It may seem a little soon to be planning for Christmas, but one local choir is getting into the festive spirit early this year. Jill Glenn meets musical director Graham Wili and finds out why Berkhamsted Choral Society will be singing titles like Green Growth the Holly, Three Kings Came Riding and Song of the Winter Wind on 18 September.
It’s a far cry from Dorothy and Toto, but Berkhamsted Choral Society’s current project began, indirectly, on the Yellow Brick Road. The BBC Performing Arts Fund, which accrues from money made when tv audiences vote on entertainment programmes (think Over The Rainbow…), supports “aspiring music-makers and performers looking for a way to get ahead” in a variety of genres. Last year the Fund launched Choral Ambition, to encourage choirs up and down the country to reach out into their communities, or to challenge themselves with new works.
Berkhamsted Choral Society (BCS) was thrilled to have been chosen as one of the 98 participants in Choral Ambition – when they saw the brief they knew exactly what they’d like to with the grant: take the contemporary carols of composer Chris Williams and share them with a wider audience, in a free workshop open to singers from their own and other choirs. BCS has been singing these modern classical carols for some years now. “They have amazingly wide popular appeal”, explains Graham Wili, “and they’re loved by both singers and audiences alike. We want other choirs to be able to access them in time for this year’s Christmas concert planning…”
The BCS New Carols For Christmas workshop coincides with the publication of a selection of Chris Williams’s carols, both as a beautifully recorded CD, and as a vocal score and rehearsal CD, under the English Philharmonia label. Graham conducts the English Philharmonia Orchestra, and for certain concerts (such as the forthcoming Belshazzar’s Feast in St Albans Abbey on 4 December) his various choirs come together to perform as the English Philharmonia.
Now 42, Graham has known Chris Williams since the latter was composer in residence at Denstone Hall when Graham was a teenager. He recalls the thrill of the music teacher bursting into class, clutching a sheaf of hastily photocopied music and saying “We must sing this right now, Mr Williams wrote it last night. It’s going to be a real hit.” That piece, Ode To The Birth Of Our Saviour, is one of the 18 pieces on the Nowell! Nowell! CD, and Graham has enjoyed singing and conducting it ever since.
His huge enthusiasm for choral music dates from his days as a chorister at St Michael’s College, Tenbury. He joined the school at the age of nine, singing for two and a half hours every day, with services every evening. “I knew from day one that I wanted to be a professional musician.” He now earns his living as a singer, teacher and conductor, driving his unauditioned choirs to achieve the highest standards. He’s passed his musicianship on to his own children: his nine year old son, Ben, is now a chorister at Chichester Cathedral, and has been known to describe complicated pieces of 16th century church music as ‘wicked’.
Publishing Nowell! Nowell! arose out of an idle conversation… Graham saying, as Chris showed him another set of new carols, often written as a Christmas gift for a musical friend, “These are fantastic, you must get them published…” Chris shrugging… Graham offering, “I’ll do it for you…”.
Bringing it all together has been a challenge. As conductor and muscial director of both Berkhamsted and Chorleywood Choral Societies, plus the Gaudeamus Singers, Graham has plenty of voices at his disposal. For this, though, he needed just 18, to form the English Philharmonia Chamber Choir. “It was tricky to get the balance right,” he explains. “You need experienced singers, but their voices have to blend”. Then there was the alarmingly short time frame. The CD was recorded in just three exhausting sessions in the beautiful chapel at Ashridge Business School, near Berkhamsted, but the results are quite captivating – ethereal and lovely, and sounding surprisingly well established for music written over the past 25 years. When you hear them, even for the first time, you feel that you know them already. “Some might be challenging to sing,” Graham explains, “but not on the ear.”
The CD is available to purchase, just for the joy of listening to it, but Graham’s real hope is that people will want to sing the music for themselves. The workshop on the 18th is open to singers, conductors, choir leaders… anyone who can hold a tune, although it’s not essential to be able to read music.
Composer Chris Williams himself will join participants on the day, and talk a little about the background to the pieces. It’s a real coup for the Society to have him there – he is based now in Bangalore where he plays western classical piano music in a shopping mall by day and composes by night…
It’s an unlikely birthplace for such very English carols.