The festive season is a busy time for Birmingham’s amateur choral societies, writes Christopher Morley.
There’s a busy period coming up for Birmingham’s amateur choral societies, and not only because of the run-up to Christmas.
Though there is indeed a seasonal theme to Birmingham Bach Choir’s next concert, given in Birmingham’s St Chad’s Cathedral on Saturday, November 20 (7.30pm).
The highlight here is Britten’s A Boy was Born, an amazingly taxing and lengthy work for unaccompanied chorus written early on in the composer’s career – perhaps before he had learned to be more circumspect.
I heard the choir deliver this piece a few years ago, in St Paul’s Church in the Jewellery Quarter, and its effect was magical.
Conductor Paul Spicer’s programme also includes the Four Christmas Motets by Poulenc (a devout Catholic, despite his somewhat louche background), and the wonderfully consolatory motet “Komm, Jesu, komm!” by Bach, singing in which at Birmingham University over 40 years ago, Ivor Keys conducting, was one of the greatest choral experiences of my life.
The concert will be dedicated to the memory of Richard Butt, the much-loved and much-respected conductor of the Birmingham Bach Choir for so many years, who died last month.
He was also an expert producer for BBC Radio 3, and the Third Programme before that, supervising the premiere of Britten’s War Requiem from Coventry Cathedral in May 1962 (as a young teenager I heard that relay on a tiny radio in the back kitchen of our Brighton home), and becoming a great friend of Benjamin Britten and his partner, the tenor Peter Pears.
Britten would have hated what comes next, when a little later this month (November 28), Birmingham Festival Choral Society performs an all-Brahms programme, the German Requiem, alongside his motet “Warum ist das Licht gegeben” at the Adrian Boult Hall (7.30pm). Brahms was one of Britten’s bugbears, so it’s ironic that they invariably sit alongside each other on library shelves.
Patrick Larley conducts this most esteemed and venerable of Birmingham choirs (its history goes back way over two centuries), the Central England Ensemble provides the orchestral backing, and soprano Sarah Cotterill, a distinguished alumna of Birmingham Conservatoire, is joined as soloist by the baritone Andrew Slater.
On Saturday the City of Birmingham Choir performs an ambitious programme (though its advertising blurb is wrong to describe it as “20th-century choral music” – some of it isn’t), Birmingham City organist Thomas Trotter accompanying, under its conductor Adrian Lucas.
The menu is mouthwatering: Parry’s Blest Pair of Sirens, Durufle’s Prelude et Fugue sur le nom d’Alain for organ, and his consolatory Requiem, Faure’s delicious little Cantique de Jean Racine, and Leonard Bernstein’s glorious Chichester Psalms.
The venue is Birmingham Town Hall, whose organ Trotter did so much to curate during the building’s spectacular refurbishment.
Next on the choir’s agenda are its annual performances of Handel’s Messiah, Lucas conducting, with Trotter this time at the harpsichord, and the CBSO collaborates as usual. There’s the chance to sample this account in both of Birmingham’s most illustrious concert venues: in Symphony Hall on December 10, and in the Town Hall (how many Messiah’s must this wonderful auditorium have witnessed over nearly two centuries?) on December 14 (both beginning at 7pm).
And after Messiah, this busy ensemble turns up again at Symphony Hall during Raymond Gubbay’s Christmas season, performing alongside the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (December 30, 7.30pm). Christopher Warren-Green conducts, and the programme also includes Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, Sofya Gulyak, winner of the 2009 Leeds International Piano Competition the soloist.
Ex Cathedra, meanwhile (scarcely an amateur choir, when so many of its members have gone on to worldwide professional fame) is gearing up for its annual “Christmas Music by Candlelight” programmes, not only in the cosy, box-pewed St Paul’s Church in the Jewellery Quarter (December 18, 20, 21, 22), but also across the region as well as in London’s elegant church of St John in Smith Square.
Before then, though, Ex Cathedra is preparing for a very special concert at Birmingham Town Hall, where it is one of the artists-in-association, on Sunday December 12 (4pm).
This will offer Parts I, II, III and VI of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, originally a sequence of cantatas marking the various days of the festive season. Jeffrey Skidmore conducts, and the Ex Cathedra Baroque Orchestra collaborates. But these glamorous, crowd-pulling events are only part of what Ex Cathedra does.
Its educational programme is far and outreaching, its coaching of young people (not least through its own Academy) bears huge dividends, and its general ambassadorship for what goes on in Birmingham is invaluable.
Ex Cathedra’s recordings for Hyperion of baroque Latin-American sacred music have received huge acclaim around the world, and a new one, back in Europe, of Lassus’ St Matthew Passion will be released next Easter on the SOMM label.
Looking ahead into next year, the ever-enterprising Birmingham Choral Union, once enthusiastic advocates of David Fanshawe’s African Sanctus (for many years the BCU ladies wore colourful dresses designed on the basis of that theme), is preparing to perform the Birmingham premiere of Paul McCartney’s Ecce Cor Meum on March 19 (Birmingham Town Hall, 7.30pm).
The Blue Coat Schools Choirs will constitute the children’s chorus, and conductor Colin Baines’ programme also includes Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem.