Tuesday, September 30, 2008


You may have seen advertisements in this journal for a summer course for singers August 1 to 9 and I went to see what goes on. To start with SMAULL is not a misprint, it is a Gaelic name for a farm in a place about as remote as you can get although as the Crow Flies (or British Airways) only some three score miles due west of Glasgow. It is on the Isle of Islay where the Lords of the Isles held sway a few centuries ago. From the airport you get in your car, take an A road, then several B roads and finally some roads further down the alphabet, ending up unlocking a padlock, opening a few more gates, till you get to the farm house where live the organisers of the course, Philip Maxwell, and his wife Briony. Adjacent to the house are barns, one of which is the home of several hundred choughs, the other of which has been turned into two music rooms. Here may be found the dozen participants in the course, the teachers and one or two hangers on, like myself, a non-participating listener.

The singers are mixed pros, students and amateurs, living in the house or nearby, a happy band of congenial muzos. Each of the singers has prepared three songs (the first two had worked up Britten, Brahms and Poulenc; Roussel, Wolf and Schumann). In addition certain numbers or scenes from operas were on the agenda; and the singers also sang as a chamber choir. The standard varied.

Mary Hill not only coached but also took SATB ensemble. She was one of the teachers but the main master classes were given by Richard Jackson, sometimes baritone in the Song Makers Almanac. He knew every song by heart and its background. He had the gift of improving the singing of each participant by at least a third within twenty minutes, always encouraging, wonderfully inventive in his direction and never falling into the trap of turning teaching into an ego trip.

Richard was illuminating, inspiring – and entertaining. The accompanist, young Australian Claire Howard, also deserves a mention, expert, sympathetic and supportive (pretty too!).

There were two moments that stood out during my brief visit, both relating to Debussy: Marjorie Ouvry, inspired by Jackson, turned Noël des enfants –Debussy’s last song – into a wartime/mini drama; and Jan Wiener caught perfectly the fleeting poetic moods and emotions of La flûte de Pan. This was a singer in, what should one say?, the second flush of youth, using her voice in a way that had me remembering the great Maggie Teyte, who sixty years ago opened British ears to the marvels of French song.