BFC Members' Blogs

End of a Busy Year

Alto 2, Susanne Hoebel, reflects on a busy few months and looks forward to 2017 and beyond.

So much has been happening in the Choir lately that it is difficult to know where to start. For a view back into the past year and forward to the future I shall use the vantage point of the Christmas Concert at the Brighton Dome, the last major event, where we performed together with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Brighton Festival Youth Choir.

Such was the success of that event that even those with a healthy disdain for Christmas concerts were happy and joyful at the end of it. Not only had we managed to sell all tickets, thus performing to a packed auditorium, but we also had a great old time. I personally love the Sleigh Ride and ″Five gold rings″ from the Twelve Days of Christmas, and in a mixed bunch of goodies there is something for everybody so that with every piece more eyes lit up, more smiles appeared, and by the end of the concert we were all happy. The mood was at once festive and one of good will and good fun. As every year it was ″the best ever″, and so it should be.

With the Youth Choir being positioned between the orchestra and the rest of the chorus, we were behind them for the entire performance, but what an impression they made even with their backs turned! The young people with their hair brushed to a sheen stood straight as rods, held their black folders by their sides as they had been told (because – how impressive is that? – they knew most of the music off by heart!) and followed the conductor perfectly at every turn. And produced a wonderful sound. This is Juliet Pochin′s good work whose rapport with the members of the Youth Choir is visibly, palpably excellent, and they wanted to do her proud. Which they did! They were a joy to behold and listen to!

But Christmas now being over we can look to the future. Which doesn′t look too bleak for the BFC. The next project is the recording of more Elgar. More, because we did some in September, and tough it seemed a daunting project to begin with, it turned out to be good fun yielding excellent results to boot – if Barry Wordsworth, the conductor, is to be believed, and why should we doubt his word?

This is what happened. In late September, on two of the hottest days of the whole summer, two coaches conveyed us to the Colosseum in Watford where the recording was going to take place. When we arrived back safe and sound at the end of the second day I reflected on all the things that could have gone wrong when one hundred people are involved in a co-ordinated project like this: The buses could have been late, got stuck in traffic, broken down on the way. Members of the choir or their wallets could have been left behind at Pease Pottage Service Station. On account of the great heat people might have had fainting fits or been otherwise taken unwell, they could have been morose and short-tempered with exhaustion and dehydration. The same goes for the orchestra. The conductor might have suffered under the heat and literally lost his cool. None of this happened, which is extraordinary and reason to be grateful. And we enjoyed the experience!

Between then and Christmas we performed the Brahms Requiem. In German, which is a challenge. There was excellent language coaching from Heide Hughes and Norbert Meyn. And because of that we did pretty well with the German in rehearsals. Not so easy once on stage, of course, and we slipped back on some of the things we had learnt. The singing went alright, though, didn′t it – or so we thought in the choir. Alright maybe, said our conductor. Scope for improvement, then.

What definitely went well and was a very good idea was the small didactic unit before the performance of the Requiem in which James explained to the audience some of the aspects of Brahms′ extraordinary musical decisions with us illustrating his points by singing short extracts. People gain brief and intelligent insights into the workings of a composition without having to plough through long and wordy theory, which nobody wants. This could become a feature in future concerts, who knows.

In the early part of 2017 we are back at Watford Colosseum with the BBC Concert Orchestra once again recording Elgar, From the Bavarian Highlands, and in March performing in the Royal Albert Hall for a concert in aid of Parkinson’s UK. For the BFC the spring is partly shrouded in mystery because nobody knows or is supposed to know what we are performing when and with whom in the Brighton Festival in May. Two other things are certain at this point in time, however. The first thing is that re-auditioning will start in February. Everybody – perhaps not everybody – is quaking in their boots. Is it really so scary? None of us want to fail, of course not. I shall be devastated if I fail. In the three years I have been in the choir it has become to mean so much to me, more than I can say. I have sung great works that I had never sung before, some even that didn′t know before. What an education! I have made friends. I have sung in the Royal Albert Hall. Three times all told! Of course I want to stay in the choir. So I shall diligently practice the suggested audition pieces. As will everybody else, I have no doubt.

The second thing we know is that we will be performing Britten′s War Requiem. Not this year, it′s a long-term project. Another work I have not sung. Another challenge. I bought the score, I bought the CD. I am looking forward to it!

Susanne Hoebel, 2nd Alto, 02/01/2017

Details of forthcoming concerts appear on these pages as soon as they are known – and keep an eye on our Twitter feed and Facebook page for frequent updates.


Posted on 2nd January 2017


The Somme 1916

BFC’s summer Own Promotion concert marked the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. The following entry is from Chorus member Brian Derbyshire, who selected and read poems and texts associated with the Great War on the evening.

It was a real privilege have the opportunity to introduce and read poems in between the choral works for BFC’s recent commemorative Somme concert. I used to teach English and Drama and, of course, have always loved acting on stage, talking about literature and directing plays etc. I am probably just a Thespian show-off!

I did a good deal of preparation for the Somme Centenary, reading Jeremy Paxman's excellent book on Great Britain's Great War, and chasing up articles in the media as, in recent weeks, they came on stream. Like so many others, I was gripped by the horror and the futility of the battle, but also felt deeply for not only those who suffered from the losses, but for those whose education and cultural traditions left them so short when the challenge of choosing what we today would regard as more acceptable options was before them.

BFC's concert in All Saints was, for me, extremely moving. I loved the music and the way it was  performed, and I have included the texts of the poems at the foot of this entry.

The programme notes, prepared by our fellow Bass 2, Michael Sanders, were excellent, and the whole programme, expertly compiled by Katy Friese-Greene, will shortly be available here. I am so glad that the evening was the success that it was.

Brian Derbyshire
Bass 2


The Battle of The Somme was one of the most cataclysmic episodes of the First World War. The battle began exactly 100 years ago today. July 1st, 1916, is generally regarded as the worst day in the history of the British Army.

The vastness of  the carnage on both sides was unprecedented. On this, the first day alone, British and Commonwealth casualties totalled almost 60,000; 20,000 of them dead.  German losses were similarly horrendous, and this was just day one of a battle that lasted over 4 months,  When the Battle of The Somme finally ended, on 18th November, 1916, the British and French armies had advanced in the Somme Valley less than 6 miles. For its carnage and its futility, the first day of The Somme is remembered and commemorated all over the world.

So our concert tonight is not a Celebration of The Somme, but more a Commemoration of it. We are remembering that, during the battle, a million young men on both sides were seriously wounded or killed.  Like so many who will have taken part in commemorative events yesterday and today, we hope never to see another such appallingly wasteful and futile a way of settling international disputes.

