Birmingham Bach Choir is 100 years old – and the singers are celebrating in style with one of the world’s top opera stars as their new patron and a series of special concerts to showcase their musical excellence
One hundred years ago this October, a Bach enthusiast and musicologist gave a lecture on the German composer at the original Midland Institute building next to Birmingham Town Hall. It’s unlikely that Dr Bernard Jackson could have imagined in his wildest dreams that from such humble beginnings would spring one of the UK’s most respected choirs, now celebrating its centenary.
In the intervening years, Birmingham Bach Society, as it was then known, grew from small ensembles of 12 singers to the magnificent 80-strong Birmingham Bach Choir of 2019. Here at Birmingham Living we love covering and promoting the rich and diverse musical heritage of this great city of ours. The Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Birmingham Royal Ballet, the Conservatoire Folk Ensemble and the People’s Orchestra are just six of the inspiring institutions that have featured in our pages. This month we’re proud to add Birmingham Bach Choir, led by its inspiring conductor and music director Paul Spicer, to the list.
The choir’s centenary year has already proved notable with famed opera star and baritone Roderick Williams OBE becoming its patron. Roderick said: “I’m delighted to be associated with the choir. Living as I do in the Midlands makes this pretty much my local choir. My association with Paul Spicer goes back more than 30 years, so I am especially pleased to support the work he has done, and continues to do, with this proud and magnificent choir.”
The choir’s centenary celebrations feature a number of special concerts, including a recital by Roderick, a moving evening of Afro-American spirituals and a 100 Gala Concert in Lichfield Cathedral in November. The choir has already sung before Prince Harry as well as successfully toured France.
Paul, who is marking his 27th year as conductor, took charge of the choir in 1992 from Richard Butt who developed it through what was acknowledged as a ‘golden era’ which saw debts paid off, major financial support offered by the Arts Council and recitals by music legends such as violinist Yehudi Menuhin.
Under Paul’s leadership the choir’s outstanding Bach and Baroque traditions have continued but the repertoire has been extended into 20th century and contemporary English and European music, particularly works by the likes of Edward Elgar and Benjamin Britten among others. In its home city, the choir gives concerts in Birmingham Cathedral, the CBSO Centre and Adrian Boult Hall as well as at other Midlands venues including Lichfield Cathedral, the Arts House, Stratford-upon-Avon, Evesham and Pershore Abbeys, Wolverhampton Grand Theatre and Malvern Priory. Recent foreign tours also include Italy and Germany.
The singers come from all walks of life and are of all ages, ranging from 20 to 70 years. Auditions for the choir are exacting and every three years every singer is re-auditioned. “I guess you would call it a stocktaking exercise,” says Paul. “We aim to keep standards as high as possible. In general people who come to us have had a lot of previous experience. For example, they can leave other choirs for a variety of reasons – the CBSO Chorus for instance has a strict age policy as part of its remit, so we might get singers coming from there who unfortunately suddenly find themselves to old but still have excellent voices.”
The selection process is also extremely targeted. “We can have someone come to us with a perfectly good voice but they will be rejected because we already have similar voices,” said Paul. “It is very important that we have the right balance of voices.” Getting the balance of the choir right is relatively simple compared to the choir’s greatest challenge – funding.
The days of generous grants from the likes of the Arts Council are long gone thanks to Government cutbacks over the years.
“Yes, finances are a huge challenge,” Paul confirms. “When I first came here we got some grants, but all that has disappeared. We are fortunate that we have fantastic people in the choir who are good at various things like fund-raising and marketing. We have a good team and people are very generous. There are also firms out there who like to have their name associated with specific performances. Our approach has to be forward-thinking and modern. Obviously the greatest thing would be if a major business or institution came forward and sponsored the choir. That’s the dream!”
Paul adds: “Birmingham Bach Choir stands comparison with any of the choirs or choral groups in Birmingham, the wider region and the UK as a whole. The standard of our singing is fantastic and I am always immensely very proud of the choir.”
Here’s to another even more successful 100 years!