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

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Memory and Banter!

It seems like ages ago now, but back in June 2016, we organized a short recording session at Commonweal School and recorded two tracks; Memory from Cats, and Morten Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium. The intention was always to film them and put them on YouTube or something similar. Unfortunately, when we got to the editing stage, we felt that the recording quality wasn’t great and at the time, we never completed the edits. However, over a year later, we’ve managed to tweak the recordings and although the end-product is far from perfect, the first of the two recordings, Memory, is now online for people to watch. The second track, O Magnum Mysterium, will take a little longer to complete, but we hope that we can post that online too at some point.

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Recording ‘Memory’ at Commonweal – June 2016 under the direction of Katrine Reimers.

Over the years, there have been a number of smaller singing groups within the Choir, such as Presto and After Eight (the latter is now an independent group and no longer part of the Wessex Male Choir) and more recently we have had the Wessex Male Choir Chamber Group. It’s a bit of a mouthful, so we thought it was about time to give the Chamber Group a name. There were lots of suggestions from members of the Chamber Group – such as ‘Crotchety’ (because some choristers can be a bit grumpy) and ‘Quavers’ (because we’re a bit cheesy?). In the end, we opted for something a bit more stylish, and will be known henceforth as the Wessex Camerata, indicating that we are firmly part of the Wessex Male Choir but a chamber group. And before you tell me, yes I know the abbreviation is W.C.

You may already know that a male choir is usually split into four sections: the guys with the highest voices (top tenors); those with high voices (second tenors); the lower voices (baritones); and the ‘lowest of the low’ (the basses). There’s a great deal of banter and competition between sections, but at the end of the day, we all sing together in perfect harmony.  Even if you don’t know what voice type you are when you join the Choir, you’re quickly sorted into the best section for you and helped to settle-in by an appointed ‘buddy’. Amidst the bustle of the new term, we’re always delighted to welcome new choristers, and so far this term, we’re pleased to say hello to three prospective choristers, Andrew, Dan, and Jason.

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The Choir has lots of characters…the cartoon is not meant to represent actual choristers!

Potential singers can easily be put off joining, thinking that they could never do what we do, but most of us started out feeling that way. It’s a bit like the first time you get on a bike: you’ve seen other people do it, but it takes a bit of practice until you get it right! By sheer chance, one of our choristers wrote a little piece about joining the choir, which is reproduced below. And in case you were wondering, the author is a baritone!

‘Recruitment is an ongoing challenge for male choirs, and one of the recurring reasons we hear for not joining is “I can’t read music.” In fact neither can around 75% of the Choir, but this hasn’t stopped us from being one of the best male choirs in the UK. Since most of us don’t read music, you don’t need to either. All that is required is a love of singing, the willingness to attend rehearsals and the need to put effort into learning the songs.

Another thing we often hear when we talk to guys about joining us is “I can’t sing.” Almost everyone can sing, and there are lots of ways our chorister development programme can help you. It’s a misconception that singing excellence is a prerequisite for joining. We don’t expect you to sing like Pavarotti: we just want people who can sing in tune with a bunch of others, learn some words and do what the Music Director asks them to do – for example “don’t sing too loudly.”

In fact, even if you can’t sing well, you can join our 2nd Tenors. (NB this is a joke and illustrates the eternal banter between sections!) Having made that clear…..

Q. If you threw a pianist and a second tenor off a cliff, which one would hit the ground first?
A. The pianist. The second tenor would have to stop halfway down to ask directions.

Q. Why must you never leave second tenors out on their own?
A. They can never find the key and they always come in late.

So if, like us you take your singing seriously, but yourself less so, and
want to sing with like-minded individuals in one of the most successful male choirs in the UK and have a riot whilst doing so, why not give us a call? After all, what’s the worst that could happen (apart from joining the second tenors!)’

Continue reading “Memory and Banter!”