The story of the Epiphany Singers Concert in Walsham-le-Willows
One of the highlights of the year is the Epiphany which is usually celebrated on the first weekend of every New Year. An ad hoc group of nationally and internationally famous singers and musicians mysteriously gather in the village for a Carol Concert on the Saturday evening, and then sing a classic Eucharistic setting for the service on the Sunday morning. They then disperse their many ways until they all meet again in twelve months time. It is a musical treat not to be missed!
In January 2016 the Epiphany Singers gave their 46th annual carol concert in St. Mary’s Church, Walsham le Willows. Twenty singers, together with a conductor and an organist, gather to make music to celebrate this often neglected major Christian festival.
The concert was the brain–child of Mrs Norah Ross, whose father was for some years priest–in–charge of the parishes of Badwell Ash and Great Ashfield, and whose two sons, David and Keith, were choristers at King’s College, Cambridge, Keith returning in due course as a choral scholar. In 1971, when Badwell Ash church was recruiting a choir and needed money for robes and such, Mrs Ross suggested that Keith might get some of his former King’s choral scholar friends together to give a concert in the church. This they did, and the concert took place over the Epiphany weekend in January 1971, with six singers and an organist/conductor.
Why in Walsham?
The concert became an annual event, and for the first four years was held in Badwell Ash church. In 1973 a Sunday morning service was added, sung in Woolpit church, as it was again in 1974. The first Carol Concert held in Walsham-le-Willows church was in 1975, the Sunday service that year being in Great Ashfield church. Next year the carol concert was held in Woolpit, and the Sunday service in Stowlangtoft.
From 1977 onwards both events have taken place in Walsham-le-Willows, which the Singers decided that they preferred for many reasons: it was always warm, there is a good organ – and a good pub – in the right place, and the welcome and hospitality of Walsham folk are above praise.
And why Epiphany?
The reason that this festival of the Church is often neglected in ‘choirs and places where they sing’ is that the singers, young and old, having sung up to and including Christmas Day (and sometimes beyond) are on holiday; and this, of course, makes recruiting for the Epiphany Singers easier, since professional singers, as most of them are, tend to start work later in January and so are free – and, it would seem, most willing, which might explain why the numbers have almost trebled over the years – to spend a couple of days making music in Suffolk.
The ladies tend to sing with professional choirs such as the Tallis Scholars and the Monteverdi Choir, while the men are from various generations of King‘s Choral Scholars (four of the original King‘s Singers and one of the present ones have sung in Walsham – though not all at the same time) or from cathedral or college choirs. Their number has included at different times distinguished soloists such as Charles Brett, William Kendall, Stephen Varcoe, and Sarah Fox who has gone on to sing major roles at Glyndebourne and the Royal Opera House. Ed Gardner, Music Director of the English National Opera, sang tenor here in 2000. Several of our cathedrals have provided organists and conductors over the years – Salisbury, Winchester, St Paul‘s, Lichfield, Southwark, together with St John‘s and Jesus Colleges, Cambridge, St George‘s Chapel, Windsor Castle, The Temple Church, London, and Westminster Abbey whose Organist Emeritus, Simon Preston, was in charge back in 2009. David Hill, Director of the Bach Choir and of the BBC Singers, has played the organ for the Singers on many occasions.
The Epiphany Carol Concert is usually at 7.30 p.m. on the first or second Saturday in January, and the Epiphany Eucharist is at 11.00 a.m. on the following Sunday. There is no admission charge, and tickets are not issued. Both events take place in St Mary‘s Church, Walsham-le-Willows, Suffolk.
Sue Leake | email@example.com