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Celebrating a Birthday

Having provided regular musical performances in Sunderland for the last 70 years since it held its first concert in March 1949, Bishopwearmouth Choral Society is celebrating its 70th Anniversary season with a reprise of that initial concert, Haydn’s Creation. For such a significant birthday there had to be a cake and this was shared at their last rehearsal before the concert after being cut by Christine Alder, Society Chairman, and David Murray, the Society’s Musical Director.

Many happy returns.

A Triumph for the Tenors

As their contribution to our 70th Anniversary season, the Tenors organised a musically themed social evening in The Peacock in Sunderland on Friday 1st March 2019. In a comfortable setting the expectant audience of choir members, family, and friends were treated to a show that they knew had been prepared with considerable effort.

Whilst the Tenors were well rehearsed, the audience were perhaps less so but enjoyed joining in a wide range of songs that were a different part of our musical heritage from ‘Peggy Sue’, through a ‘Hard Day’s Night’ and ‘Ticket to Ride’ until they left singing ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’.

The group singing was interspersed by some fine solo items from individual tenors and they even provided their own accompaniment from the accomplished guitarists amongst them. Overall a very good night – our particular thanks to the organisers – and a much appreciated addition to the history of the Society.

Creation – all in one day

On Saturday February 9th 2019, Bishopwearmouth Choral Society invited fellow choral singers to join them in a singing workshop exploring Joseph Haydn’s Creation. This piece remains the greatest triumph of Haydn’s career and will be performed by the Society on March 30th as part of their 70th Anniversary season and to replicate their first concert in 1949.

The Singing Day provided an opportunity for some old members and friends  to come back and take part, and also to make new friends with singers from other societies, many of whom had come quite a long way to join in the experience.

The day was led very enthusiastically by Aidan Oliver, one of the UK’s leading choir directors, whose activities encompass the full range of symphonic, operatic, liturgical and contemporary music. He is the founding director of Philharmonia Voices, the professional choir which collaborates with the Philharmonia Orchestra on many of its most ambitious projects, while as guest chorus master he has worked with some of the UK’s leading choirs including the BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Singers, Huddersfield Choral Society and the Chorus of English National Opera.He is currently the director of Dulwich Choral Society and Director of Music at St Margaret’s Church, Westminster Abbey, as well as Associate Conductor of the St Endellion Festival in Cornwall. He was recently appointed the new director of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus.

Aidan provided an insight into Haydn’s substantial career and how ‘The Creation’ came into being, alongside rehearsing the singing, and emphasised that it was a joyful work which required joyful singing. Indeed it is his favourite work and by the end of the day many of the singers shared his enthusiasm for it.

Our thanks to Aidan for a very worthwhile day, to Eileen Bown for her accompaniment and to Sunderland Minster for the soup that fortified the singers at lunchtime. Those who were unable to attend certainly missed something very special.



A memorable evening with the Murrays

It was a fortunate audience, on Saturday 19th January, who were treated to a concert by this father and son duo who need no introduction to the Society. David Murray is Bishopwearmouth Choral Society’s Musical Director and one of the North East’s best known pianists, having accompanied many well known names and playing on notable occasions. However this was a much more significant event as his son, Christopher, returned to the North East to play alongside him. Christopher is a member of the dynamic and charismatic Heath Quartet – winners of many prestigious awards – and is now earning himself a well deserved reputation on the national and international stage.

The combination of David and Christopher, cello and piano, and a varied programme provided a very memorable evening and a delightful contribution to the events of the Society’s 70th Anniversary season.

Moments of magnanimity and that of tranquil reflection….

Our thanks to William Horseman for allowing the publication of this crit of our concert, which was prepared for publication in the Sunderland Echo :

On Saturday 8th December, the Bishopwearmouth Choral Society, conducted by David Murray, performed at the Sunderland Minster. The evening marked an important milestone for the choir who celebrate their seventieth anniversary. It also marked a closing of the centenary of WWI : war and our response to it were central themes of the evening’s programme.

The concert opened with George Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad – “Rhapsody for Orchestra” (1912). This piece offers a stark contrast to the composer’s fate in the First World War, as a nostalgic evocation of his homeland. The orchestral colouring and sweeping melodic lines heard tonight effectively conveyed this affect to create a reverent atmosphere from the outset.

For the next piece, we were introduced to the esteemed soloists Rachel Nicholls and Mark Nathan who played the angel and poet in Gerald Finzi’s In Terra Pax (1954). The work is a setting from Robert Bridges’ poem Noel: Christmas Eve, 1913 which Finzi uses to frame St Luke’s account of the angels’ appearance to the shepherds. Rich textures were abundant in tonight’s performance with the soloists assuredly handling the words and the chorus narrating the biblical story with clarity.

