Pamela Slatter winner of the Mary Otty Carol Competition 2020

Guest Writer, David Truslove

On Sunday December 13 Bristol Choral Society hosted what must be one of the first Christmas Carol competitions to be adjudicated via Zoom. Undeterred by singing restrictions and the technical challenges of individually recording ninety singers, the choir’s musical director Hilary Campbell went ahead with the project. Launched in March this year, the competition was named in memory of Mary Otty the daughter of a choir member who succumbed to meningitis in 2004 aged thirty-five.

The compositional brief was for “A carol for mixed voice choir, either a cappella or accompanied by harp/piano. The text should be appropriate for inclusion in a Christmas programme.”

From seventy submissions five composers were shortlisted, and chosen to judge the entries were Judith Weir, Master of the Queens Music, and Stephen Jackson, conductor of Trinity Laban chamber choir. Members of the audience also had an opportunity to vote. Each of the five pieces heard for the first time via Zoom demonstrated varied stylistic approaches and considerable melodic invention, with most being within the reach of an amateur choir.

Taking the palm was ex-music teacher Pamela Slatter for her unaccompanied ‘I Saw Three Ships’, deemed by the judges the winning carol, as well as the audience’s favourite. The prize earns her £1,000 and publication by Shorter House – specialists in choral music by mainly contemporary British composers that include Malcolm Archer, Cecilia McDowall and Francis Pott. Based on an original pentatonic melody, ‘I Saw Three Ships’ is an eventful and well-structured composition, peppered with jazzy rhythms and shifting textures.

It narrowly pipped James Williams’s invigorating Christ’s Nativity which took second prize and £500. To the score’s considerable complexity the choir responded with admirable commitment. The other three Carols were Mark Chaundry’s ‘There is no Rose’, James Brown’s lively ‘Nu tändas tusen Iuleljus’ (sung in Swedish) and Matthew Heyburn’s ‘I saw a faire Maiden’, a gentle number accompanied by Anne Denholm, former Royal Harpist to HRH the Prince of Wales.

Hilary Campbell and Bristol Choral Society must be congratulated for their enterprise and can-do spirit in difficult times, and for providing a valuable opportunity for aspiring composers. For me, it was an enjoyable evening from the comfort of my laptop, watching a flourishing choir keeping the home-fires not just burning but blazing. Truly inspirational!