Birmingham Bach Choir centenary


by Christopher Morley

There are 44 Bach Choirs in the United Kingdom, and 222 worldwide, as Paul Spicer tells me.

And the Bach Choir that Paul has been conducting here in Birmingham ("27 years, but it doesn't feel like it") is currently celebrating its centenary, 100 years which involved a slight change of name along the way.

"When I started with the choir it was the Birmingham Bach Society as you know. But Nick Fisher, then the Chairman, and I felt that it was now simply a choir and did not do any of the additional events which the organisation had originally done so we thought it more appropriate to call ourselves the Birmingham Bach Choir – a new name for a new era."

Paul goes on to tell me how the choir developed.

"The origins of the choir were very small-scale, as these things often are. It was started by a Bach enthusiast, Bernard Jackson, who gave a lecture about Bach and then things grew to include concerts with ensembles, both choral and instrumental with very modest numbers.

"After Jackson there was a gap and then it started slightly fitfully again< but it was Dr Willis Grant who really got the thing going properly and was conductor for eleven years. Roy Massey came soon afterwards, and then the key appointment of Richard Butt who was also Senior Producer at the BBC in Birmingham.

"He established a Bach Society Orchestra and many distinguished singers and instrumentalists came to perform. Perhaps his greatest moment was taking the choir to Leipzig to perform the B Minor Mass in the ThomasKirche where Bach had been organist.

"Richard retired in 1992 and I took over. I was a colleague of his at the BBC at the time and also succeeded him as Senior Producer at PebbleMill. But the glory days of what Richard had been able to do and the huge funding which had followed the choir simply was no longer available and so we focused on becoming simply the best choir we could be.

"The Bach Choir is now a finely honed machine and, to be honest, keeps on getting better all the time which is a wonderful feeling. I think one of the turning points was my Unfinished Remembering choral symphony which was such a challenge for everyone and was such a great occasion that everything stepped up several notches at that moment.

"Now they relish the challenges I give them which will be leading up to Schoenberg's Friede auf Erden in a couple of season's time. I don't know when I will hand over the baton to someone else but it certainly is not just at the moment while I can feel things still improving under my direction."

Paul explains how the Birmingham Bach Choir continues to change and develop.

"We re-audition the choir every three years and keep a watch over people's voices. But the main way I like to keep the choir moving forward is by repertoire – doing unusual works, works which other choirs in the city might not do, making sure that the standard is as high as humanly possible for an amateur choir, and encouraging the family feel of the group which encourages real commitment.

"A group like the Birmingham Bach Choir is full of highly intelligent, motivated people and we rely heavily on their help and support to run the group efficiently and effectively. Especially now that there is virtually no central funding for anything we do we have to raise all the money we need to put on concerts through our own efforts.

"It's hard work but ultimately very satisfying when it works – which it almost always does. I feel very privileged to have conducted the choir for all these years and look back with some embarrassment at some of my early ineptitudes and with great gratitude for the huge experience that the choir has given me and the opportunity it has afforded me to grow as a musician and a practitioner. When eventually the time is right for me to stop conducting this wonderful group it will be a real bereavement – but as I say, that is not imminent! I also want to say how grateful I am to them for taking on some my big compositions and especially the Easter Oratorio which when that recording came out was Editor's Choice in the Gramophone, and also of course for Unfinished Remembering which was their commission. Hugely exciting moments in my life!"

Jonathan Spencer has been alongside Paul Spicer for all those 27 years, as he remembers.
"I joined the choir in 1989, towards the end of Richard Butt's tenure. I've sung in choirs of one sort or another since being invited to join a church choir as an eight year old; having recently moved to the Midlands I wanted to join a good choir that was small enough to be able to feel an individual's contribution made a difference, and having a lifelong love of Bach's music the Birmingham Bach Society Choir ticked all the boxes for me.

"I was struck from my first rehearsal by the combination of a very friendly welcome and the commitment of the singers to the music. When I joined I was singing bass; my natural voice range is baritone but there's not much call for baritones in a choir so I chose to growl the lower notes of the bass part. But I'd already sung countertenor in other groups occasionally and found I could cover the alto range comfortably so eventually changed permanently to the alto line in the Bach choir."

Jonathan goes on to describe his outstanding memories. "First (for me) performances of Bach's St John & St Matthew Passions and the B Minor Mass, and James MacMillan's searing Seven Last Words from the Cross; and choir tours to Prague, Leipzig and Tuscany. Being chair of the choir for five years, whilst quite hard work, was very rewarding, and certainly gave an insight into how much work goes on behind the scenes by many different people to enable the choir to function as well as it does."

How does Jonathan see the choir progressing into its next century?

"It seems to me that the choir has grown in its ability to tackle quite challenging new repertoire in the 30 years I've been a member and I'm sure that will continue; I hope my voice holds out long enough for me to continue to be a part of it."

And Jonathan signs off with something which should surely go into the Guinness Book of Records.

"My small claim to fame is having sung solos in all four parts in the choir - bass, tenor, alto - and (once) soprano, when the person meant to sing the soprano line in the semichorus of Britten's Hymn to the Virgin didn't turn up for the performance!"

Tristan Stubbs has been a member of the Birmingham Bach Choir only since the beginning of this year, and he tells me his story.

"I'm a university student, studying at Aston University in Birmingham. This year I'm doing a placement year at SAIC Motor in their visualisation department. When I moved away from my university for the job, I was looking for a high-quality, local choir that I could sing with, and that's when I came across the Birmingham Bach Choir! I have now been singing bass in the choir since January."

And how was he welcomed?
With open arms! The choir is very welcoming to new members, and everyone's friendliness helped me settle in almost immediately."

How does Tristan see the choir progressing in future years?

"I can see the choir continuing to maintain, and exceed, the high standards we set ourselves. Paul always seems to find new and challenging repertoire for us, meaning we can just keep on improving. These first hundred years have just been the beginning, in my opinion!"

*Birmingham Bach Choir's next programme is Steal Away, a sequence of spirituals (including a new setting by Paul Spicer), to be given in Pershore Abbey (June 22) and at the CBSO Centre (July 6). The centenary Gala Concert is at Lichfield Cathedral on November 16.

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