Ralph Vaughan William’s elegiac Dona Nobis Pacem (1936) filled the second half and the musical quality and control which David Murray brought to it was very impressive. The ensemble remained cohesive throughout and created moments of magnanimity and that of tranquil reflection. Textural details were made very clear and the sound effectively filled the space. Nicholls’ penetratingly beautiful voice splendidly rested on the sound of the ensemble and her lyrical tones would bring the piece to a close with its impassioned plea for peace.

A very successful concert from the Bishopwearmouth Choral Society in what was a powerful evocation of the human response to the tragedies of war.

Performance at Tall Ships event


On Thursday 12th July, the Society took part in the public performances on Sunderland Town Moor to entertain visitors to the Tall Ships event. Around 40 members of the choir were able to take part and reprised many of the numbers from their Great American Songbook concerts. Another first for the Society, an open air ‘gig’ complete with some ‘groupies’ in the audience surrounded by the masts of the Tall Ships.

Just click on the image for a much better view.


“The singing was tender, occasionally passionate, always exquisite”……..

Our thanks to Margaret Fenn for allowing the publication of this crit of our concert on Saturday June 23rd 2018, which was prepared for publication in the Sunderland Echo :

Sitting in a well filled Sunderland Minster on Saturday night, there was a palpable atmosphere of eager anticipation, coming both from the audience and performers. They were awaiting the arrival on stage of David Murray, the conductor, arranger and inspiration for this sparkling occasion entitled ‘The Great American Songbook’. He duly arrived and so it began with the Carpenters Sequence, a medley of their classic hits.

From the very first introductory falling phrase of ‘Long Ago’ the audience was mesmerized by the nostalgic yet sweet and expressive playing of the strings and the unforced vocal tone of the choir. The perfect ensemble of the choir, the well balanced inner parts cushioning the soaring soprano lines, and the rich tone of the male voices was like listening to a masterclass in choral part singing, all beautifully directed by David Murray, whose magical arrangements of those well- loved songs delighted us all. Tenors basses and altos were allowed to shine as well as sopranos, and this was especially effective in ‘ We’ve only just begun’: the nimble fingers of pianist Eileen Bown lifted the mood completely in ‘Sing’ and ‘Top of the World’.

Ben Laxton was the soloist for the evening. A young and very talented baritone, he presented a set of 3 Cole Porter Songs, accompanied by David. He entertained and impressed with his vocal colours and communicative powers: he was suave and cynical in ‘Just one of those things’, intimate and infused with longing in ‘Night and Day’ and ‘I get a kick out of you’ was delivered with humour and a well judged lightness.

The choir ended the first half with a Jerome Kern Medley, the richer writing here displaying their superb balance, dynamic range and keen ensemble. A lovely solo from violinist Martin Hughes evinced an almost seductive response from the choir, as they hung on every gesture of the conductor. The beguiling piano and bass in ‘Can’t help Lovin’ that Man’ then led into an animated and rhythmic’ Start all over again’ which finished the sequence with a brilliantly witty coda.

The second half started with A Gershwin Selection. The subtle inflections of ‘ The Man I love’ were aided by the chromatic twists of the inner parts, and this led into ‘Fascinatin’ Rhythm’ which was delivered with great gusto. ‘They Can’t take that way from me’ led into a humorously confrontational ‘Let’s call the whole thing off’.

Ben Laxton presented a lovely mix of Rodgers and Hammerstein (Some enchanted evening), Jerry Herman (I won’t send Roses) and Leonard Bernstein (Something’s Comin’) showing his remarkable ease in this range of styles from three great American musicals of the twentieth century.

The last set of songs from the choir was taken from the David Murray Songbook, now becoming popular with choirs across the region. This set presented contrasting styles and themes, from the lyricism of ‘She’s Leaving Home’ to the emotional heart of the programme with ‘You’ve got a Friend’ and ‘Bridge over Troubled Water’. The singing was tender, occasionally passionate, always exquisite. Ben joined them for the final verse of ‘Bridge’ with ‘Sail on Silver bird’.

There were damp eyes in both audience and choir as this reached its spectacular conclusion. A wonderful concert of tremendous music given by a beautifully disciplined choir, superbly accompanied by Eileen Bown and a fabulous string quintet. Well done David Murray and Bishopwearmouth Choral Society!

