Some of Birmingham’s choirs may be more publicity-conscious in the way they present themselves to public perception, but Birmingham Choral Union goes about its business unobtrusively, performing in a variety of locations, and chalking up a bewilderingly diverse range of triumphs in all kinds of unexpected areas.
“We’ve fairly recently sung in diverse venues,” says Colin Baines, who has been BCU’s music director since 1981. ‘‘A disused carpark, the estate behind Five Ways, the canal bank, as part of various theatrical ventures. We have been the Darrington Choral Society on the Archers, and we’ve been backing singers on a Misty’s Big Adventure album.”
But at the end of this month Birmingham Choral Union performs perhaps more conventional repertoire, offering a programme of works by Mendelssohn and Dvorak, both of them composers with strong connections with Birmingham and its famous Triennial Festival.
Compiled right at the end of his life, in the single year that followed his triumphant premiere of Elijah in Birmingham Town Hall in 1846, and during which the composer suffered the terrible loss of his beloved sister Fanny, Mendelssohn’s Lutheran Mass brings together settings of German translations from the traditional Mass texts composed at various times in his life. Some are accompanied, clearly inspired by Mendelssohn’s love of Bach, others are scored for unaccompanied double chorus, conveying the drama of the liturgy in a direct, post-Elijah style.
Concluding the programme is Dvorak’s Mass in D, which Colin describes as the composer “at his most melodic”.
“It was written for a provincial church with organ accompaniment., though Dvorak orchestrated it later, because it was the only way he could get it published! It’s not stately, grand cathedral music, nor monastic, plainsong-influenced music, but music imbued with the nature and freshness of the Czech countryside. It’s choral throughout (there are no priestly intonations), deeply expressive, and hugely enjoyable to perform and listen to.”
Founded in the 1880s as the Birmingham Choral and Orchestral Union, BCU has worked under some illustrious principal conductors, including Appleby Matthews, first conductor of the then City of Birmingham Orchestra, and the much-loved Harold Gray, associate conductor of that orchestra for so many decades.
“It is amazing to realise that we have been making music in three different centuries!” enthuses one current member.
But times are a-changing, and the time has long gone that any choir could boast the 356 singers the BCU could boast for a performance of Edward German’s Merrie England at Birmingham Town Hall on January 24 1914 (incidentally, look very carefully at the programme-cover for that event as shown on the BCU website — proof-reading at its worst).
“The nature of the amateur chorus is at heart still what it was, but times and financial considerations change,” explains Colin. “Not so long ago, the average auditionee was an accomplished note-reader, but now, this is not generally the case. We have to use other aids to note learning, and conductors have to be skilled with computer sound files! Also the times when a choral society could book a professional orchestra and the Town Hall and sell enough tickets to pay for it have gone.”
Colin Baines, like his long-ago predecessor Appleby Matthews (who among his many accomplishments used to play teatime piano in Lewis’s restaurant), is a hugely versatile musician.
“I’ve had a number of day jobs. I taught in schools and then Queen Alexandra College for the Blind. I composed many series of BBC schools’ radio. I’ve played in jazz bands, and piano trios and chamber groups, but these days I mainly work in the choral field.
“I am also the assistant conductor and accompanist of the City of Birmingham Choir too, and I run a workplace choir, the Colmore Chorus, financed by the Colmore BID, which is an unauditioned group of people who work in the Colmore Row area, and does pop-up performances all around the city centre.
“And youth theatre: I’m the music director of the Festival Arts group which performs Shakespeare in the Bishop’s Palace in St Davids (Pembrokeshire) and family oriented musicals, of which I’ve written many. I enjoy working with all kinds of people, from professionals to teenagers. I play the organ at Sutton Crematorium some of the time, and play for occasional weddings and services, and I teach piano.”
After I get over my “phews”, we conclude by discussing the location for the forthcoming BCU concert.
“The venue, St. Paul’s in the Jewellery Quarter, is a great favourite of mine and the choir’s. The architecture and atmosphere of the building make it an ideal place to perform these pieces. I enjoy working in buildings which add to a performance rather than simply conveying it. There is an acoustic unlike anywhere else in Birmingham, and the programme is of a length such as not to cause the hardness of the pews to create physical discomfort!”.
- Birmingham Choral Union performs Mendelssohn and Dvorak at St Paul’s Church, Birmingham, on June 30 (7.30pm). Details on 0121 550 1107.