In the week that the BBC myopically announced the impending demise of the BBC Singers, the combined choirs of Cranleigh School, Cranleigh Prep School and the Cranleigh Choral Society presented a compelling case in support of the benefits and joy to be experienced through choral singing.

To see and hear a choir of a hundred people (whose age range spans at least seven decades) working with one common goal, was to experience something uniquely powerful. Music has the power to ask difficult questions, to explore challenging themes, and it is not always meant to be easy listening. As ‘high culture’, we need to invest considerable time and energy in both performing and understanding it, and the large audience which attended the Merriman Orchestra and Choir Concert endorsed the opinion that high culture must be maintained and supported.

Combining Margaret Bonds’ Montgomery Variations (1964) with Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time (1939-41), the programme explored themes of social injustice and humankind’s ability to persecute those seen as ‘outside’ the accepted norms of society and culture. Linked by a common thread of using spirituals to bind these philosophical themes, both are direct commentaries on the oppressed, and can be seen as a call for peace; something that resonates clearly at the present time. Performing music by a black female composer is a strong statement of intent for this orchestra, and the overwhelming feeling after hearing Margaret Bonds’ piece was that it deserves to be performed more often; its accessible style perhaps reminiscent of Aaron Copland’s music – but its political message far more direct. A genuinely entertaining piece, it proved an excellent choice for the first half of the concert, and was performed with panache and skill. The numerous pupils seated in the choir stalls had the great privilege of experiencing the interaction and power of a professional orchestra at close proximity.

In Dr Andrew Thomas, the Merriman Orchestra has an exceptional conductor, and his choice of repertoire for this concert was brave; a wholehearted endorsement of the Music Department’s commitment to celebrating greater diversity, and simultaneously challenging and entertaining for audience and performers alike. His leadership of the orchestra is clear, authoritative, and of the highest calibre, and he has raised their standard of playing beyond anything previously achieved. A choral expert; commanding the combined forces of a large choir and orchestra, together with four professional soloists, allowed him to highlight his exceptional multifaceted talent, and he enjoys the respect of soloists, orchestra and choir alike for his engaging style. The orchestra itself included several members of the Music Staff, including orchestra leader Mr Kevin Weaver, numerous visiting music teachers, plus four Old Cranleighans and several of our most advanced pupils who embraced the opportunity to play in a professional orchestra. The soloists included Mrs Rosanna Harris and Dr Chloe Allison (OC), both of whom teach singing at Cranleigh. Mrs Harris is building a notable career as an operatic soprano, and her gorgeous tone was notable throughout, whilst Dr Allison’s mellifluous alto was presented with a searing clarity only achieved through forensic understanding of the text and music, and how they work together.

This is the first large-scale choral concert at Cranleigh in five years, and the combined choirs worked exceptionally hard all term to learn this challenging music. Through extending them beyond what is comfortable, we learn that the value of high culture has no limit, even if we do not always instantly appreciate it. This was an outstanding concert that brought the entire musical community of Cranleigh together: ex cultu robur.