Chris Morley looks at a show that has become a standard for young choirs.
Three hundred pupils from Birmingham schools will be uniting in the Town Hall for a performance of Romany Wood, which has been flatteringly described as “England’s answer to Peter and the Wolf” on Sunday afternoon.
Based on a book published in 1972 and illustrated by a Romany gypsy, Beshlie, it was composed in 2002 by a headteacher and the father of two of his pupils.
Since then it has been performed on television and radio, and is set to travel all the way to Beijing, to be staged in the Chinese capital.
Composer, David Gaukroger, said: “David Carr, who was then a teacher in Thame, wrote a set of words for songs based on the ideas within the pictures. He intended them to be set by one of his pupils, Howard Goodall (the Emmy, Brit and BAFTA award-winning composer responsible for the theme music for Blackadder and The Vicar of Dibley).
“A few sketches were made before Howard went off to Oxford, but these haven’t been used. But Howard is still one of our greatest supporters”
Davids Gaukroger and Carr met at the primary school in Cleobury Mortimer, where David Carr had transferred as headmaster.
“My children were pupils there”, says Gaukroger, “David and I chose seven of the songs, which I always intended would be pitched at non-specialist primary school-age singers.”
This was at a time when David Gaukroger was based and working in the Wyre Forest area. After studying at the Music Department of Birmingham University, he eventually worked in the Music Department at Kidderminster College, with a special interest in rock, jazz and audio-visual studies, before moving to Sunfield School in Clent, a residential school for children with profound autism. He retired in 2005, is now living in Wales, but is still active as a freelance examiner and adjudicator around the world.
Romany Wood has been performed in many formats.
“Performances have ranged from a few children around a piano to three capacity performances in Symphony Hall,” Gaukroger tells me.
“At one of those, 830 children sang, occupying the stalls, with the audience in the circles and choir stalls. That was with a very full orchestration. Its first performance was given in aid of Sunfield, with children from Wyre Forest schools. Adrian Chiles narrated, Jasper Carrott compered and William Boughton conducted the English Symphony Orchestra.
“Since then there have been over 70 performances, including a broadcast on Classic FM and excerpts on BBC1’s Songs of Praise.”
All the royalties from Romany Wood go to charity, and notable fund-raising performances have included three at Worcester Cathedral and Malvern Theatres in 2008, raising £13,000 for Worcestershire-based charities.
In 2009 there were two Royal Charity Gala performances. The first was in the presence of HRH Prince Edward, for the opening of the attractive and comfortable Theatre Severn in Shrewsbury. The second was at the Elmhurst School of Dance in Edgbaston (in some ways a foundation-school for Birmingham Royal Ballet), with the Duchess of Cornwall in attendance. This ballet version was directed by Desmond Kelly, once a leading principal of the Royal Ballet.
Sunday afternoon’s two 40-minute performances of Romany Wood at Birmingham Town Hall will be narrated by Nick Owen of the BBC’s Midlands Today, who is also a patron of St Mary’s Hospice in Selly Oak, which will be the recipient of all funds raised. Martin Leigh conducts the Birmingham Chamber Orchestra.
Among the 10 local schools taking part is Bournville Junior, just down the road from St Mary’s, with 40 children between the ages of seven and eleven participating.
Pete Haw, the school’s music co-ordinator is highly enthusiastic about the whole project. “The children’s involvement is a great way for them to learn about citizenship and how to help a very important local charity. We’re delighted to be a part of Romany Wood. One of our parent-governors, the opera-singer Claire Vaughan, has really given fantastic training to these children.”
After Birmingham Romany Wood moves to Warwick Arts Centre in Coventry, and later to Ely Cathedral.
The whole concept has some illustrious supporters, including the Prime Minister and the Archbishop of York, who have sung its praises on the website, www.romanywood.co.uk
The Archbishop, previously Bishop of Birmingham, John Sentamu, said. “Romany Wood is a wonderful opportunity for children to understand the power of music.”
Romany Wood is available for performance in a variety of formats – with piano accompaniment, with live orchestra, or by using orchestral backing tracks made by the Orchestra of Trinity College of Music. The Romany Wood Charitable Trust (Registered Charity Number 1115147) will provide free of charge all the materials to rehearse and perform the piece.
Participants are asked to make a donation from any profits made to the Trust, which uses the money to develop classical music among young people and donates to children’s charities in the UK and abroad.
* Romany Wood is performed at Birmingham Town Hall on Sunday (3.15pm and 6pm). Details on 0121 780 3333.