Belshazzar’s Feast

The evening’s piece de resistance, Belshazzar’s Feast, was eighteen months in the planning. For this mammoth composition, the choirs of Blackburn Music Society and Bolton Catholic Musical and Choral Society, augmented by members of other Choral Societies, occupied each side of the circle. The orchestra was joined by two off-stage six-piece brass bands, each comprising three trumpets, two trombones and a tuba. Again, Newall familiarised the audience with technicalities of the densely textured score; for example, initially playing the jazz elements ‘under tempo’ to demonstrate accentual stresses, and his amusing direction to play (and sing) this section ‘from the hips’, rather than from the score.

Osbert Sitwell’s libretto, based on biblical texts; Psalm 137 and the Books of Daniel and of Revelations, is narrated by the ‘anchor’ baritone soloist. Briefly, exiled Jews are subjugated by the Babylonian King, Belshazzar, who holds a feast at which he drinks from sacred Jewish vessels, whereupon a message of his impending doom appears upon a wall. Belshazzar dies, Babylon falls and the Jews are freed.

Belshazzar’s Feast is challenging for orchestra and chorus alike. Walton felt that the great conductor, Malcolm Sargent, set the tempo perhaps a little slowly for the debut performance in Leeds, (1931). The same accusation could not be levelled at Newall; this performance, although brisk, was nonetheless well-modulated. All sections of the B.S.O. responded supremely to the richly orchestrated score, with its alternately elegiac passages, jagged rhythms, discords and jazz motifs. The sonorous strings, woodwind cadenzas, brass fanfares and percussion heralding ‘Praise Ye’, the eerie handling of the ‘Writing on the Wall’ motif and subsequent sense of ‘otherworldliness’ accompanying ‘The trumpeters and drums are silent’ were particularly notable for the reviewer.
During the cantata’s ten delineated, yet continuous sections, the choir have passages when they are silent, and in that the vocal score bears little resemblance to what happens in the orchestra, a highly competent conductor is needed to give good entry leads. During the entire performance, I detected neither ragged entries nor awkward segues. Another, all too rare, and much appreciated feature, was Louis Hurst’s and the choral singers’ crystalline clarity of diction throughout.

The final recapitulation of ‘Then sing aloud to God our strength’ with full orchestral and majestic organ accompaniment rightly elicited thunderous applause from an enthusiastic audience. I last heard the Hallé orchestra and choir perform this cantata several years ago, and in the weeks preceding this performance, ‘swatted-up’ on several recordings, including Slatkin’s excellent version with the LPO and Thomas Allan. On Saturday evening, Newall’s version, with the BSO, under the capable leadership of Anita Levy, the incomparable Louis Hurst, BMS and BCMCS augmented by members of SCS, was equal, if not superior to, that recording. Eighteen months in the planning, and approximately 35 minutes of truly outstanding music making.

Dr Stella Pye

(Dr Pye’s full concert review is available here)

John Rutter Singing Day

A number of choir members attended the workshop arranged by the Association of British Choral Directors (ABCD) which was led by John Rutter.  It was a busy event and in total there were about 300 people in attendance.  The workshop was held at Fulwod Methodist church which proved to be an excellent venue.  The church ladies kept us well hydrated with hot and cold beverages.

All singing materials were provided on the day and we practiced and then sang a number of his well known works as well as some new and as yet unpublished pieces.  Mr Rutter has an excellent sense of humour and we were kept entertained throughout the day by a number of vignettes about both the words and music, these proved informative and entertaining.

This workshop was excellent with four and a half hours tutoring provided by Mr Rutter.  At a cost of £18 pounds it was good value for money and great fun .

Anne Asher

Musical Director Appointment

We are very pleased to announce that Abi Kitching has been appointed as the new Musical Director of Blackburn Music Society with effect from September 2018.  She will be the sixth Musical Director of the Society. Abi graduated with a first class honours music degree from the University of Manchester in 2017.  During her time at university, she was Musical Director of chamber choir Ad Solem, and a student conductor of the Manchester Chorus and The Cosmo Singers.  In the past year, she has been Assistant Conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra Chorus after being awarded the Alexander Gibson Memorial Fellowship.  Abi currently works with a number of choirs and is also an active soprano and regularly performs, broadcasts and records with various choirs.

