More Things To Do in York and beyond as the grand old dame is ready to frock’n’roll. List No 59, courtesy of The Pess, York

The boys and gal are back in town: AJ Powell, left, Suzy Cooper, Berwick Kaler, David Leonard and Martin Barrass return to the pantomime stage in Dick Turpin Rides Again at their new home of the Grand Opera House, York. Picture by David Harrison

DAME Berwick rides again, Adrian Mole surfaces, carol concerts abound and contrasting comedy cracks on, all demanding a place in Charles Hutchinson’s diary

Comeback of the week: Berwick Kaler and co in Dick Turpin Rides Again, Grand Opera House, York, December 11 to January 9

DAME Berwick Kaler last took to the pantomime stage in his 40th anniversary show, The Grand Old Dame Of York, on February 2 2019, having announced his retirement. Subsequently, he decided it was the “worst decision he had ever made”, a feeling only compounded by writing and co-directing Sleeping Beauty.

In the tradition of Clive Sullivan and Denis Law, he then switched to the other side in the same city, leaving York Theatre Royal to sign up with the Grand Opera House, along with panto teammates Martin Barrass, David Leonard, Suzy Cooper and AJ Powell.

Delayed by a year, Dame Berwick now resumes panto business at 75, writing, directing and starring in Dick Turpin Rides Again. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or at atgtickets.com/York.

Hannah King’s Dick Whittington is ready to stride out from York to London in Rowntree Players’ pantomime, Dick Whittington, from today

Community pantomime of the week: Rowntree Players in Dick Whittington, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, today until December 11

ROWNTREE Players should have presented Dick Whittington last year, but director Howard Ella and co-writer Andy Welch have now dusted off their script written by satellite in lockdown, freshening it up for 2021.

Martyn Hunter returns to the Players’ panto ranks as King Rat, as does Bernie Calpin as Kit The Cat, joining Hannah King’s Dick Whittington, Graham Smith’s Dame Dora, Gemma McDonald’s Duncan, Marie-Louise Surgenor’s Ratatouille, Geoff Walker’s Alderman Fitzwarren and Ellie Watson’s Alice Fitzwarren. Box office: 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.

Native Harrow’s Stephen Harms and Devin Tuel will be airing songs from their fourth album, Closeness, at the Fulford Arms

American gig of the week in York: Native Harrow, Fulford Arms, York, Tuesday, 8pm 

PENNSYLVANIAN folk/rock duo Native Harrow are on the final leg of their tour travels showcasing their beautiful fourth album, Closeness.

Now re-located to Brighton, guitarist-singer Devin Tuel and multi-instrumentalist Stephen Harms have a new single too, Do It Again, one of six songs recorded when they elected to return to the studio where they had made Closeness to continue living in that world, if only for a few more days. Box office: seetickets.com/event/native-harrow/the-fulford-arms/1471604.

The secret is out: Jack Hambleton will be one of two Adrian Moles in Pick Me Up Theatre’s musical premiere. Picture: Matthew Kitchen Photography

Musical premiere of the week in York: Pick Me Up Theatre in The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾, The Musical, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, Wednesday to December 18

PICK Me Up Theatre are returning to the Theatre@41 Monkgate stage for the first time since Covid’s first lockdown curtailed Tom’s Midnight Garden in March 2020.

In a change from the initially announced SpongeBob The Musical, director Robert Readman has jumped at the chance to present the British amateur premiere of Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary’s musical version of Sue Townsend’s 1982 story of teenage diarist Adrian Mole. Ignore the official poster, there will be a 2pm Sunday matinee. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.  

Ryan’s laughter: Canada’s dry-humoured comic, Katherine Ryan, discusses life as a Missus at York Barbican

Comedy gig of the week: Katherine Ryan, Missus, York Barbican, Thursday, 8pm

CANADIAN comedian, writer, presenter and actress Katherine Ryan, 38, previously denounced partnerships but has since married her first love, accidentally.

A lot has changed for everyone, and now the London-based creator and star of Netflix series The Duchess and host of All That Glitters will be offering new perspectives on life, love and what it means to be Missus. Box office: yorkbarbicancentre.co.uk.

Ewa Salecka: Directing Prima Vocal Ensemble at Selby Abbey

Reunion of the week: Prima Vocal Ensemble and York Railway Institute Brass Band, Christmas Classics for Voices and Brass, Selby Abbey, December 11, 7.30pm

YORK choir Prima Vocal Ensemble and York Railway Institute Brass Band are uniting for a Christmas concert at Selby Abbey for the first time since 2018.

The choir will sing classical pieces by Morten Lauridsen, Gabriel Faure and John Rutter, while the band’s festive music will include Shepherd’s Song and Eric Bell’s Kingdom Triumphant.

