This year marks a remarkable milestone in the life of the Cayman National Choir – it celebrates its ruby anniversary.
With two upcoming performances on the calendar, it is time to reflect on a group that has stood the test of time over the decades. Two of the original members, Zeta Bodden and Merrell McCann, still sing with the choir today; a commendable achievement for this community institution.
Founded in 1977, the Cayman Choir (as it was known then) was the bright idea of Mel McCoy. His mission was to bring choral classical music to Cayman and showcase the local singing talent – a task that he admitted was not without its challenges.
With McCoy’s guidance, the choir began rehearsing and performed their inaugural concert as a celebration of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in that same year. Afterward, they were officially given the title of the Cayman National Choir.
McCoy stood as musical director and conductor of the choir, until his resignation in 1989. When he passed away in 2005, the choir sang at his funeral in North Side in tribute to the many years he spent working with its members.
Fred Burton took up the baton in the early ‘90s, with Stephanie Williams as the accompanist. By now, the choir had some 60 members and was often able to invite professional musicians from the Orpheus Symphony Orchestra of South Florida to perform alongside them.
Next in line was Bob Chapman, who took over the role as musical director in 1995, while Williams stayed on.
The Christmas concerts at the Elmslie Memorial Church became a popular fixture in the festive calendar, as did the Rotary lighting of the Christmas Tree in George Town.
When Chapman decided to return to the U.K. in 1998, it looked as if the choir might fold, but Sue Horrocks saved the day and offered to stand in as the choir’s musical director until someone else was found. Fortunately for the choir, she stayed, and in the last 19 years she has inspired its members to reach new horizons.
The choir celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2002 with a black tie gala dinner at the Grand Pavilion and a two-date concert at the Harquail Theatre. The program opened with an uplifting interpretation of Haydn’s “Gloria,” accompanied by Fred Burton on the violin.
In more recent years, the choir has performed as part of the Cayman Arts Festival alongside famous international singers and musicians. Outstanding performances include Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” Mozart’s “Requiem” and a visit from the London Philharmonic Orchestra, which performed pieces specially arranged for choir and brass to include Gabrieli’s beautiful “O Magnum Mysterium.” Other memorable works over the years have included Faure’s “Requiem” and Haydn’s “Nelson Mass.”
Although major classical choral works have been highlights, under the baton of Sue Horrocks the concert repertoire has been extended to include Caribbean music and more popular pieces with choral adaptations which appeal to a wider audience.
Zeta Bodden and Merrell McCann are two original members who have been with the choir since the very start. Both started singing at a young age at church before joining the choir, and 40 years later they are still going. McCann believes it is “great exercise” and has kept her in good health throughout the years. The different types of music and the friendly members have kept Monday nights something to look forward to. Bodden puts it down to the solid foundation Mel McCoy instilled in the beginning years and Sue Horrocks’s varied repertoire of music that has allowed the choir to continue and grow for such a long time.
Highlights for both members have been the opportunity to perform for audiences here in Cayman and on trips abroad, particularly the choir’s inaugural performance to celebrate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. “Hallelujah Chorus” is their favorite piece to perform on stage.
Horrocks’s passion for music, incredible musical knowledge and experience saved the choir from disbanding when they could not find a new conductor. She stepped in as a temporary solution until they found someone, but they stopped looking and fast forward 19 years, Horrocks is still heading the choir.
As musical director since 1998, she has shared her knowledge and experience of music with the members of the Cayman National Choir. From the age of 5, she has been playing music and has performed with many choirs, bands and orchestras, most notably the prestigious Cambridge University Choral Society. As Horrocks says herself, “I have always been heavily involved in music – it is such a large part of who I am; I wouldn’t be me without it.”
One of her most memorable experiences with the choir was after the devastation of Hurricane Ivan. They decided to get things back up and running and continue with the usual schedule of Christmas concerts.
On the night of the first concert, while getting ready to perform, an earthquake hit. “All the stands fell over, the Christmas tree landed on the floor and the lights were swinging,” remembers Horrocks. “I thought that was it.”
The choir continued with their concert and she recalls the powerful atmosphere that it created. “Everyone felt a special bond and our emotions were heightened by the experiences; the music brought us all together – audience and musicians. It was very moving.”
It seems the strength of community that this choir has created in Cayman is one of the reasons it has stood the test of time and will continue to do so for years to come.
The Cayman National Choir’s next performance will be An Enchanting Evening of Musical Excellence with Steve Higgins and Friends, supported by the choir and the Cayman National Orchestra. It will take place on Saturday at the ARC in Camana Bay.
Higgins is a Jamaican tenor soloist and has performed internationally. He recently returned from a tour in the U.K. where he headlined the Commonwealth Cultural Extravaganza in Birmingham, England, in honor of the celebration of the 90th birthday of Queen Elizabeth II.
He will be joined by friends Dahlia Wynter and Rory Baugh for the performance.
The main event, Cayman National Choir’s 40th Anniversary Concert, with the Cayman National Orchestra and Cayman National Youth Choir, will take place on June 1 in the ballroom at the Marriott Beach Resort. The concert will showcase a whole host of new material, including “Climb Every Mountain.”
The choir will be welcoming back Stephanie Williams to perform with them for this special evening of eclectic music.
The Cayman National Choir has a long-standing tradition of supporting local charities, which has included donations to the NCVO, Cayman Islands Cancer Society, Meals on Wheels, Missionaries of the Poor, Humane Society, Red Cross, Northward Prison, Lighthouse School, Breast Cancer Foundation, Rotary Clubs of the Cayman Islands and numerous government, church and community events. This year, a donation is being made to the Cayman Islands Cancer Society from the proceeds of the concert with guest artist Steve Higgins.
Since 2009, the choir has sung at the moving candlelit Light up a Life concert every Christmas for Cayman HospiceCare, and performs regularly at the Pink Ladies Christmas Bazaar.
The Cayman National Choir is a voluntary organization with some 50 members and depends completely on the time of its volunteers. President of the choir Marius Gaina, Sue Horrocks and accompanist Naomi Allnutt and all the other volunteers work very hard to help it expand and grow. One hope for the future is to eventually have its own space to rehearse in and hold small recitals more regularly, rather than relying on the generosity of Cayman Prep Primary school.
Although the choir includes professional musicians and experienced singers, it is a diverse group that welcomes singers of all ages, nationalities and ability. Some members do not read music, but with commitment to weekly rehearsals and practice, are able to fully participate. The National Choir is a part of the community and open to everyone with no auditions required. New members are always welcome.
Rehearsals are at Cayman Prep Primary School on Mondays from 7:30-9 p.m.
At the choir’s inaugural concert in 1977, Governor Thomas Russell said, “It is not the aim of the Cayman National Choir to compete with existing choral organizations, but to permit the assembly of singers from whatever source or organization for national occasions.”
That spirit holds as true today as it did 40 years ago.
Tickets for both upcoming events are available at $25 for adults or $10 for children/students. For more details, visit the Cayman National Choir’s Facebook page at cayman-national-choir.