We hope that you will be able to join us for our performance of ‘The Creation’ next Saturday, 18th March. David Fletcher’s programme notes give a fascinating background to the music you will hear.
Imagine what it must have been like to have seen the sea for the first time at the age of 58! On New Year’s Day 1791, Joseph Haydn crossed the English Channel for the first time, to visit a country where his music had already enjoyed huge popularity. He stayed for eighteen months, making a great impression: one reviewer of his first concert wrote, “The sight of that renowned composer so electrified the audience, as to excite an attention and a pleasure superior to any that had ever been caused by instrumental music in England.”
Not surprisingly given that success, Haydn returned for an equally long stay in 1794-95. It was not just a matter of performances: his last twelve symphonies, out of an impressive total of 104, were written during those two visits, and of course he was also a prolific composer of chamber music and piano sonatas. The concerts, some of them organised by the impresario Johann Peter Salomon, were very lucrative, giving him a secure financial future for the rest of his life. We know that he also attended large-scale performances of oratorios by England’s favourite composer George Handel, including Messiah and Israel in Egypt.
You might think that by 1795 he would have happily hung up his musical boots (to coin a phrase) and enjoyed the huge esteem in which he was held – not just in England but throughout Europe. Not at all!
As Haydn was leaving London, Salomon gave him a poem entitled The Creation of the World, quite possibly in the hope that he would return with a new work inspired by it. In fact a third visit never materialised, but this was the spur to the first – and arguably the best-known – of a succession of choral works which Haydn composed during the remaining fourteen years of his life.
Back in Vienna, Haydn gave the poem to his friend Baron Gottfried von Swieten, a diplomat and amateur musician. For his libretto, von Swieten translated it into German, and also used passages from the book of Genesis and some psalms. He then made suggestions to Haydn about how to set the words of some numbers! The Creation was first performed in 1798, creating a huge sensation, and was published bilingually two years later.
There are many reasons why this work has been so admired. The choruses are majestic, often breath-taking, rivalling the best in Handel’s oratorios. Each of the three soloists has opportunity to show off their range and expressiveness: almost always, the pattern is for one of them to sing a short recitative (using the words of the King James version of the Bible) followed by an aria, after which the chorus reflects on what has been described. However, the orchestra plays almost as important a part as the voices; from the opening dissonant representation of chaos to the expressive depiction of different creatures (including the humorous “heavy beasts” and the worm!), and in many other instances, Haydn shows his mastery of illustrating the text of the libretto.
The libretto, however, is more problematical. It seems that von Swieten, in issuing a bilingual version, did not have an ear for the rhythms of the English language. So we have such phrases as “the wonder of his works declares the firmament” and “thy power adore the heaven and earth”, when clearly the word order is back to front! It is hugely surprising that the text has persisted with only minor improvements, rather than someone taking it by the scruff of the neck, as it were, and producing a much more intelligible version. Too late now; the words are so well-known now that such a drastic change is not feasible. One obvious alternative is to sing it all in German, von Swieten’s native language, and provide a translation for the audience. I wonder: would you have come to this concert if we had adopted that solution?
Weird word-order notwithstanding, there is no doubt of the impact and importance of The Creation among large-scale choral works. It seems that Haydn sensed what an awesome piece he was composing: “I was never so devout as during that time when I was working on The Creation”, he observed. We hope that you will find this evening similarly uplifting, and as enjoyable as we have found it in rehearsal.
Birmingham Festival Choral Society is delighted to be joined by a constellation of musical stars to lift our performance of ‘The Creation’ to the heavens.
Alexandra Eve Wynne enjoys a busy freelance music career, singing regularly as an oratorio soloist. For BFCS, she stepped in at very short notice as soprano soloist in Mendelssohn’s Elijah last November. She joined the choir as soloist on their last tour to Romania in 2019, and is looking forward to doing so again in Germany in May 2023.
Alexandra is a dedicated teacher, holding posts at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Junior Department, King Edward VI Five Ways, and Elmhurst Ballet School (in association with Birmingham Royal Ballet). She is the founder of Choirs at Work Ltd, an award-winning company providing choral training for wellbeing and team building to organisations across the UK. As a choral director at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Junior Department, she works with the intermediate choir, for 8-14 year olds.
