Backstage at Choir of the Year 2010
I arrive at the hall for our stage rehearsal and immediately feel the buzz of anticipation backstage. Someone is rushing a clean and pressed shirt to one of the competitors, others are making their way purposefully to warm-ups, or chatting excitedly on their way back to dressing rooms. We are getting our make up done later as the concert is being televised, so we have been asked to turn up with none on at all. Is that why we look a little pale against our black suits as we walk out onto the brightly lit stage, or is the atmosphere of collective nervous anticipation in the building affecting us too?
The day must run to a very strict timetable, so the rehearsal is soon finished and we are free to eat some lunch. Some of us sit in the foyer and enjoy the brilliant winter sunshine over the Thames. The place is packed – there is a project happening where people are invited to write on the windows with coloured pens about what makes them happy. Girls with bright coloured rosettes in their hair appear and excitedly greet friends and family – they must be competitors. Time for me to go and get brightened up with some make-up.
Putting on your make-up is one of the best parts of preparing for a performance. There is something calming and focussing about it all at the same time. The experience is all the better when someone else does it for you, and is enhanced on this occasion by musical accompaniment from Rainbow Connection Singers who are doing their final pre-concert warm up next door. They are impressively slick and I’m looking forward to joining the audience for the main part of the show.
All six choirs taking part this afternoon have either won or excelled in the group stages of the competition and now they are competing for the overall prize, BBC Choir of the Year 2010. After an introduction by Aled Jones and Josie D’Arby, the first choir onstage is the Holles Singers, from The Lady Eleanor Holles School in Hampton. They sing beautifully together, and show their versatility in different musical styles – classical, traditional Georgian and musical theatre, this last incorporating some pretty cool choreography. Next are the Wellensian Consort, all former singers at Wells Cathedral School who started their choir to maintain friendships forged through shared musical experience while at school. It is interesting to hear the difference that a few more years of vocal development makes to the tone quality, which has added warmth, beauty and colour. I hope this inspires the younger choirs to keep singing into their adulthood. After two pieces in immaculate classical style, they surprise us with a rendition of the spiritual, Didn’t my Lord deliver, which really rocks. Concluding the first half of the concert are the Warwickshire County Boys’ Choir, founded as recently as 2008 by Garry Jones, who was concerned about the shortage of boys coming up into the county youth choir and decided he must do something about it. He has built up a choir that comprises over 100 boys aged from 8 – 13, of whom about 60 now appear on stage. They impress me with their vitality, engagement and sheer enjoyment of singing together. They completely charm the entire audience and panel of judges.
New Forest Children's Choir with their director Alison Russell-Hayward and composer Howard Goodall
The second half opens with Rainbow Connection Singers, an all female line-up from Doncaster with a passion for musical theatre. It’s refreshing to hear this very different style of choral singing with such immaculately delivered close harmonies and heartfelt response to music and text, and I enjoy the theatrical presentation. They are followed by the youngest entrants, New Forest Children’s Choir. Like the Warwickshire Boys Choir they were founded just two years ago and are aged from 5 – 12. Their beautiful clear tone and delicate phrasing have the audience in hushed thrall and their rendition of Howard Goodall’s The Lord is My Shepherd is tender and touching.
Sadly I cannot stay in the hall to hear the final group of the afternoon, University of Central Lancashire Chamber Choir, comprised of students on the BA Hons Music Theatre course, as it is time for me to go back stage and get ready for our slot. I do get a chance to see and hear them when the concert is shown on BBC FOUR the following weekend and I am blown away by the sheer power and brilliance of their singing. They end their varied programme with a jazzy performance of Con Conrad’s The Continental, arranged by David Blackwell, bringing the competition to a close with some style.
The expert panel of judges, Ken Burton, Mary King, Elin Manahan Thomas, Tim Rhys-Evans and Eric Whitacre, leave the auditorium and now it is the BBC Singers turn to go on stage and sing to all the choirs and an enthusiastic audience of family, friends and choral music fans. To honour the spirit of the day we present pieces that celebrate the joy of singing and finish with Bob Chilcott’s Weather Report, written as a showpiece for the Singers’ tour to Japan in 2005. The judges are still considering, so fellow alto, Rebecca Lodge leads a workshop enabling the whole audience to join their voices to the assembled choirs, and as always I get a huge thrill from being in the midst of people singing their hearts out. Just as they are really getting into the swing of it, word is out that the judges are ready to return ...
Back stage again and tucking into a well deserved piece of chocolate cake, I hear a roar over the tannoy in response to the announcement from the judges that the Wellensian Consort has won the title of Choir of the Year 2010.
Congratulations to them and all the choirs who have taken part. It has been a brilliant achievement for all of them and a great afternoon’s entertainment for the audience, but perhaps the most inspiring thing for me has been the evident enjoyment that all the choirs show in singing and making music together. I wonder if anyone has made use of the coloured pens to write on the windows of the foyer that singing with others makes them happy?