Margaret Fenn

Haunting and evocative Requiem – joyous and exuberant Gloria

Our thanks to Philip Sanderson for allowing the publication of this crit of our concert on Saturday March 24th 2018, which was prepared for publication in the Sunderland Echo :

“Sunderland Minster was energised by being full of eager music lovers as this evening’s concert, given by Bishopwearmouth Choral Society, consisted of two important French choral works of the 20th century: the haunting and evocative Requiem by Maurice Durufle and Francis Poulenc’s joyous and exuberant Gloria. Both of these works, in their own individual way, presented the performers with considerable challenges which, under the assured direction of their inspirational conductor David Murray, were met with confidence and magnificent aplomb.

The Durufle Requiem is a work full of unusual and complex sonorities and the most sumptuous and, at times, obscure harmonic writing. It also consists of many changes of metre. Durufle’s Requiem has a subtlety and elusiveness which, combined with moments of great dramatic intensity, requires a finely attuned musical ear to achieve real tonal balance and symmetry. Murray’s exceptional musicianship enabled his performers to create moments of both splendour and pathos in equal proportions.

The choir were in their usual fine form. In the big climactic moments the singing was full-bodied and carried with ease over the emphatic orchestral textures. Particularly effective, however, were the Gregorian chant-like sections where the singing was in unison and often very lightly accompanied. Here Murray coaxed some really lovely singing from his choir, showing meticulous attention to tonal quality, blend and clarity of diction. And complex contrapuntal textures, as exemplified in the Kyrie, were always clearly defined.

The Domine Jesu Christe features many contrasts of mood and texture, starting with the eerie spookiness of the orchestral introduction. At the heart of this movement the writing for full orchestra and choir is dramatic, with constant changes of metre and key. This was performed with thrilling intensity and was the perfect contrast to the quieter sections which preceded and followed it, highlighting the warm lyricism of the altos and the pearlescent tone quality of the sopranos. Richard Goodings delivered his solos with confidence and assurance, showing real musicianship. And, again, Murray’s direction delivered an acute awareness of the essence of this music.

The strings were shown off to beautiful effect in the Sanctus where their lovely rippling accompaniment created a wonderful cushion of sound to support the choir.
The central core of the Requiem is the hauntingly exquisite Pie Jesu for mezzo soprano solo. Here the warmth and commitment of Isobel Chesman’s singing was beautifully underpinned by the nuanced and expressive solo cello of Andy Wardale.

The Lux Aeterna was hushed and fervent, followed by the Libera Me where after a sustained opening the music grew in intensity, leading to dramatic and exciting utterances of Dies Irae, Dies Illa, before the music subsided once again at the end. The Requiem concluded with an ethereal and delicate setting of In Paradisum. The opening section was sung by the sopranos with limpid purity of tone. They were joined by the full choir who sang with control, beautiful phrasing and unanimity of tone colour. This was a moving and reverent ending to a fine performance of a challenging work that can quite often go wrong. But here it certainly did not: every person involved should be proud of themselves.

Poulenc’s Gloria offers very different musical fare. It is full of strong musical contrasts typical of Poulenc’s style, where rhythmic vitality and élan combine with sumptuous lyricism and wide-ranging dynamics. There was certainly no anti-climax here with respect to Murray’s leadership of his combined forces in an idiomatic, stylistically authentic performance, which displayed to the full all the exuberance, beauty and idiosyncratic quirkiness of this exciting music.

The six movements, though relatively short, contain a variety of styles and textures. The majestic opening of the Gloria introduced a rhythmic movement sung with vibrant confidence by the choir. The buoyant Laudamus Te was full of joyous interplay between sopranos and tenors and altos and basses, where the singing was confident and the text clearly projected. The gently expressive Domine Deus gives us Poulenc at his most lyrical. Here a delicate orchestral introduction set the scene beautifully for the sweet-toned soprano of Rosanna Wickes who had stepped into the breach at the last moment due to the indisposition of the original soloist. She sang with exquisite purity of tone, controlled phrasing, and was accompanied by choir and orchestra with true sensitivity. The serene mood of this music was in sharp contrast to that of the Domine Fili Unigenite where the bright and breezy orchestral playing was perfectly matched by the vigour and drive of the choral singing.

The Domine Deus Agnus Dei brought us back once again into the serene lyricism of Poulenc’s sound world. The atmospheric orchestral opening, slow and harmonically ambiguous, was followed by a poignant melody in which the solo soprano soared effortlessly above the combined accompaniment of choir and orchestra. In the final Qui Sedes the majestic opening contrasted with the lively rhythm of the following section. This is Poulenc at his most energetic and animated and both choir and orchestra revelled in the buoyancy and driving rhythms of the music. The final section achieved a real sense of stillness, combining beautifully mellifluous orchestral playing with sustained and even-toned singing from choir and soloist to bring the work to a tranquil close.

