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Choir 'notorious' for quirky venues celebrates 20 years

Unique choir notorious have performed in a few unusual places and programmes can include anything from Durufle to Daft Punk.

(Image: Adrian Burrows)

Unique choir notorious have performed in a few unusual places and programmes can include anything from Durufle to Daft Punk. Christopher Morley talks to the founder Clare Edwards as the group celebrates its 20th anniversary.

A choir which has performed a Hallowe’en concert in a coffin factory in Birmingham (the repertoire ranged from the Renaissance wife-murderer Gesualdo to Michael Jackson’s Thriller), to Lifford Lane tip with the Bishop of Birmingham, and in a cave within Dudley’s Singing Caverns while the audience arrived in narrowboats, rocks up at the more conventional venue of Birmingham Town Hall on November 25 to celebrate its 20th anniversary.

But the glimmerings of notorious (the lower-case is deliberate) go back long before its official founding in 1997.

Several years before that, Clare Edwards, a student at Cadbury College in Kings Norton, formed a choir as part of her Music ‘A’-level project (“some of those members are now in notorious,” she tells me proudly). Later, whilst reading Music at Sheffield University, Clare founded the chamber choir Gloriana, named after one of the operas by a composer very dear to her, Benjamin Britten.

Later, on her return to Birmingham, some of her original Cadbury choristers begged her to form a similar choir here in the city, and so notorious was born. By this time Clare had bumped into an old mucker from Birmingham Schools’ Chorale days, Rachel Robson (now Burrows), when Clare had sung soprano, Rachel alto. Together they formed a formidable team, Rachel - a brilliant press officer with the CBSO - organising the publicity, Clare in charge of the music-making.

In the early days notorious had 15 members, but those numbers have grown to an average of 35 singers. For the celebratory concert on November 25 with its programme of Faure’s Requiem and John Rutter’s Magnificat the choir swells to 75 voices, with many returning vocalists coming back for the occasion.

“It means a huge amount to me that people are coming back,” says Clare. Ex-members of notorious are returning from Amsterdam and Ireland, and there have been attempts from the USA and Australia which unfortunately failed to come to fruition. “Our mission to make people welcome really works!”

And that mission was one of Clare’s three key aims when she founded notorious in 1997, “to be non-audition, and open to all”. We have already seen how another of her aims, “to perform in unusual venues”, has been spectacularly achieved, and the third aim is “to widen the audiences for choral music by performing a wide range of repertoire”.

As Rachel writes, “concerts are often programmed around a theme, so that repertoire from a range of genres and periods can be introduced within the same concert.

“This has seen us performing Durufle to Daft Punk at a wine-tasting concert, Mozart to Freddie Mercuty at a concert entitled ‘The Good Die Young’, and Holst to Bacharach at ‘Leap Year Love Songs’.”

The choir also has a proud record in promoting contemporary music, having performed in 14 new works, four of which were commissioned by and for the choir.

The most recent of those is Mistletoe, a setting by the Riga-based Latvian composer Eriks Esenwalds of a poem by Walter de la Mare, premiered in December last year to launch notorious’ 20th anniversary celebrations. So successful was the piece in fulfilling Clare Edwards’ request for a work that was accessible, and would act as a legacy for other choirs to perform that the members of notorious “loved it so much that they didn’t want to hand their scores back at the end,” smiles Rachel.

Scores... how do the members of notorious get on in the learning of a new piece, and how does the rehearsal process work, given that many of its members work unsociable and unpredictable hours in varying timetables?

“We have different rehearsal evenings week by week, so as to accommodate people like medics, who work shifts”, Clare explains. “We publish a whole term’s rehearsal dates in advance, which promotes inclusivity.”

And for those who have to miss one, every rehearsal is recorded and uploaded online next day, so that the absentees, and singers who can’t read music, are able to keep up with the pace of things.

Away from the music-making, notorious has a decidedly vibrant social side, with post-rehearsal bar sessions at which new members are always bought a drink and made to feel welcome. There have been four choir balls to date, and three tours, as well as four weddings between couples who met during notorious rehearsals, and at least one christening.

That was for Ella Salt, born to music director Clare and arranger and busy chorister Richard Salt, who will be playing second violin in the special orchestra assembled for these performances of Faure and John Rutter.

Notorious does indeed seem to be a welcoming, embracing family, and Clare, whose talents as a creative producer specialising in choirs have been actively head-hunted elsewhere, cheerfully admits: “Notorious and my children are the only things that keep me in Birmingham!”

  • Notorious performs Faure’s Requiem and John Rutter’s Magnificat at Birmingham Town Hall on Saturday, November 25 (7.30pm). Details on 0121 780 3333.
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