Life is full of surprises these days, and ‘A Night of Music’ held in St Botolph’s Church, Colchester, contained more than its fair share. The first was the Amici Mixed Choir from Okinawa, Japan – about ninety of them, with an average age of 77 – singing ‘Home, Sweet Home’ in Japanese, accompanied on grand piano. Their repertoire also included Handel, Mascagni (Cavelleria Rusticana), and a Hokkaido folksong. The came all the way from Okinawa for this one concert and, apart from a little sightseeing, are heading straight back. The standard of their performance was second to none.
Meanwhile we had been eagerly awaiting the Bao-Lai Junior High School Chorus, sitting patiently in the north aisle in their traditional costume. They swept on like a tropical storm, dancing and singing, some as young as 11. It was exhilarating stuff, totally unfamiliar traditional songs, for the most part wild and energetic but with one breath-taking passage of delicate whistling birdsong. They have won many international prizes since they were founded in 2015, and it is not hard to see why. They come from a district in southern Taiwan where the majority of the population is composed of the indigenous Bunun ethnic group, one of sixteen official aboriginal groups in Taiwan; our neighbour, the Deputy Representative of the Taipei Representative Office in London, said he did not understand their language, but he did not need to (and neither did we) to appreciate their performance.
These two very different choirs came to Colchester thanks to the Colchester Military Wives Choir, who have achieved a formidable reputation themselves in the seven years of their existence. They are part of a growing network of military wives choirs across the forces, made up of veterans, mothers of soldiers and, of course, military wives. The benefits they bring in terms of boosting morale and building community spirit are enormous, and they have performed for many charities as well.
It is easy to slip into clichés and draw predictable morals from events such as these. Music transcends cultural and political barriers. The two visiting choirs achieved more in the course of the evening than a month of trade talks ever could, and it was more than politeness towards our overseas guests that brought the audience to its feet for two standing ovations. The final pieces were especially poignant and symbolic. First, the Military Wives signing ‘A Thousand Years’, followed by ‘Stronger Together’, the theme song (by Gareth Malone) of the military wives movement; then all three choirs singing together ‘Amazing Grace’.
After that, all descended into near chaos with group photos on the staging. The traditionally-costumed Taiwanese turned out to have jeans under their robes, and quickly found their trainers. Getting them into the right place, to the satisfaction of the photographer, required much arm waving. A small party of elderly Japanese men made light work of pushing the grand piano out of the way. Gifts were distributed, including bags of goodies from Okinawa containing origami birds and boxes of what look like biscuits, and from Colchester intriguing parcels of fudge and little jars Tiptree honey. I would guess that everyone left feeling a lot better about the world than when they arrived.