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How Trinity’s Choir is keeping the music playing

Whether it’s Bach’s Mass in B Minor, Howells’ Collegium Regale, or music by living composers, Trinity College Choir is world-renowned for its recordings, for which it has won international awards and garnered rave reviews.

Trinity’s Singing on the River is a popular free concert. Photo: Laura Rupolo

The Choir also loves to perform light music, as encores to their concerts and tours around the world, and at their annual Singing on the River concert enjoyed by thousands each year. A few years ago, the Choir set out to record some of this music for the first time, and a series of light music, swing and jazz ballads taken from these recording sessions is being released during lockdown.

This Thursday, the Choir’s performance of Michel Legrand’s ‘How Do You Keep the Music Playing’ will be made available to all on the Choir’s YouTube channel, following the release of Duke Ellington’s ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),’ in March.

These recordings were the inspiration of Trinity’s Director of Music, Stephen Layton, who worked with composer and vocalist, Joanna Forbes L’Estrange to coach the singers in how to perform jazz. With a talented set of singers and the audience response to light music performed at concerts, Mr Layton wanted to stretch the Choir and experiment with what is a challenging repertoire to perform and record well.

Then Choir member and Modern and Medieval Languages student, Ellie Tobin, recalls the experience:

Singing and performing light music is a very different technique to choral singing and quite vocally demanding. The training was invaluable in so many ways; not least learning how to properly ‘swing’ phrases and how to make our voices sound more like instruments but also getting us to ‘unlearn’ so much of our classical training.

We even had to re-learn how to pronounce English as the light music warrants a bit more of a transatlantic sound than our classic English choral pronunciation!

The 2015 recording of the Legrand’s ‘How Do You Keep the Music Playing’ in Trinity’s Chapel

The recording process was also very new to the Choir.

‘It was completely different to our usual recording setup, as we were all closely mic’d with only one or two voices per microphone, and standing in the round allowed for us to hear each other better and work more closely as a team,’ said Ellie. ‘It pushed us outside our comfort zones and really helped us to let go and embrace the new experience and the more upbeat pieces!’

Now a Commissioning Manager for a local authority in London and the NHS, Ellie has very fond memories of her time in the Choir, which included singing the Legrand piece on a US tour. It also touched a deeper chord for members of the Choir.

Whilst recording, we all felt quite emotional actually, probably as choral singers we’re not used to singing about lost love or other experiences that we, as young people, may have directly experienced or related to; we’re much more at home singing a Gloria or an Agnus Dei, which are emotional and thought-provoking but in very different ways!

I am delighted that the recordings are being made public for people to enjoy from the comfort of their own home rather than from a chilly punt on the River Cam! I hope it brings a bit of joy to people in what is otherwise a very challenging time for many.

Michel Legrand composed the music and Alan and Marilyn Bergman wrote the lyrics of ‘How Do You Keep the Music Playing?’ for the 1982 film Best Friends. Star of the Trinity release of the song is mezzo-soprano, Helen Charlston, a choral scholar whose performance, says Ellie, virtually always brought audiences to tears.

Helen Charlston. Photo: Benjamin Ealovega

Helen went on to an international career almost straight from Trinity. Her affinity is with music from the Baroque period and she is in great demand to sing music by Bach and Handel amongst many other composers of that time. Meanwhile she is pioneering a project inspired by the seventeenth-century composer Barbara Strozzi, who wrote her music in collaboration with Venetian poets. Read an interview with Helen: Performing a brilliant balancing act.

For Helen the video of the recording of the Legrand piece, in her final year at Trinity, brought back powerful memories.

For me, there was no doubt that time was tinged with sadness knowing what I was about to leave behind: the College I had called home, my best friends and the best music making I had been involved thus far in my life. Somehow, Michel Legrand’s song epitomises that.

As a Choir we had worked so hard on this programme throughout the year, building on the music we sang on the river from punts every summer. Seeing directly into the Chapel for this recording brings all the excitement and anticipation flooding back.

The song has taken on an unexpected significance in the current situation, with the music industry striving through uncertain times, Helen said.

It is a joy to see right into the heart of the musical life of the College again and be reminded that even though we know ‘we’re always changing’ music, Trinity and the life we have built because of it, remains a guiding light.

I write this having just tuned in to the Wigmore Hall’s first live concert in three months, broadcast live to thousands of audience members across the world. Michel Legrand is right – the music never ends – and I am so proud that much of my music began here.

Read the interview with Helen Charlston Peforming a brilliant balancing act

Read Reverend Olga Fabrikant-Burke’s Reflection Reinventing Evensong


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