Francis Purcell Warren (1895-1916)

Hubert Parry, Director of the Royal College of Music, knew that their former student, Francis Purcell Warren, had volunteered for military service in September, 1914, and that he had subsequently been sent to fight in France. In March, 1916, by then a member of the 10th Battalion of the South Lancashire Regiment, Warren was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. He was reported missing at Mons on 3rd July, during the Battle of the Somme.  His body was never recovered, but he is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial, where the names of so many Somme casualties are recorded.

When addressing the Royal College of Music in September, 1917,  Parry knew only that Warren had been reported missing a year earlier.   This is part of his Address to the College:

I am afraid that there is no longer any hope of young Purcell Warren being alive. He has not been heard of for months. It is a peculiarly tragic case.He was one of the gentlest, and most refined and sensitive of boys, and was of that type which attracted people's love. He was a very promising violinist, and had also begun to show characteristic qualities as a composer which were quite surprising, for there was a subtlety and a dexterity  about his compositions which made us all look upon him as likely to make a  personal  mark. He endured bravely some very uncongenial experiences in the earlier stages of training and then he had to face the barbarities … and one of humanity's tenderest possessions was ruthlessly destroyed.

Warren had been a close friend of the composer Herbert Howells, whose Elegy for Viola, String Quartet and Strings, the next piece in tonight's programme, was written to commemorate. The composer, Alan Ridout, recounts in his memoirs that:

There is no doubt in my mind that Howells loved Francis Purcell Warren. He had a snapshot of him on his mantelpiece, standing together with Leon  Goossens … once he stood before the picture gradually becoming inarticulate with grief. After a long silence, he said, “He was everything to me” and sobbed, then swiftly pulled himself together.

William Noel Hodgson MC (1893-1916)

William Noel Hodgson was the son of a Bishop.  He was awarded a first-class degree in Classics at Oxford in 1913 and volunteered for the British Army on the outbreak of war in 1914, serving with the 9th Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment.  He was known as “Smiler” to his friends.

He was sent to France in July 1915 and his first major offensive came in September of that year during the Battle of Loos. He was mentioned in dispatches and awarded a Military Cross for holding, during the battle, a captured trench for 36 hours without reinforcements or supplies. He was subsequently promoted to Lieutenant.

After a short spell in England, he was sent back to the front line trenches at Fricourt in February,1916, before moving in April a kilometre or so to the trenches opposite the town of Mametz. He was killed on the first  day of the Battle of The Somme when attacking German trenches near Mametz.

He is probably best remembered for this poem: Before Action. It is commonly believed that the poem was written with the premonition of his death, from his knowledge of the German machine gun position from which he was shot. The last line of the poem is “Help me to die, O Lord”.

Before Action

By all the glories of the day
And the cool evening's benison
By that last sunset touch that lay
Upon the hills when day was done,
By beauty lavishly outpoured
And blessings carelessly received,
By all the days that I have lived
Make me a soldier, O Lord.

By all of all man's hopes and fears
And all the wonders poets sing,
The laughter of unclouded years,
And every sad and lovely thing,
By the romantic ages stored
With high endeavour that was his,
By all man's mad catastrophes
Make me a man, O Lord.

I, that on my familiar hill
Saw with uncomprehending eyes
A hundred of thy sunsets spill
Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice,
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword
Must say good-bye to all of this;-
By all delights that I shall miss,
Help me to die, O Lord.

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)

Wilfred Owen is generally regarded as one of our best war poets.  He completed his military training in December, 1916, just after the Battle of the Somme.

The reality of what he found when posted to the front line trenches defies description in its horror, its futility, its wastefulness. He was no pacifist; he did what he believed was his duty as a fighting soldier and officer. Wounded and  suffering from shell-shock, he was taken for treatment to Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh.  Here he met the poet, Siegfried Sassoon. Sassoon became perhaps his closest friend and mentor. He convinced Owen that he was capable, as a poet, of bringing home to others, with scarifying vividness, the horrific reality, the brutality and, above all, the pity of war. In August 1918, Owen returned to France. He was awarded the Military Cross for valour in action. He was killed just a few days before the armistice that ended the war.

In the last year of his life he wrote his best poetry. Anthem For Doomed Youth shows his passion, his bitterness, his anger - but also his humanity and his tenderness:

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,-
The shrill demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of  goodbyes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.

Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967)

The poet, Siegfried Sassoon, died in 1967. He was a soldier with a distinguished record for extreme valour in WW1, but he had become the most stringent, bitter and angry opponent of all that war had become and of how the war was complacently being conducted by both its political and military leaders.

Sassoon reflects, in 1919, on the memories that he was unable to forget, but that he feared that the rest of us would.


Have you forgotten yet? …
For the world's events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heavens of life; and you're a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same -- and War's a bloody game. …

Have you forgotten yet? …
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you'll never forget.
Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz-
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets.
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench-
And dawn coming, dirty-white and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, "Is it all going to happen again?”

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack-
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads - those ashen-grey
Mask of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet?
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you'll never forget.


Posted on 22nd August 2016


Dream of Gerontius - a reflection ...

When I wrote my blog entry in February at the beginning of the process of learning "The Dream of Gerontius" I had no idea what a journey I would be embarking on with the BFC. The (sometimes rather tedious) process of learning the words was lightened by the posts of many members showing their dedication to the task in increasingly unlikely places, and gradually the rehearsals confirmed that, bit by bit, the learning was happening.

I was excited, but very apprehensive when the piano rehearsal with Edward Gardner took place but he was very kind and began to show us how much he loved the work.

The orchestral rehearsal on Saturday, despite the rather strange physical arrangement where conductor and soloists appeared to be half way down a tunnel, really made it begin to come together, and the performance on Sunday was amazing. By the time we reached the climactic "Praise to the Holiest", the energy erupted and filled the Dome. My overwhelming impression was that everyone involved was at one during the concert and the audience response confirmed their participation also.

So, having started on the ski slope with that name, the exciting path has led me back and tonight we start our Somme concert preparation with Jerusalem!

Sue Purbrick, 1st soprano, 24/05/2016

Our forthcoming concert on 1 July 2016 in All Saints' Church, Hove, is a commemoration of the battle of The Somme including works by composers of the period, Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Francis Purcell Warren, interspersed with war poetry. Details are available under 'Forthcoming Performances'.

Posted on 15th June 2016


#DreamofGerontius #OffBook

A selection of photographs from BFC members of the exotic locations in which Dream of Gerontius has been committed to memory in readiness for our performance on Sunday 22 May.

Brighton Festival Chorus performed Elgar, Dream of Gerontius (without scores!) with Edward Gardner and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra as part of the Brighton Festival 2016. The concert took place on Sunday 22 May at the Brighton Dome.

