Category Archives: Birmingham Choirs

Singing in Virtual Harmony

Did you see the article about our online rehearsing and performing in the Birmingham Post yesterday? We were very pleased to have such a big spread in the paper to show how BFCS has been responding to the challenges of the lockdown. Mary Keating, the author and BFCS soprano, has provided the text below to enable you to read it easily online.

Carry on singing –

Birmingham prides itself on being a cultural oasis so it is tragic that theatre and live music have been so badly affected by Covid-19 with no end yet in sight. What has been overlooked, in the concern over the continuation of professional performances, are the consequences for the many community choirs across the city who support and give purpose to so many lives.

The Birmingham Festival Choral Society (BFCS) is one such choir and it is special because it is the oldest choir still operating in Birmingham. Founded in 1845, this year marks the 175th anniversary.  Having weathered many historical upheavals, will this be the final curtain?

 Music Director, David Wynne, is determined that this will not be the case. The choir continues to sing and has even produced a performance recording of Mozart’s Ave Verum that can be seen on the BFCS website.   While concern about infection remains so high the intention is to continue producing these performance recordings. Indeed there is an ambitious plan to produce a concert recording.

The experience of managing Zoom rehearsals is far from simple, as other choirs will confirm. The BFCS is not only the oldest choir, it is also a very large choir. For normal rehearsals and performances choir numbers are around eighty.  Imagine that number of people singing together via varying internet speeds – what a cacophony, certainly not up to the usual high standards. To manage this issue David developed an ingenious way of conducting the rehearsals and supporting each choir member to learn their parts.

One of the first things David recognised was that without the opportunity to sing together in parts and as a whole it is a strange and isolating experience for the performer and the conductor.  So much of what singers and conductors do is reliant on hearing each other. How to replicate this was the question.  Usually rehearsal recordings only have the music for each individual part, so this does not address the issue of singing in isolation.  Instead David produced recordings with all the voice parts singing but weighted in favour of each part.  As a Soprano you can listen and sing with the Soprano weighted part, and you are also singing with the rest of the choir.

 As David commented this was a huge learning curve. He had never heard of Zoom and certainly never done any audio and video editing.  Initially he sang all the male parts but what of the alto and soprano? Luckily for the choir David’s wife, Alexandra, is a professional soprano. Where the tenor part became too high even for David he managed to persuade Edward Harrison to lend his voice.

The innovation did not stop there. When it became clear that conducting live suffered from the same internet delays, the audio rehearsal recordings became videos with David conducting.

The danger for all choirs currently is that members are lost. So far the vast majority of BFCS have taken part in the Zoom rehearsals and over forty contributed to the performance recording. Initial anxiety about the technology putting many people off has not been realised.

Research on the possible dangers of spreading the virus through singing continues. Although anecdotal, there is no firm evidence that singing of itself spreads the virus through airborne transmission. Even with or without that evidence the confidence of choir members to return is doubtful.  So what does the future hold for the BFCS and others like it?  David feels that much has been learned in a very short time about how technology can support the choir to continue to work towards performance standards, albeit virtual. 

Beyond Covid many of these developments, spearheaded by David, can continue. Producing the rehearsal recordings can be maintained. These can support all the choir to work on their own to improve their practice. For those less confident about their singing and sight reading they would be invaluable as a way of encouraging a wider membership and greater inclusivity.  Importantly for a community choir, those housebound members who have been singing with the choir for years will be able to continue to enjoy singing with us.

BFCS has withstood many historical upheavals. Its future after the First World War and the 1918 flu epidemic looked very shaky. Choir members dropped to critical levels and finding male voices was understandably very difficult. Nevertheless, the choir has faced many upheavals risen to the challenges and deserves its current reputation as one of the best choral societies in Birmingham.  Covid-19, tragic as it is, holds the opportunity to improve the quality and inclusivity of the choir that prides itself on being the “friendly choir”.

If you are interested in finding out more about the BFCS or joining us, visit the website and look out for the next sets of performance recordings that show that the choir remains a vibrant entity.

Mary Keating

Our first virtual performance !

We hope that you will enjoy our performance of Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, recorded individually in our own homes, and brought together with some digital magic.

Click the symbol in the bottom right corner to make the video fill the full screen.

Our last concert was in November, when we sang Handel’s Messiah to a packed audience in St Alban’s Church. The beginning of the concert was delayed while our front of house team ran around trying to find extra chairs and spaces to fit in the people who were still arriving. Who could imagine that now!