Choir and band will join together for a finale of Gordon Langford’s joyous Christmas Fantasy. Tickets: on 07921 568826, from Selby Abbey or at primachoralartists.com.

York singer Steve Cassidy: Performing at the York Community Carol Concert at York Barbican

Welcome back: York Community Carol Concert, York Barbican, December 12, 2pm

YORK’S Community Carol Concert returns after last year’s Covid-enforced cancellation, with all the participants who missed out in 2020 taking up the invitation to take part in 2021.

In the Sunday afternoon line-up will be the Shepherd Group Concert Brass Band, Dringhouses Primary School Choir, Clifton Green Primary School Choir, Stamford Bridge Community Choir and York singer Steve Cassidy, hosted by the Reverend Andrew Foster and BBC Radio York presenter Adam Tomlinson. Plenty of tickets are still available but online only at yorkbarbican.co.uk.

Holly head: Kate Rusby, who coined that term for a Christmas tradition enthusiast, will be in festive mood in both Harrogate and York. Picture: David Lindsay

Carol concert with a difference: Kate Rusby At Christmas, Harrogate Royal Hall, December 12, and York Barbican, December 20, 7.30pm

BARNSLEY folk singer Kate Rusby, her regular band and “the brass boys” have created a Christmas tradition of their own, celebrating South Yorkshire and North Derbyshire pub carols, punctuated by her own winter songs.

For more than 200 years, from late-November to New Year’s Day, these carols have been sung on Sunday lunchtimes in pubs, having been frowned on in Victorian times for being too happy. Not for the first time, the Victorians were wrong. Box office: Harrogate, 01423 502116 or at harrogatetheatre.co.uk; York, yorkbarbican.co.uk.

Nothing to smile about? Jimmy Carr takes a Terribly Funny turn for a third time in York

Looking ahead to a “terrible” 2022: Jimmy Carr, Terribly Funny, York Barbican, April 15, doors, 7pm

CYNICAL comedian Jimmy Carr will complete a hattrick of York performances of his Terribly Funny tour show next spring.

After playing sold-out gigs at York Barbican on November 4 and the Grand Opera House five nights later, he will return to the Barbican on April 15 with the promise of “all-new material for 2022”.

Carr will be discussing terrible things that might have affected you or people you know and love. “But they’re just jokes,” he says. “Political correctness at a comedy show is like having health and safety at a rodeo.” Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk

Prima Vocal Ensemble and York Railway Institute Brass Band reunite for Christmas Classics concert at Selby Abbey on Dec 11

.Prima Vocal Ensemble performing with York Railway Institute Band in Selby Abbey in 2018

YORK choir Prima Vocal Ensemble and York Railway Institute Brass Band are uniting for a Christmas concert on December 11 at Selby Abbey.

The two groups last collaborated in 2018 to perform Karl Jenkins’ Armed Man at the same church to a sell-out audience and are looking forward to working together again.

Prima Vocal Ensemble, under the musical direction of the ever-energetic Ewa Salecka, have been active throughout the pandemic, progressing from the ubiquitous Zoom rehearsals, through small and then larger outdoor gatherings, and onwards to indoor rehearsals with Simulcast participation for those unable to meet in person.

This time last year, the choir was one of the few in the UK preparing for a live recording session, shortly before lockdown.

In a ” “very emotional step forward” for members, the choir gave a live concert in September, performing material largely learned in isolation during lockdown.

“Having missed Christmas celebrations last year, this year means and feels even more important to us,” says Prima Vocal Ensemble director Ewa Salecka

Later this autumn, they were honoured to be asked to sing again with Russell Watson at Buxton Opera House and Harrogate Royal Hall on the Salford tenor’s 20thAnniversary Tour in another milestone for the choir on its journey back to normality.

The Christmas Classics for Voices & Brass concert at Selby Abbey will be special for choir and band alike.  Ewa says: “Having missed Christmas celebrations last year, this year means and feels even more important to us. David Lancaster, director of the fantastic musicians of York Railway Institute Band, and I have prepared a very special Christmas programme and invite everyone to join us.”

Traditional carols and Christmas songs will be performed alongside the directors’ favourites. The choir will sing classical pieces by Morten Lauridsen, Gabriel Faure and John Rutter, while the band has chosen wide-ranging festive music, such as Shepherd’s Song and Eric Bell’s Kingdom Triumphant, based on Christmas themes.

The 7.30pm concert will end with choir and band together performing Gordon Langford’s joyous Christmas Fantasy, woven from the most popular Christmas carols.

Tickets cost £20, £5 for children and full-time students, on 07921 568826, in person from Selby Abbey or at primachoralartists.com/events/christmas-classics-for-voices-and-brass.

