Sunday, 12 February 2017

Love is in The Air

(Hallmark of Harmony's show at Sheffield Cathedral on Saturday, 11th February 2017)

On Saturday night, the chorus of Hallmark of Harmony put on a show at Sheffield's Cathedral Church of St Peter and St Paul; a great venue with a magnificent acoustic.

Chorus with a view (Photo: John Anstie)
For a moment, I stood on top of the world, a feeling prompted by having to stand on the uppermost platform of the tallest and steepest risers I've ever had the pleasure to stand on. Shoulder to shoulder with my fellow singers at Hallmark, we looked 'down' ... a very long way down ... on the audience. At first, it felt like that moment before you take flight; before you jump out of an aeroplane, combined with a sense of euphoria induced by a mild dose of adrenalin. But then reality kicked in and so it began.

The audience, queueing from just before 7pm, by the time the show opened at 7:30pm, filled every last seat in the Cathedral; plus extras I suspect! It was bursting at the seams, a huge lift before we'd even started. 

What followed was very special. The Sheffield Senior Schools Orchestra was spread in front of us. Their performance was immense. The acoustic was brilliant and the echo of the final chords, before each applause, ringing from our unaccompanied singing was one of the most memorable things I'll carry with me for some time. At the end of the show, the response of the audience was almost unexpected, if that doesn't sound contradictory. It was as much an acknowledgement of how well the orchestra performed, made up, as it is, of the finest young musicians from this city of music, as it was of the chorus of Hallmark of Harmony. Here's what John Faben of Hallmark's own PR team wrote ...

" Come on, deliver to me!

And deliver they did - in spades. From West Side Story to Braveheart, the astonishingly proficient talents of the Sheffield Senior Schools Orchestra, under the charismatic direction of Ian Naylor provided a remarkable counterpoint to Hallmark's singing, in the stunning surroundings of Sheffield Cathedral. In a first for the chorus, we even sang two songs accompanied by a symphony orchestra!

Love is in the Air was a Valentine's show with a difference; without an MC, but with a clever and moving narrative by Mike Lowry, which wove the musical pieces together and was delivered brilliantly by Caroline Hallam and Ed Sayers-Flood. 

After the show some veterans of Hallmark (of whom there are quite a few!) were heard to say that this was the best show they had ever been part of. Praise indeed from guys who have sung all over the UK and in the USA. 

So a big thank you to everyone who took part. Thank you to Ian and to Tim Briggs for their superb direction and to Rachel Ward, of the Music Hub, who played a large part in helping to make it all happen, but special thanks to the accomplished musicians in the orchestra. We were proud to share a stage with you. 

Let's do it again, soon! "

Everything they played was impressive. Notably, their tour de force, in the second half, of Leonard Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, itself complex enough for even the most experienced orchestra was quite frankly epic. This also, incidentally, involved the chorus making certain 'moves' and 'gestures' at various points throughout the twenty minute piece, whilst trying not to distract the attention of the audience ... more of a challenge than you might think! Another of my favourite pieces was one that opened the second half; that big as the sky, screen busting theme by the evergreen John Barry, of the film "Out of Africa"; so very stirring.

It is true, Hallmark of Harmony and barbershop singers in general, spend some of their time singing romantic ballads. And so it was on Saturday night, on the eve, so to speak, of Valentines Day. We sang some of the more romantic songs from our current repertoire; songs like, "Happy Together", "You Are My Sunshine", "Till There Was You", "Mona Lisa", "Too Marvellous for Words". Two of the songs we performed were accompanied by the orchestra. The first was from Sheffield's own: Human League's big 1981 Christmas No.1 hit "Don't You Want Me, Baby". But perhaps the most special songs were saved till last. We sang, a cappella, Leonard Cohen's evergreen "Hallelujah", which rang gloriously through every hallowed corner of the cathedral. Then the song that closed the show, "I Only Have Eyes for You". Accompanied beautifully by the strings of the orchestra, this song was our finale and presented to the audience for the first time in the show, the boy and girl, who were the voices of the love story narrative that threaded itself seamlessly through the evening ... and n'er one eye was left too dry.

