Busy as a busy thing….

Well first of all, I apologize for the long break in transmission. I’d like to tell you that I’ve been too busy relaxing on a sun-kissed Caribbean island, sipping margaritas and as a result, completely forgot about the blog, but sadly, that wouldn’t be true! The truth is altogether more prosaic: what with our Summer Concert and last-minute challenges getting our new CD ready for the big launch, things were just a bit hectic in the early part of the month and I simply ran out of hours in the day given that I still have to earn a crust or face selling the children for medical experiments.

So first off, let me say a huge ‘thank you’ to everyone who came to hear us in our summer concert at STEAM in sunny Swindon. It was a hugely successful concert even if, with well over 400 in the Great Western Hall on a very warm summer’s day, things got a bit sticky! We were especially delighted to welcome a party of 32 from Cowbridge Male Voice Choir who had traveled up from South Wales to hear us.

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Wessex Male Choir and The Magnificent AK47 join forces for ‘Byker Hill’

One of the discussion points after every concert, seems to be that of repertoire selection (and ‘Afterglow’ food – but’s that’s another thing altogether!), and this year’s summer concert was no exception. Earlier in the year, we had decided we had to focus on competition preparation and raising performance standards as well as preparing songs to a high standard ahead of recording our long, long overdue new CD. As with any period of competition preparation, it meant that we were not able to spend as much time learning new, funky repertoire as we would have liked. So perhaps not surprisingly, we did get a few comments about the comparative lack of light-hearted songs (especially in our first set) at the summer concert, and it’s something we’ll be addressing with a significant number of new, lighter songs which we start learning from September. But we also had lots of fabulous feedback from audience members including one long-standing supporter who told us that this year’s concert was our ‘best ever’ – which just goes to show how difficult it can be trying to keep all audience members happy when people want different things.   As Abraham Lincoln once said, ‘…you can’t please all of the people all of the time’.

Early in the planning stages for the summer concert, we realized that we were unlikely to have many ‘humorous’ items in the programme, so we looked for a guest act that would provide the additional entertainment and humour needed.   We briefly considered a troupe of itinerant ferret-jugglers, but eventually opted instead for a somewhat anarchic men’s singing group from ‘north, north Wiltshire’ (The Magnificent AK47) who we knew would deliver the fun element needed for a well-balanced concert overall. Of course, some folk were disappointed that Wessex didn’t get into humorous mode, especially as quite a few of our choristers and audience members fondly recall such classics as Rob Elliott’s arrangement of El Capotin. It would be fun to do that again, although I’m not sure in these days of ‘offence avoidance’ and accusations of ‘cultural appropriation and stereotyping’ whether donning sombreros, gluing-on unfeasibly large droopy moustaches, and pretending to be Mexicans would be acceptable. I also recall another humorous song from our past – Les Gendarmes – for which our choristers were required to don plastic police helmets and carry squeaky truncheons. Unfortunately the excitement invariably proved too much for some and all too often, words and notes were forgotten amidst the deafening sound of squeaking truncheons. ­So we will have to choose our humorous numbers carefully!

Another comment from one ‘punter’ about the summer concert was that he was unimpressed because didn’t know any of the songs in our first set, which is a rather disappointing thing to hear when, as a Choir, we aim to innovate and introduce new material to audiences (alongside some old favourites, of course). I wonder how on earth some people ever find any songs they like if their minds are closed to new repertoire! It’s also true to say that a lot of the male choirs that have died out in recent years ‘played it safe’ and stuck defiantly to the traditional favourites until their dying breath!

Anyway, our audience numbers are creeping slowly upwards and will one day exceed the large and excited crowd who, a few years back, breathlessly anticipated our opening number having been coaxed into attendance by a badly-spelled promoter’s poster that billed us as the ‘Wee Sex Ale Choir’. Back in the real world, some useful audience polling revealed that although a significant number of audience members hear about our concerts via word-of-mouth from our choristers, there is an increasing number of people who are coming to our concerts who have no connection to choristers. If you discount the possibility that they wondered into the concert by accident, that’s a really healthy sign, especially as we think we are close to the maximum number we can expect from ‘chorister ticket sales’ efforts alone! Other than press-ganging people from the streets of Swindon, the two most successful ways of reaching new audiences appear to be either via our mailing list or via Facebook, and while both are only showing modest numbers at present, both approaches have the capacity to grow significantly!

The other big event for us was the launch of our first new album in over seven years. Called ‘Memory’ (no-one can remember why), we’re pretty pleased with it and initial sales have been very encouraging. (We still have plenty left, so if you would like a copy, please order one via our website at www.wessexmalechoir.co.uk) It’s an eclectic mix of new and old and genres as diverse as pop, opera, music theatre and some traditional male choir favourites.

 

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A week after our own summer concert, a few of us travelled to Cowbridge to hear their concert, which was a lovely event and featured some wonderful soloists as well as some rousingly good singing by Cowbridge MVC under their strangely familiar Musical Director, Rhiannon Williams.   A few of us reflected that in terms of sponsorship and audiences, Cowbridge is very well supported – perhaps because the male choral tradition is still very much stronger in Wales than in England. It’s a sad state of affairs that we struggle to get even small amounts of sponsorship for the Wessex and I can’t help but feel it reflects poorly on Swindon businesses and their interest in supporting the arts. So if you’re a local business based in or near Swindon and want to ‘do your bit’, then please get in touch via our website!

That’s all for now!

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Musical Direction!

In this week’s blog, Dave Langley, one of the Choir’s founding members, talks about the Choir’s three musical directors and the vitally important role they have each played in making the Wessex Male Choir one of the country’s top amateur male choirs. As well as directing our concerts, the musical director selects our repertoire, teaches us singing technique, rehearses us through every song in minute detail, encourages us to give our best in performance, critiques our singing, and helps us to achieve the Choir’s vision.