The poster for Prima Vocal Ensemble and York Railway Institute Brass Band’s Christmas concert at Selby Abbey

More Things To Do in and around York for Grayson Perry’s ‘normal people’. List No. 47, courtesy of The Press, York

What’s up Duck? The Dead Ducks sketch comedy troupe head for Theatre@41 Monkgate, York

CLOWNS, ominous things, Grayson, James, tango, chamber music, horrible British history and watercolours in teamwork add up to shows aplenty for Charles Hutchinson and normal people alike to check out.

Sketch comedy show of the week: The Dead Ducks: Ducks Out Of Water, Theatre@41 Monkgate, York, tomorrow (3/9/2021), 8pm

UNIVERSITY of York Comedy Society sketch troupe The Dead Ducks make their Theatre@41 debut with Ducks Out Of Water as a cast of five serves up fun scenes that range from the relatable to the ridiculous.

Be prepared for completely original content in a humorous mix of parody and farce with a delectable side order of top-notch acting.

Look out for pirates, cowboys, clowns and assorted animals, alongside Winnie the Pooh, Sherlock Holmes and Mickey Mouse “like you have never seen them before”. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk/events/.

Sunset Gazing, by Suzanne McQuade, on show at Village Gallery, Colliergate, York

Exhibition of the week: Suzanne McQuade, Touch Of Tranquillity, Village Gallery, Colliergate, York, until Octoger 23; open Tuesday to Saturday, 10am to 4pm

LEEDS watercolourist Suzanne McQuade quit her long-standing customer service job five years ago to take the plunge and become a full-time artist.

“Using watercolours is like teamwork; I have to allow the watercolour to move and merge, and utilise the patterns it creates,” says Suzanne, who loves how this medium’s translucency enables light to flood into her landscapes and seascapes.

Drawing inspiration from the British countryside and coastline, she paints what she finds captivating, from a dramatic sky to underwater rocks. “I try to make the scene in front of me to be as beautiful as possible,” she says.

Alexander Wright: Performing Small, Small Ominous Things with Megan Drury at Theatre At The Mill, Stillington

Open-air theatre show of the week: Small Small Ominous Things, Theatre At The Mill, Stillington Mill, near York, Saturday, 8pm

LOOK out for a tiny red gun hidden in the grass; a picture of a puppy eating a toy dinosaur; a dull feeling in the pit of your stomach; a bug burrowing into your skin.

Welcome to a late-night mix of stories, tales and unsettling considerations from partners Megan Drury and Alexander Wright, Australian actor, writer and creative artist and North Yorkshire writer, theatre-maker and visionary facilitator respectively.

Gather around the fire as they collaborate for the first time live At The Mill, bringing small, small ominous things out into late-summer’s fading light. Box office: tickettailor.com/events/atthemill/

Making a splash: The new Normal for artist Grayson Perry, performing on tour at York Barbican

Who-knows-what-to-expect gig of the week: Grayson Perry: A Show For Normal People, York Barbican, Monday, 7.30pm

IN his own words, despite being an award-winning artist, Bafta-winning TV presenter, Reith lecturer and best-selling author, Grayson Perry is a normal person – and just like other normal people, he is “marginally aware that we’re all going to die”.

Cue Grayson Perry: A Show For Normal People, where Grayson takes you through an enlightening, eye-watering evening wherein this kind of existentialism descends from worthiness to silliness. “You’ll leave safe and warm in the knowledge that nothing really matters anyway,” his show patter promises.

Grayson asks, and possibly answers, these big questions in a show “sure to distract you from the very meaninglessness of life in the way only a man in a dress can.” Box office: yorkbarbican.co.uk.

Home, James? Briefly, yes, when rehearsing at Broughton Hall, near Skipton. Scarborough Open Air Theatre awaits. Picture: Lewis Knaggs

Gig of the week outside York: James, Scarborough Open Air Theatre, September 9, gates open at 6pm

WHERE better for James to play a summer show in the wake of releasing their 2021 single Beautiful Beaches than at Scarborough Open Air Theatre.

The Manchester legends will be combining myriad anthemic favourites with selections from their “sweet 16th” album, All The Colours Of You, released in June.

Fronted by Clifford-born Tim Booth, James are completing a hattrick of Scarborough OAT visits after shows in May 2015 and August 18. Box office: scarboroughopenairtheatre.com

Prima Vocal Ensemble artistic director Ewa Salecka with Misatango composer Martin Palmeri

Well worth the wait: Misatango: Prima’s Tenth Anniversary Celebration, Temple Hall, York St John University, Lord Mayor’s Walk, York, September 11, 7.30pm

AFTER a year’s delay, Prima Vocal Ensemble director Ewa Salecka is thrilled to be holding the York choir’s tenth anniversary concert at last at a socially distanced Temple Hall.