Suffice to say, if I could, I would have bottled the final ovation and taken it home with me, even though I know a good deal of it was for those young talents in the orchestra. I could then open it, whenever things aren't going as well as they are right now, and hold it to my ear, as if to remind me that whatever skill or gift for good we are blessed with ... and, regardless of whether we think we have something to offer ... we should always try to share it, at least offer it. However insignificant you may think your contribution may be for a world so full of human strife, each of us can at least try to do our best for the benefit of our fellow beings and to encourage our children to do the same, much as the Sheffield Music Hub are doing with this orchestra and many other musical endeavours with the children of Sheffield schools. The rewards are beyond price.

Whilst Hallmark's Show Team do a remarkable job of putting our performances on the stage, it would be remiss of me not to mention some individuals. The man, who conceived the idea and produced and directed the narrative through the show is is the young and talented Mr Paul Kaiserman. Not to forget our even younger bass singer, roadie, script consultant and programme writer, Mr Paul "Fingers" Dalpra.

It's also thanks to the singers of Hallmark and to their top notch music team that I have this opportunity to do something I always wanted to do. In consequence of this evening, I am left with the feeling that anything is possible, including for me, the magic and therapeutic effect that using the human voice to sing in harmony has not only on performers but also on audiences everywhere. 

Long may it last. 


Thursday, 1 December 2016

Friday, 24 June 2016

On The UK Referendum ... and its Result.

Well, David Cameron and his cabinet of privileged bubble dwellers have masterminded another stroke of shear genius, their own undoing! Or have they, perhaps, been so clever with their PR machine, that this is the result they actually wanted all along? Will they yet steal victory from the jaws of defeat, by turning their devious attention on furthering their own interests, knowing full well that they can say: "Well the people of this country voted for this, so this is what we must do!"..?

What is clear to me is that their own arrogance over the past six years has unleashed a massive backlash from a population of people who are clearly fed up, but, perhaps because of the state of political democracy, are also feeling a little rudderless. It occurs to me from the figures that it cannot simply be about the immigration issue on its own; there must have been some deep, considered thinking going on in households across the UK beyond the misleading sound bites ... or has there? Has there? 

Or has a crucial proportion of the UK's electorate simply allowed itself to be ruled, nay possibly manipulated by an emotional response to what is a game changing vote, with what must be a record (72%) turn out? Have the 'Leave' voters allowed themselves to be swayed by a desire for change, for the sake of change, from the relentless poor bashing' self-serving policies of a right wing elitist government? Have they allowed themselves to be moved to roll down their protectionist shutters in the belief that we will 'take back control'? Have they missed some crucial facts about the benefits of our membership of the EU? 

Have they missed the fact that, and I quote from a statement by Professor Michael Dougan, a leading light at Liverpool University, who is an acknowledged expert on EU Law: "a significant majority of the foreign nationals living in the UK (2/3 at the last national census), and over half the net immigration each year, come from outside the EU". Professor Dougan also says: "as regards those EU nationals who come to the UK: it is completely dishonest of prominent Leave campaigners repeatedly to claim that there is some sort of unconditional right to move to and settle in another Member State" ... that (my words) they presume will continue after our severance from the EU. And "Against that background, it is unsurprising to find that – according to all the objective social science research – EU migrants are significantly more likely to be younger, better qualified and economically active; they pay far more into the country in work and taxes than they take out in public benefits or services".

The full text of Professor Dougan's statement on European migration and the further link to his full talk on the legal aspects of our membership of the EU are to be found here.

The only objective thing I feel can say about the result of the UK Referendum, at this moment in time, is that it has engaged 72% of an electorate, a significant proportion of which is normally thoroughly disengaged from the political process. I also note that this referendum has effectively been conducted using proportional representation! I wonder what the result of the last general election would have been with a 72% turn out? I wonder what it would have been under proportional representation? There is a clue here, from those who habitually do not vote in local and general elections, that, perhaps, just perhaps the system needs changing! 

There is only one certain thing that will ... that would ever have ... come out of the vote to leave. It is that the future is very uncertain! At least more uncertain than if we had voted to Remain a member of the EU. These are very worrying times.