Posted on 15th June 2016


Follow the Score!

My Gerontius has accompanied me to the wilds of Exmoor. My shorthand crib flew with me to Hamburg, imprinting rhythms on the plane. The hotel we were staying at had no tea making facilities, so my husband had to collect mugs of tea from the nearest station and upon his return I had to recite one section to him before I was allowed to drink my tea! A train journey to London provided the opportunity for more avid learning.

Yesterday the score was propped up in my kitchen whilst I baked a Simnel cake for Easter. The CD was on, and at every Alto entry I flew to the score and sang my section. I think it’s slowly going in ...

Kate Belfield, 1st Alto, 25/03/2016

Do keep an eye open for posts from other members of the Chorus in the coming weeks. Further details of the performance on Saturday 22 May are available on the Brighton Festival website. Tickets are now on sale.

Posted on 15th June 2016


Learning ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ in Jerusalem!

BFC is looking forward to performing Elgar’s monumental Dream of Gerontius with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in the 2016 Brighton Festival. Following the success of our semi-staged performances of Bach, St. John Passion in recent years, we are once again performing without scores. Over the next few months we’ll be posting entries from members and sharing our experiences of committing the entire work to memory! First off, a report from our correspondent in Jerusalem:

For the past 5 years I have spent a week in February skiing with a group of friends and this year's trip took place 3 weeks ago.
On these occasions my companions are used to me singing in various situations - on chairlifts; whilst encouraging myself to ski rhythmically on a challenging slope; sometimes just for the joy of being alive in such beautiful surroundings. They even ask me to sing sometimes, particularly when we approach our favourite run- Jerusalem.
This year, having been exhorted to listen to recordings of " The Dream of Gerontius" as often as possible, I had been plugging in my earphones on the plane, in the coach etc. to make up for the fact that I would be missing a rehearsal, so I had some of the tunes in my head.
Unfortunately, on the Wednesday, around lunchtime, it had started to snow quite heavily and we were planning our route back to the chalet. We were on a chairlift and it stopped! It stayed stationary for about 20 minutes, leaving us suspended a long way from the ground in horizontal snow. This is a very effective way to cool down and begins to become quite frightening, especially when accompanied by sounds of hammering transmitted along the wire suspending us. However, just as the sensation in my fingers was leaving, the chair started to move again, leaving me with no alternative but to sing,at full volume "Praise to the Holiest in the Height" which I felt was doubly appropriate!
Sue Purbrick, 1st soprano, 24/02/2016

Posted on 15th June 2016


Flash Mob at Brighton Station

See the video here.

″Flash mob″: the terms itself invites someone with a mind of an unserious bent to come up with silly, nonsensical spoonerisms: mash flob, flab mosh.

We were called to Brighton Station to appear in a flash mob and sing the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel′s ″Messiah″. The ″unobtrusive milling″ soon gave way to huddled groups forming in the vicinity of the Christmas tree. Worried questions sprang to mind: Would it work? Were there enough of us? Had any tenors been spotted yet? Would we be heard above the very loud announcements of the Tannoy system?

Apart from wanting to represent the Brighton Festival Chorus and to do some advertising for the Christmas concert, what motivation could we have for taking part in this adventure?

Imagine a traveller who has just heard over the aforementioned Tannoy that her train to Southampton has been cancelled, ″due to a shortage of drivers″. Or a commuter whose train to Chichester is once again delayed. And while said traveller is waiting ″for further announcements″ and the commuter is texting significant persons in his life about being stuck, the piano starts up and a loud chorus of voices is heard. Would both traveller and commuter not be gladdened by such music bursting forth? Would they not momentarily forget about the miseries of modern train travel, would frustration and anger not give way to a feeling of wonderment and joy? That is what I envisaged. ″Uplifting″ doesn′t even begin to describe the feeling.

With a couple of minutes to spare James appeared looking suitably inconspicuous, he then sat down at the piano and started playing, and off we went. Some members of the choir looked as if they knew the piece in their sleep and just sang it out loud wherever they stood. But perhaps those of us who felt less comfortable about singing the chorus without the music – and, what′s more, without a conductor – appeared equally capable and confident to our impromptu audience. However, we were finished before we knew it, and spontaneous applause erupted.

″Mob″ is perhaps not the right term for the choir, but it was all over in a flash. I blinked just once, and everyone had gone: the piano stool was deserted, the altos I had just been singing with had vanished into thin air, so had the tenors who did turn up after all. The concourse was virtually empty. Tannoy announcements – had they been suspended for the duration of our singing? – filled the airspace once more.

On the train to the rehearsal at Falmer several of us met in the carriage and sat with a couple who had heard us sing. The man said, ″It brought tears to my eyes.″ Exactly. ″Uplifting″ doesn′t even begin to describe the feeling.

Now there is the Christmas concert on Saturday to look forward to, where there will be a mixture of traditional and new, of contemplative pieces and carols to join in, of serious stuff and silly jokes. Sparkle is to be expected, both in ″choir attire″ and in the musical offerings.

Susanne Hoebel, 2nd alto, 08/12/2016

The BFC Christmas Concert takes place in Brighton Dome each December and is a mainstay of the BFC programme. This varied, family-friendly concert featuring BFC, Brighton Festival Youth Choir a top UK orchestra and special guests has become a firm Christmas favourite and is guaranteed to get you in to the festive spirit. Keep an eye open for the date in the Brighton Dome autumn programme.

Posted on 15th June 2016


Berlioz in my Life

Berlioz, one of music’s great originals, has long been among my favourite composers, and no composer has been more central to my experience as a choral singer.  In 1981, some twenty years before I eventually joined the Brighton Festival Chorus, Brian Wright admitted me to the BBC Symphony Chorus, of which he was then the conductor – just in time for a big Berlioz celebration by BBC Radio 3.  The reason why 1981 was chosen as the date for this now escapes me, since, as Berlioz’s dates were 1803-1869, there was clearly no call for a centenary or sesquicentenary.  But anyhow, it was thrilling for me, for I was introduced as a choral bass to three of Berlioz’s greatest works in rapid succession: the complete “Romeo and Juliet” symphony (which includes voices), the epic opera “The Trojans” (in a concert performance spread over two evenings at the Proms), and, not least, the Grande Messe des Morts, which Brian Wright was conducting for the first time.  (The other two works were conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky, then on loan from the Soviet Union as the BBC’s guest conductor.)   More recently, as a BFC member, I have enjoyed singing in another Berlioz masterpiece, “The Damnation of Faust”, both at home in the Dome and – between helpings of the authentic quiche Lorraine - abroad in Metz.

