Christopher Morley speaks to a conductor who had big shoes to fill when he took up the baton at the City of Birmingham Choir.
Saturday sees one of Birmingham’s most illustrious musical institutions celebrating its 90th anniversary, when the City of Birmingham Choir performs an all-Czech concert at Symphony Hall.
The programme itself is typical of the choir’s enterprising approach, never content just to churn out the traditional choral pot-boilers, but anxious to explore every byway of the repertoire.
So in 1922, one year after its founding, it gave Vaughan Williams’ recently-composed Mass in G minor its first airing, and, a couple of years later, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas; music from both ends of the historical spectrum, and with established choral masterpieces always regularly appearing along the way.
Such was the reputation of the City Choir that many of its concerts were relayed live by the BBC, until London-instigated cuts brought an end to such proceedings; it tackled contemporary music with relish and zeal (and still does); and it established a long-term relationship with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra which has survived the CBSO’s formation of its own chorus in 1973, as Saturday’s concert testifies, as will the regular annual Advent performances of Handel’s Messiah next month.
Part of the choir’s success has been the shrewdness it has had in appointing gifted conductors.
For a major part of its early years the Birmingham City organist G.D. Cunningham was at the helm, moulding and consolidating the strengths of his chorus.
George Weldon, principal conductor of the CBSO, took over for a while, and then the first of a series of inspired appointments was made.
David Willcocks, organist and choirmaster at Worcester Cathedral (succeeding the redoubtable Ivor Atkins, who had presided at the loft there for over half a century) brought tremendously refreshing repertoire to the CBC, beginning with the Verdi Requiem for his opening concert on November, 21, 1950.
Poignantly, his final concert on June 4, 1957, was Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius.
Meredith Davies followed, one of the highlights of his conductorship being the Birmingham premiere in 1963 of Britten’s War Requiem, whose first performance he had conducted a year earlier in Coventry Cathedral alongside the composer.
Then came a conductor who remained nearly 40 years with the City of Birmingham Choir and who raised it to standards of aspiration and achievement which would be an impossibly hard act to follow.
Christopher Robinson, originally, again, from Worcester Cathedral, and later based at St George’s Chapel Windsor, smilingly drilled his choristers into such huge late 20th-century masterpieces as Messiaen’s La Transfiguration de Notre-Seigneur Jesus-Christ and Tippett’s The Mask of Time.
Robinson would be a hard act to follow.
How did Adrian Lucas (also from Worcester Cathedral), who succeeded him in 2002, feel about stepping into his shoes?
“I’ve started to get used to following impressive people, but Christopher had become something of a legend, directing the CBC for some 38 years.
Inevitably, there were many who had grown into their music under his baton and any newcomer would have to work hard to make an impression.
“The first few years were understandably filled with plenty of ‘Christopher used to do this...’ comments, but one just has to persevere, believing in one’s own musicianship. There was a glimmer of hope, though, after my first pair of Messiahs at Christmas, when a retired former chairman was struck and delighted by my very different approach to such a well-worn work.
“As the years went by, there have been a variety of works which have made a lasting impression, including Britten’s War Requiem and Seven Last Words from the Cross by James MacMillan, though such works are always risky to stage, especially in times of economic depression. Nearly ten years on, I feel we have a really good working relationship together. The choir’s board of management is really professional, despite being entirely voluntary, and has been excellent in helping to develop a range of educational projects which touch on all sorts of aspects of choral singing.
“There is a tension between the musical aspirations of the choir and the financial viability of any project – I suspect there always has been.
‘‘Birmingham audiences can be unpredictable in their attendance and I think things are harder since we have had both Symphony Hall and the Town Hall in potential competition with each other.
‘‘We try to programme a rich variety of works but are well aware that there are relatively few works which can often, (but not always) guarantee a good crowd.
‘‘We know we have to be bold at times and I hope I have contributed some of my own tastes and ideas to that process.”
There is the perennial problem of recruitment to choirs. How is the City of Birmingham Choir doing?
“We’ve had a particularly good success rate in recruiting new members over recent years,” Adrian tells me. Open rehearsals offer a popular way to venture into a rehearsal for the first time without feeling too intimidated and our members are a friendly lot.
Like most choirs, we could do with more tenors and basses – any applications welcome.”
* Adrian Lucas conducts the City of Birmingham Choir and CBSO in Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass and Taras Bulba, and Dvorak’s Te Deum at Symphony Hall on Saturday, November 5 (7.30pm). Details on 0121 780 3333.