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Preston Witts accompanied South Warwickshire choir Tarantara as they visited Scotland's north to sing and raise money for suicide charity Mikeysline

TARANTARA is as musical a word as it’s possible to imagine. It actually means the sound of a trumpet and it’s forever embedded in our consciousness as the word repeated over and over again in a song by the chorus of policemen in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance.

It is also the name of a mixed choir in South Warwickshire that was formed nearly 20 years ago by a singing teacher called Tara Roberts (I think you’ll spot the play on her name!).

The choir sets a high standard, and anyone wishing to join it has to go through an audition to make sure they’re up to scratch.

Since its creation in 2003 it’s raised well over £100,000 for charity locally as well as in other parts of the country and even abroad. Its most recent enterprise was a weekend in Inverness, Scotland where it staged three separate concerts at different locations as well as an impromptu sing-along in the city’s main shopping centre.

Tarantara music director Linnea Markgren conducting the choir during its Scottish trip at Inverallen Church of Scotland, Grantown-on-Spey, with “Spud the Piper” performing in the background. (58049410)
Tarantara music director Linnea Markgren conducting the choir during its Scottish trip at Inverallen Church of Scotland, Grantown-on-Spey, with “Spud the Piper” performing in the background. (58049410)

The purpose on this occasion was to raise cash for the charity Mikeysline, which was set up in 2015 after a series of suicides in the Highlands. The organisation provides helplines, support, drop-in centres and advice for anyone struggling with loneliness or mental health issues.

Other ventures over the years have included trips to Cornwall, Wales, Norfolk, York and Oviedo in northern Spain. But the bulk of Tarantara’s performances are in the more immediate vicinity of South Warwickshire, with occasional excursions to Worcestershire and Gloucestershire.

“Our membership has grown to nearly 70, from the Warwickshire and Worcestershire area,” said Helen Smith from Bidford, one of the altos who is also a member of the choir committee. “The repertoire has always been extremely varied, from classical, baroque, show tunes, popular songs, folk and contemporary choral compositions.”

Helen added: “We love to sing together, and it is all the more special when our concerts benefit a worthy cause. These have ranged from funding for church toilets, kitchens, community libraries, children’s charities, cancer charities, mental health support and overseas aid.” A few weeks ago the choir held a concert in Stratford to raise money for refugees from the war in Ukraine.

The choir’s chairman Barry Juckes – a second tenor who often sings solo parts – said: “From its birth, when Tara ‘handpicked’ the original members, Tarantara has been fortunate to attract like-minded individuals who strive to achieve the highest standards in performance.

“There is a palpable sense of warmth and friendliness among the members and this is often commented upon when new members join. Reference to ‘the family that is Tarantara’ is often heard in conversation. During particularly difficult times in their lives, some members have found that the choir provides much needed strength and support to them.”

Until Covid struck the choir rehearsed every Thursday evening (barring holiday periods) at Arrow Village Hall near Alcester. As Covid receded it used St Benedict’s School in Alcester as its rehearsal venue. Currently it’s based at Cookhill Village Hall, just over the border into Worcestershire.

During lockdown the choir continued rehearsals through Zoom, with the enthusiastic leadership of Chris Long, who’s been its keyboard accompanist since 2005. It says something about the gritty determination of Tarantara’s membership that it was prepared to undergo the less-than-perfect device of remote rehearsals rather than be defeated by a pandemic.

Right from the start the choir’s music director was Jonathan Hill, who retired at the end of last year. His successor in the post is a Swedish soprano, Linnea Markgren, who’d been his associate music director for a few years. She came to this country to continue her vocal studies at Birmingham Conservatoire – and stayed here. She also studied at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest, Hungary.

Apart from her work with Tarantara, Linnea is active as a supporting conductor and vocal coach for various choirs around Birmingham. In 2012 she directed and produced Benjamin Britten’s one-act opera Noye’s Fludde for the music charity Operamus in King’s Norton. As a singer she’s given numerous chamber music recitals in Sweden, Hungary and the UK and is an experienced soloist in choral and operatic works. And on top of all that she’s a member of a jazz band called Grandma’s Biscuit Tin!

Linnea is especially proud of Tarantara’s performances in Scotland. Plans were first made for the Inverness trip in 2019, but then Covid intervened and the tour was postponed until July this year. Over three days the choir sang at Inverness Cathedral, Inverallen Church at Grantown-on-Spey and Dornoch Cathedral.

The energy and camaraderie of the choir brings a real joy to the singing and I feel very lucky to be leading such a great group,” said Linnea. “I was very impressed by the warm welcome of the Highlands and the sheer beauty of both the nature and the venues themselves.”

She also paid tribute to some local talent in Scotland that gave added colour to the concerts – the Tain Pipe Band and a performer known as Spud the Piper. The inclusion of bagpipes was particularly touching and enhanced the musical and cultural inclusivity of these superbly entertaining events.

Since next year will be Tarantara’s 20th anniversary the choir is preparing a special programme of concerts. It will doubtless build on the ethos it is already renowned for.

Said Barry Juckes: “During its life the choir has performed in a variety of venues, from small to large churches, abbeys, cathedrals, schools and village halls and even Symphony Hall in Birmingham.

“Its modus operandi is to raise money by singing together and providing an audience with a varied programme of good quality entertainment.” And long may it continue…

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