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Choir AGM 28 May 2019: Director of Music’s Report

Chester Music Society
Director of Music’s Report : 28 May 2019

‘This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved and hated, like another: my life was as the vapour and is not; but this I saw and knew; this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory.’

So wrote Elgar at the end of the manuscript score to The Dream of Gerontius, quoting from John Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies. I always have this in my mind when embarking upon rehearsal of this work. And when we performed the piece on 24th November, did we do it justice? Well, I suppose only Elgar would have been able to say, but I was extremely pleased with the dedication and sensitivity of the Choir, not least in the delivery of the spine-chilling Demon’s chorus in which everyone allowed themselves to indulge in what might have seemed “over-the-top” in rehearsal, but really worked in what is essentially a dramatic piece that requires a quasi-operatic approach. Although it was his first major choral work, I still reckon it is the best of him; the incomplete trilogy which includes The Kingdom and The Apostles, great as it is, tends to be more cerebral. We were very fortunate to be joined by Chester Cathedral Choir singing the Semi Chorus sections, which presented both a visual and vocal contrast to the main chorus, further enhancing the way in which Elgar exploits different plains, the voices on Earth, the voices from beyond this dimension, and the dialogues between Gerontius, the Angel of Agony and the Priest, beautifully sung by Nick Hardy, Kathryn Rudge and David Ellis. We were all supported by the Liverpool Sinfonia who delivered a difficult score with style, and the concert attracted an excellent audience who clearly appreciated our efforts. It is a work of great genius, but I always feel sorry for Elgar who was crushed and discouraged by the first performance which was disastrous. I hope we helped to realise his intentions.

On to things more temporal with “Christmas Crackers” in December aided and abetted by our old friend Ian McMillan, ably supported by his sidekick Luke Carver Goss. These concerts attract a different kind of audience and, as in previous years, were a sell-out. With the Cathedral services providing perhaps the more obviously devotional approach, we explore the more “commercial” side of things, although very few of our items are secular in content and are all intended to capture “The Spirit of Christmas” for those with a faith and for those without; our hope is to provide for all tastes and ages. Highlights this year included the stylish playing of “Gabriel’s Oboe” by Helen Thomas supported by the Chester Philharmonic Orchestra, and the ever-popular “O Holy Night” by Adolphe Adam; I am in a minority of 1 in finding this piece nauseous, but that’s no reason for not doing it.

The New Year arrived, and we began rehearsals for Bach’s The Passion according to St John. For the first time, we sang the piece in its original German, which caused some difficulties of course and off-stage grumblings. However, the effort was worthwhile. Quite apart from avoiding the difficulties of marrying Bach’s notes to an English translation, which is rarely satisfactory, I discovered the extent to which the whole sound of the piece is transformed. Like Gerontius, the work is essentially dramatic, more so than the St Matthew, often considered the greater of the two Passions. This was particularly highlighted in the “Kreuzige!” choruses, where our Demon’s chorus effects were again put to good use! I had decided that, for the Arias and Characters, I would like youthful voices and our RNCM student singers, Caroline Taylor, Molly Brown, Adam Temple-Smith and Matthew Nuttall, were perfect and immaculately prepared. Quentin Brown gave the role of Christus great dignity and serenity, and we were so fortunate to have the incomparable Rogers Covey-Crump, on the eve of his 75th birthday, singing Evangelist, a role to which he has devoted much of his professional life. The vocal colours and contrasts of all these voices and the chorus resulted in a concert of great quality.

In the midst of preparations for the Bach, we had our annual Choir Day at the King’s School. Something a little different this year in a collection of different items all linked to a common theme: Inspired by Shakespeare. From the 16-part Serenade to Music, to the unison songs of Quilter, via part songs by Charles Wood, E. J. Moeran and Thomas Arne, we explored different styles, periods and difficulties. Most popular, however, was the Choral Suite from West Side Story which everyone seemed to enjoy immensely (not to my surprise). Young baritone Peter Edge joined us to deal with the brief solo sections and to sing one of the Quilter songs to us. Graham Eccles, our sure-fingered accompanist, played superbly as usual and clearly enjoyed the Bernstein as well, perhaps a departure from his usual repertoire. These days are always informal, good fun, where people can explore their voices, perhaps pick up a few tips, and be in no fear of making mistakes. As usual, the whole day was masterminded by the indefatigable Becky Ford who has her fingers on so many pulses you would think she worked in a hospital.

Our May concert this year, usually accompanied by organ and/or small ensemble, was an opportunity for further collaboration with the Chester Philharmonic Orchestra and the work chosen was Haydn’s evergreen oratorio The Creation. The work has always been bi-lingual, in that the original libretto was in English, then translated into German for Haydn to work with, and then translated back into English; it was first published in both languages. I didn’t feel it fair to saddle the Choir with two works in German in succession so English it was! Although the chorus work is neither demanding nor extensive, it’s a delightful and satisfying sing. We were joined by three excellent young soloists, Milly Forrest, Toby Ward and Peter Edge, all singing superbly well, particularly Milly who had some demanding coloratura runs to negotiate – she just sailed up and down the stave effortlessly. All three have sparkling careers ahead, I predict. The orchestra played with assurance with some excellent woodwind work in particular. Overall, this was a sparkling and agile performance, witnessed by a much larger audience than we have come to expect in our late-Spring concert.

There is a hard-working and dedicated Committee behind all our endeavours, and I thank them for their support, especially Charismatic Chairman Clive along with Connie Telford and David Taylor, who have to deal with me directly over matters logistical and financial. We are greatly indebted to Graham Eccles for his great skills as an accompanist, and to David as Associate Accompanist, stepping in when Graham is elsewhere.
I have a very large chorus of committed and good-natured singers with which to work each concert, and I thank you all for your continual support, even when the going gets tough, or you don’t particularly care for the music we are preparing. That is what makes this a truly “community” choir.

We have many challenges ahead, some of which you will hear about later in this meeting. If we are to continue to provide the cultural life of Chester with a series of concerts of high quality in the future, we must meet those challenges head on with resilience, and not be disillusioned or undermined; Chester Music Society has a history of success of almost 75 years behind it and the capacity to continue for many decades to come.

Graham Jordan Ellis

28 May 2019