At the same time as we are welcoming Abi we will be saying “Goodbye.” to Tom Newall.  Tom joined us in 2013 and since then has made an outstanding contribution to BMS.  Tom has made Monday rehearsal nights a pleasure for every choir member, vastly improving the quality of singing and making concert performances enjoyable and exciting for performers and audience members alike.  We are grateful to Tom for the many successful and enjoyable concerts he has led us through.  Tom is leaving us to pursue other aspects of his career and we wish him well in all of his future endeavours.

Royal Society of Saint George Service

On Sunday 29th April, twenty BMS members were kind enough to give up their time to attend the Royal Society of St George Annual Service, which took place at Blackburn Cathedral.

The sun shone and the mood was both celebratory and reverent. The youngsters of our local Scout groups renewed their vows with youthful enthusiasm and the various mayoral dignitaries brought gravitas and shimmering regalia. Uplifting hymns, moving readings including Shakespeare (‘Cry, God for Harry, England and St George!’) and the Dean’s entertaining address made for a heart-warming afternoon.

BMS members were sparse this year but team spirit abounded and we forged a superb rendition of Mozart’s Ave Verum, which earned congratulations from our hosts. An afternoon well spent!

Quiz Night

On Tuesday 17th April, members, together with their friends and relatives, put their general knowledge to the test in the Blackburn Music Society Quiz. The venue was Blackburn Golf Club and the evening included a potato pie supper. Margaret Crane and Mike Waters not only provided a wide ranging set of questions, but also very ably hosted the event and maintained order throughout the evening. A very entertaining and enjoyable evening.

Belshazzar’s Feast Workshop

Our other Babylonian number – Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves – is just about the easiest thing in the repertoire.  Belshazzar’s Feast is just a brute.

Some fifty of us gathered to resume battle with Belshazzar in the unlovely but homely Salesbury Village Hall on 10th March, most of us trailing bruised egos from the previous Monday’s rehearsal (think Napoleon’s Retreat from Moscow).  Expectations were not high.  The high pitch of merriment and excitement as we assembled had something of the febrile nature of troops about to go over the top.

Oh we of little faith!  Our young Captain, exuding his customary energy and confidence rallied or flagging spirits, cha-stised us for our timidity and had us hurling ourselves at Walton’s barbarous ramparts with no thought for the morrow.  Of the small clutch of tenors – who by the way strenuously refute (sic) any suggestion of clutching and the like – it may be justly said that never in the field of human endeavour has so much been so wrongly sung, with such gusto, by so few.

Joy’s performance was simply superhuman (not to suggest for a moment that a pact with the Devil or anything of that sort has been entered into).

Flawless it was not but those who arrived as the crotchety and quavery strode out with a whiff of victory in the nostrils and a bond of comradeship forged in adversity (think Relief of Mafeking).

What did our eight or so visitors make of us?  Surely they can have been in no doubt of our friendliness, enthusiasm and esprit de corps.  Their verdict on our musical prowess may be ambivalent but word of the refreshments is surely winging through the north.

O the cakes!

Mike Waters

Welcome to Joseph Judge

Welcome to Joseph Judge who will be taking some of our Belshazzar’s Feast rehearsals in March.  Joseph has a number of choral conducting jobs including Director of the Hallé Choral Academy.  He is also much in demand as a Countertenor and is frequently engaged as an oratorio soloist. We are delighted that he is able to join us.


Come and Discover our History!


Have you visited the BMS Archive Exhibition yet? If not, read on to see what you’re missing…

Swathed in my woolly hat and piano scarf, I blew in to see our Archive exhibition yesterday. I stayed for ages, enthralled by the material, especially from times before I joined BMS nearly 60 years ago.

How marvellous to see how, over our history, people have had the confidence to strive for the heights of achievement to the point where such renowned conductors and soloists were happy to bring their talents out of the  major cities and sing with an amateur choir from a Lancashire cotton town. I was amazed to see the correspondence with the great Paul Robeson, whom I so wanted to hear.

