Turning 50 is a special occasion. I celebrated my 50th birthday earlier this year, and on Sunday I had the pleasure of attending the 50th Birthday of Pro Corda, which was marked with an afternoon concert held at the Purcell Room on the South Bank in London.
Pro Corda Trust is a music and educational charity which was founded by Pamela Spofforth MBE and Elizabeth Hewlins MBE. Its purpose is ‘to provide for and conduct the education of young persons and others in the whole art, philosophy and theory of music, particularly chamber music’. Pro Corda is the largest music organisation of its kind and is recognised as the UK’s centre of excellence for ensemble training.
It is the only youth music organisation in the UK to provide a continuous and progressive programme of education through the medium of chamber music and ensemble training from age 5 to 24. Home, for the majority of courses, is Leiston Abbey in Suffolk (pictured below). But the organisation also offers national provision and opportunity all around the country, including courses and workshops in Yorkshire, Gloucestershire, Buckinghamshire, Wiltshire, Sussex, Surrey and Kent.
In addition to ‘core’ courses for talented young musicians, which are accessible through audition, Pro Corda has pioneered an innovative course for children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities, using the power of ensemble training to benefit personal and social progression. This programme serves SEND schools and units across the country.
Pro Corda’s work employs a holistic approach, aiming to benefit the person as a whole, as well as the musician, with the mission to unleash the wider social benefits of chamber music in terms of participation, access and learning. And in addition to the courses for younger musicians, there are adult piano courses too.
At the 50th Birthday concert we were treated to an impressive smorgasbord of all that Pro Corda represents; an eclectic mix of ensemble groups, choirs, and a string orchestra, displaying a high standard of musicianship.
The afternoon began with a beautifully crafted first movement of Schubert’s String Quintet in C major, D956, which was played by students from the Intermediate Course. This was followed by the Pavack Trio (pictured to the left) comprising clarinet, violin and piano. Not a combination commonly heard, however this ensemble had won the 2019 Under 16s ‘Chamber Champions’ award at the Pro Corda National Music Festival (which is held annually), and it was easy to see why. For me, their performance was the highpoint of the afternoon. They romped through the Overture from Milhaud’s Suite for Violin, Clarinet and Piano Op. 157b, the first movement of Khachaturian’s Trio for Clarinet, Violin and Piano, Poulenc’s L’invitation au château, and a movement from Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat.
The Pro Corda choir followed featuring students from Preparatory, Primary and Junior Courses. Singing in harmony and directed by Anna Strevens, they offered a lovely selection: The Salley Gardens (Traditional) and With A Little Help From My Friends (Beatles).
Beethoven’s immense string quartet, the Grosse Fugue in B flat major Op. 133 isn’t an obvious choice for a celebratory Sunday afternoon concert, but that’s exactly what the Senior Course students performed. And they played it superbly, with panache and the necessary intensity required for this fiendishly demanding double fugue.
A lengthy interval provided time to reflect, a chance to catch-up with many of my friends and colleagues, and enjoy the copious champagne.
In the second half, the feast of music making continued, firstly from Pro Corda’s outreach students. These students attend the ‘Activities Unlimited’ weekends, which are sponsored by Suffolk County Council, and by BBC Children in Need for those living in the London boroughs.
The Music Theatre Ensemble Showcase was formed of special educational needs and disabilities students, and together they offered The Greatest Showman, a medley of various current pop and rock tunes which were sung and danced to with the aid of very effective lighting and a lively, energetic, and enthusiastic team of tutors. It was certainly an audience favourite. Such ensemble focused activities seek to develop creative, communicative and confidence skills. I found this segment of the concert particularly moving. It was a joy witnessing the happiness these young people brought to this performance; it clearly offers a wonderful chance to explore stage craft and build necessary life skills.
Pro Corda’s CEO and Artistic Director Andrew Quarterman, who had been piano accompanist for several of the ensembles during the afternoon, spoke eloquently about the birthday celebrations; there had been over 50 events throughout the year, and the organisation were now looking forward to restoration of Leiston Abbey.
The afternoon concluded with the Senior Course Orchestra; a string orchestra directed by violinist and Pro Corda alumni Simon Blendis. Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony in C minor Op. 110a was the chosen piece. This dark, reflective work was written after Shostakovich had suffered two traumatic life events; the first was a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (a debilitating muscular weakness), and the second, his reluctance to join the Communist Party. Apparently, the composer thought of this work as his epitaph, as he planned to commit suicide around this time. Thankfully, Shostakovich grappled with his demons and survived for many subsequent years. The orchestra captured the dismal character with a bleak, devastating performance, which certainly left myself and my companion in a contemplative state.
Pro Corda endeavours to help a wide cross-section of young musicians which is no easy task here in the UK. They no doubt battle for funding at a time when those in charge of our country repeatedly fail to see the benefits that music education can provide for everyone. Such initiatives should be rolled out across the country (and the world), in order to encourage young people to value, respect and enjoy music and the arts, as well as learn the many skills it bestows. Here’s to Pro Corda’s next 50 years!
For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.
You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.