Tim Strauss, 2nd bass, 02/12/2016

Berlioz Grande Messe des Morts, Royal Albert Hall, 30/11/2015

Posted on 15th June 2016


The Old 100th

After Steve’s “Thirty Years in the BFC” post in October, it occurred to me that this year marked my 20-year anniversary of joining BFC. And so, I wondered: How many concerts have I done in that time?

After making use of the fantastic archive on our web site (thanks again Steve!), and creating an amazing spreadsheet (I do like a nice spreadsheet), the answer came: 99.

Now, that’s quite a nice number, but obviously what’s even better is a nice round 100, and yesterday, 30th November 2015, marked the day that I performed my 100th concert with BFC. And in a remarkable twist of fate, synchronicity or just downright random luck, my 100th concert took place in the same venue as my first: the Royal Albert Hall. Fancy!

I well remember the day, all those years ago, when a fresh-faced would-be member turned up on a Tuesday night to audition for a place in the BFC. It was, I’ll admit, a fairly nerve-wracking occasion, but I obviously didn’t let the nerves get the better of me, as our then Deputy Music Director, Jonathan Grieves Smith, gave me a pass, and I was welcomed into the fold of the BFC 2nd Basses.

But if I thought the audition was nerve-wracking, that was nothing compared to the abject terror I felt at my first performance. Now, like many members of BFC, I’d done a fair bit of singing in the past: school chapel choir and choral society; a bit of musical drama (my Reuben – the eldest of the children of Israel (can you spot the reference?) – is still talked about; although, admittedly, only by my mother). And I’d sung evensong in Canterbury Cathedral. But really, nothing I’d done in the past could have prepared me for:

The Royal Albert Hall! (gulp)

A BBC Prom! (Aaargh!)

Mahler 2 (Help!)

Now, I’m not much of a one for self-doubt and nerves, but as the first four (gorgeous) movements progressed, and the time for me to sing crept closer and closer, I found myself getting more and more agitated. And then finally, the moment arrived, and with a hushed – and very low – “Aufersteh’n”, I was off. And it (although possibly not I) was amazing. What an experience!

Since then I’ve performed in the RAH another 14 times. Each time is special (sometimes in its own peculiar way), and today’s performance – my 100th for BFC – of Berlioz Grande Messe des Morts was no exception. I’ve lost the nerves (except at re-audition time!), but haven’t lost any of the sheer enjoyment that comes with singing such beautiful music, with such beautiful people (especially the 2nd basses!).

Kevin Callaghan, 2nd Bass, 01/12/2016

Brighton Festival Chorus performed Berlioz, Grande Messe des Morts with Goldsmiths Choral Union and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Brian Wright in the Royal Albert Hall on Monday 30 November 2015. For more information about our upcoming performances, click here.

Posted on 15th June 2016


Thirty Years in the BFC

It occurred to me recently that this month (October 2015) I will have been in the BFC for 30 years, and it made me think of all the changes that passing my audition back in 1985 have made to my life.

Moving from a smallish local choir into a full-scale symphony chorus was a revelation.  Apart from all the new music I had never sung before (and much of which I had never even heard before), what I had not expected was the sheer volume of sound produced by the chorus.  Until you have stood in the middle of a couple of hundred enthusiastic singers thundering out Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in front of you, the Royal Albert Hall organ behind you, and brass bands to your right and left, it is difficult to convey what an incredible adrenalin rush this is.

Like (I imagine) many people, I maintain a vague mental list of my Desert Island Disc selection, in case I ever get the phone call from the BBC!  Unsurprisingly, many of my choices would be for pieces I have sung with the BFC.  My current top three, in no particular order, would probably be Britten’s War Requiem, the Berlioz Damnation of Faust, and Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast.  However, those three could change at any time!  One of my most powerful memories was of 11th November, 1988 (the 70th anniversary of Armistice Day) when we sang Britten’s War Requiem in Diksmuide, a small town in Belgium that had been almost completely destroyed in the First World War.  The poet Wilfred Owen (whose poems are used in the libretto) had been killed not far away, and some of the trenches were still preserved nearby.  When we walked out on stage for the performance, it was a real shock to see that the front two rows of the audience consisted of very old soldiers who had fought in the war we were going to sing about.  It lent such an emotional intensity to the evening that it was difficult for many of us to hold it together during the performance.

In my thirty years with the BFC, I have been lucky enough to have worked with some of the finest orchestras, conductors and soloists on the planet – an incredible privilege for an amateur singer.  I have also found some great friends along the way.  However, the biggest transformation in my life was, of course, meeting the lovely second alto who would become my wife in 1989.  One of our wedding photos is of a group of our BFC friends who made up the choir at our wedding.  In return, my wife and I have sung at the weddings of several of our BFC friends, and also, sadly, at several of their funerals.  They say old choristers never die, they just diminuendo…

All these years later, we are both still passionate about our singing, and intend to continue for as long as we can.  However, as all BFC members know, every 2 or 3 years the dreaded reauditions come around, and one day we may not meet the standard.  But until that day…!

Steve Linehan, 1st Bass, 12/10/2015

Posted on 15th June 2016


Come & Sing Day

James was back. ″Excellent″ – quote from The Guardian.

Lots of guests came to the Come & Sing Day. ″Fantastic″ - from The Telegraph, or maybe it was The Times.
There was a great spread of cakes – all delicious and avidly devoured.

″Total immersion″: All day we were going to sing and rehearse, study and learn Ein Deutsches Requiem by Brahms. In English, which was a sensible choice and quite an expericence to boot.

But first there was ″Coffee and Registration″ and a getting-to-know-each-other half hour. We were asked to make our guests comfortable, so those who needed to, overcame their natural reticence and struck up conversations here and there. Many interesting stories were discovered. Everybody was keen to sing the Brahms, many knew it already, had memories and views about it.

The rehearsal started. We began at the beginning. I can′t imagine anybody not being affected by the dark, sombre pounding in the opening bars. ″Pedal″, as we now know to call it.

For two hours we rehearsed, and James did all the encouraging, exhortation, admonishing and praising he felt was necessary to accomplish as much as possible in the shortness of time. As always there was great willingness to do as he asked. Sylvia as usual at the piano. I was going to write ″undaunted, indefatigable″, but somehow Sylvia is above adjectives.

Then there was lunch, and we fanned out – to the beach, to the pub, to a café.  The rehearsal continued in the afternoon, and we sang until we thought we could sing no more. Then we sang some more.

