Singing to Survive, Chichester. Saturday 26 October 2013.

I was lucky enough to attend the Singing to Survive concert at St Paul’s, Chichester, last night. The concert was based on the music for a vocal orchestra written by Margaret Dryburgh and Norah Chambers while they were interned in various Japanese internment camps in Sumatra during World War 2. The women in these camps suffered many and dreadful privations – of the 600 women, some 300, Margaret included, had died by the time the war ended.

To keep up camp morale, Margaret and Norah transcribed, from memory, classical music and adapted it so it could be sung by a vocal orchestra: each woman taking the part of an instrument in the orchestra. They hummed the sounds. Norah brought her music score sheets, painstakingly handwritten, with her when she left the camp, as did other choir members. Norah’s music score sheets are now in the Imperial War Museum, and these were used as the basis for last night’s concert.

The concert was performed by a choir of 24 women under the conductor Christopher Larley. It was narrated by Louise Jameson and Stephanie Cole, both of whom appeared in the classic tv series Tenko many years ago. St Paul’s was packed. I don’t know how big the audience was – 300 maybe? – but I think they could have filled it many times over. The space was intimate though, and I think that was what this concert needed.

The choir entered, dressed in sombre black and barefoot. They faced us in two rows, and they sang beautifully. The songs were interspersed with contributions from the narrators. Occasionally the singing went on underneath the narration, highlighting emotional moments. I had tears in my eyes for most of the concert but I couldn’t hold them in during the section when we learned of Margaret’s death.

Louise Jameson and Stephanie Cole were wonderful narrators. As well as telling us the story of camp life and the formation of the orchestra, they read extracts from diaries and memoirs and poems written by the women in the camp. At the end we were asked to stand and sing along with the choir to “The Captives Hymn”, which was written by Margaret while she was interned. Christopher turned to direct us, which was a treat. I have never been conducted before! He sang along lustily, the first time he’d been able to do so.

On either side of the chancel arch was a large black and white portrait photo. On the left was Norah, looking slightly down and to the side; Margaret was on the right, bespectacled and looking directly at us. During the concert I didn’t – couldn’t – take my eyes off the choir, the narrators or those two photos. It was mesmerising, emotional and draining. I felt such a connection with the performers and through them, with the women in the camp. I have never been to such a moving concert.

The audience comprised mainly older people, and I guessed that a lot of them had personal connections to the camp and others like it – of which there were many, many across the Japanese domain during World War 2. I was told that three ladies on the front row wearing big red ?knitted poppies were camp survivors. I talked to three sisters whose mother had been in a camp. Behind me were Australian voices but I didn’t manage to talk to the people as the concert began before I had a chance. We were told in an introductory speech that people had come from around the world to the concert. I wonder whether some of the smartly dressed and impeccably turned out older gentlemen there might have been ex-POWs. Sadly as I had a two hour drive home I couldn’t stay for the after-concert gathering. I would have liked to be able to personally thank everyone involved.

The concert was filmed. We were told that the cameras would only be recording the performers, not the audience. Rightly so. The concert film will be deposited in the Imperial War Museum, and may be used as part of a planned documentary on the camp vocal orchestra. The website for the concert says it might feature some clips from the concert at some time in the future. This concert was a one-off – no more are planned – and so I was so very lucky to have been a member of the audience. I would like to say a massive thank-you to the five women who organised the concert: Dr Bernice Archer, Meg Parkes, Barbara Coombes, Lavinia Warner and Margie Caldicott. Also thank-yous to the choir, conductor and narrators, the director Veronica Roberts, and to everyone else involved.

For more information, the concert has a great website http://singingtosurvive.com/ with downloadable resources for schools, choirs etc should anyone else like to have a go at recreating the vocal orchestra. Louise Jameson and Margie Caldicott were on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour talking about the concert on Friday. It is available on BBC iPlayer for a short while here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03dvn0w It’d be great if the performance could be released on DVD or CD, but that might be a bit too much to hope for. I’d buy it for sure. If you would like to learn more about Margaret Dryburgh, Wikipedia is a good place to start: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Dryburgh. Barbara Coombes is writing her biography at the moment.

By the way, if you think the story of the vocal orchestra sounds familiar, it was told in the 1997 Hollywood movie Paradise Road, with Glenn Close, Frances McDormand and Pauline Collins.

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