The Dream of Gerontius 18th March 2017

Edward Elgar’s Oratorio The Dream of Gerontius with its near-Wagnerian score places great demands on soloists, choirs and orchestra. First performed in 1900 it remains the most popular of Elgar’s choral works and is among the most frequently performed of all his work.

Set to text from the poem by Cardinal John Henry Newman, the oratorio tells of the journey of a devout man’s soul through death (Gerontius = ‘old man’) to final judgement. It is a work that demands soloists with operatic muscle, coupled with the clearest of diction to enable the meaning of the words to be appreciated by the audience.

For this performance the soloists were Emily Howard Cobley – Mezzo Soprano (Angel); Benjamin Sweeney – Tenor (Gerontius); Thomas D Hopkinson – Bass (Priest & Angel of the Agony). The semi-chorus was drawn from members of the Society with Wilmslow Symphony Orchestra and Organist Samuel Hudson. The work was conducted by the choir’s Musical Director – Tom Newall.

The performance begins with a long orchestral prelude which introduces the recurring themes of Judgement, Fear, Prayer, Sleep and Despair. This scene is set by Gerontius –’Jesu, Maria – I am near to death…’ followed by the mystical sound of the semi-chorus which appeared to float from a distance, despite their location in the centre of the choir. At this early stage, the audience was fully engaged.

The Dream has some especially dramatic moments. Gerontius’ death is marked with some powerful and violent music, rising to a crescendo at the Priest’s words: ‘Go in the name of Angels and Archangels’, as the choir joins in before the end of the first Part.

The soul’s journey in the second part is guided by the Angel. They encounter the demons who sing a loud and mocking fugue intensified by sarcastic laughter (a chance for the choir to depart from their usual balanced sound !). The work reaches its peak when Gerontius enters the House of Judgement. His soul’s impassioned plea to be taken to Purgatory is helped by an ear-shattering burst from the orchestra.

However, what really stays in the memory are the great angelic chorus of praise, the familiar ‘Praise to the holiest’ and the final aria for the Angel and Chorus, ‘Softly and gently’.

If only the soloists had been seated in front of their platform. Their long approach distracted many. Despite that this was a deeply moving performance under the inspirational leadership of Tom Newall, where soloists, choir and orchestra combined to produce an evening that will stay in our memories. I saw several members of the audience who were moved to tears.

Geoff Oldham

An Uplifting Experience for BMS

 

The last time BMS performed Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius was in 1998 under the baton of James Eastham, who conducted the choir from 1977 to 2007.

Saturday night’s performance of this much-loved piece has been long in the planning and the choir was very grateful to receive donations towards it from Geoffrey Taylor, in memory of James Eastham and from Valerie Eastham, in memory of Geoffrey himself, who sadly did not live to hear it.

The concert was further supported by our conductor, Tom Newall, who raised over £1000 towards it by running the Blackpool Half Marathon two years ago and it was dedicated to the memory of Kath Cross, 1945-2014, who left the choir a generous bequest.

For those of us taking part, it was an unforgettable experience and a privilege to sing with such accomplished soloists, contralto Emily Howard Cobley, tenor Benjamin Sweeney and bass Thomas D. Hopkinson, the magnificent Wilmslow Symphony Orchestra and not forgetting our friend on the organ, Sam Hudson.

‘Even though it was the fifth time I’ve sung it, it was wonderful.’ Jean

‘The hardest thing I’ve sung with the choir so far, but it was very rewarding, absolutely brilliant!’ Pete

‘It was wonderful, magnificent and a great credit to Tom.’ Madeline

‘It was magic.’ Chris

‘One had known fear…but it was all triumphantly dispelled on the night.’ Mike

‘The Dream was my dream. I haven’t stopped smiling.’ Madeline

‘It was absolutely out of this world…extraordinary…beyond words….’ Margaret

Last words from our amazing conductor Tom:

‘Gerontius is a piece that I grew up with as a singer, and having performed it numerous times have always wanted to conduct it. I hope I’ll be lucky enough to do it many more times, but I will never forget this very first one….tonight was special.’

Gerontius Workshop with Paul Spicer 25th February 2017

 

On Saturday morning 66 BMS Members and 20 visitors assembled in the Croston Theatre at Westholme School eager to participate in a day’s workshop with the renowned Paul Spicer. We were hoping that Paul’s expertise and knowledge of British choral music would improve our up-coming performance of Elgar’s Gerontius and we were not disappointed.