Singing the Requiem in English was definitely interesting in the sense that food can be interesting. Cauliflower-pear-and-blue-cheese soup, for example, which I had for lunch. Saturday was one of those rare occasions when I thought the German words were more poetic than the English. ″Der Geist spricht″ (VII.) is mysterious, three words, barely above a whisper. ″Even so saith the spirit″, seems garrulous by comparison. The word ″Statt″ in ″Wir haben hier keine bleibende Statt″ (VI.) means ″place, abode″ and is not the same as ″Stadt″, which means ″town, city″. I know, just one letter! Language is fascinating! More could be said, much more.  But then the soloists came on, so young, so composed, so serious, and I know I was not the only one deeply affected by their singing.

And what about all the background work necessary to make such a day work? The flyers, the programme, the posters. Arranging the hall and setting it up, and it all went without a hitch!

At six we sang the whole Requiem, from beginning to end, to a small, appreciative audience. It is sad, but it is also not sad. It′s joyous, it′s uplifting.

We had a wonderful day. Thank you to all who made it possible.

Susanne Hoebel, 2nd Alto, 12/10/2015


If you missed our Come and Sing Day/Open Rehearsal this year but would still be interested in joining BFC, prospective members are always very welcome to come to one of our Tuesday evening rehearsals which usually take place on the University of Sussex campus (7.15pm-9.45pm either in the JMS Lecture Theatre or Chowen (BSMS) Lecture Theatre). A warm welcome awaits you, and if you enjoy the experience, you can sign up for a simple audition. For more information on joining us click here:

Posted on 15th June 2016


Thoughts on Songs of Praise 'The Big Sing' 2015

The Big Sing at the Royal Albert Hall was my first "Big Sing" and my first trip out of Brighton with the Festival Chorus, having been a member since the end of April this year. The prospect of singing at the RAH on stage and being televised was very exciting and, despite being told that it would be a long, tiring day and tedious at times, I was looking forward to it. I had sung at the Albert Hall before, from the audience seating as part of The Really Big Chorus, a fundraising event in aid of the British Heart Foundation, but never from the stage.

Since my husband (Malcolm - also a BFC member) and I had moved from Hertfordshire in January, the coach journey was interesting to us. We had not previously driven into London from the south as we always use the train from Brighton. I was glad to be with a large number of the choir when it came to finding the dressing rooms as so much of the Albert Hall looks similar. We had time there to eat our lunch and find out where we were meant to be on stage, then we were directed into our places to rehearse. My immediate impression was that the auditorium looked so much smaller than before, due to the foreshortening effect of sitting at the end of the oval.

The rehearsal seemed to go well on the whole despite the large variety of music and performers involved, since two programmes were to be recorded. Paul Leddington-Wright was very patient and good humoured. Almost 3 hours later however, we were glad to have a break. After a relatively short break for toilets and sandwiches we donned our glad rags (concert dress) and Christmas "bling" ready to record the first of the programmes. Walking on to the stage with the whole of the Albert Hall full was great, even though I was a small part of the assembled choir. The audience were certainly entering into the spirit of Christmas even before the autumnal equinox!

The recording did take a long time- there were a lot of things to fit in and to get right but the singing was fun. I particularly enjoyed "I Was Glad" by Parry. The grandeur of the venue and the introductory fanfare set the mood for the piece. I thought it sounded wonderful when we watched the broadcast yesterday. Obviously, I'm looking forward to seeing the Christmas programme and to doing it all again next year.

Sue Purbrick, 1st Soprano, 21/09/2015

Posted on 15th June 2016


Songs of Praise ‘The Big Sing’ 2015 - 'Tribute to a Queen' and ’The Christmas Big Sing’: An interview with Tim Rounding, Chair of Brighton Festival Chorus

How did Brighton Festival Chorus get to appear on this special commemorative episode of Songs of Praise?

Brighton Festival Chorus has a proud heritage of working with the BBC and have performed at the BBC Proms and other BBC events. Additionally the Chorus regularly works with  a number of the UK’s major orchestras and conductors and so were a natural choice to be invited as one of the stage choirs for the Songs of Praise recording.

I understand the Chorus have appeared on it before. What does it mean to be able to perform on the show and to be able to do it all over again?

It’s our sixth time on the Songs of Praise ‘Big Sing', and we look forward to it every year. Working with Paul Leddington Wright is always a special occasion as we all have a great rapport and the Chorus have an enormous respect for someone who is absolutely exceptional at the complex role he has in the filming the event which takes place following on the day after the Last Night of the Proms each September. The Big Sing is the only regular filming event the chorus take part in and it is a real eye-opener to see what happens ‘behind the TV scenes’. Watching the BBC production crew and the skill involved in placing camera shots and recording the massed choirs and the audience participation is a real thrill. It does feel a little strange singing Christmas carols at that time of year - but it is a wonderful atmosphere.

What songs did you perform? Were they chosen by the BFC and if so is there any special meaning behind them?

'Tribute to a Queen' includes hymns and music associated with special milestones in the lifetime of Her Majesty The Queen in celebration of the historic occasion of Her Majesty becoming our longest reigning monarch.  The Christmas programme features a selection of the nation’s best-loved carols each year and we lead the audience in these. In addition we provide backing vocals for the guest artists who this year included Ronan Keating and Lesley Garrett. One of the great pleasures, of course, is the opportunity to work with such huge household names.

What do Brighton Festival Chorus have planned for the future?

2015-16 is going to be a busy and exciting year for the Chorus. Our next big event is a ‘Come and Sing Day’ on 10 October when we’re opening our doors to any keen singers to come and join us in singing Brahms Requiem for a workshop day and informal concert in St. George’s Church in Kemp Town. We’re back at the Royal Albert Hall on 30 November for a performance of Berlioz Requiem with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Goldsmiths’ Choral Union, and on 12 December it’s our annual Christmas Concert in Brighton Dome with the Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra. 2016 will see us on stage once again at Brighton Dome with the Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra for a performance of Vaughan Williams, A Sea Symphony. May is always a busy time for us as we feature in the Brighton Festival each year, and plans are afoot for us to take Britten War Requiem on tour to France next summer.

Songs of Praise ‘Tribute to a Queen’ was broadcast on BBC One on Sunday 20 September and is available on BBC iPlayer until mid-October 2015. ‘The Christmas Big Sing’ will be transmitted on BBC One on Sunday 20 December.

Brighton Festival Chorus always welcomes new members and supporters. If you would like to get a taste of what it’s like to sing with one of Britain’s leading symphony choruses, come and sing Brahms Requiem with us in St. George’s Church, Kemp Town, Brighton on Saturday 10 October. If you enjoy the experience, you could sign up for an audition!

For more information on upcoming concerts and how to join Brighton Festival Chorus, sponsor the Chorus, become a Friend or Patron or join the mailing list, visit: Alternatively, follow Brighton Festival Chorus on Facebook: /brightonfestivalchorus or Twitter @bfchorus.

