singing at teapot valley

Elaine Harmer

 Choir has started again for the year, and at least four of us – Kevin, Jacquelene, Tricia and I – are coming back as though on a cloud after attending the Teapot Summer School only a week earlier. Teapot Valley! If you’ve never heard of this obscure place with the curious name, it’s not surprising. Tucked into a secluded valley close to Brightwater, it is a camp that is normally used by school kids. Yet every summer for the last 20 years there has been a gathering here of up to 90 people of all ages who love choral singing and who spend nine days preparing a high-quality programme of choral music for a concert on the last day. You can read more about it at https://teapotsummerschool.co.nz.


The programme this year was called ‘The Cambridge Connection’. It was pretty exciting, as all of it was by contemporary composers with a connection to Cambridge University. The musical director was Ben Parry, a dynamic inspiration to us all, who studied at Cambridge and also directed the Kings choir. 


The first work was by Sir David Willcocks, the revered director of music at Kings College, Cambridge and the first director to come to Teapot Summer School. His work was ‘A Ceremony of Psalms’. His setting of five beloved psalms encompasses the full range of human emotions in a piece full of vitality. Will King, a young Aucklander, was the wonderful baritone soloist.


The next work was ‘Missa Brevis Akarana’ by New Zealand composer Chris Artley, who studied at Cambridge University. He is the music master at Auckland’s Kings College, and has won many prizes for his beautiful compositions. He enjoys working in both classical and jazz traditions, and his Missa was exciting to sing, sometimes with bluesy rhythms and harmonies, sometimes sweetly melodic, always exciting. The organ interlude with violin, played by Kathryn Parry, Ben’s wife, was truly angelic. Chris has been coming to Teapot for many years and is a friendly, humble person who just happens to be a genius. (An interview with him can be heard on RNZ Concert here:  https://www.rnz.co.nz/concert/programmes/upbeat )


These two works formed the major part of the programme. Next was a piece by Ben Parry himself: ‘Land Ho!’, with inspiring quotations from famous explorers, which used the kind of dynamic energy that Ben himself has. Lastly, was ‘Feel the Spirit’, a medley of spirituals by the wonderful John Rutter (who also was a musical director at Cambridge.) This was also fun to sing, and featured the amazing voice of soloist Claire Barton.


After an intensive eight days, when we had a total of 25 rehearsals with Ben, not to mention our own hastily organised sectionals, we were ready to roll. 


Of course, among all that work, there are plenty of light-hearted moments. For a start, the staff at Teapot are always keen to impress us with their menus, and treat us like honoured guests. They make the most beautiful healthy and enticing meals with plenty of salads and fruit, For breakfast, among other choices, their porridge is legendary. They really excelled themselves this time with a dinner featuring a spinach and salmon roulade.


In the evenings, friendly, inclusive activities are encouraged, so that nobody feels left out. The Scrabble champions and the card players come out in force. One of the ‘Teapotters’ is a silent movie buff. Every year he brings along a movie and, as an excellent pianist, he accompanies it with melodramatic music!. This year it was the original story that Madam Butterfly was based on – every bit as tear-jerking as the opera itself. 


Then, the Cabaret! This is the evening that all the wits look forward to, where the director comes in for a ribbing if he or she has had any obvious quirks. There was a lot of humour around Ben trying to flog off his CDs, for example. There was an extraordinary-looking Christmas Tree Fairy who narrated her woes and was obviously a troubled soul; an offering from a group singing a very sad version of ‘Sad Movies’, and many more funny items. Serious items are also given, and our incomparable accompanist Jonathan Berkahn accompanies everyone who needs him, ad-libbing if need be, often using his accordion as well. This year the daughter of the head of staff of the camp played an accomplished trombone solo, which impressed us all.


The concert, aptly called ‘Singing for Joy’ was performed at the Nelson Centre of Musical Arts and went down very well. Altogether it is no wonder we four are all still on a high and ready to fly into the new year. The feeling lasts for months, so uplifting is it.


At Teapot we are given voice coaching and helped to nurture our voices; given tips on how to sing so we stay in tune, etc. Since Robert has come to the choir here we get that from him as well, and so now I feel uplifted all year round! I used to despair and often talked about giving up but since we have had this seamless support, I’ve forgotten about that. So, a very big thank you to Robert; I hope we all know how lucky we are.




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Director Ben Parry at the concert.

Photo courtesy of Stuff