The second Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Oratorio competition, sponsored by Birmingham Festival Choral Society, took place on Monday evening, 30th October. The six finalists treated the audience in the recital hall of the conservatoire to an evening of performances of the highest standard, singing music written by composers ranging from Bach and Handel to Durufle and Joubert.
BFCS’s big claim to fame is that we were the choir that performed the premiere of Elijah in 1846, so it was particularly good to hear three solos from that popular oratorio.
Ellen Smith, mezzo-soprano, was placed first, winning a financial prize, a trophy and a future engagement with BFCS. Ellen’s programme consisted of Es ist vollbract , from Bach’s St John Passion, Yet can I hear that dulcet lay, from the Choice of Hercules by Handel, and Pie Jesu from Durufle’s Requiem.
Second prize went to baritone Oliver Barker, who sang Lord God of Abraham from Mendelssohn’s Elijah, The Man he killed from the South of the line by John Joubert and Revenge, revenge, Timotheus cries, from Handel’s Alexander’s Feast.
Tenor Joe Yates was placed Third, after singing Domine Deus from Rossini’s Petite Messe Solenelle, The enemy said, from Handel’s Israel in Egypt, Deposuit potentes from Bach’s Magnificat and finally If with all your hearts from Mendelssohn’s Elijah
Tenor Daniel Marles and sopranos Abigail Baylis and Gabriella Rea Fanyvesi also delighted the audience with arias by de Lalande, Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart and Mendelssohn.
All 17 performances were expertly accompanied by Jonathan French on the piano.
The adjudicator for the Oratorio competition was our BFCS Music Director, David Wynne. Many in the audience were glad that they were not in David’s shoes, as it was so difficult to chose between the singers! Tracy Piotrowska , BFCS Vice-Chair made the presentations.
Congratulations to all the singers for such great performances. We’ll enjoy following their future careers in music. We particularly look forward to working with Ellen when she takes up her prize as the soprano soloist at one of our future concerts.
Singing in a choir brings many benefits for body and mind, as Birmingham Festival Choral Society singers will confirm. We all look forward to singing on a Wednesday evening – and the feeling after giving a concert is tremendous! Added to that, it’s a great place to make friends, through sharing Wednesday rehearsals, weekend workshops and tours abroad.
Would you like to give us a try? Come along to our Open Rehearsal on Wednesday 6th September, where you will find a friendly welcome. If you come at 7pm there will be enough time to meet you and introduce you to a singing buddy who can guide you through the rehearsal. This is a ‘taster session’ to see if you feel this is the choir for you – there is no obligation.
If you’re not able to make it to the Open Rehearsal, you will still be welcome at any of our other Wednesday rehearsals.
Birmingham Festival Choral Society singers and supporters always love ‘Out of Town’ concerts. Our summer concert this year was extra special, as it was the first time we had given a concert in the lovely Pershore Abbey.
Our concert, ‘And all the people rejoiced’, included many choral favourites. The two halves of the concert each began with stirring works which had been heard recently in the Coronation of King Charles: I was Glad and Zadok the Priest (from which the title of the concert was taken). There was another royal connection through Tavener’s Song for Athene, which had made such an impact on worldwide audiences in 1997 when it was sung as the coffin of Diana, Princess of Wales, was taken out of Westminster Abbey.
Three of the lovely works we sang were pieces that had kept us going through zoom rehearsals during the lockdown, culminating in ‘virtual choir’ recordings. How much better it was to sing Faure’s Cantique de Jean Racine, Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus and Rheinberger’s Kyrie to a live audience in such a beautiful setting!
The concert also included works which were new to us: The joyful Jubilate Deo by Peeters and Laudate Dominum by Dupre, the sublime Ave Verum Corpus by Mawby, and Evening Hymn by Gardiner.
Alexandra Eve Wynne, our soprano soloist, sang beautifully as always. She sang Mozart’s Alleluia and Laudate Dominum (the latter with the choir). Alexandra and the choir also sang Mendelssohn’s Hear my Prayer/O for the wings of a dove, which we had recently performed together on tour in the Rhineland of Germany.
One of the exciting things about this concert was that the abbey organ was brand new. It had been installed at a cost of £800,000 just a couple of months before. Kevin Gill showed it off to its fullest splendor in his two magnificent organ solos – the 1st movement from Rheinberger’s Organ sonata in F minor, and the Toccata in F minor by Widor.
The final credit must go to the maestro who planned the concert, rehearsed the choir and introduced all the items at the concert – David Wynne. His high standards produced a marvellous concert, enjoyed by the choir and the capacity audience in the Abbey.
We would like to thank Michael Whitefoot for this fabulous set of photographs of our Pershore Abbey concert. You can see more photos from our rehearsal and concert in Pershore and Lichfield last year on Michael’s website.
40 singers and 15 supporters set off on our choir tour to the Rhineland at the end of May. This was the 12th Birmingham Festival Choral Society tour abroad. This tour had been delayed by a year by Covid and had indeed been planned while we were still experiencing restrictions, so it seemed extra special when it finally happened.
This video really gives the feel of the tour experience! The music, ‘El Grillo’ by des Prez, is one of the pieces we sang on tour.
(When playing, click on the symbol on the bottom right to open the video up on full computer screen)
Video credit: Martha Davis.
We travelled by executive coach through the Eurotunnel on the way out, and by ferry on the way back. The long journey was made much less tiring both times by an overnight stop in the lovely city of Ghent. We arrived mid to late afternoon, so had plenty of time to get the tram into the city centre and have a leisurely walk round the historic buildings and eat in one of the many cafes and restaurants.