One last thought: the legal profession now have the unenviable task of disentangling ourselves from European Law and redrafting UK law! Well, perhaps it is enviable for your employment prospects, if you happen to be a lawyer, who specialises in European Law! What now for those European Laws that have come about as a direct result of our membership of the EEC / EU over the past forty years? Those laws that help protect our environment, help keep our food safe to eat, that give us employment rights, maternity leave etc. etc..?? What of all those charitable, cultural and caring organisations that rely on EU funding for their livelihood? In whose hands will this rehashing of UK laws be placed? Not the UK parliament, because they will simply not have the time and resource to digest and redraft the gazillions of pages of legal documents that cover a generation's worth of legislation! Legal groups appointed by government, manned by private lawyers, corporate lawyers ...?

What now!? One thing for sure that you can count on: we will not be better off. The 190 Million per week (NOT 350 Million) NETT contribution to the EU will not be available to find its way into the NHS and other public services, not least of all because, if the leaders of the Brexit campaign have any say in it, the NHS will be dismantled faster than the current government was attempting to dismantle it! And it is going to cost us to negotiate trade deals with other nations, country by country. 

Why in God's name, apart from to satisfy personal political ambitions, did we waste all this valuable time and money in holding a referendum in the first place!? What do we really hope to achieve by this separation!? I guess God only knows! 

Sunday, 10 April 2016

A Mass for Peace

I spent the first part of today marshalling a walk for Barnsley Hospice at Wentworth Castle this morning. Not that I wasn't also sparing thoughts for those who have been unfortunate, yet fortunate enough to have benefitted, directly or indirectly, from the services of a hospice, but I couldn't help but reflect on how much of an assault on the senses Karl Jenkins' "The Armed Man", a Mass for Peace, represents. Such an experience for the over one hundred members of Waldershelf Singers and Stannington Mixed choirs, who performed this powerful hour long piece last night!
I'd like to say I am thankful that I went to the Victoria Hall in Sheffield to witness this. Even though I am very familiar with this piece and have heard it many times over the past few years, last night It moved me more than I could ever have expected; and this is simply because it was performed so very, very well. I am feeling very proud to have been and still to be associated with the Waldershelf Singers and many of the performing musicians and singers. The fact that Waldershelf Singers' musical director, who conducted this performance, almost broke down at the end out of shear emotional exhaustion, is testament to the fact that this piece of music is undeniably a powerful tour de force; so well done Rachel! This was your own tour de force. Soloists: Hilary Osborn, Emily Doreen Atkinson, Daniel Timmins, Thomas Baycroft; to the musicians of the Inyerface Arts group: Joseph Shaw, Jack Chapman, Martin Thiselton and several other key and talented musicians; the back stage and front of house crews, Steve Osborn, Emily Needle and MANY more! Such a huge effort for a production that raised a lot of money for Contact the Elderly and British Red Cross. 
As a postscript, of course, it cannot be forgotten why this piece of music was written at the turn of the millennium, at the end of a century dominated by the most distructive of wars. We are also in the midst of the centenary commemorating the first of those wars, WW1. Karl Jenkins intention was to embrace all faiths and religions of the world, not forgetting the presence last night of an Imam from the Sheffield Mosque, who 'sang' the second movement, the Call to Prayers. These aims are very much in keeping with those of the Bardo Group, founded by G Jamie Dedes ... reminding us of our need to rise above the polarisation of politics and religion across the world.
I leave you with this ...

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Fortune Favours the Bold ... and the Fortunate!

Of all the songs that I remember Joan Baez singing, there is one that I always recall first ... "There But for Fortune". Written by Phil Ochs, but made famous in 1964 by herself. Have a listen to the simple but effective lyrics ... 

Several events this year have reminded me, poignantly, how much we are at the mercy of fate. Whatever we do to try and gain and retain control of our lives, there are times when we cannot possibly achieve that. We may all suffer bad luck from time to time, but, fortunately, for many of us, we will escape severe, life changing misfortune.

Since the beginning of this year, my wife has lost a close, career long friend at far too young an age; my son and daughter-in-law lost their baby, Samuel, at four weeks of age; my daughter lost a baby at thirteen weeks gestation; my niece's husband, whilst doing something as inconsequential as cleaning out their refuse bin, slipped a disk in the lumbar region of his spine.