At the concert’s core will be “the fabulous Misa a Buenos Aires, Misatango, an exhilarating fusion of Tango and Latin Mass”, by Argentinian composer Martín Palmeri, performed with the Mowbray Orchestra string quartet, bandoneon virtuoso Julian Rowlands, pianist Greg Birch and mezzo-soprano soloist Lucy Jubb. Box office: primavocalensemble.com.

Tim Lowe: York Chamber Music Festival director and cellist

Festival of the month: York Chamber Music Festival, September 16 to 18

CANADIAN pianist Angela Hewitt plays YCMF’s opening recital on September 16 and joins fellow festival artists Anthony Marwood and Pablo Hernan, violins, Lilli Maijala, viola, and Tim Lowe, cellist, for the closing gala concert on September 18, both at the Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York.

Marwood, Hernan, Maijala and Lowe play string quartets by Haydn, Mendelssohn and Schumann at the NCEM on September 17.

Festival director Lowe joins pianist John Paul Ekins for the first 1pm concert at the Unitarian Chapel, St Saviourgate, on September 17; on the next lunchtime, Ekins plays works that connect Beethoven and Liszt. Box office: tickets@ncem.co.uk.

The Horrible Histories poke fun at Barmy Britain at the Grand Opera House, York, in October

History in the re-making: The Horrible Histories in Barmy Britain, Grand Opera House, York, October 21 to 24

CAN you beat battling Boudicca? What if a Viking moved in next door? Would you lose your heart or head to horrible Henry VIII? Can evil Elizabeth entertain England?

Will Parliament survive gunpowder Guy? Dare you stand and deliver to dastardly Dick Turpin? Escape the clutches of Burke and Hare and move to the groove with party Queen Victoria?

So many questions for The Horrible Histories’ Live On Stage team to answer with the aid of the 3D illusions of Bogglevision as skulls hover, dams burst and missiles fly into the family audience. For tickets for Birmingham Stage Company’s eye-popping, gruesome, scary and unbelievable trip through British history, go to atgtickets.com/york.

Prima Vocal Ensemble to perform Palmeri’s Misatango at tenth anniversary celebration

Prima Vocal Ensemble artistic director Ewa Salecka with composer Martin Palmeri at Carnegie Hall, New York City in 2019

AFTER a year’s delay, Prima Vocal Ensemble artistic director Ewa Salecka is thrilled to be holding the York choir’s tenth anniversary concert at last.

“It’s just a few weeks since restrictions lifted and our 18-month perseverance against the odds has paid off,” says a relieved Ewa. “We’re now very excited to announce Misatango, a signature Prima evening of eclectic and surprising material with professional guest artists on September 11 at a socially distanced Temple Hall, York St John University.

“Our celebration event will feature the fabulous Misa a Buenos Aires, Misatango, an exhilarating fusion of Tango and Latin Mass by the Argentinian Martín Palmeri, performed by the award-winning Prima choir, Mowbray Orchestra string quintet, London-based bandoneon virtuoso Julian Rowlands, pianist Greg Birch and mezzo-soprano soloist Lucy Jubb.” 

The “wonderfully diverse” programme will embrace familiar traditional music from the British Isles, Ireland and North America, taking in a cappella pieces by Tallis and Antognini and trad songs, such as Shenandoah, Scarborough Fair and Parting Glass, before travelling across the Equator to embrace the distinctive patterns and harmonies of Buenos Aires in Palmeri’s work.  

“This is probably the first choral performance in York since lockdown ended, and it’s a truly outstanding orchestral and choral work to mark this event,” says Ewa. “Rest assured, Palmeri’s work is becoming extremely popular for a very good reason: it’s a stand-out and stand-alone composition, a Latin Mass that brings a smile to the face and gets everyone’s toes tapping.”

Prima Vocal Ensemble joined singers aplenty at Carnegie Hall, New York City, in 2019 to perform Martin Palmeri’s Gran Misa

Prima was founded by Polish-born performer, producer and music director Ewa Salecka and pianist Greg Birch in 2010. “Since then, we’ve collaborated with top composers and singers, put on spectacular shows in and around York and in prestigious locations from London to New York,” says Ewa (pronounced ‘ever’).

“We’ve performed in choral festivals and competitions throughout Europe, from the summit of the Italian Tyrol to 100 metres underground in Poland’s Wieliczka Salt Mines!”

The lockdowns of the past 18 months have challenged Ewa and the choir, but nevertheless she has worked tirelessly to keep members practising, first through Zoom meetings, then with outdoor and indoor in-person rehearsals.

“These have all been in Simulcast form, allowing both attendees and remote-access singers to practise together,” she says.