Paul provided many tips to develop our singing technique including the importance of relaxing the jaw to create space in the voice – particularly useful when singing high notes. He encouraged us to sing through vowels to create ‘a river of sound’ and he pointed out that a crescendo was not just an increase in volume, but also in tone. He stressed that, since the words were crucial to the impact of a choral work, clarity of diction was vital. This is especially true in Gerontius with its marvellous words by Cardinal John Henry Newman and Paul exhorted us to sing out: ‘Sing as if you are singing a solo.’

In taking us through Gerontius, Paul focused on parts of the work, going for a close look at specific sections rather than aiming to cover the whole piece. He kept us on our toes, trying to get us to observe all the detailed markings in the score; it was demanding, but at times exhilarating, as we strove to express the drama of Elgar’s great masterpiece. His approach – focussing ‘on the nitty-gritty’ as one singer put it – went down well with many of the participants. ‘Paul is excellent – he knows what he’s doing and he makes you feel secure.’

Our sense of security was enhanced by Joy’s accompaniment; her command of the keyboard as she performed the fiendishly difficult piano score was brilliant and she deserves our thanks. As do Caroline Scholey, who organised the workshop, the Committee and other helpers who contributed to the smooth running of the day. Finally mention must be made of the extensive array of cakes provided by Members and much appreciated by all participants!

All in all, it was a wonderful way to spend a wet Saturday and by the end of it many people felt that it had been thoroughly worthwhile. I’m sure no one would disagree with the singer who said: ‘It’s taken us to a new level.

Derek Hartley

We were very sad to hear that Derek Hartley has died of cancer. A loyal and committed member of the bass section, Derek will be remembered for his cheeriness and his outgoing, friendly manner – newcomers to BMS were always made to feel welcome, and he will be missed by all who knew him and sang with him.

Two Vivacious Visitors January 16th 2017

Joyce TThis week the choir were treated to a change of routine.

First we had an illuminating session with Joyce Tindsley. Joyce, a professional singer who was a soloist in our 2014 Messiah, is also an experienced vocal coach and she led us through a series of exercises to help us develop our voices. She showed us how to breathe and stand properly – in what is known as ‘noble posture’ – and how to project our voices forward. We also practised our diction.

Joyce choirJoyce’s tuition was very clear and easy to follow and she came out with some delightful turns of phrase: in showing us how a singer can produce subtle differences in sound, she said, ‘Your voice is like a paint-box’ and later, explaining how it was easier to sing vowel sounds if one rests the tips of the tongue against one’s teeth, she said: ‘Your tongue is a wriggle-monkey.’

After a very enjoyable training session, not only had our vocal muscles had a good work-out, but we were all standing much taller!

Helen H 2This stood us in good stead as our next guest, Helen Harrison, arrived to take the rehearsal for Tom who had another engagement. Helen had not met the choir before but, as a former student at St Mary’s College, for her it was a return to a familiar place  which, she said, made the evening extra special.

Helen established an immediate rapport with the choir and took us through an exacting, but stimulating, rehearsal of Gerontius. It was  fun, particularly when Helen encouraged us to express our inner demons!

Our thanks to Joyce and Helen, not just for helping us to make progress in our singing, but also for making it such an enjoyable evening.

Light Up A Life Service 12th December 2016

Once again a large number of our members took part in the annual East Lancashire Hospice Light up a Life Service at Blackburn Cathedral.

Conducted by Tom Newall and accompanied by Sam Hudson, we supported the congregational carols and, during the moving lighting of candles and the Christmas trees, we sang Morten Lauridsen’s uplifting O Magnum Mysterium.

A charming choir from Salesbury CE Primary School, directed by Gill Fourie and accompanied by Stephen Bird and Andrew Kellington on percussion, received a well-deserved round of applause for their contribution – a musical rendering of two carols from memory.

We always feel privileged to be able to support the Hospice which offers such amazing palliative care and it is a joy to participate in such a poignant service which expresses so much of the true spirit of Christmas.

Messiah 3rd December 2016

Suffice to say that by the end of this sparkling performance, in the highly atmospheric setting of Blackburn Cathedral, I could easily have believed myself to be in the Festival Hall on the South Bank. What a splendid evening!

Messiah is a work known to almost anyone with an interest in choral music and it can be a challenge to bring to a performance of this mammoth score something new. A pool of genuine Northern talent, under the baton of BMS conductor Tom Newall, offered the large audience not only a fresh and invigorating journey through the familiar narrative but engaged them in the drama.

Compared to many performances I have attended (and even performed in) several of the tempi set by Newall were fairly brisk but, despite some apprehension, I ended up being wholly persuaded by them and found the energetic pace offered a refreshing perspective on well-known choruses. These were mirrored by equally bright arias from the four outstanding soloists. The ornamentation in the da capo arias, delivered with absolute crispness by Blackburn’s own soprano Jennie Marsden, was perfectly enchanting. Emma Stannard, from the Royal Academy Opera, delivered the contralto arias with incredible power and energy as to be wholly convincing and compelling.

