As a replica of Cabot's ship sails the Atlantic, children put on a musical about the explorer. Christina Zaba reports
What does it take to get 500 children from 30 primary schools on a concert-hall stage, with a band and dancers as well? "It's quite an operation, " says John Waldren, headteacher of Bishop Road primary school and, for the past 12 years, organiser of the Bristol Schools' Music Society (BSMS). For 50 years the society has been bringing together primary schools in musical celebration for children on a grand scale - its twice-yearly mass concerts have entered the memories of three generations.
"We've got kids coming now whose parents took part when they were young, " says Waldren. "For this summer's concert we'll have 1,000 children from 60 schools performing over the two nights. It's for children who haven't done music before as well as ones who have. Even if they've never been in a concert hall before, that moment when they all open their mouths and have a go is fantastic, a knockout. They never forget the experience."
This month's concert picks up the threads of much older memories too: those of the Venetian voyager John Cabot, who sailed from Bristol to Newfoundland in 1497. Though historians might dispute whether he "discovered" Newfoundland, local pride in his adventures endures. In 1897, to mark the 400th anniversary of his voyage, the citizens of Victorian Bristol erected a neo-Gothic tower on one of the city's highest hills. Now a new replica of his ship, the Matthew, is retracing the voyage, its progress followed by television.
In 1995 the story of the Matthew's voyage took shape as a choral work too. Cabot: The Musical was composed for the City of Bristol Boys' Choir by its director, Sean Jennings, with lyrics by Tim Gardom, and was performed at the 1996 International Festival of the Sea and in concert with the Bristol Choral Circuit this year. It is an acclaimed work, exciting and demanding for children, and popular with adults.
Now rewritten in a performing version suitable for seven to 11-year-olds, it is this year's BSMS summer concert. "It's emotional music," says Marion Austin, music co-ordinator at St Bernadette primary school in Whitchurch, Bristol. "The tunes are catchy and there's a variety of styles - some of it sounds religious, but you get 1920s jazz sounds too. Our children really enjoy it."
Jenny Parker of Westbury Park School agrees. "We had initial misgivings about the length of some of the songs, but the children are responding very well. It's exciting. And Sean's inspiring."
Sean Jennings, now director of junior singing at the Bristol School of Vocal Studies (BSVS), begins master-class rehearsals in schools with exercises and basic five-note scales singing "fluffy floppy puppy". "You start with fun stuff," he says. "It's surprising how five minutes of warm-up exercises will improve a choir's singing. It works because the kids love it."
The city choirs have expanded this year, with the new City of Bristol Girls' Choir, the Hartcliffe Boys' Choir and the South Gloucestershire Boys' Choir. The BSVS has begun an on-going workshop to support choral music in primary schools. Jennings is keen to reach children who want to sing. "We aim to have 12 high-flying choirs in the Greater Bristol area by the year 2000," he says. "What this is really about is taking ordinary kids and making them sing well." Beguiled by the songs of the sea, a thousand primary children would probably agree with him.
Cabot: The Musical is on June 19 and 20 at Colston Hall, tickets 0117 922 3682. BSVS Junior Department, 0117 987 1593. For on-line information about the Matthew, see TES2, page 20, May 2