Dale Harris (tenor) has been freelance singing for 10 years and performing both at home and abroad, notably with the Royal Shakespeare Company. The most recent production, The Comedy of Errors, spanned the majority of 2021. Dale spends much of his remaining time performing in Opera and Operetta, including an array of Gilbert and Sullivan shows and recently in Mozart’s Magic Flute, La Traviatta (Gaston) and Puccini’s Tosca (Spoletta). His 2023, diary is filling fast, with Carmen, Don Giovanni, and Dvorak’s Stabat Mater of particular note.
Midlands-born baritone, Edward Robinson, has a passion for opera which has led to performances in a number of innovative productions during his career. He also has a busy schedule on the concert platform, singing as guest soloist in many choral works.
Over the last 5 years Edward has become increasingly sought after as a Vocal Animateur and Workshop Facilitator. Through his work with Pimlico Opera’s scheme “Primary Robins”, Edward delivers 16 sessions a week introducing opera, folk and musical theatre to inner city students from Manchester schools in areas of high deprivation. Edward has also led both primary and secondary projects for Leeds Lieder Festival, working alongside musicians and poets to present Art Song to new audiences. Alongside pianist Rachel Fright, he is an associate artist for the organisations Live Music Now and SoundUp Arts, leading performances and workshops at special schools as well as for people living with dementia across the North East.
Kevin Gill (chamber organ) is BFCS’s regular accompanist. As well as running a private teaching practice he has frequently given organ recitals in and around Birmingham, as well as piano duet recitals. Kevin has accompanied BFCS concerts in many churches, cathedrals and concert halls in Birmingham and the wider Midlands, and on tours of Belgium, Holland, Slovenia, Estonia, Slovakia, Ireland, Burgundy, and most recently Romania.
Kevin has accompanied various choral societies in a wide range of choral works, and in January 2008 was appointed Musical Director of Atherstone Choral Society.
David Wynne enjoys a hugely varied career as a freelance musician. As a conductor, David is Music Director of Birmingham Festival Choral Society, Coventry Philharmonic Society and Warwick and Kenilworth Choral Society.
David holds a masters degree in Vocal and Operatic performance from the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and is a busy freelance baritone soloist. David is a visiting lecturer at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Junior Department teaching singing, conducting and musicianship, and is Choral Director of the senior chorus and the vocal ensemble.
David and his wife Alexandra co-founded the St Chad’s Cathedral Junior Choir and the extensive Choral Outreach Programme which sees them teaching choral singing to approximately 500 children a year across Birmingham.
Central England Camerata, founded by freelance violinist Anna Downes in 2013, has become one of the most sought-after chamber orchestras in the central region of the UK. It now works regularly with Hereford Cathedral Chamber Choir, Ledbury Choral Society, Derby Choral Union, Warwick and Kenilworth Choral Society, Birmingham Festival Choral Society, the Choirs of Southwell Minster, and Cantores Chamber Choir.
CEC is made up of professional musicians who freelance in many top orchestras. It has appeared at music festivals across the UK, touring with Andrew Downes’ Ballad of St Kenelm. In August 2017 CEC performed a series of film music concerts at Moseley’s Lord of the Rings Festival. In 2020/21, CEC made several professional recordings of the music of Andrew Downes: Festival Overture to St Cere, Toccata for Small Orchestra, Symphony no 6, and the Christmas Cantata. In August 2022, the orchestra recorded Downes’ brand new Violin Concerto with soloist Rupert Marshall-Luck, and the live première is planned for Spring 2024.
The Birmingham Festival Choral Society performance of Elijah on 5th November was a thrilling occasion, with many audience members saying that it was the best BFCS concert they had ever heard! The choir, orchestra and soloists were all on top form, performing to a full house at the Ruddock Performing Arts Centre.
Many thanks also to Alfred White for the photos of a concert to remember.
The role of Elijah was sung with great dramatic effect by opera baritone Byron Jackson. A star performance! Our reviewer said that Byron’s singing of Elijah’s song of despair: ‘It is enough’ was one of the most moving performances that he had ever heard. Byron’s position high above the choir and orchestra increased the drama.
Molly Barker (Jezebel, an angel), Alexandra Wynne (widow, angel), Polly Stirland (youth, angel) and Peter Davoren (Obadiah, Ahab) were also first class. Alexandra’s performance was even more impressive when people realised that she had stepped in at 24 hours notice!
An E mail sent by a member of the audience said that The soloists were ALL superb – and I was brought up on Isobel Baillie and Kathleen Ferrier, spent some of my earliest wages on the recording with Janet Baker, Nicolai Gedda, and Fischer-Dieskau, and have since acquired the Renee Fleming / Bryn Terfel version! The trio and quartets were exquisite, and it was such a good idea to bring the soloists in for the last few bars of the final chorus, not least for the tenors, who will I’m sure have been grateful for the help with that sustained top A after an evening of very hard work.