From the very first notes of the tenor’s opening aria, ‘Ev’ry valley’, it was apparent that Alexander Grainger (from RNCM) brought with him the clarity of a young voice with its freshness and agility. Grainger faced some stiff competition in claiming his place on stage from the very colourful Louis Hurst whose bass arias communicated every last drop of theatre available. Hurst’s resonant tones in ‘Darkness shall cover the earth’ were both haunting and deeply moving and left the audience willing the drama and the return of light.

The BMS chorus had high expectations placed on them by both conductor and orchestra and needed to match the vivacity of the soloists to hold their own, which they did with complete confidence. Diction was crisp and precise throughout and it seemed that every quaver and semi-quaver run was executed in complete consonance. Chorus members looked as though they were enjoying the sing and this certainly added to the success of the evening’s performance.

The Lancashire Chamber Orchestra, once again, worked hard to achieve the impression that the whole ensemble, chorus, soloists and instrumentalists were one complete unit. The continuo was suitably subtle to allow recitative to move the narrative forward and the ensemble bold enough to add compelling punctuation to both arias and choruses.

This was a triumph of performance which left me buzzing with excitement and exhausted by emotion.

David Stephenson

This performance was dedicated to Shirley Parker.

Shirley Parker

shirley

We have been shocked and saddened to hear of the death of Shirley Parker who died in her sleep on Wednesday 16th November. While Shirley’s recent chest infection meant she had not been planning to sing in Duruflé’s Requiem she was intending to be present at the afternoon rehearsal to be in the choir photograph and to listen to the music. She was also looking forward to singing in what would have been her 62nd Messiah with BMS. Saturday’s performance of Messiah was dedicated to her.

Shirley loved being in the choir and said recently:

‘When you’ve had a hard day, especially in winter, you think, I don’t want to go out in the cold. But you go home so uplifted by the music you’re glad you came.’

Many BMS members will be feeling that they have lost a dear friend. Shirley’s vitality, sense of fun and warmth will be much missed.

Autumn Concert 19th November 2016

At Saturday’s concert it was a delight to hear unfamiliar music delivered with the choir’s familiar clarity, energy and obvious enjoyment.

The opening Quatre Motets by Duruflé showed the semi-chorus at its best, with a fine contrast between the delicate ‘Tota pulchra es’ and the rousing ‘Tu est Petrus’. 

The motets then threw into relief the Puccini Messa di Gloria, by turns playful, joyful and – particularly the ‘Adoramus Te’ – intense; the stunning fugue in the ‘Cum sancto spiritu’ seemed effortless but inspiring. I could have wished myself on the other side of the conductor’s baton.

And then after the interval the Duruflé Requiem.  What a wonderful flow it had. I was chasing musical motifs throughout: in the plainsong, the uplifting chorale in the ‘Kyrie’, and through the expressive word painting, for example the dramatic ‘de ore leonis’ in which I felt as if the lion was after me but not quite catching me this time.

For me the ‘Pie Jesu’ stood out as a jewel of beseeching, with the poignant cello and mezzo-soprano solo set among the Requiem drama at this Remembrance time of the year, the whole performance complemented by the organist and fine soloists.

Certainly an event which left me wanting more and checking the diary for the next BMS concert.

E. Dixon

John David

john-david-225x300

It is with great sadness that we learn of the death on October 3rd of John David, who lately, together with his wife Judith, had sang with us for a couple of seasons.

A resident of Fence since the 1980s, John was active in the local community and had many interests.

He ran his electroplating business, East Lancashire Platers, for 30 years before retiring.

He was a Liberal and Liberal Democrat member of Pendle Borough Council for 28 years and last year Pendle Council made John a Freeman of the Borough in recognition of his service to people in Pendle. He was also involved in the Heritage Trust for the North West, the local Citizens’ Advice Bureau and Mid-Pennine Arts.

John loved tending his vegetable patch and in later life he turned his hand to crafts and enjoyed weaving and wood turning.

He never forgot his Welsh roots and music was a lifelong passion – he took up the cello as an adult and had a fine bass voice. He chaired Burnley Orchestra and Choir for 30 years and even formed a home-based string quartet, the Hoarstones Ensemble. Many local people will remember their famous “family and friends” rendering of Messiah at Christmas.

John did not sing with us for long but we will remember him for his kindness and his enthusiastic support for BMS. Our thoughts are with Judith and the family.