Posted on 15th June 2016


A reflection on Songs of Praise 'The Big Sing' 2015

The Big Sing, a big day. We gathered at the station, the bus arrived on time, the journey was uneventful, and we arrived at the Royal Albert Hall according to schedule and with time to spare before the beginning of the rehearsal. All good.

Three of us nipped out to have coffee in Hyde Park across the road. The only moment in the open air we would have all day.

Back at the RAH we were shepherded into the auditorium, where dense fog obscured our vision. We felt our way to our places more than we saw it, and it took me a while to work out that the booming voice welcoming us came from the tall person in a green T-shirt standing in the centre of the arena and waving his long arms at us and all the other choirs. Then I recognized him to be our conductor, Paul Leddington Wright.

The rehearsal started and went on and on with many repeats, the break was short and curtailed even further because we had to line up to be once more shepherded to our places. Masses move slowly, they have to overcome an element of inertia, but finally we were all in. And the concert, slow to start, finally began.

It has to be said that all participants – the audience, soloists, choirs, the orchestra – were very willing to make it work, and we clapped and stood up and sat down and stood and sang and played again, we waited for the technicians to give their thumbs up or thumbs down. And if we made millions happy, it was worth it.

Needless to say our conductor was exemplary in all this. Throughout the lengthy proceedings of the rehearsal and later the concert he kept his composure and us in a good mood. Never did he lose his cool, nor his sense of humour, he was focused and co-operative all the way through, to the last note of the National Anthem.

Then we rushed to our buses. Minor mishaps were forgotten as we settled into our seats. As I stuffed bags and coats onto the luggage rack, the words ″No rack can torture me″, came into my mind, and I began to hum to myself and let happy memories of another concert flood my mind …

And then we were back, it was raining, luckily I had an umbrella, so that my late-night walk home through the pouring rain was positively refreshing.

Susanne Hoebel, 2nd Alto, 18/09/2015

Brighton Festival Chorus feature as one of the stage choirs for the annual Songs of Praise Big Sing programmes broadcast on BBC One on Sunday 20 September and Sunday 20 December.

Posted on 15th June 2016


Invictus rehearsal

There is always something a bit special about rehearsing music with its composer. Brighton Festival Chorus is currently preparing for the world premiere of Invictus – A Cantata for Liberty, by Morgan Pochin: BFC’s Music Director James Morgan and Juliette Pochin.

Wishing us a good evening, James briskly announces, “Invictus, page 1,” raises his hands, and we are off. After running through the first movement, we go back to the beginning and spend several minutes struggling with the opening passage, where swift rhythms need to bounce back and forth between parts as smoothly as if sung by a single voice, and we can feel that our director is not very happy. Fortunately we pull ourselves together and the opening starts to sound a lot better, and James relaxes and jokes with the second basses: “At the start of page 22 you should be singing an F but most of you are singing an E flat. E flat is a nice note, and maybe we should have written it… but other people are singing it. Now, in the canon, I want all of you to compete to be the section with the clearest diction. Let me be able to hear that it’s in English!”

We oblige to the best of our ability then James turns to the first sopranos and asks, “Who’s singing the upper ‘Ah’ part?” (The way he sings “Ah” intentionally sounds a bit like a cat being strangled!) About ten hands are raised. “Okay, who would like to sing that part?” This time only about five hands are raised. “Right, you sing the upper part and the rest of you sing the lower part!”

The second movement is based on a poem by Emily Dickinson, and James exhorts us to sing the main melody less miserably: “The music is intentionally ambiguous, but ‘My soul’s at liberty’ – that’s quite a positive thing, yes?” I really enjoy the beautiful, sustained passage at the end.

The third movement, set to text by Rudyard Kipling, has the energy of a rollicking British sea shanty, and diction is very challenging, so James gives us a lot of detailed advice about which consonants to emphasise and how to shape phrases.

It seems we saved our best for last, because James is quite satisfied with the way we sing the sixth and final movement. Most of us aren’t very familiar with singing in spiritual/gospel style, but we can feel ourselves rising to the occasion. We have three rehearsals remaining, then the concert. I can’t wait!

Julian Wilkinson, 1st Tenor, 02/06/2015

Brighton Festival Chorus and Brighton Festival Youth Choir performed Morgan Pochin and Mozart with the City of London Sinfonia at Brighton Dome on Thursday 11 June.

Posted on 15th June 2016


Invictus Education Day - Friday 24 April 2015

What began as a conversation with James and Gill in The Swan last September led, after a great deal of planning and what has seemed like hundreds of emails, to yesterday's Education Day at BACA. In preparation for our upcoming Invictus Cantata for Liberty performance at the Dome in June, 150 Year 7 and 8 students from 5 local schools and members of our own youth choir took part in a series of drama, music and law workshops, relating to the Magna Carta, led by professionals from Chichester Festival Theatre, barrister Tom Godfrey and BFYC's Music Director, Esther Jones.

The students were divided into 3 groups - Liberty, Freedom and Justice - to form a mix of all the schools and the youth choir. After a welcome briefing in the main hall the morning workshops commenced. BFYC trustees were assigned to each group. Mine was 'Liberty' and our first port of call was the drama and dance studios where the group was halved and led by our two drama practitioners, Jonty and Angela, from Chichester Festival Theatre. After some great 'ice-breaker' activities the students were asked what they thought 'liberty' represented - the responses were thoughtful and intelligent: women's suffrage, the right to vote, racial equality, as well as examples of their own experiences of being trusted to act independently. Small groups then created a tableau to represent liberty, followed by discussion of the 'story' attached to each highly creative image. Likewise, the other drama groups carefully considered what the concepts of 'Freedom' and 'Justice' might have meant in the past, as well as in today's society.

After a short break we moved on to our next workshop led by barrister, Tom Godfrey, who had taken time out from a murder trial in London to be with us. His fascinating talk about his work was interspersed with many questions from the young audience: 'Do people have to do jury service?' 'What has been your weirdest/most interesting case?' 'What do you do if you think the person is guilty?' The group was entertained by volunteers who dressed up in courtroom wigs and gowns and re-enacted a 'mock trial' based on Jack and the Beanstalk.

Our third and final workshop of the morning took place in BACA's music room with Esther. After a short warm-up, including some excellent tips on producing a really good sound, various parts of Invictus were learnt and rehearsed. Composers James and Juliette came in to listen to the work in progress.

After returning to the hall for a short lunch break, James and Juliette spoke to all the students and answered questions such as 'What do you have to do to become a composer?' Esther then led the afternoon rehearsal with all the students which gave us an insight into how fantastic the performance in June is going to be.