In a display of continued international collaboration despite the pandemic, Ewa even gained a bronze award for the choir during lockdown by submitting a virtual entry of the choir singing in a choral competition in Szczecin, Poland.

Prima Vocal Ensemble’s poster for September 11’s tenth anniversary celebration concert

To mark both the tenth anniversary and the return to live performance, she has chosen an inspiring, uplifting repertoire, encapsulated by Palmeri’s Misatango, first performed by Prima  in York in 2017 in its North of England premiere.

“The choir then had the privilege to meet and perform with the composer himself at Carnegie Hall in New York City in 2019 for the world premiere of his subsequent work Gran Misa,” says Ewa.

“Palmeri remains a firm friend, sending the choir a personal, inspiring message in the midst of the first lockdown.”

Suffused with a daring mix of sacred music and tango to plunge you into a world of intense emotions, passion and syncopated rhythms, Misatango is “perhaps just what’s needed at the moment,” reckons Ewa.

Prima Vocal Ensemble presents Misatango: Prima’s Tenth Anniversary Celebration, Temple Hall, York St John University, Lord Mayor’s Walk, York, Saturday, September 11, 7.30pm to 9pm. Box office: primavocalensemble.com.

For the full programme and socially distanced tickets, available in advance only, head to: primachoralartists.com/events/misatango-by-m-palmeri-primas-10th anniversary-concert

Indoor choral “rule of six” will not deflate Prima Vocal Ensemble from joy of song

Artistic director Ewa Salecka, right, leading Prima Vocal Ensemble’s phased return to group singing in outdoor rehearsals in late-May

DEFIANT optimism reigns for York choir Prima Vocal Ensemble in the face of the pandemic.

“I’ve always been motivated by a challenge and there’s been no shortage of that in recent times,” says Ewa Salecka, Polish-born artistic director of the mixed-voice group.

Constantly on the front foot, Ewa has been aware from the outset of the negative impact that lockdown and isolation bring.

“Singing may be perceived by some as just a hobby but there is so much more to what it does to our general mental and physical health, and you cannot underestimate the never-ending benefits of group singing,now largely backed up by firm scientific evidence,” she says. “To some this is a genuine lifeline to their social and emotional world and vital for balanced mental well-being.

Prima Vocal Ensemble performing with the Mowbray String Quartet in a live recording session in December 2020

“Another May brought another anniversary for Prima Vocal Ensemble, and although 2020 denied us the chance to celebrate our tenth year of singing, defiant optimism is our overriding characteristic.”

From a musical perspective, Ewa and Prima’s dedication to consistent standards in community singing is undimmed. “The legacy of all the training provided over the past decade has not diminished and remains on a constant upward trajectory,” she says.

“Zoom and online learning hasn’t been a solution to the situation, but it has enabled Prima to stay connected, to adapt and continue working on new material ready for the inevitable freedoms post-pandemic.”  

New realities bring a new focus to Ewa. “There’s never been a time in my life when I’ve been more dedicated to the study of vocal health,” she says. “Everyone has been singing to their computers for a year and naturally this will affect their voices. This increased need to help singers more than ever before has prompted me to gain new, complementing qualifications as a vocal coach and a vocal health practitioner.”

Prima Vocal Ensemble winning the bronze band diploma with their online entry at the 2021 International Choir Competition of Sacred and Passion Music in Szczecin, Poland  

Teaching both in the community and tutoring students and private clients requires constantly updated knowledge. “The science never stands still, so neither must a vocal professional,” says Ewa. 

“I’ve had to work so much harder for the past 15 months, trying to understand and navigate the constantly shifting restrictions. I didn’t plan solely for indoor rehearsals in June after learning how quickly the Government can implement sudden U-turns.

“No-one is saying it’s easy to run a country through this, but we can’t rely solely on mere rhetoric. The facts, the patterns of events, speak volumes and with new variants becoming a reality across the UK, we can’t claim to be surprised that a full return was in jeopardy. I took this on board and chose to direct my energies into ensuring a consistent plan for my members.”  

Step 3 had been expected to facilitate the return of amateur choirs to singing indoors, albeit with social distancing still in place, but within days came the Government U-turn, ruling that no more than six amateur singers could do so together.”

Prima Vocal Ensemble supporting Mental Health Awareness month in late-April to May 2021

Ewa is in complete agreement with the overriding sentiment of frustration among Britain’s choral organisations. “We were allowed to sing in Covid-safe ways during the gap between lockdowns last year [with 12 measures in place, from social distancing to hand sanitising, ventilating the room  to ‘quarantining’ sheet music].

“In late-May, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden disclosed that only 15 cases of Covid were reported among the 58,000 people taking part in various test events, from the Brit Awards to the FA Cup Final [source: Evening Standard, May 25 2021].