But this was no ordinary slipped disk! Mark suffered the severest slippage the senior surgeon reported that he had ever seen! His medical condition is referred to as 'Cauda Equina Syndrome'. He spent over four months in hospital, for more than half of which he was at that world renowned centre of excellence in spinal injuries, Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, England. He is now home, but in a wheel chair and, for short distances on crutches. He is a sporting, physically fit young man in his early forties. He is also very bright, but occasionally under confident and inclined not to push himself forward, which is partly why I am writing this now. I think he is also inclined to underestimate his abilities and his value. He and my niece have two children, a boy of three and a girl of nine years old. Mark has lost substantial motor and sensory response in his left leg, whilst his right leg is barely half way useful. He cannot even stand without support.

We called in on Mark on Friday, and he has clearly adopted a remarkably positive attitude. He is very busy trying to organise and sort out the rest of his life, along with Sarah, his extremely hard working, very supportive and utterly dedicated wife. Their attempt at getting some expected assistance from Social and Occupational Services, with the sort of equipment that he will need to resume his life at home, met with little or no help at all. Had they not been advised to push a little harder and complain, we might have assumed that this would be one more depressing impact of the 'austerity' that is so badly affecting the needy across the country. 

The response to the complaint met with a better response and some basic equipment has been provided, like a ramp to get in through the front door and crutches. This is beside the fact that he is a 'patient for life' at Stoke Mandeville and can therefore call or visit them anytime, albeit by appointment, to seek help from their expert outpatient team. But they are a three hour round trip away from Stoke Mandeville. 

Underneath the positive facade, there is the occasional glimmer of a young man haunted by flashes of disbelief and he himself admits he does regularly suffer those moments. 

I am posting this because I feel very fortunate ... and because Mark and his young family have not been. It is becoming very clear that Mark will still need to raise funds for equipment to give himself a chance of recovering and making adjustments to life with a revised set of abilities. One of the (many) objectives is a FES (Functional Electrical Stimulation) machine. The FES is rather like a TENS machine, only bigger. This is designed to tackle significant muscle wastage, which is particularly prominent in his left leg, and is having all sorts of side effects. One side effect is that the muscles and core support in his back are suffering an imbalance, which, apart from causing pain, will affect his mobility and his morale, and does threaten additional problems that he can really do without. The FES machine is relatively new in the UK and, you've guessed, expensive. 

Amongst the activities that are most likely to motivate him, Mark is intent on maintaining his involvement in sport. He used to enjoy football (and did some coaching at a local school), squash, badminton and, perhaps his first love, golf. He may not be able to involve himself in these again, in the same way, but he has talked to the wheelchair basket ball fraternity and, as luck would have it whilst he was at Stoke Mandeville, he was able to watch the Para-Badminton World Championships at the Guttman Sports Stadium (adjacent to Stoke Mandeville Hospital) and to meet and talk with some of the competitors. Professor Ludwig Guttman was asked by the government in 1943, to establish the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital and is credited with being the founding father of the Para-Olympic movement in the 1950's, which started out as the Stoke Mandeville Games.

An additional challenge for Mark is that viable clubs around the country are few and far between. A common story seems to be one of how hard disadvantaged people have had to fight (and pay) for their desire to be involved in their chosen sport, let alone for equipment they need to live any kind of of normal life. 

To this end, Mark's squash club, the Hinckley Squash & Racketball Club, have set up a JustGiving fundraiser for him, having expressed in their mission (on the JustGiving page), that they want to help to buy Mark the right sort of equipment to enable him to participate in sport. In the words of the the Club, the value to Mark in both physical and psychological terms, is massive! The Club have organised a 24-hour 'Squashathon' starting at 7pm (GMT) on Friday, 16th October and finishing at 7pm on Saturday.

It might help to read the explanations under the following headings, lower down on the right hand side of the JustGiving page: "What's the problem we're trying to solve?"; "Why do we care about this?"; "How will the money be spent?" and "When will the supporters see the difference?". I think this effort by the Club reveals chiefly how popular and how much liked Mark is as a person, not to mention his skills as a sportsman. 

The JustGiving appeal page is here: 

For those, who love sport and were fortunate enough to be active in it, but who have been so quickly disadvantaged in the middle of their lives, Sport is truly a lifeline. It is easy to see why and how the Paralympics have become so important and so popular.

I applaud the spirit and courage of both Mark and Sarah and our thoughts (and actions when you need them) are with you always.