Tag Archives: Birmingham

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

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.

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.

Messiah – our professional performers.

We are delighted to to tell you about the top class soloists and baroque orchestra who will be performing ‘Messiah’ with us on 16th November! The concert will take place in the gothic church of St Alban the Martyr, Highgate, Birmingham, known for its beautiful acoustics.

THE BAROQUE ORCHESTRA

The Musical and Amicable Society society last performed with Birmingham Festival Choral Society in Bach’s St John Passion, in 2018. They are a collective of professional period-instrument specialists, performing in combinations ranging from small ensembles to full orchestra all over the country. Their presence will add a touch of Baroque magic to our performance!

Penelope Appleyard , Soprano.

Known for her clear and agile voice, Penelope Appleyard enjoys a busy freelance career as a soloist and ensemble singer, predominantly in the field of early music.

Penelope studied with Christine Cairns and Andrew King at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, and in 2019 was awarded Honorary Membership of the Conservatoire for notable success since graduation. She has performed and recorded throughout the UK and internationally.

Xavier Hetherington, Tenor.

After graduating from St John’s College, Cambridge, and a brief period of study in Moscow, Xavier returned to the UK to study privately with Christine Cairns. He won a prestigious scholarshiop to the Royal College of Music, London, where he learns with Russell Smythe.

As a concert soloist Xavier has sung in Cathedrals and churches throughout England and in halls such as St John’s Smith Square and Wigmore Hall. He supported by Opera Prelude and has taken part in Operas in many places including the Royal College of Music, Dartington Festival and in the chorus at Glyndebourne.

Phillipa Thomas, Mezzo.

Phillipa Thomas began her studies at the University of York, where she was awarded the Concerto Prize, before continuing to further success, winning first place in the Birmingham Conservatoire Singing Prize. Since then, she has performed many operatic roles.

On the oratorio platform, Phillipa has been fortunate to work as a soloist with renowned choral societies and orchestras across the UK. Her extensive knowledge of and passion for sacred music has led to frequent performances of works from a variety of periods.

Phillipa has also recorded numerous oratorio solos as part of a project with the professional ensemble Blossom Street Singers. Phillipa is currently working at Oper Köln in their production of Brett Dean’s Hamlet and future projects include a follow-up album to the widely acclaimed Blossom Street recording, This Day.

James Willams, Baritone.

James Williams studied at the Royal Academy of Music, London, during which time he received training from eminent figures, such as Richard Bonynge, Simon Keenlyside and John Shirley-Quirk. Since graduating, he has enjoyed an active performing career throughout the UK, Europe and Asia.

James served as Musical Director for Brent Opera during their productions of Macbeth, Martha, and Nabucco, while having worked as a répétiteur for various London-based opera companies. As a composer, he recently witnessed the premiere of his Mass for St. Helen, as well as his commemorative cycle of war songs for baritone and piano, performed to mark the 100th anniversary of the Armistice.

Handel’s MESSIAH

Saturday 16 November 2019, 7.30pm

Church of St Alban the Martyr, Stanhope St, Birmingham B12 0YF

Beautiful Brass!

 

Birmingham Festival Choral Society came together with Gemini Brass on 30th March to give a concert of glorious choral music. A full choir of 90 with brass ensemble and percussion performing grand works from royal occasions, such as ‘I was Glad’ (Parry), and ‘Coronation Te Deum’ (Walton), was a wonderful experience for both choir and audience.

Brass instruments aren’t just for loud music, however. This video clip shows Nigel Turner playing the beautiful trumpet solo in the third verse of ‘The Old Hundredth’, arranged by Vaughan Williams. It was recorded during our rehearsal by fellow trumpeter Mike Bates.

The clip above and the photo below show the choir singing ‘The Old Hundredth’ from memory. Although memory singing would not be possible in long, complex works, it is very liberating to do occasionally – and the conductor loves having all eyes watching him!

BFCS Gloria 2019 (Alf White) (20)

Brass and percussion are also an inspiring accompaniment for rhythmic choral works such as Rutter’s thrilling Gloria (which gave the title to the concert), and Vaughan Williams’ ‘O clap your hands’.

Contrast was provided in the concert by the beautiful melodic pieces of Will Todd and Jean Dattas. The sensitive piano and organ accompaniments were provided most ably, as always, by Kevin Gill.

BFCS Gloria 2019 (Alf White) (9)

The ‘Gloria’ concert included works by two composers with special links to BFCS. 2019 is the centenary of the birth of Jean Dattas, whose daughter, Sylvie, sings in BFCS and made us aware of his sacred choral compositions. Jean Dattas was a French organist, teacher and composer in Paris, then in London. It was good to have some English members of the family in the audience but, unfortunately, the French members of the Dattas family who were planning to get to the concert by Eurostar were prevented by problems both sides of the channel. We’re pleased that they were able to hear us perform Dattas’ Kyrie and Agnus Dei on tour in Burgundy three years ago.