“Now, with incomparably lower numbers of cases, a hugely successful vaccine programme and the general awareness of how to mitigate the risks at rehearsals, it is ridiculous that we cannot work in the same way.”  

Despite these barriers, Ewa has strived to maintain a sense of community through a shared love of music and to lead by example throughout the pandemic.  

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden

In the safest possible way, Prima returned to live singing last autumn, and in December Ewa finished the year on a high by organising a live recording session with the Mowbray String Quartet, performing a new eclectic repertoire rehearsed over Zoom in the previous weeks.

In March this year, Ewa entered Prima in an International Sacred Music Choral Competition, held in Szczecin, Poland, as a hybrid event. “Competing against live and online entries by choirs from Norway, Spain and Poland, and judged by the professional, international jury, Prima won a bronze award for their online performances,” says Ewa.

The choir has returned to live singing, albeit outdoors, in eager preparation for summer performances, rehearsing new material weekly. “Throughout May and even before last month’s Step 3 easing of lockdown, I’ve been running test live choir sessions with varying groups of four or five singers outdoors, simulcast live to all members,” says Ewa.

“Every opportunity to perform safely in any group size, I will take. The beauty of the online world is that everyone can feel a part of every small success.”  

“Singing may be perceived by some as just a hobby but there is so much more to what it does to our general mental and physical health,” says Ewa

Nevertheless, the role of a conductor is a somewhat altered reality in 2021. “During rehearsals, I used to focus on clarity of my conducting technique, the communication of musical nuance,” says Ewa.

“Now I’ve got to supplement that with ‘did I bring the right cable?’; ‘where’s that extra mic for Zoom?’; ‘is the wi-fi working?’; ‘did I bring the outdoor table?’; ‘hope I packed that camera stand?’, or even ‘do I need a roadie for all this extra gear?’. And that’s not mentioning the most obvious: checking the weather forecast every ten minutes!” 

The choral and art world can and will thrive again, insists Ewa. “But let’s be realistic: there is a challenge ahead. Yes, we will have to exercise all our creative prowess and we may have to find new ways or chart new paths,” she says.  

“I believe that organised events can be delivered in Covid-safe ways and I wish us all a speedy return to familiar artistic pursuits,” says Ewa

“Hopefully, this summer will bring the outcome we are all looking forward to with the substantial lifting of restrictions and freedom everybody has been waiting for so long and deserves.  

“I believe that organised events can be delivered in Covid-safe ways and I wish us all a speedy return to familiar artistic pursuits. With warmer summer days there are so many ways to celebrate life through music.” 

Reflecting on the Government’s “rule of six” for amateur choirs indoors, Ewa says: “I’d really like to see the scientific evidence which they’ve based their official advice upon.

“Since then, at least something has moved forward as there finally was a test choral event on May 30 with Handel’s Messiah at the Royal Albert Hall, and we all look forward to the results of that.” 

“Here’s what our rehearsals look like now, although the images can’t really convey the joy everyone feels when singing together in person,” says Prima Vocal Ensemble artistic director Ewa Salecka

How Prima Vocal Ensemble has met the Covid challenge in its 10th anniversary year

New way: Ewa Salecka, right, leading a Prima Vocal Ensemble bubble rehearsal after lockdown easement

2020 marks the tenth anniversary of Prima Vocal Ensemble, Ewa Salecka’s exhilarating brand of communal choir in York, but this is the Covid-ruined year when group singing indoors is on the lockdown list of forbidden pleasures.

“Here’s a genuine irony,” says musical director, conductor and producer Ewa. “An activity proven to have such a positive effect on our mental health has been so drastically restricted by events that make those very same benefits more essential than ever.”

Prima Vocal Ensemble “got through” Lockdown 1 with online rehearsals and once the Government measures eased in the halcyon days of summer, Ewa was able to re-assemble group meetings, albeit in a socially distanced, bubble format, for eight weeks.

Describing running a choir in 2020 as being “intense”, she praised her singers for showing “amazing community spirit”, especially now that the brief choral corridor has been closed off once more in Lockdown 2.

“It has been an extremely difficult year for everyone working in the arts,” says Ewa. “Here in York, with its rich history of choral singing, directors across the spectrum have had to adjust to cancelled plans and uncertainty.  

Old way: Ewa Salecka, top, left, directs 200 Prima and Angel City Chorale singers in a rehearsal in pre-Covid days

“As a musical director, conductor and producer, keeping one step ahead of the pack has always been the aim. Now, it’s a case of keeping one step ahead of a global pandemic and – let’s admit it, sometimes confusing – Government advice.”  

Nothing energises Polish-born Ewa more than a seemingly insurmountable task. So, back in March, she wasted not a single week in setting up weekly virtual rehearsals for the 100-strong Prima Vocal Ensemble.

