Responding to Amazing Grace: A World Premiere

A new music commission  (link to the announcement of the new commission in the Observer newspaper) created in response to the 250th anniversary of Amazing Grace has just been announced and we are delighted to share with you the story so far.

Back in October 2019 when the Cowper & Newton Museum held the first public meeting in Olney to find out more, ask questions and make suggestions about how the hymn’s birthday might be marked, local resident, Tim German, shared his idea for a far-reaching activity that would become a lasting legacy of the Amazing Grace 250 year.  Tim says:

‘When I heard about this historic anniversary, I immediately thought it needed to be something big. After all, Olney is the home of Amazing Grace.

As a former professional opera singer and arts manager with experience of creating and designing music projects, I was excited at the prospect of helping to make Amazing Grace 250 really special.  I am most interested in how Amazing Grace has developed into a worldwide phenomenon and what it means to people. Amazing Grace is massive in the United States of America. I particularly remembered the incredibly poignant and emotional moment when President Obama sang it in June 2015 at the funeral eulogy of the Reverend Clementa Pinckney after he was killed alongside eight of his parishioners in a racist shooting at the Mother Emanuel AME church in Charleston.

I submitted a one-page proposal for a project which recognised that Amazing Grace has been recorded by over three thousand different performers in various genres such as gospel, classical, choral, folk, pop, jazz & blues. The proposal would involve many people from communities around Olney and Milton Keynes, but it wouldn’t be just another rehash of the well-known Amazing Grace as we all know it. It would be a new composition written by a well-known composer with a text that investigates what Amazing Grace means to people both locally and internationally. What are the transformative powers that this great hymn has? It would be an orchestral work with a chorus which could be performed in either large or small scale.  It would also be a project that involved the local community and a work that would provide a legacy for Olney and Amazing Grace 250 by being repeated in the UK and internationally.

The proposal from the outset of the idea was that it should be musicians from Chineke!  which champions diversity alongside musical excellence. In order to determine their enthusiasm for such a project I met with the Chineke! founder, Chi-chi Nwanoku at the Festival Hall in London. Chi-chi was very enthusiastic and suggested I contact Roderick Williams OBE. I had actually met him and am an admirer, considering him to be one of the finest baritones of our time and a great composer.  On contacting Roderick Williams to sound him out about the idea, thankfully, despite an incredibly busy professional diary, he was enthusiastic. On his suggestion, we also then approached poet and writer Dr Rommi Smith to create the new words.’

Cowper & Newton Museum Trustee, Amanda Molcher, takes up the story: 

‘At the same time that the public meeting in Olney was being held, we were also talking to African and Caribbean leaders in the local area, as well as Olney Town Council, Milton Keynes City Council, and the Open University. about the potential for ‘Amazing Grace 250’. 

From discussions with Rooda Ibrahim, Chair of the African Diaspora Foundation, Wain McIntosh, Chair of the Friends of the Caribbean, Cllr Mike Kasibo, CEO of the African and Caribbean Arts and Heritage Union, Shane Downer, Heritage Officer for Milton Keynes City Council, the parish church of St Peter & St Paul, the Open University and the Sierra Leone Community, a programme of walks, talks, events and activities was identified on the themes of honesty and learning, freedom, belonging and identity and community and hope. This programme has been part funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Milton Keynes City Council.  You can find out more about these events  and the partners on the Amazing Grace 250 website www.cowperandnewtonmuseum.org.uk/amazing-grace-250-commemorations

Tim’s suggestion for a new musical commission was immediately compelling to the Steering group and the Museum because it reflected so many of the themes at the heart of Amazing Grace 250.  The Trustees of the Cowper & Newton Museum were very aware though that we did not have the expertise to apply for funding nor run a musical project!  This is where the strong relationships between cultural venues and groups in the area came into play, particularly through the Arts & Heritage Alliance-MK and the Culture Team at Milton Keynes City Council.  We turned to The Stables, the internationally known music and entertainment venue based at Wavendon, for advice.

With support from MKCC (or MKC as it was then), The Stables helped develop the initial idea, bringing their experience as music venue, a festival producer and an education and engagement promoter to develop the idea into a significant cultural event.

Recognising the cultural significance of the commission, the Stables undertook to produce and promote the premiere performance of the new work at The Stables as part of IF: Milton Keynes International Festival, giving the project the chance to connect and make an impact in Milton Keynes and far beyond.  The Stables also provided the experience and expertise to support the Museum in developing an application to Arts Council England for funding.

Wider discussions amongst the Amazing Grace 250 partners and development work by The Stables led to a music education and outreach strand added to the project. This would see a team of musicians from Chineke! Ensemble going into local schools to inspire young people musically as well as working alongside current young musicians.

We couldn’t have been more delighted and excited when we heard that ACE would award a £60,000 grant. With a further £35,000 from MKCC, the new orchestral and choral piece could be brought to life.

The final project includes:
A major new work for voice and chamber ensemble with music by baritone and composer Roderick William and words by poet and writer Rommi Smith

A world premiere of the new commission in July 2023 at The Stables by the Chineke! Ensemble as part of  IF: Milton Keynes International Festival

In May and June 2023, musicians from Chineke! Ensemble visiting schools in the area to inspire musicians of the future

A performance of the choral section by 250 voices from local community choirs and singers at the MK Choir Festival in June 2023

Cllr Robin Bradburn, Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Culture adds:

‘Milton Keynes City Council has been working with the Museum for some time on bringing a programme together to commemorate the 250th Anniversary of Amazing Grace’, understanding its international significance both to Olney and to Milton Keynes.

We were delighted to be able to offer funding to secure this Music Commission and public programme centred on a sermon, a hymn and a back story. Amazing Grace resonates with many people and is especially embedded in our African and Caribbean communities, so supporting the museum to ensure they too could add their voices and stories to the Music Project, as part of an enduring legacy was really important to us.’

Keep up to date on the Cowper & Newton Museum and The Stables social media channels as well as the Amazing Grace 250 So Far … news pages on the Museum website.

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