The performers are to be congratulated on providing an appreciative audience with an evening of high-quality sophisticated music making from a fine choir, excellent soloists and orchestra and a superb musical director.

It’s not so long ago that Sunderland put in a bid for City of Culture status. Sadly this excellent bid was unsuccessful but the impetus of that process has led to the development of a number of plans and strategies to raise the cultural profile of the city. Culture means many things to many people, but this evening’s commendable performance surely is a clear indicator that culture is alive and well in the City of Sunderland. Some may say that classical music is rather niche. That is up for debate but it is nevertheless important that the cultural regeneration of this city encompasses all creative and artistic endeavours across all genres. I’m sure someone in a cultural role has attended a Bishopwearmouth Choral Society Concert. If not, then perhaps, Bishopwearmouth Choral Society, could invite them to your next wonderful evening of music making to share what a treasure Sunderland has in its midst.”

Power and might, yet delicacy and detail

Our thanks to Philip Sanderson for allowing the publication of this crit of our concert on Saturday December 2nd 2017, which was prepared for publication in the Sunderland Echo : (more…)

Song on the Tyne – for Macmillan Cancer Support

On Sunday 2nd July Bishopwearmouth Choral Society and the Bishopwearmouth Young Singers joined with Ryton Choral Society and the Tyne Theatre Stage School Choir at the Sage, Gateshead for a charity concert presented by the Rotary Club of Newcastle upon Tyne. The evening was in aid of Macmillan Cancer Support and a bucket collection raised over £1,200 in cash. The Rotary Club will soon be able to make a substantial donation to Macmillan incorporating the proceeds from the concert and other recent activities.

A crit of the performance has been kindly prepared by Philip Sanderson :-

“Despite it being one of the warmest days of the year so far, there was a healthy and eager turn out in Sage One, Sage Gateshead, for ‘Song on the Tyne’, led by David Murray, one of the North East’s most outstanding musicians. The concert was a collaborate venture as it was presented by the Rotary Club of Newcastle upon Tyne and featured a wonderful combination of the joint choirs of Ryton Choral Society and Bishopwearmouth Choral Society. The permanent conductor of both of these is David Murray. The Bishopwearmouth Young Singers also featured, along with the Tyne Theatre Stage School Choir. And that was not it: renowned soprano Sally Harrison also teamed up with Murray to add another dimension to this already varied programme. All ticket proceeds from the concerts and donations have gone to Macmillan Cancer Support.

The concert began with the combined choir of Bishopwearmouth and Ryton Choral Societies. Throughout the concert they did four substantial sets of popular songs by writers such as Randy Newman, Noel Coward, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Lennon and McCartney to name but a few. The common theme running through all of the pieces performed was that David Murray had specially arranged all of the music for four-part choir. For anyone who knows anything about choral writing, or indeed choral singing, they will appreciate that this is not an easy task. Yet Murray’s arrangements were superb. They were no mean feat either: imaginative part writing, intricate relationships between the different sections, some complex harmony and even more complex rhythms. All too often choral versions of pop songs end up where the sopranos have the tune and everyone else adds a bit of padding now and again. These were certainly not that. If Murray showcases some of his song book again it is really worth trying to hear it.

So how did the choirs handle these arrangements? The short answer is incredibly well. They did a marvellous job. From the outset every word could be heard: the diction was pristine. The choral sound was fantastic. It came across, I’m sure to everyone in Sage One, as complicated and impressive, but fun. The choirs did seem to be enjoying themselves, despite the concentration needed to get around the notes and the text. There were a number of special effects and Murray’s attention to detail was not just in the writing, but also in the performance under his excellent direction. The choirs really responded well. They were accompanied by fine instrumentalists which added a richness and deep colour to the scoring.

The Tyne Stage School Choir, under the direction of Liam Gilbert, made a contrasting contribution to the concert. They sang two traditional pieces and two contemporary medleys: one from “Into the Woods” and the other from “Wicked”. These complex pieces were impressively performed from memory and very much enjoyed by all.
Sally Harrison did not disappoint either. Her performances of Gershwin’s “Summertime” and Kern “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” were performed with sensitivity and were deeply felt, yet they possessed the power and control of an experienced opera singer. Harrison’s fine performances were beautifully accompanied by Murray.

Harrison then joined all of the evening’s performers with Murray’s arrangement of Simon’s and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” This not only had power and might, but also it had a somewhat rustically modern feel. The applause at the end said it all. This was a wonderful evening packed with a lot of music. Unreserved congratulations must go to everyone involved.”

Philip Sanderson.