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 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!
The first Birmingham Festival Choral Society Oratorio Competition, in association with the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, was held on Monday 24th October. The audience was treated to a very high standard of singing from the shortlisted finalists: Ellen Smith, Matilda Wale, Noémie Johns, Julia Morgan, Abigail Baylis, Polly Clarke and Jia Huang.
Judges David Wynne (Music Director of BFCS) and Kevin Gill (BFCS accompanist) awarded the trophy to baritone Jia Huang, after his impressive performance of two Handel works: Revenge, Timotheus cries and Honour and arms.
Jia Huang was presented with the Birmingham Festival Choral Society Oratorio Trophy by David Fletcher, Chair of BFCS. As well as the trophy, Jia has won a financial prize and a future engagement singing with Birmingham Festival Choral Society.
Jia is pictured here with his accompanist, Guang Feng, and Paul Wingfield, the Head of the Vocal Department at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire.
Runners up in the competition were Julia Morgan (2nd place) and Ellen Smith (3rd place), pictured here with the judges:
The judges with Julia Morgan 2nd place.
The judges with Ellen Smith, 3rd place.
Birmingham Festival Choral Society is proud to support young talent, and we wish great success to all the finalists in their future careers.
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
On 5th November 2022, we will be performing Mendelssohn’s famous oratorio, Elijah, at King Edward’s School in Edgbaston. This has particular significance for BFCS as it was 176 years ago, in 1846, that the choir gave the premier performance of this work, conducted by Mendelssohn himself, in the Town Hall, at the Birmingham Triennial Festival.
The Birmingham Triennial Festivals had started as early as 1768 and continued with festival choirs augmented by singers from other Midland cities and as far afield as London. Over time, Birmingham’s own choir increased in size and began presenting charity concerts, until in 1845 when the name Birmingham Festival Choral Society was first used.
At this time, Mendelssohn was enjoying huge popularity in England and already had a relationship with the Triennial Festival, having visited on two previous occasions to great acclaim. In 1845, the committee of the festival decided to ask Mendelssohn to conduct at the 1846 festival and whether he could provide an oratorio. Mendelssohn consented and worked to put the text for Elijah in its final form and in 1845 and 1846 composed his oratorio to the German and English texts in parallel.
Vast crowds thronged the streets for Mendelssohn’s arrival in Birmingham and on the morning of Wednesday 26 August 1846, Elijah was premiered at the Town Hall, with the composer conducting. There were close to 400 performers with an orchestra of 125 (mainly London players from the Philharmonic Society and the Opera) but with some local performers and a choir of 271 singers (with 63 from London).
The performance was a tremendous success. The Times newspaper wrote:
‘The last note of Elijah was drowned in a long-continued unanimous volley of plaudits, vociferous and deafening. It was as though enthusiasm, long-checked, had suddenly burst its bonds and filled the air with shouts of exultation. Mendelssohn, evidently overpowered, bowed his acknowledgements, and quickly descended from his position on the conductor’s rostrum; but he was compelled to appear again, amidst renewed cheers and huzzas. Never was there a more complete triumph – never a more thorough and speedy recognition of a great work of art.’
Mendelssohn himself wrote:
‘No work of mine ever went so admirably at its first performance, nor was received with such enthusiasm by both the musicians and the audience alike as this oratorio. No fewer than four choruses and four arias were encored!’
Sadly, Mendelssohn was only to return to England once more before his premature death in November 1847.
As you can appreciate, Elijah has always held a special place in our hearts at BFCS. Whilst we cannot promise a choir of 271 singers at our performance in November, you can be sure that we will do our very best to live up to the part we played in the proud history of this piece.
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.
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