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No rocking John's memory

When musical director Richard Hoyle handed out the music for Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat at a recent choir rehearsal, bass member John Giffen had a thrill of recognition.

John performed in Guys and Dolls, the musical in which the number appears, way back in 1968.  He did so again in 1986, and his memory of the song had stuck.

So when a fellow choir-member queried the meaning of one of the lines, John was ready to explain.

The line in question arises when the character Nicely-Nicely Johnson tells how he dreamed of a playing the dice game craps – and “hollered, ‘Someone fade me’.”

Was the line correct?  And what did it mean?

John knew the line was right – and later told the choir that Nicely-Nicely was calling on someone to bet against him when he rolled the dice, otherwise the game was over.   The phrase echoes the street patois immortalised by Damon Runyon, on whose stories Guys and Dolls is based.

John’s two performances in Guys and Dolls were as a member of the Croydon Stagers, the local operatic and dramatic society which has been performing in Croydon since 1908.   Both productions were staged at the Ashcroft Theatre.

John sang and danced in both shows, and recalls that in 1968 “the show was superb – it was a complete sell-out all week.”

The Croydon Advertiser singled out Sit Down for praise, reporting that it was "stirringly sung”.

The 1986 version, which followed an acclaimed production by the National Theatre, was hailed in the Advertiser as “a delightful show”.

John felt that the quality of the dancing was better in 1986, and particularly remembers “complicated bobbing up and down” in the Sit Down number.

John appeared in over 60 Croydon Stagers musicals between 1965 and 1999, when he left and joined the CMVC. Although his dancing years are over, he is delighted to be able to sing the number again.  “There is great affinity between musicals and male choir repertoires, as our current programmes show,” John says.

Singing with history

Star-struck Lana Bode with Vaughan Williams' piano.

Croydon MVC sang along to a very special piano when it performed at St Michael's church, West Croydon, on September 18 2011.

The piano once belonged to composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, and choir pianist Lana Bode praised its "lovely tone and huge resonant bass sound - it was an honour to play." She added:  "I certainly felt a bit star-struck."


The church acquired the piano in the 1970s.  It was previously owned by parishioner and church member Harold Parsons, who had acquired it in turn from Vaughan Williams in 1953.

According to Father Donald Minchew, parish priest at St Michael's, Harold used to visit Vaughan Williams for singing lessons at the composer's home in Dorking.   When Vaughan Williams got married in 1953 and moved to London, he invited Harold to take his piano.   Harold installed the piano at his house in Croydon.  Around 1970, Harold moved into a nursing home and offered the piano in turn to the musical director at St Michael's, John Timbury.  It has been in the keeping of the church ever since.

One of the great names - a Bluthner grand from Leipzig

The piano, a Bluthner grand, made in Leipzig,  is a key artefact in the history of British music.  During his time at Dorking after WW2, Vaughan Williams composed his sixth and seventh symphonies - the latter, Sinfonia Antartica, was based on the film score he composed for the movie Scott of the Antarctic (1948).  He was also writing instrumental and choral works, including his arrangement of the Old One Hundredth Psalm for the 1953 coronation.

The transfer of the piano to Harold Parsons also marks a crucial intersect in Vaughan Williams' emotional life.  From 1896 to 1951, Vaughan Williams was married to Adeline Fisher.  In 1938, Vaughan Williams began an affair with the poet Ursula Wood, who also became his personal assistant, literary advisor and occasional librettist.

In 1953, two years after Adeline's death, Ralph and Ursula were married. In September they moved from Dorking to a house near Regent's Park in London - at which point Vaughan Williams offered the piano to Parsons.  The composer died four years later, at the age of 85.

CMVC accompanist Lana Bode was thrilled at the prospect of getting her hands on the piano.  Before the concert she said:  "Vaughan Williams is my favourite English composer, and I feel so fortunate to have the opportunity to play a piano that once belonged to him.  I've come across pianos that were played in concert by Chopin and Liszt, but not yet played one that actually belonged to a great composer.  I'm so pleased that the Vaughan Williams piano is still in use."

After the concert, she added the further comments:  "It was such an honour to have the chance to play Vaughan Williams' piano.  The instrument had a lovely tone and a huge resonant bass sound.  It has obviously been very well looked after in its time at St Michael's. It would have been wonderful to play even without the connection to Vaughan Williams.  I certainly felt a bit star-struck."

The concert, at which the choir sang a full selection from its current repertoire, was held in aid of the restoration fund for the chapel at Mayday Hospital - known and frequented by many members of the Croydon choir.   The soloist was talented soprano Victoria Whittaker, daughter of choir favourite Ann-Louise Straker.

St Michael's and All Angels, West Croydon, venue for CMVC concert on September 18 - and on February 19 next year.


Compare the Hwyl!

Four Croydon choristers helped provide hwyl for the Welsh rugby team against the Australians as members of the British Lions choir at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff on November 6 2010.  The four also sang with the choir at the Wales Festival of Remembrance where they accompanied celebrated Welsh tenor Wynne Evans, better known as Gio Compario in the TV ads.

The British Lions choir at Cardiff


 

The four members of the Croydon choir who helped fire up the Welsh team were John Aitkenhead, Stewart Robinson, Ernest Williams and Dave Bannister.  The Welsh term "hwyl" – coincidentally pronounced "Hoyle" – has no true  English equivalent but approximates to "passion".

Croydon barrie Dave Bannister (back row centre) at Cardiff

Although Ernest Williams was the only Welshman in the Croydon quartet, the other three being English, all four helped inspire both the team and the 60,000 crowd with Welsh-language favourites such as Llanfair, Sospan Fach and Calon Lan.  The 150-strong choir lined up behind both teams on the pitch, and alongside the regimental mascot the Goat Major,  to sing the Australia and Wales national anthems.

 

Croydon's Stewart Robinson

The singing clearly inspired the Welsh to an early lead against the intimidated Wallabies.  Sadly this was reversed after half time, following the choir’s departure to rehearse for their evening engagement.

 

The Goat Major

In the evening the Croydon singers joined massed choirs and the Band of the Royal Welsh at Cardiff’s St David’s Hall as part of the Wales Festival of Remembrance. With the conductor’s baton shared by Alwyn Humphreys and Haydn James, pieces included Croydon and male-voice favourites Mansions of the Lord, Bring him Home and Battle Hymn of the Republic, in which Wynne Evans (aka Gio Compario) took the solo verse.

 



 
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