Writer GILES WOODFORDE meets a conductor planning to swing his baton before church and primary school choirs

The traditional story of Thecla, a young woman in first-century Turkey, who rejects oppression and the threat of execution to fulfil her destiny, all seemed decidedly remote as I drove to an Oxfordshire village on a dreary, drizzly November afternoon. But a more exotic location seemed suddenly nearer as I arrived at the home of conductor Andrew Parrott, and heard the delicate, plucked-string sound of a psaltery wafting towards me.

Andrew conducts all over the world and is perhaps best known for his performances of 16th and 17th-century music. But now he is rehearsing something brand new and very close to home. Wantage Parish Church has commissioned a community oratorio, called Into the Light, the story of Thecla from Harvey Brough – the Harvey of eighties rock and roll band Harvey and the Wallbangers – and on this particular afternoon composer and conductor have met up to go over the score.

“Wantage asked me to use this story,” Harvey told me, “and I thought what an amazing tale. It’s very powerful. In one sense, it takes you very far from home, because it plunges you back into a different time, and a different place.” Demonstrating on the psaltery, he continued: “Musically, I’ve tried to give it an Arabic twist. But what struck me, the more I worked on the piece , was that it also resonates very strongly with what we feel today. For me, it’s about faith, and how people will do incredible things for faith – both good and bad. Thecla is not afraid to die for what she believes in, like suicide bombers who strap explosives to their bodies today. The choir is schizophrenic in this piece; one minute they’re singing with Thecla in harmony, the next moment they’re saying: ‘She’s got to be burned’.”

The script of Into the Light has been written jointly by Harvey Brough and James Runcie, and it involves not only Wantage church choir, but also the choirs of Charlton and Compton primary schools, and members of Wantage Silver Band. Was it difficult, I asked Harvey, to write music that would appeal to several generations at once?

“In some of the big pieces I’ve done, I’ve had maybe a couple of thousand children who have never sung before,” he replied. “I seem to have discovered a kind of mission to get people singing. There’s a lot of stuff these days about how music has got to be of a broad range, and appeal to a lot of people. For me that doesn’t mean it has to be simple, or that you have to write down to people.

“It’s also vital that a piece like this is fun to do. I did classical music for 20 years when I was young. I trained as a choirboy and at the age of 13 I was singing Bach and Britten. I would sight-read anything. I had an incredible training. Then I formed Harvey and the Wallbangers, which wasn’t something I expected to do. The great thing about that for me was that I was performing music that anyone could relate to. Having done a lot of esoteric stuff, it was a pleasure to play music that people could enjoy without having any knowledge of the classics. I just can’t see any barriers between what they call serious and not-serious music.”

Another demonstration, this time on the piano, followed.

Harvey continued:“Into the Light has got some swingy, kind of urban things, but also very pure music on the psaltery. For me, that isn’t two different types of music, it’s all one. The kids are singing some very bloodthirsty stuff. They absolutely love it. You talk about these issues with them but they also have a whale of a time.”

There’s something else about this project that’s decidedly unusual: the conductor and soloists – Andrew Parrott, Clara Sanabras, Mark le Brocq, Oxford resident Christopher Purves, and Colin Baldy – are top-level professional musicians. As Harvey Brough put it: “Andrew Parrott has been conducting for years. If you’d said he would be conducting a piece of mine, it would have been a dream for me. I would not have thought it possible.”

I asked Andrew how he became involved.

“Wantage Parish Church got the funding to commission a piece and I was asked to look at the applications. There were several good ones. I had to decide who would get the job. I tried to be as objective as possible and I think I was! But Harvey’s music-making is so wide ranging, I think he has something very particular to offer. There are plenty of composers who say: ‘OK, I can do a bit of jazz, or I can write something easy for children’. Then it comes out in separate compartments, and that’s always unconvincing to my mind and ears. But from previous experience of Harvey, I know that all these idioms come naturally to him. So I was looking for a good horse to bet on. Now I’ve got roped in to try and hold the thing together! Seriously, years back, I used to work a lot more with amateur choirs, and I’ve missed it. I love the intelligence and enthusiasm that non-professionals can bring to music making. As for the soloists, that’s down to Harvey, and his powers of persuasion, rather than being a financial equation.”

It is also very evident that Harvey Brough is not a composer who likes to sit in an ivory tower, crouched over a computer, remote from the action.

“I go along and look into the whites of peoples’ eyes. The first, and most paramount thing, is that a piece like this must work for the occasion. There is something to dread about the description ‘a community oratorio’. It sounds terribly worthy. But I am sure this is going to be a very joyous occasion – and uplifting, powerful, and dramatic too. The standard in Wantage is better than I imagined, so I’ve written some stuff that the choir is slightly struggling with, but we’ll definitely get there!”

n Into the Light will be premiered in Wantage Parish Church on Saturday. For tickets contact the Vale & Downland Museum, Wantage, on 07989 428778.