Throughout its life, Wessex Male Choir has benefited from the inspirational leadership of exceptional musical directors. Music professionals all, each has brought differing areas of choral expertise to test and develop the Choir. Their patience, humour, commitment and professionalism has motivated, cajoled and ultimately, constructed one of the most accomplished male choirs in the UK.

Whilst each of the Choir’s musical directors has had a unique style, the unifying theme from each has been a constant striving for excellence.  It certainly hasn’t always been easy, but between them, they have constructed a modern choir with an appetite for high standards and a desire to continually improve. The Choir has won over 20 prizes in competitions on the national and international stage, including the male choir competition at the Llangollen International Eisteddfod in 2011, and best male choir in the Jersey International Choral Festival in 2008.
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Rob Elliott, our first musical director, in fine form telling the audience a joke!

The Choir’s founding musical director, Robert T Elliott, created the Wessex and its bedrock principles, standards and organization.  Rob was keen to refresh male choral singing for the 21st century and to move away from the stuffy traditional repertoire to which many male choirs adhered.  The genre was showing signs of decay and declining popularity, with many choirs’ membership having an average age of over 65, and being unable to inject young blood to replace retiring singers.  Even notable and acclaimed choirs such as Côr Meibion Pontarddulais are feeling the pinch, and the traditional male voice choirs almost everywhere worry about the increasing average age of their choristers.  Rob was, and continues to be, at the forefront of a movement to enhance the relevance of male choir singing in the modern age, a group that also includes the likes of William Prideaux of Peterborough Male Voice Choir, Mark Burstow of Bournemouth Male Choir, and Tim Rhys-Evans of Only Men Aloud.

Rob left Wessex in 2013 and was appointed as Festival Director for the Cornwall International Male Choral Festival, the world’s largest male choir festival, featuring over 70 choirs from all over the world.  He also adjudicates at many prestigious choral festivals in the UK and overseas, as well as advising choirs as they prepare for competition.  More recently, he has also taken over the baton at Basingstoke Ladies Choir.

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Katrine Reimers, with the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2016.

Following Rob’s departure, the Wessex was fortunate to acquire another excellent musical director in Katrine Reimers, who led the Choir between January 2014 and July 2016.  Katrine studied music at King’s College, Cambridge, piano at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and trained as a professional repetiteur at the National Opera Studio.  Katrine led the choir on successful tours to Ireland and Italy (where she also conducted a massed festival choir of over 2000 singers in the singing of Verdi’s Va Pensiero), and under her direction, the Choir was victorious in the 2016 Cheltenham Festival of Performing Arts, winning the Male Choir competition, Show Tunes competition, and the Gold Cup itself for outstanding choir of the whole Festival despite never having worked with a male choir before.  Katrine built on the excellent foundations laid by her predecessor and, in particular, worked on developing the Choir’s musical expression, not least through her own very expressive and communicative conducting style.

Unfortunately for the Choir, Katrine’s abundant talents were noticed by others and she left the Wessex to take up a prestigious post working with youth choirs across Europe, although she is still involved with music locally around her home in Bath. Like her predecessor, Katrine remains a good friend of the Wessex and can still be seen occasionally in the audience at concerts, having made many friends during her time with the Choir.

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Rhiannon Williams conducting the Wessex Male Choir at Lechlade in 2017.

Continuing the fine line of excellent musical directors, the Choir’s current musical director is Rhiannon Williams who joined Wessex in 2016. Rhiannon’s conducting career began in 2002 as musical director of the Ynysybwl Ladies Choir, a position she held for ten years, during which the Choir won competitions at the Abergavenny and Hereford festivals. Rhiannon led Bridgend Male Choir to success at the 2014 Male Choir Competition in the Llangollen International Music Eisteddfod. This was notable since only Wales’ most successful competition choir, Cor Meibion Pontarddulais, had previously won the world-renowned competition from the South Wales area. In addition to this, Rhiannon has previously achieved success as an accompanist for the Bridgend Male Choir at the Cheltenham festival and has a wealth of experience working with other top Welsh choirs including Pontarddulais, Treorchy, and Llanelli.

A native of South Wales, Rhiannon began her musical life as a singer. Among many competition successes, she was named British (& Welsh) BET Choirgirl of the Year in 1989 (28 years ago today!).  This led to solo appearances at the Royal Albert Hall, and Cardiff’s

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Rhiannon was Choirgirl of the Year in 1989.

St David’s Hall, among other venues, and to membership of the National Youth Choirs of Wales and of Great Britain, the RSCM Cathedral Singers, and the Choir of St John’s, Smith Square.  Rhiannon’s professional piano training began with a part-time scholarship at London’s Royal Academy of Music. The London College of Music awarded her a Fellowship, and she has achieved Distinctions at Licentiate and Associate levels from the Trinity, Guildhall and Royal Schools of Music. In 1998 she became Principal Accompanist for the renowned Treorchy Male Choir, which ultimately bestowed on her an Honorary Lady Membership.  In addition to her day-job as a professional musician, she has also recently become the musical director for the Cowbridge Male Voice Choir.

In the hands of a great musical director, the Wessex Male Choir is like a finely-tuned instrument, capable of expressing great depths of emotion, astonishing tonal colour, and dynamic contrast that lends excitement, power, and sensitivity to its performances.  If you haven’t heard it for yourself, you really should!  For more information about singing with the Choir, hearing us in concert, or hiring us for an event, please visit our website at www.wessexmalechoir.co.uk  You can also follow us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/wessexmalechoir