We had great plans for 2020, our 175th Anniversary, but the Covid-19 Pandemic put an end to all of that. But nothing will stop Birmingham Festival Choral Society singing, so we are proud to present our first Virtual Choir Performance to you.

Many thanks to David Wynne for leading us through this process, to Kevin Gill the accompanist, the BFCS singers who overcame the technological obstacles to make their recordings, and to Gareth Howell for putting it all together.

Anniversaries and premieres.

Birmingham Festival Choral Society celebrates its 175th anniversary this year! Our choir was formed to provide the chorus for the Birmingham Triennial Festivals (hence the ‘Festival’ in our name), and gave its first concert in 1845. It sang at all the Triennial Festivals until they came to an end in 1912.

One of the highlights of singing in the Festivals was the premiere of Elijah in 1846, conducted by Mendelssohn himself in the new Birmingham Town Hall. The audience loved the work, and it is still much loved by choral societies and audiences today.

Birmingham Town Hall 1834

Click here for a newly published account of the premiere of Mendelssohn’s Elijah, written by Robert Hugill in his Classical Music Blog. The premiere of Elijah also features in this recent blog from the Library of Birmingham’s Music Librarian, as well as the information about another of the premieres from the Festivals – Elgar’s Dream of Gerontious. Both of these works are now firmly established in the choral repertoire.

BFCS Concert Cancelled

We’re very sorry to announce that our ‘Petite Messe Solennelle’ concert has been cancelled, due to the current coronavirus situation.

Our singers have loved learning Rossini’s beautiful work, and we hope to reschedule the concert at a later date.

This concert was to have involved seven freelance musicians, all of whom are facing an uncertain financial future as this, and other concerts are cancelled. We would like to invite those who have bought concert tickets to consider this as a donation, to enable us to make the musicians a reasonable settlement. If, however, you would like a refund, please contact us to make arrangements.

We look forward to future music making.

Rossini – our next concert.

Come and hear BFCS sing Rossini’s lovely Petite Messe Solennelle on Saturday 28th March, at the Ruddock Performing Arts Centre, King Edward’s School.

The Petite Messe Solennelle was written for performance at one of the very popular weekly musical salons held by Rossini and his wife at their Paris home. As such, it was originally scored for a small choir, accompanied by two pianos, with harmonium or accordion. We are looking forward to singing with piano and accordion accompaniment.

Our soloists:

Caroline Modiba, soprano, Rachel Gilmore, mezzo soprano,

Joseph Kennedy, baritone, Richard Hansen, tenor.

Kevin Gill, piano, Ben De Souza, accordion

Rossini achieved superstar status early in life, having written over 40 operas by the age of 37. The William Tell Overture is one of the pieces for which he is best known in popular culture today. There followed a period of 25 years of ill health, during which he didn’t compose any new music.

In 1855 Rossini ‘returned to life’ on moving to Paris with his second wife, and their musical salons became internationally famous. These salons included music by many composers, and they inspired Rossini to write over 150 small works for performance by different soloists and ensembles.

The Petite Messe Solennelle was Rossini’s last major work , written in 1863. The opera composer’s beautiful melodies , colour and drama make this one of the most popular works in the choral repertoire. We love singing it, and we’re sure that you will enjoy listening to it!

Click here for tickets to Petite Messe Solennelle

Join a choir in 2020?

Are you thinking of joining a choir? Come to our free Open Rehearsal next Wednesday (8th January) to enjoy a sing with us, and see if Birmingham Festival Choral Society is the choir for you!

We’ll be welcoming people to Lordswood Girls’ School from about 7pm, which will give time to have a chat, give you some music and introduce you to someone of the same voice part who can lead you through the rehearsal. There will be a chance to meet other singers over coffee and cake at the half time break.

The best part is the singing! Our Music Director, David Wynne, and accompanist, Kevin Gill, combine the achievement of high musical standards with good humour and friendliness – a winning combination!

The concert we will be leading up to this term is Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle. The poster shows that Rossini was not blessed with film star looks, but he certainly knew how to write wonderful opera and choral music!

Have a look around the rest of our website, particularly the Join us page, to find out more about our rehearsals, concerts, overseas tours and our interesting history.

Hope to see you Wednesday!

Joyful Christmas Music!

Last Saturday, 14th December, David Wynne put on his Christmas Suit (!) and led the singers of Birmingham Festival Choral Society and their friends and family in an evening of Christmas music and readings.