The next day we drove on to our main base in Mainz, on the river Rhine, where we stayed for five nights at Novotel Mainz.
Our concerts, on three successive days, were in attractive locations beside the river Rhine: Mainz (the capital of the region), Koblenz and Bingen.
Sightseeing tour. (click photos to open)
Evening concert in the Christuskirche, Maintz
Evening concert at the 1200 year old Basilika St Kastor, the setting for many historic events over the centuries.
Some of our party enjoyed a wine tasting tour in the morning, followed by a walk into Bingen.
Evening concert at Rheintal-Kongress-Centrum
Our final day in the Rhineland was a free day. The great majority opted for a short Rhine cruise from the wine-making town of Rüdesheim to Sankt-Goar, part of the Rhine Gorge which features legendary small towns and castles and vineyards along its course. That day was capped with our customary group supper and soirée at our hotel.
This tour had a great balance between ‘work and play’. The sightseeing was great, but the real highlights, which could never be experienced on a standard package holiday, were the concerts. The publicity had been sent in advance, but it was wonderful (and a great relief!) to see so many people coming through the doors, and to hear the generous applause and see the standing ovations at the end.
We were so lucky to have a trio of great professionals, helping to raise our concerts to such high standards – David Wynne our Music Director, Kevin Gill our accompanist and organ soloist, and Alexandra Wynne, our soprano soloist.
The choir had learnt a large amount of music for the tour and it was great to sing in those wonderful venues. But more than that – tours give a great opportunity for people to get to know each other better, and for strong friendships to be formed. We were particularly pleased that there were singers on tour who have joined the choir since the lockdown, as well as singers who have been on many previous BFCS tours.
Many thanks go to our wonderful BFCS tour committee, who organised the entire tour, without using a tour company.
Tim Davis Nick Lampert Alistair Main Eve Smylie Sue Thomas Liz Vick
It was hard work for them, but it was a great team effort and it paid off. To judge by the very positive feedback, on the concerts, the locations, the hotels, the balance of performance and leisure, Rhineland 2023 was a great success.
Thanks to the photographers whose photos were used in this blog: Alfred White, Christine Wright, Peter Wright and Geoff Evans.
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 bringt ein buntes Chormusikprogramm ins Rheinland
(English translation below)
Die Birmingham Festival Choral Society wird drei kostenlose Konzerte mit einer fabelhaften auswahl englischer und europäischer Chormusik in Mainz, Koblenz und Bingen präsentieren.
Die Birmingham Festival Choral Society ist der älteste Chor von Birmingham. Er wurde 1845 gegründet, um die dreijährlichen Musikfestivals zu ermöglichen, die Werke bei führenden Komponisten der damaligen Zeit in Auftrag gaben: Mendelssohn, Bruch, Gounod, Dvorak, Elgar. Der Chor sang 1846 die Uraufführung von Mendelssohns Oratorium ‚Elias‘, das das Festival in Auftrag gegeben hatte und das vom Komponisten selbst dirigiert wurde.
Unter der Leitung von David Wynne, einem professionellem Bariton und Lehrer am Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, umfasst das Programm englische Kirchenmusik und englische Volkslieder sowie Chöre aus grossen europäischen Chorwerken. Begleitet wird der Chor am Klavier und Orgel von Kevin Gill, einem Mitglied des renommierten Royal College of Organists, und der Sopranistin Alexandra Wynne. Das Konzert dauert etwa 75 Minuten.
Konzertdetails 2023 sind:
Mainz – Christuskirche am 30. Mai um 19.30 Uhr
Koblenz – Basilika St Kastor am 31. Mai um 20.00 Uhr
Bingen – Rheintal-Kongress-Zentrum am 1. Juni um 20.00 Uhr
Birmingham brings ‘A colourful programme of choral music’ to the Rhineland
The Birmingham Festival Choral Society is giving three free concerts, presenting a fabulous selection of English and European Choral music in Mainz, Koblenz and Bingen.
Birmingham Festival Choral Society is the oldest choir in Birmingham. It was founded in 1845 to provide the chorus for the celebrated Triennial Music Festivals, which commissioned works from leading composers of the day: Mendelssohn, Bruch, Gounod, Dvorak, Elgar. The choir famously performed the première of Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah in 1846, which the Festival commissioned and which the composer conducted.
Directed by David Wynne, a professional baritone and teacher at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, the programme will include English sacred music and English folk songs, and choruses from major European choral works. The choir will be accompanied by Kevin Gill, a Fellow of the prestigious Royal College of Organists, and soprano soloist Alexandra Wynne. Each concert will last about 75 minutes.
2023 Concert details are…
Mainz – Christuskirche at 19.30 on 30 May
Koblenz – St Kastor Basilika at 20.00 on 31 May
Bingen – Rheintal-Kongress-Zentrum 20.00 on 1 June
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.
Tuesday 6th December was an important date in the BFCS calendar – the Carol Service for Crisis, the charity for the homeless. This event, held at St Martin’s in the Bull Ring, has become a regular fixture for our choir, and we are pleased to help to swell the congregational singing, and to perform a couple of Christmas carols too.
The stories of the Crisis members are very moving, reminding us how homelessness can affect people from all walks of life. It is sobering to reflect on how the situation is still as bad as ever, and the charity’s initial aim to end homelessness is as far away as ever. It is, however, inspiring to hear how Crisis can help people with training to get back into work, as well as help with benefits and finding accommodation.
Thanks to the staff of Crisis for sharing photos and these two videos – one from the service and one from their Christmas Hamper distribution project (both with a background of BFCS singing ‘Ding dong merrily on high’.)
The friendly Birmingham choir singing the world's best choral music.
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