All in all, a great day and one that we hope will be memorable for everyone involved.

Julie Emerton (BFYC trustee) 25/4/15

Posted on 15th June 2016


Reviews for Bach St John Passion concert at Brighton Dome on Fri 3 April 2015

'The emotional biblical drama of Bach’s St John Passion was portrayed powerfully by a fine performance at Brighton Dome Concert Hall. '
'The sublime beauty of their singing floated across the partly “in the round” setting, yet at times they showed attack and some acting ability in the mocking crowd scenes.’

Read the full Argus review here

'Brighton Festival Chorus are always impressive but for this anniversary performance they pulled out all the stops. '
'Driven skillfully by conductor James Morgan and the Chamber Domaine this was a memorable afternoon of sublime music.'

Read the full Latest review here


Posted on 15th June 2016


Watch BFC in rehearsal

Take a look at the rehearsal trailer for Bach's St John Passion, performed at Brighton Dome on 3 April 2015. Hear members of the chorus talk about the work and why they love being part of BFC.


Posted on 15th June 2016


Invictus Education Day photos

For our next concert at Brighton Dome we’ll be performing with Brighton Festival Youth Choir and 125 young people from local schools to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. In April we spent a day learning about liberty and justice, and rehearsing a new piece ‘Invictus - Cantata for Liberty’ written by James Morgan and Juliette Pochin.

More information and tickets

Posted on 15th June 2016


Revisiting Janácek

I was rather pleased when we were told recently that we would be performing the JanáčŤek Glagolitic Mass in the Brighton Festival. I won’t say it’s my favourite work – but I am fond of it, as it was the first piece I ever performed when I joined BFC 30 years ago.

Back in 1985, the then BFC chairman phoned me to tell me I’d passed my audition and was now a member, and that the next concert would be the Glagolitic Mass. I had never heard the piece, or even heard of it, but I launched into rehearsals, trying to get my head into JanáčŤek’s musical world and my tongue round the Old Church Slavonic text.  Surely words such as ‘mrtvych’ and ‘Chrste’ were missing some vowels?

On the afternoon of that concert 30 years ago we arrived at the Royal Festival Hall in London for the final rehearsal, and one of my friends said, conspiratorially, ‘Come with me’.  He led me from the chorus dressing rooms into the deserted auditorium, and down to the front row of the choir stalls, and then, looking out at three thousand empty seats, asked ‘So, how confident do you feel?’  I guess it was a wake-up call – I was not singing in a local choir any more, I had moved up into the big league. Anyway, it worked. I watched the conductor like a hawk, didn’t make any mistakes, and got through the concert unscathed. But it was so much more than that - for the first time I really felt the power and excitement of the work, and the adrenalin rush of singing in a big symphony chorus. That feeling has never left me.

So, all these years later, here I am again, about to sing the Glagolitic Mass again, this time in our home town, under the baton of Sir Mark Elder. I have always found that, whatever you rehearse, there comes a time when the music just gets into your head, and goes round and round, day and night. I certainly had that with our last concert, the Bach St. John Passion, and it was with a slight feeling of regret that I felt Bach’s inspiring musical landscape disappearing from my mind, and being replaced by Janáček’s. However, now the concert is approaching, I am glad to have JanáčŤek in there. His voice is unique – he doesn’t sound like anyone else, and you can always tell within a couple of bars that you are listening to one of his works. Having sung the piece several times in the intervening years, I can now enter his world much more easily, and concentrate on delivering his music, rather than worrying about whether I am singing the right notes and words.

I know the concert is going to be exciting and dramatic. Bring it on!

Steve Linehan, 1st Bass, 12/05/2015

Brighton Festival Chorus performed Janácek and Shostakovich with The Hallé on Sat 23 May 2015.

Posted on 15th June 2016


Around the world learning Bach’s St John Passion

Richard Blows has some well-travelled tips on how to learn the work


Still struggling with committing the St John Passion to memory? If like me you’re a newcomer to this work, I have a suggestion that might just help.

Pack your score and whatever electronic gizmo you’ve selected to download the piece to, grab your passport and head to the airport.

Take a flight to Buenos Aires, you may have to stop somewhere en route unless you can afford a direct flight or enjoy the Heathrow experience. But no matter because waiting in a transit lounge gives you a few hours time to listen to the music.

On arrival at Buenos Aires find your way to the bus station, bit of a nightmare this bit unless you can speak Spanish and can push and shove along with the rest. Take the overnight bus that goes to Mendoza. (A tip here, buy a 1st class sleeper ticket, well worth the extra).

You're not going all the way so tell the driver to stop at Palo Verde, (means green sign post). He won't know where that is but tell him it's about 11 hours from Buenos Aires. Don't worry though, if he misses the stop he'll turn the bus round and go back, really upsets the other passengers who are by now waiting for their breakfast, but you don't know them!

Get off the bus and walk 2 km up a rough track, if it's heavy throw your suitcase in the bushes and collect it later. Wade across a small ford, if it's rained recently you may need to roll up your trousers and on the other side, about 200 metres on the right is another track, under a wooden archway. Go through and keep walking for another 200 meters and you'll enter Shangri-La.

Estanzuela was a Jesuit mission built 300 years ago, a ranch of half a dozen single story whitewashed buildings set among and around a small lake, orchard and trickling streams. Sheep and the tamest of Goucho horses and their fouls wander freely - heaven on earth.

Find yourself a seat and with a glass of Malbec at your elbow, settle down under the beech, oak and lemon trees and listen... Nothing but the birds, bees and flies (yes flies in their 100's but you can't have everything, not a phone, wi-fi or the internet to disturb you but sorry the flies will).

Plug yourself in, open the score, 18 bars introduction and off you go... ‘Lord... Lord...Lord...’

If this fails then retrace all steps to Buenos Aires and go to the domestic flight airport and fly to Ushuaia (Oo-shyw-a). It's the city at the end of the world, Tierra del Fuego to be precise, wrap up cos it's cold here. Find a spot almost anywhere for coffee and cake. Open the score and repeat as above.

It's really no easier but here you can be almost certain to be the most southerly person in the entire world, reading the St John Passion! (Assuming there's no one in Antarctica learning it.)

Ok so no of this makes the struggle to memorise the work easier, and I speak from first hand, but it's a darn sight better than the JMC on a cold February evening!


Posted on 15th June 2016


Take a look at the chorus in rehearsal for Bach’s St John Passion

We're rehearsing in a medical school lecture theatre - hence the skeleton!

The concert takes place at Brighton Dome on Good Friday 3 April.

