Patron: Lesley Garrett CBE FRAM
The chamber choir Polymnia (named after the Greek muse of sacred song) was formed when a group of friends decided to form a small choir which would sing to a very high standard. It was suggested that we start with a fund-raising concert in the parish of Northill, Bedfordshire in 2006, and we decided to go ahead after one of our members tested the church’s acoustics by singing the Habaňera from Bizet’s Carmen in the aisle, much to the surprise of the Vicar. John Byron was subsequently invited to become Musical Director. Since then Polymnia has gone from strength to strength giving concerts, often raising money for charities, and drawing on local musical expertise for guest instrumentalists and accompanists.
The breadth of music we sing is extremely wide, dating from Renaissance polyphony to contemporary composers, and ranging from the classics to lighter numbers including folk songs, arrangements of songs from shows and musicals, and even film blockbusters by John Williams. One of our concerts, ‘Drums and Voices’, was a celebration of world music with songs from Africa, Hawaii and Sri Lanka, as well as contemporary European and New World music and items from the Spiritual and Gospel traditions. For this we were joined by a wonderful marimba player, Daniella Ganeva, and some amazing African drummers.
2010 saw our first visit to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival; performances included a wide range of choral music in the wonderful setting of St Marks artSpace. Under John’s direction the choir sang inspiring pieces, from Eric Whitacre’s haunting ‘Sleep’ and Mendelssohn’s ‘Kyrie Eleison’ to the rousing chords of John Williams’ ‘Hymn to the Fallen’ and a sensuous Argentinean tango, ‘Verano Porteno’ by Piazzolla. A return visit to Edinburgh in 2011 included the spine-tingling Allegri Miserere.
In May 2012 we sang in the Barbican complex at St Giles, Cripplegate, in a performance of the Bach Magnificat with the London Charity Orchestra. This programme also included a full performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with the young virtuoso, Thomas Gould.
In 2013 we went to Croatia, where we sang in the Istria Music Festival. This was our first trip abroad and though we had planned to leave two years between this and our next trip, the choir were adamant that they wanted another trip the following year. So in 2014 we travelled to Spain as part of the “Music in the Mountains” Festival, where, as well as performing to an enthusiastic local audience, we sang in the caves at Nerja and gave a concert in the cathedral at Granada. We also had a training day with Stephen Cleobury and an opportunity to sing in the wonderful acoustic of the chapel at Kings College Cambridge. We travelled a little further east in 2015 to take part in the King’s Lynn Festival where once again we performed Allegri’s Miserere, with the soloists singing from the organ loft.
In 2016 we performed in the prestigious Mantova Chamber Festival in Italy, giving three successful concerts in the Basilica of the Ducal Palace where Monteverdi lived and worked. The audience increased for each concert until it was standing room only for our third performance. We were also invited to sing a concert in Carpenedolo where the local choir, Coro Ars Nova, sang three items and we sang the rest of the concert. They joined us at the end in a moving rendition of Signore delle cime.
2018 saw a trip to Prague, with a rare opportunity to perform in the wonderful cathedral. In Milton Keynes on the eve of Remembrance Day we gave a moving concert of music, images and words that had members of both the choir and audience in tears and marked our first collaboration with Help for Heroes.
In 2016 and 2019 we developed and performed two highly successful concerts in Milton Keynes with Lesley Garrett CBE, our Patron. She said ‘I was thrilled at the sound the choir made… you have some excellent singers and together make a beautiful sound’.
In August 2019 we sang three concerts at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe at St Andrew’s and St George’s West, a venue that focuses on music.
After 13 wonderful years, John has decided to step down as Director of Polymnia at the end of 2019. John was invited to become Musical Director of Polymnia in 2006, when a group of friends decided to form a small choir which would sing to a very high standard.
Since then he has taken the choir from strength to strength; expanding our numbers, growing our confidence and attracting some very experienced singers. His wide knowledge of the choral repertoire has encouraged us to tackle a wide range of genres and styles of music from Renaissance polyphony to contemporary composers, and ranging from the classics to lighter numbers including folk music and songs from shows, musicals and films.
John is an extremely talented concert pianist; we have been very privileged to have him as our accompanist and to listen to him performing solo pieces in some of our concerts. His deep understanding of musical structure has guided us through some very complex compositions. He knows us all very well, and makes the best use of our differing voices and skills.
Through John’s contacts and reputation we have performed with some very special musicians, including marimba player Daniella Ganeva, violinist Thomas Gould and saxophonist Alžbeta Klasová. We sang under his direction at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, in the Barbican complex, in Croatia, Spain and Italy and in the cathedrals of Granada and Prague. We have sung together in the amazing underground caves at Nerja, in the chapel of Kings College Cambridge, at The Stables, in Cleo Laine’s garden and on the pitch of the Rugby World Cup. Also in various hotel bars and on a certain river boat in Prague…
We have been through a lot together, and owe him an enormous debt of gratitude. “May the road rise to meet you; may the wind be always at your back”.