and has already embarked on a charm offensive.

He appreciates he is in competition with the mass of rival attractions, from computers and TV to socialising and sport, yet he believes boys and girls respond to good music. He emphasises the “good”. He thinks music took a popularising turn for the worse in the 1970s in parts of the Church of England and that challenging repertoire does young people no harm.

“Boys may seem dislocated when they first start to sing Tudor music but they are flexible and they quickly learn to adapt. In matters of repertoire, there is a desire to be sensitive to the context in which music is sung but the taste of the congregation has broadened in recent years due largely to my predecessor. So there is no problem in our singing Latin or Viennese masses.

“We are a parish church cathedral but many people come from outside the parish and one reason is that we offer good liturgy and good music.”

At a time when church-going nationally is in decline and militant atheism rising, is the cost of musical establishment that includes a director, an assistant, an organist and a secretary, worth it? Are robed choirs relevant?

The reply is without hesitation. “We are probably the biggest bringers-in of young people to the cathedral so we help to widen the cross section.”

As this moment a chorister – out of his surplice and back in civvies – larks about for a moment, accidentally dislodging a picture from the wall.

Alex Woodrow is not pleased. But boys, even those who can negotiate Tudor polyphony, will be boys.