It’s hard to imagine a Carol Concert without music by Rutter! Our audience was treated to three of Rutter’s carols, as well as Christmas music by Tchaikovsky, Joubert, and many arrangements by David Willcocks. One highlight was The Three Kings, by Cornelius, with the baritone solo sung beautifully by Barry Jones , standing in at short notice for a croaky David Wynne. David’s voice was good enough, though to read out Christmas cracker jokes between the items!

We also heard readings from A Christmas Carol, (Dickens), The Oxen (Hardy) and Journey of the Magi (Rust)

We were pleased to have a chance to sing Ring the Bells by Paul Fincham once more. We were one of 15 choirs singing this new carol in performances on Saturday 14th December – the listing on the London Philharmonic website showed many performances during December, with all proceeds from the sale of the music going to the charity Crisis.

Our charity for this year was The Cameron Grant Memorial Trust, set up after Cameron took his own life in 2014. Cameron’s father told us how the charity aims to support young people with mental health difficulties, and to encourage them to seek help and talk about how they feel. Our generous audience and singers put £600 in the collecting buckets.

Our concert finished with an enthusiastic rendition of Jingle Bells, with members of the audience invited to join in by shaking their keys! Then it was time for the mulled wine and mince pies and a chance to chat to friends and family.

Happy Christmas to you all!

Christmas Carol time!

Our Christmas Concert is nearly here! It’s one of our favourite times of the year – Christmas music, mince pies and mulled wine in the warm and attractive venue of Ladywood ARC. We do hope that many friends, new and old, will be able to join us.

We will be supporting a charity that has grown out of great personal sadness. The Cameron Grant Memorial Trust has been founded to raise awareness and support mental health in young people. Please give generously.

ST John’s and St Peter’s Church. Ladywood ARC.

Carols for Crisis

Birmingham Festival Choral Society are pleased to be supporting Crisis, the charity fighting to end homelessness, at their Christmas Carol Service in St Martin’s in the Bullring.

To quote from their website:

Join us for Crisis Skylight Birmingham’s Carol Service at St Martin in the Bull Ring for an evening of carols, mince-pies and drinks as we gather together to kick-start our Season of Wellbeing and Celebration, honouring our achievements of the past and looking forward to a future without homelessness.

 
Tuesday 3rd December 2019 
St Martin in the Bull Ring, 
Edgbaston St,  
Birmingham  
B5 5BB


Carol Service: 6pm – 7:00pm 
Refreshments: 7:00pm – 7:30pm 
 
This is a free, public event but please click here to reserve a ticket so we can make sure we have enough mince pies for everyone! 

To learn more about this worthwhile cause, please have a look at the Crisis website.

BFCS, and many other choirs across the country, will be singing the new carol ‘Ring the Bells for Christmas’. The composer, Paul Fincham, is donating all of his royalties from the purchase of the sheet music to ‘Crisis’. We are very pleased to support this fund raising venture.

Learn about the carol here:

MESSIAH in pictures

Our Messiah concert on 16th November was a wonderful occasion for both performers and audience. So many people came to hear the concert that the conductor and performers had to be turned back five times, as people were still arriving and more chairs had to be found! Eventually we were all settled and that wonderful music began…

Handel certainly knew how to write music that is a pleasure to sing! We received many compliments from members of the audience on our diction, phrasing, dynamics and energy. One ordained listener said that the concert was an inspiring spiritual experience for him.

Please click the arrows to see photos from all sections of the choir.

The Musical and Amicable Society were a perfect balance to the choir. They played beautifully and effortlessly.

” The trumpet shall sound”

What did our concert have in common with the royal wedding of Harry and Meghan? David Blackadder, the trumpeter! At the royal wedding he played Handel’s beautiful ‘Eternal Source of Light Divine, with the soprano Elin Manahan Thomas.

He is on the right of this photo, with Matthew Frost.

Our wonderful soloists: James Williams, baritone, Phillipa Thomas, Mezzo, Penelope Appleyard, soprano and Xavier Hetherington, tenor.

The man who brought it all together: our talented Music Director David Wynne. His wardrobe of shoes is a constant source of fascination!

We were delighted with the standing ovation and long applause at the end of the concert . A memorable concert from start to finish!

Many thanks to Alfred White for this wonderful gallery of photographs. Thank you also to Mary Keating for the picture of ‘the shoes’ and one other from her seat in the audience.