However, the necessities of lockdown quickly brought with it many other issues. “I struggled at times, being physically disconnected from both my personal support and international artistic network, but after seeing Prima each week online, the reality for some really hit home hard,” Ewa explains.

“I could see some people coping with the stress of lockdown worse than others and quickly understood that this was now not only about continuing with high-standard rehearsals, but also about protecting mental health and well-being of our singers through regular community engagement.”  

Choir members responded immediately to Ewa’s call for support networks, stepping up to the mark to reach out to everyone in the group who might be finding the alienating circumstances difficult.  

“I’m in awe of their perseverance and dedication through this dramatic year,” says musical director Ewa Salecka of her Prima Vocal Ensemble singers

As lockdown eased and a “very restricted” return to physical rehearsals looked hopeful, new challenges arose. “I knew not everyone would be able to attend in person, but nothing was going to stop me bringing a glimpse of normality– and more importantly, hope – to as many people as I could,” says Ewa. 

“I spent the whole of August on constant micro-planning for the ever-changing scenarios: live simulcast broadcasts to set up for those at home; tons of administrative detail; appropriate venues; risk-assessments; seemingly endless regulations and disclaimers – and the weekly Zoom sessions continued alongside!

“It was so new for everyone, I couldn’t just call out for help. I simply had to get on with it: find that balance between creative output, Government guidelines and undisputed science. Being able to be back in one room with Prima was both emotional and exhilarating.”  

Given 2020 being Prima Vocal Ensemble’s tenth anniversary year, it means everything to Ewa to keep the spirits of this singing community high. By working from a professional home studio, fitted with top-standard equipment and a baby grand piano, she can provide high-quality resources for her singers in York. 

“They really are both ambitious and inspiring,” she says. “I’m in awe of their perseverance and dedication through this dramatic year. When we finally began to meet up after a half-a-year break, I was blown away by how fantastic they sounded, especially with the new repertoire.

“It was clear to me that our tutored virtual rehearsals really worked. And although it took a moment to adjust to the new space arrangements, the choir was in top form.”  

Armed woman: Ewa Salecka on baton duty as she conducts Karl Kenkins’s The Armed Man

Her professional studio set-up has enabled Ewa to continue her work as a  vocal coach, having the pleasure of training private clients and seeing her York St John University music students graduate with top results this summer.

“I was immensely proud of them all, although I did feel for them missing out on a traditional graduation ceremony!” she says. 

Come November 5, come Lockdown 2. “For Prima, until we can resume our ‘bubble rehearsals’, it’s a temporary return to full-on Zoom,” says Ewa, “I aim to find uplifting content that everyone can engage with and we will soon start working towards future events. 

“Among Prima’s concerts, in 2021 we will be performing on three occasions with The Voice tenor Russell Watson and we already have bookings for 2022. We’re now preparing for a winter project that will be available to view online in December, so watch this space.”  

For all the frustrations and stalled plans of 2020, nevertheless Ewa says this is the perfect time to join Prima Vocal Ensemble: “We’re open to welcome new members with spaces for more tenors and basses and a couple of 1st sopranos too.

“There are no auditions to join,” she stresses. “The repertoire is extremely versatile, from inspiring, feel-good pieces in all genres to formal classical orchestral works. Ability to hold the line is essential, and with my professional training, you’re guaranteed to develop your voice and musical skills.”

“I’m not going to let the lockdown or the pandemic prevent me from inspiring people to be involved in music making,” vows Ewa

You can contact Ewa by emailing info@primachoral.com, adding “Joining PVE” in the subject line.  

“There’s a waiting list for altos and sopranos, but as there are various additional projects being planned, all singers are encouraged to contact Prima if they wish to be added to the list and informed of the new singing opportunities,” says Ewa.  

She has limited spaces too for private vocal clients, either in person or online. To enquire, email Ewa at the address above, adding: “Vocal training”.

Noted for her unstinting positivity, she offers a final thought. “I’m not going to let the lockdown or the pandemic prevent me from inspiring people to be involved in music making,” says an adamant Ewa.

“Singing, creativity and artistic engagement can happen, will happen and is absolutely guaranteed to help all of us through this time, both physically and mentally.”  

For more information on Prima Vocal Ensemble, visit the “Join Us” section at primavocalensemble.com.

Russell Watson: Three concerts with Prima Vocal Ensemble in the pipeline for 2021

Prima Vocal Ensemble transform into Prima Virtual Ensemble by making room for Zoom

Prima Vocal Ensemble transform into Prima Virtual Ensemble for an online rehearsal on Zoom

ZOOM. Boom! What a boon this now ubiquitous electronic embrace is for singers, artists, musicians, whatever.

