Peter Harrison, 81, tells the story of how he and his wife, Vivien, 78, set up a fantastically successful series of classical music concerts. In their local village church. Sir Karl Jenkins, the classical composer is bringing the world premiere of his new work there on November 29th.
This is the story of an unexpected later-life vocation that has transformed my life. Alongside my wife Vivien, I am the co-founder of registered charity Grayshott Concerts, a classical music concert series established in 2004. I have no musical qualifications, but the sheer joy of sharing live classical music with others and creating a legacy for my community has culminated this year in bringing the world premiere of the new work by Sir Karl Jenkins, the world’s most-performed living composer, to a small village on the Hampshire-Surrey borders.
In 2003, our daughter married at our local village church, St Luke’s in Grayshott. We wanted a choir to perform during the service and lead the singing, not least as St Luke’s is a relatively large church and a big space to fill. I had been a chorister at school and university, and evidently had more important duties to perform on the day as the father of the bride, but we successfully recruited a host of singing locals and the ceremony was beautiful.
The following year, the church was appealing for funds and we rallied the same choir to put on a paid performance. The result? £3,500 raised for the church and much local acclaim which prompted people to ask us when the next concert would be, and so Grayshott Concerts was born.
The marketeer in me could see that there was clearly an appetite for high-quality classical performance in the very local area, but my musical knowledge and education are limited. I had sung in amateur choirs since my school days and have always enjoyed listening to classical music but have never played an instrument or performed myself, nor has my wife. We are however great believers in the power of positivity and take an “If you don’t ask, you don’t get” approach to most challenges.
Having decided to create an ongoing programme of classical concerts, we needed to find performers to fit the bill. As a starting point, Vivien and I compiled a wish list of our personal favourites. And then went about tracking them down to ask them to forego more familiar venues like the Royal Albert Hall to instead come and perform at our village church!
Amazingly, several of them said yes! Along came London Mozart Players, Chloe Hanslip, Howard Shelley, Tasmin Little, Alison Balsom, Nicola Benedetti, The Sixteen Choir and others. Sir Karl Jenkins had been on our list for some time, so when we learned that he would be visiting the area one particular weekend, we engineered a meeting where we could quickly tell him about our concerts and ask him to get involved.
He also said yes! In 2007 he became our Patron and since then we have commissioned him to write several works including The Healer: A Cantata for St Luke to celebrate our tenth anniversary in 2014. He has also composed a shorter piece for Shoshanah Sievers, a young and very talented local violinist that we have supported since the age of six with opportunities to give public performances.
From two performances that first year, the programme has grown to include five or six every year, and every event has been a sell-out. This has encouraged us to stage bigger concerts with major works including symphonies, oratorios and operas. We have also invested in staging and a permanent lighting rig and screen systems in the church. But of course, none of that comes cheap so, alongside the visible activity of promoting the concerts, Vivien and I have invested a huge amount of time in securing additional funding from individual and corporate sponsors and grants.
Unsurprisingly, by 2009 Grayshott Concerts was taking up so much of our time that we decided to wind up our business in order to concentrate fully on it. In 2011, Grayshott Concerts became a registered charity so we now work with a board of trustees, which has enabled us to benefit not only from a wider pool of volunteers to manage the programme but also claim tax benefits through Gift Aid. It’s been a fantastic opportunity to bring the local community of all ages more closely together through the joy of music.
We have invited children from the local primary school to sing at several concerts (including the Karl Jenkins compositions), and members of our house orchestra, the London Mozart Players, regularly visit the local care home to entertain residents in between rehearsals. We’ve also extended the social aspect of the concerts by adding on pre-concert suppers, hosted at a nearby restaurant which has always sponsored every event.
This year we are celebrating the 15th anniversary of Grayshott Concerts. Quite a milestone, and one that we are tremendously excited to be marking with the world premiere of Sir Karl’s newest work, Miserere: Songs of Mercy and Redemption, on 29th November. We have managed to recreate the exact line-up of performers featured on the newly-released CD including Polyphony Choir, Britten Sinfonia Orchestra, international counter-tenor Iestyn Davies, cellist Abel Selaocoe, former Royal Harpist Catrin Finch and percussionist Zands Duggan, conducted by Stephen Layton.
As with all of our concerts and events, it’s a sell-out – in fact, it’s our fastest selling performance to date with all tickets selling out in just two days. And that will take some beating.