Mike’s stunning display in the foyer really hits the spot in its interest and humour. Thank you, Mike, and thank you to Margaret and her dedicated team who must have devoted endless hours in the presentation of this wonderful exhibition. We must talk to our friends and encourage them or accompany them to enjoy this fabulous portrayal of an enduring part of the history of Blackburn.

Live for ever, BMS! 


The Archive Exhibition continues at Blackburn Library until February 28th.  Mike Waters’ marvellous art-work can be seen on either side of the entrance to the Library and you will find material on the history of the choir on the first floor outside the Hornby Theatre.

The complete archive is on permanent loan to the library and it should be possible to access items on request.

New Year – New Faces and Places!

This term’s rehearsals have got off to a good start as the choir gets to grips with Elgar’s Scenes from the Bavarian Highlands, a charming set of six songs inspired by a holiday the composer and his wife Alice enjoyed in Upper Bavaria in 1894. Each song is a setting of a poem written by Alice, sub-titled with the name of a place they had visited together.

As we shall be performing this piece in our summer concert, during this current month we welcome back Helen Harrison, who will be conducting us in June.

She says it’s a pleasure to be working with the choir again and she’s looking forward to the concert. A massive Elgar fan, she also said that, having met us during rehearsals of Gerontius, it seems fitting that she is joining us again for this trip through the Highlands!

We have also been delighted to welcome Ed Rugman, who has been accompanying us while Joy has been indisposed. Ed, who lives in Lytham St Annes, studied at the RNCM and was later an Organ Scholar at Blackburn Cathedral. Not only is he adept at the keyboard, but he is also a composer – his work includes documentary music for the BBC and a conductor who is sought-after in musical theatre. Some of you might have seen Ed in action recently when he conducted a ‘Last night of the Proms’ concert at Preston Minster in aid of The Rosemere Cancer Foundation.

We are lucky to be able to call on two such talented musicians and we have enjoyed a chance to experience a fresh approach as we begin the new year. Of course we’ll also be glad to see Tom and Joy when they return!

Light Up a Life Service December 11th 2017

Last Monday evening was bitterly cold and the remnants of the earlier snowfall had turned to ice making travel a worry for many. Even so, Blackburn Cathedral was once again filled to capacity with a congregation ready to celebrate the memory of their loved ones.

Blackburn Music Society had the privilege of supporting the service carols, adding flourishes of harmony and soaring descant which lifted the usual Christmas melodies to the heavens. Then, as each member of the congregation received a lighted candle, the atmosphere became still as the lights were dimmed and BMS choir, conducted by Tom Newall, offered a moving performance of Morten Lauridsen’s Sure on this Shining Night. The music and the heartfelt words of James Agee’s poem created a poignant moment.

Sure on this shining night
Of star made shadows round,
Kindness must watch for me
This side the ground.
The late year lies down the north.
All is healed, all is health.
High summer holds the earth.
Hearts all whole.
Sure on this shining night I weep for wonder wand’ring far alone
Of shadows on the stars.

James Agee 1934

The choir followed up with Rutter’s Angels’ Carol, sung with a brightness and aplomb that brought a lighter mood, following which the two massive Christmas trees were officially lit by supporters of East Lancashire Hospice, Allan Poyner and Emma Wharton.

After prayers and blessing by Canon Andrew Hindley, all were charmed by the children of Salesbury CE Primary School who performed That First Christmas Day by Paul Field. Conducted by Gill Fourie, whom the children clearly adore, they brought touching hope for the future. They closed with a very accomplished rendition of Carol of the Bells by Peter Wilhousyky (arr Dean Jones) which caused Canon Hindley to query, “How do you remember all those words?” and some BMS members to ponder, “Could we do that?”

Soloist Ella Constantinides followed with a moving performance of For Good by Stephen Schwartz; the words, so clearly delivered by Ella, had many dabbing away tears. Then Josh Hindle stepped in to remind us all of the joy of Christmas with Let it Snow and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

Conducted in the presence of visiting mayoral dignitaries from Ribble Valley and Blackburn with Darwen, this was a service that brought both smiles and tears. It ended with Sam Hudson leading the congregation into Hark the Herald Angels Sing, with an organ sound that pushed at the rafters and lifted everyone’s hearts.

Chris Lenaughan