More info and tickets

Photos taken 10 Feb, 2015
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Posted on 15th June 2016


'You've got to like the sound of your own voice'

In conversation with James Morgan

 James Morgan


Interview 18.00 20 January 2015

Hello, my name is Vic and I’m from Brighton Festival Chorus. Today I’m talking to James Morgan, our conductor, about his career and our forthcoming concert, Bach St John Passion, which we are performing at Brighton Dome on Friday 3rd April 2015.

Vic: So, James, thanks for being interviewed for us.

James: You’re welcome.

Vic: What’s your role as part of Brighton Festival Chorus?

James: I am the Music Director of the Chorus and have been for, I don’t know how long, about fif-, fourteen years, maybe?

Vic: That was my next question actually, was how long have you been conducting?

James: I’m useless at remembering things like that! Certainly around, someone will correct me afterwards, but fifteen years, perhaps.

Vic: And how did you get into the profession?

James: I studied music at Cambridge, and then I went and got a job at the Coliseum, so I’ve got a background in opera.

Vic: And that led to performing, and then conducting?

James: Conducting – well, I was one of the chorus masters at the Coliseum, and then I went into freelance conducting from there.

Vic: And what was your first big production that sticks in your memory?

James: At the Coliseum? Er… probably Khovanshchina, a Mussorgsky piece with Willard White, which was astonishing – massive steel girders everywhere, and it was an exciting production, actually.

Vic: So you’ve always been involved in epic productions from the start?

James: Yeah! Yeah.

Vic: And what do you like most about your profession?

James: I think the variety of the work I do is the most interesting thing about it. I think if I did one thing it would be quite dull, but what’s great about this profession is that you get to do such a huge variety of things.

Vic: And so have you always got several projects on the go at any one time?

James: Yeah – most freelance musicians do, you have a whole range of stuff going on at any one time, really.

Vic: And can you talk to us briefly about the St John Passion story?

James: Well, it’s quite a well-known story, but what’s amazing about the John Passion is that it’s very operatic, it’s very immediate, it’s quite visceral. Bach wrote two passions, and the Matthew Passion is much more reflective and takes a lot longer, it’s a three hour epic, whereas this is very tightly-constructed and it’s incredibly dramatic as well.

Vic: And how are you envisaging the performance within the concert hall at Brighton Dome?

James: Well, we’ve done it before semi-staged and we’re building on that. We’ve done it a couple of times at the back end of the 2008-09 season, and we’re building on those two performances. We’re using the Dome in quite an unusual way in that we take some of the seats out in the stalls and allow prommers, standing audience to stand up and mill around during the performance, and they’re not the only ones: the Chorus also move around from the stage onto the stalls floor, and we’ve built a second stage where some of the action takes place.

Vic: And so you’ve got Brighton Festival Chorus, and you have an orchestra, and you have soloists. Roughly how many people are in this large-scale production?

James: There’s probably getting on for 170 or 180, something like that.

Vic: How would you describe the music, and maybe separately, the song, those two elements of the piece?

James: It’s definitely Bach’s most dramatic piece of music, it’s very emotional music for Bach, and people don’t associate Bach necessarily with emotion straight away, but this particular music, particularly the first chorus, is absolutely searing in the way it portrays the crucifixion.

Vic: And the sung elements?

James: There’s the narrative, which is driven along by the Evangelist and the recitative of Peter and Jesus and Pilate, and the Chorus, who represent the crowd or the Pharisees or various different people along the way; and then, interspersed with that, there’s reflective pieces by soloists, usually, which reflect generally on the piece and on the crucifixion and the story.

Vic: So you’ve got quite a few different elements to keep track of in rehearsal and performance...

James: Yeah!

Vic: How are you combining those different strands of activity?

James: Well I’ve forgotten to include the chorales as well. We’re going to invite the whole audience to join in in some of those. They’re straightforward hymns, again they’re reflections on what’s happening and on the story in general. It’s beautifully constructed as a piece, but it’s a question of balancing the drama of the action with the repose of the more reflective pieces.

Vic: How do you go about rehearsing such an ambitious work? Integrating movement and prommers in the production?

James: Well, I’d like to say we spend a long time preparing it, but we kind of predict what’s going to happen and hope that it pans out well! In terms of the Chorus, we rehearse for a long time because they’re learning their music by heart – we’re already well into rehearsals. The soloists will have done the piece many times before, and they will just arrive on the day, although the Evangelist, who narrates the story, we rehearse a few days prior to that.

Vic: And when is there a big dress rehearsal?

James: On the day itself.

Vic: So that’s the first time that the orchestra, the soloists, the Chorus, everyone, is in the concert hall together?

James: Yeah, absolutely. Not that that’s particularly unusual, that’s the way classical music works, but it’s unusual to attempt a semi-staged performance in such a short space of time.

Vic: What do you think the challenges are for any choir tackling the St John Passion?

James: Well, it partly depends what language you’re doing it in. In this case we’ve got the incredible challenge of learning it off by heart, which is a big challenge, but not impossible, and the Chorus have done it before, and done it extremely well. And then it’s a question of doing justice to the piece, because it’s one of the best pieces of choral music ever written, certainly in my top two or three.

Vic: And what language are you singing it in?

James: We’re singing it in English, again, partly because it’s semi-staged, it makes it a bit more immediate for the audience.

Vic: Talking about the audience, what do you hope that the audience experience will be like?

James: If we get it right, it should be an incredible, emotional journey which they will also feel like they are taking part in. It’s in the best tradition of a passion play, but with some of the best music ever written to accompany it.

Vic: Back to you and your role, what qualities do you think make a good conductor?

James: Ha! You have to like the sound of your own voice, and like to boss people about. I think, actually, conductors come in lots of shapes and sizes and there are loads of ways of approaching that particular job: there’s no one right way.

Vic: And who, throughout your career, conductor-wise, has been an influence on you?

James: Well, all sorts of people, because I have worked with so many conductors through the years. There was a conductor at the Coliseum called Noel Davis, completely not a famous conductor at all, but he’s certainly the best conductor I’ve ever seen in my life, and the most musical, the most down-to-earth. He’s probably the single most influential, but I’ve seen, obviously, partly in this role and partly in my other roles in other jobs in this country and elsewhere, lots and lots of internationally famous conductors, some of whom are amazing in their own way, in different ways. That’s part of what makes my job so fascinating.

Vic: This might be a really tricky question, but if you could say that you are going to put your stamp on the St John Passion, what do you think it will be?

James: I think if I succeed, you won’t be thinking about whether I’ve put a stamp on it or not!

Vic: Great! Thank you very much for talking to us. Brighton Festival Chorus is performing Bach St John Passion on Friday 3rd April at Brighton Dome.

James: Brilliant! Thank you.

Posted on 15th June 2016