We were also very pleased that some of John Joubert’s family were able to attend our concert to hear us perform his composition ‘O praise God in his holiness’ in his memory. John Joubert was Patron of BFCS for many years until his death in January of this year.

BFCS Gloria 2019 (Alf White) (4)

BFCS Gloria 2019 (Alf White) (5)

The dazzle of the brass instruments in the spot lights was nearly matched by the shiny gold shoes of our conductor, David Wynne!

We were delighted to have such a full audience for this concert, despite the clash with a lot of other concerts on the same evening. Their warm appreciation made all the hard work worthwhile. A great evening all round!

Many thanks to Alfred White for taking these excellent photos at the concert.

Gloria Full flyer

Gloria – a concert not to be missed!

We hope that you are looking forward to our ‘Gloria’ concert on Saturday 30th March. Here are the programme notes about the feast of music awaiting you there:

Welcome to our concert.  I trust that you weren’t expecting a quiet relaxing occasion: the title should give you a clue that this will be an evening of joyful celebration, and the presence of a brass band makes that even more obvious!  Variety is the name of the game, with no fewer than six British (and one French) composers represented, and there are links with four coronation ceremonies and several other royal occasions.  We may also note how composers often draw inspiration from the Bible, with settings of four psalms and another scripture passage on display.

By far the oldest text which we are performing is the “Old Hundredth”, an English version of Psalm 100 which first appeared in the Anglo-Genevan Psalter (1561).  The words are attributed to a Scots clergyman, William Kethe, and the tune to a Frenchman, Louis Bourgeois.  The arrangement which we are singing (which includes the instruction “all available trumpets” for the final verse!) was made by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.

Vaughan Williams had written a Te Deum for the coronation of George VI in 1937, and might well have hoped for a repeat performance in 1953.  Instead, however, William Walton (1902-1983) was commissioned to write a new version, which is the one we are singing tonight.  The words of the Te Deum, a translation of a fourth-century Latin hymn, describe how God is praised by many different groups.  Here they are given a dramatic setting, full of antiphonal effects and making good use of the brass – as you would expect for the pomp of a coronation.  It was first sung as the Queen left at the end of the ceremony.  Although we are not singing Vaughan Williams’ setting, we are (in compensation?!) featuring his exuberant setting of Psalm 47, O clap your hands, written in 1920.

The anthem which has been sung at every coronation since 1902 is the spectacular I was glad, by Hubert Parry (1848-1918).  As it happens, the tradition of singing Psalm 122 as the monarch enters Westminster Abbey dates all the way back to Charles I, the words having been set by a number of composers including Henry Purcell and William Boyce.  At the 1902 coronation, Parry’s setting actually had to be sung twice, as the director of music misjudged the timing and finished it before King Edward VII had even arrived!

We are also featuring pieces by two composers with special links to BFCS.  To mark the centenary of his birth, we will perform three pieces by Jean Dattas (1919-1975), former organist of Notre Dame in Paris, whose daughter is one of our sopranos.  When we first sang the two movements from his Messe cum Jubilo in 2016, on our tour of Burgundy, they excited great interest: tonight we are adding a simple but effective setting of Ave Maria.  And as a tribute to our patron John Joubert (1927-2019), who died two months ago, we are singing his exuberant setting of Psalm 150, O praise God in his holiness.

Listen to BFCS singing music by Jean Dattas on tour in Auxerre, France.

So to our youngest composer, Will Todd (born 1970), whose jazzy Mass in Blue we performed last July.  The three pieces in this concert have a more traditional feel, albeit with several syncopated episodes.  The Lord is my Shepherd, a setting of the well-known Psalm 23, is part of a Te Deum which was commissioned in 2009, and Stay with me, Lord was commissioned by the Sixteen in 2008, but then extensively rewritten for a 2012 performance by Tenebrae.  The third piece, The Call of Wisdom, has a royal connection: it was composed for the Queen’s diamond jubilee, and first performed at St Paul’s Cathedral on 5 June 2012 in her presence.  In the text, taken from the book of Proverbs, Wisdom calls on us to follow her, ignoring the lures of gold or silver.

The actual title of our concert derives from our final musical offering.  John Rutter (born 1945) has recently composed pieces for two different royal occasions; however, his setting of the Gloria is an earlier work, dating from 1974.  Rutter divides the text into three sections: the first is fast and full of verve, whereas Domine Deus is quiet and meditative, with some beautiful solos for the upper voices.  The final section, Quoniam tu solus sanctus, starts at almost breakneck speed; it finishes with a repeat of the opening Gloria, a lively fugue (Cum sancto Spiritu), and a splendid Amen.  It has been said that Rutter “writes music that people want to perform and to hear”.  We have certainly enjoyed preparing this piece, and indeed the whole repertoire – so we hope you will enjoy listening to it all!

David Fletcher

Gloria Full flyer