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.
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.
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.
One of the thrills of performing works by a living composer is that it’s possible to actually meet them, and discover their views on the way they’d like their music to sound. For this reason, we were delighted that Will Todd was able to join in our choir workshop on Sunday 27th February, and share his thoughts on his Mass in Blue and Passion Music as we prepare for our concert on 26th March.
We all warmed to Will straight away, and soon we found ourselves doing something we would not have believed possible – improvising in Dorian mode! That put us in the right frame of mind to study Passion Music before the break and, fortified by tea and cake, Mass in Blue afterwards.
David (Wynne), our Music Director, led us in singing each section, and then Will made encouraging and helpful comments on the style and tempo of the music. He was not dogmatic – in fact, one of the features of jazz and blues style is that there is room for interpretation.
Click to enlarge photos
Kevin (Gill), accompanied us with those complex jazzy rhythms and unfamiliar blues harmonies on the piano. It is a source of amazement how Kevin can play complex accompaniments to works as diverse as Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle, Brahm’s German Requiem and Will Todd’s Choral Jazz works without being fazed at all.
As always, there was plenty of time for humour!
Will Todd introduces Passion Music: In this video Will Todd describes how he chose the texts and set the music, illustrated with lots of excerpts from rehearsals and performances.
Our Rossini concert on 30th October was a great occasion. It was wonderful to be performing live again – the first concert for 2 years.
BFCS had been ready to perform Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle in March 2020 when the pandemic caused the cancellation of the concert. We’ve been keeping it going during our Zoom rehearsals, so it was very well prepared! It was really enjoyable to sing it with such talented professionals – our soloists, Mimi Doulton, Rachel Gilmore, Ed Harrisson and Joe Kennedy, our accompanists, Ben de Souza and Kevin Gill, and our conductor, David Wynne. We were also very pleased to see so many of our friends and family in the audience.
Thank you to Alfred White for these lovely photos – a great souvenir of a wonderful evening.
Birmingham Festival Choral Society singers. Click the arrows to see all four photos.
Birmingham Festival Choral Society is pleased to present our recording of the beautiful ‘Cantique de Jean Racine’, by Gabriel Faure.
This composition won the 19 year old Faure first prize in a competition at his school of Church music in Paris, in 1865. The French text, “Verbe égal au Très-Haut” (Word, one with the Highest), was written by Jean Racine in 1688.
We hope that you will enjoy the Paris connection through images of the medieval stained glass in Sainte Chapelle.
This virtual performance was put together by Gareth Howell, using individual recordings sent from home by our singers. We look forward to a time when the pandemic is over and we can sing together in real life.
Wikipedia photo credits: Sam67Fr, Javi Masa, Oldmanisold, Grunt XIII.
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.
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.
Sixty BFCS singers joined together for the first time on Zoom yesterday evening. It was lovely to see familiar faces on the screen, and to laugh together.
We knew that singing together as a choir would not be possible on Zoom, due to the different internet speeds, but muting our microphones and singing alone to the conducting of David, our Music Director, with a recorded accompaniment from Kevin, was definitely the next best thing. We started with a simple piece – but who knows what we will accomplish in the future!
Choirs involve so much more than just the actually singing. We really felt that we were together again, and we look forward to more zooming in the future.
The friendly Birmingham choir singing the world's best choral music.
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