The trio of angels singing ‘Lift thine eyes to the mountains’ was another highlight of the concert, as shown by the comments on social media below this photo:
Voices from heaven (TP), Spine tingling, absolutely incredible beauty (MF), Beautiful (NW), This was so movingly sung. Absolutely superb. Thank you to the three of you. (JA). A truly wonderful evening. Our friends who attended were ‘blown away’ by the performance with one saying it was the best concert of BFCS’s that he’s attended….(DM)
It was wonderful to sing those big choruses accompanied by the Central England Camerata and Kevin Gill on the organ. The individual instruments brought so much depth to the arias and slow movements too.
Don’t forget the choir, who sang their hearts out, just as their predecessors had done at the Premiere in 1846. We can see why this marvellous work has been such a favourite with choral societies to this day.
Another extract from that Email sent by a member of the audience…
Fantastic performance of Elijah on Saturday night. It’s a work I know well and love greatly, and the trip over from Coventry proved more than worth the effort.
The choir was excellent, and certainly enacted that great rule of performance – make sure you start and end well! That first cry for help and the triumphant final Amen were both exhilarating.
(Click on photos to open in full.)
Finally, a special mention goes to David Wynne, who prepared the choir so well, and brought such a wonderful collection of musicians together to perform under his leadership. Thank you David!
Felix Mendelssohn’s choral masterpiece Elijah is a dramatic telling of stories from the life of the Old Testament prophet. It’s all there – fire, storms, curses and drought, to be followed later by a song of the angels and ascent to heaven in a fiery chariot. The range of dramatic choruses and arias make it a great favourite with choral societies and audiences.
The part of Elijah will be sung in our concert by baritone Byron Jackson. The other vocal soloists in our talented line-up will be Carrie-Ann Williams and Polly Stirland (Sopranos), Molly Barker (Mezzo soprano) and Peter Davoren (Tenor).
David Wynne will bring together the Birmingham Festival Choral Society and soloists, Kevin Gill on the organ and the 22 piece Central England Camerata, making it a night to remember.
Saturday 5th November 7.30pm.
The Ruddock Performing Arts Centre, Kings Edward’s School, Edgbaston, Birmingham, B15 2UA
Our concert in Lichfield Cathedral on 2nd July was a wonderful occasion! The choir, soloists and piano accompanists all came together under the leadership of David Wynne to produce a thrilling performance of Brahms’ A German Requiem and Finzi’s Lo, the Full Final Sacrifice. The main two works were supported by other Brahms compositions: Geistliches Lied for choir and organ, and Hungarian Dances no 5 and 8 for piano duet.
We are extremely grateful to photographer Michael Whitefoot for producing a superb set of photographs, from which these are selected.
Comments from the audience, posted on social media:
“Superb playing by the two accompanists. Fantastic concert.” LP
“It was an amazing concert, I got literal goosebumps” SE
“Lovely photos from a wonderful concert.” DS
“A great and really memorable concert. Thank you” KR
Kevin Gill and Stephen Hargreaves, our impressive piano duo, played the piano duet accompaniment to Brahms’ German Requiem, and two of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances.
Louise Wayman, soprano, and James Davies, baritone, were our talented soloists. (Click arrows)
“The Finzi was the standout for me, but Brahms’ ‘A German Requiem’ was navigated confidently, and the combination of Birmingham Festival Choral Society, soloists and accompaniment brought together an ensemble showing real enthusiasm and commitment.”
Will Todd’s Mass in Blue and Passion Music are very different from our usual repertoire, but we’re really loving those jazz rhythms and blues harmonies! Listen to our singers and Music Director talking about the Will Todd music we’re learning for the concert at the Ruddock Performing Arts Centre on 26th March.
We’re delighted that Will Todd is coming to our choir workshop on Sunday. We’ll be rehearsing ‘Passion Music’ and ‘Mass in Blue’ , and it will be a real treat to hear insights from the composer of these wonderful pieces. They are challenging to learn, but it’s so rewarding to sing those complex rhythms and gorgeous blues harmonies.
In this 25 minute video, Will Todd gives us an insight into choosing the words for ‘Passion music’ and setting them to music. His fusion of choral, jazz and blues styles brings out the meaning of the story of Christ’s passion with spiritual sensitivity.
The friendly Birmingham choir singing the world's best choral music.
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