Musical director Ewa Salecka and her Prima Vocal Ensemble are a case in point. In a year when the York choir’s tenth anniversary celebrations “haven’t quite turned out as we expected”, nevertheless as many as 90 singers are still rehearsing weekly, gathering remotely, virtually, every Tuesday night to “sing and socialise”.

Tonight will be the latest such opportunity to make room at home for a Zoom session, led as ever by the exuberant Polish-born Ewa, who settled in York in 2009. “I’ve been using Zoom for five years now,” she says. “I started by doing vocal teaching that, whichever technique, was possible through this form of media, and I now do one-to-one sessions on Skype and Zoom.”

Ewa, by the way, had been spending the day teaching university students online before doing this interview. Turning her thoughts to her mixed voice choir Prima Vocal Ensemble, she is delighted with how the members have taken to the Zoom sessions.

“I remember hearing the Government’s announcement shutting down non-essential activities and thinking ‘what can we do now?’, but we didn’t waste even a week,” she says.

“The day after Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered the Coronavirus lockdown, with everybody largely confined to their homes, I launched the Prima Virtual Ensemble.”

She wrote to choir members to say: “We all need human contact to maintain our mental health, and so this is the time to embrace the technical world”.

“I just hoped they would embrace this technology that so many people had never heard of – and they have!” says Ewa.

Prima Vocal Ensemble musical director Ewa Salecka

“It’s not straightforward to set up Zoom for 90 people – whereas with one-to-one sessions it’s easy – and so I was a bit cautious with a large group where everyone’s internet plays to different rules.

“On the Friday, I had my first test session, then on the Saturday we did a rehearsal ‘as normal’, but remotely, sorting out the technical options for everyone, with help available for the less technically minded. Since then, we’ve reverted to Tuesday rehearsals from 7pm to 8.30pm, and the response has been really positive.”

Through their first decade, Prima Vocal Ensemble have sung at Carnegie Hall, New York, and the Royal Albert Hall, London, atop Alpine mountains and in European cathedrals and “underground” churches.

They have performed world premieres and collaborations with choirs from Europe and the United States; taken part in competitions, concerts and festivals in the UK, USA, Italy, Poland, Spain and Hungary, and sung with tenors Russell Watson and Aled Jones and The X-Factor’s 2013 winner and musical actress Sam Bailey.

As part of the tenth anniversary celebrations, Ewa had organised a June concert at the Riley-Smith Hall, Tadcaster, and a trip to Berlin later that month, both now scuppered by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Instead, Ewa has put together a special repertoire for the Zoom rehearsals, comprising old favourites, new material suitable for on-line sessions and topical works, such as Lean On Me to mark the March 30 death of American composer Bill Withers.

“Choir members were thrilled,” says Prima Vocal Ensemble’s Christine Kyriacou. “Many said that in these difficult times it was extraordinarily comforting to see one another on screen and be able to chat and rehearse together from home.

“One member wrote to Ewa to say: ‘So good to see everyone last night. It is massively morale-boosting for people like me who live alone, and I think what you are doing at the moment is not only amazing but absolutely vital. When this is all over, we will look back on the efforts people like you have made to keep connected and treasure the moments.

Prima Vocal Ensemble performing in competition in Manchester earlier this year , with the judges’ feedback

“I’m saving all the photos you are taking of Prima Virtual Ensemble, hoping I can say, ‘Do you remember when none of us could meet up for rehearsals, yet we kept on singing!”

Ewa shares that enthusiasm. “I miss seeing everyone; we’ve built some really strong connections and we do miss making music together under one roof, but the feedback has been fantastic, and now I’m thinking of gathering the comments I’ve received and putting them into a piece of music,” she says.

The June concert programme will form the basis of a tenth anniversary celebration provisionally re-arranged for the Riley-Smith Hall on October 3. “We’re definitely going to produce something new for that concert from the Zoom rehearsals,” promises Ewa.

“Over recent years, people have played with this technology, producing virtual sessions, but it’s a massive thing to do, putting videos together, but I’m now thinking about how to put the resources together for the concert, though it’ll be more about celebrating still being together.”

Later this year, Ewa still hopes that Prima Vocal Ensemble will be able to support Russell Watson on tour, and two concerts with orchestra and soloists are in the pipeline too.

In the meantime, she reflects proudly on how Prima Vocal Ensemble have been transformed into Prima Virtual Ensemble. “Prima still meet online to support each other. We keep singing, keep rehearsing and we’ve even created our Prima support group for those who may need it as time progresses,” she says.

“At the end of the day, I’m sending a message of hope and creativity. We’re like-minded York residents sticking together, helping each other and not letting the lockdown beat our cultural spirit.”