Giles Woodforde talks to Leo Pitt about a concert with a difference

“It’s almost impossible to believe that we are celebrating our eighth Come and Sing event with this concert,” says Oxford Orpheus organiser Leo Pitt.

“These are always exciting occasions for us if only because of the element of the unknown. As well as raising money for charity, the all-important contribution of the choir is the raison d’être of the event. Yet it is also the most mysterious: the fact that once we announce the repertoire, singers miraculously sign up and pay to spend a joyous day of music-making on a specific work, is a minor miracle in itself.”

This year’s Come and Sing concert is on Saturday, February 22, and features Dvorak’s Stabat Mater. As always the choir will have put in an intensive day’s rehearsal with conductor Robert Dean before the performance itself that same evening. The choir and the Oxford Orpheus Orchestra will be joined by four soloists: Anna Jeruc-Kopec, Clare Presland, Andrew Goodwin, and Ashley Riches, all young professionals making their names as opera singers.

“It’s believed that Dvorak began writing the work as a reaction to the death of his daughter Josefa,” Leo Pitt explains. “In fact two of his other children would also die by the time the Stabat Mater was completed. It’s no wonder that the music speaks eloquently of the deepest sorrow and of grieving for the dead and dying. However, it is far from unremittingly gloomy music: there is much light and shade in the use of choral and solo forces in its 85- minute duration.”

The Come and Sing concerts have a very impressive record of raising funds, and the recipient this year is the Oxford MND Care and Research Centre. It’s one of the largest motor neurone disease clinics in Europe, and one of the very few centres anywhere in the world where research into the disease is combined with clinicians seeing patients. The centre situated at Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital, and is led by Prof Kevin Talbot, a former member of the Oxford Bach Choir.

“We are trying to understand the fundamental causes of the disease,” he explains. “That’s terribly important because people clearly come and see us hoping there’s a treatment that will slow their disease down or even stop it.

“So the question is: why is MND so difficult to cure? There are many reasons, but one is that we don’t understand enough about the basic mechanics of what’s going wrong. At the moment we have only a very rudimentary idea about why cells of the nervous system might be perfectly normal for decades, then apparently suddenly degenerate.”

So the Centre, Prof Talbot adds, is focused on understanding the very earliest changes in the nervous system. This includes work with stem cells, and, perhaps controversially, with mice. “We have to study the intact nervous system. A mouse and a human have some similarities in the way the nerves and the muscles connect. So they are a very valuable tool. It’s up to us as scientists to make the case that this work is necessary.” “The third strand we use is the patients themselves. They often come to Oxford from far and wide, because they very generously want to engage in the research, and help us.

“We will get absolutely nowhere unless that happens. The more we know, the more complex the problem becomes. There is no simple answer here.”