What a year it has been!

On Saturday 22nd June, Bishopwearmouth Choral Society completed the performances in its 70th Anniversary Season with a concert of 20th Century American Classics. As well as marking continuous performances in Sunderland over many years, the evening was special in many ways.

To add to the evening the Society were joined by their President, Anne-Marie Owens, and the Bishopwearmouth Young Singers who all contributed to the performance. The audience included both the Mayor, Councillor David Snowdon, and the Deputy Mayor, Councillor Harry Trueman, with their consorts. Instead of the usual orchestral accompaniment there were two pianos and percussion but this also allowed David Murray, the Musical Director, and Eileen Bown, the Society’s accompanist, to both take part in an even more involved way than usual – all combining to make for a particularly memorable event.

Our thanks to Colin Greener for allowing us to share the following crit, which was prepared for submission for publication to the Sunderland Echo :

A Celebration of American Classics
Bishopwearmouth Choral Society treated an audience in Sunderland Minster on Saturday 22nd June to the sonorities of the American Musical Classics at their very best. This concert marked the end of a very special season for Bishopwearmouth Choral Society, which saw them celebrating the 70th anniversary of the formation of the Society and was dedicated primarily to the works of Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein.

Conducting and accompanying the concert was acclaimed pianist, David Murray. The concert began with two settings of Old American Songs by Copland, entitled Ching-a-Ring Chaw and Stomp your foot. Ching a ring Chaw finds its roots in Minstrelsy, and Copland made a point of rewriting the lyrics to efface any of the song’s minstrel baggage. He said ‘ I did not want to take any chance of it being construed as racist’. It was very energetic and fast and there were many tongue twisters in the text, deftly managed by the choristers. The second piece, Stomp your Foot, is described as a square dance. The effects of this were soon felt: I had to suppress the urge to dance myself. Looking around, I could see that I was not the only one in this predicament.

Anne Marie Owens, who is President of the Society, sang three songs from the great American Musical. Dressed in a splendid navy blue dress for the occasion, she delivered Summertime (Gershwin), Can’t Help Lovin’ that man (Kern), and Broadway Baby (Sondheim) with superb artistry. This much loved singer, who hails from South Shields, has had a glittering operatic career and it was a real privilege to hear her sing these songs from the shows with a mixture of real beauty and deep emotion in the first two numbers, followed by a huge brassy finish in Broadway Baby.

The next items featured the Bishopwearmouth Young Singers. Both Copland and Bernstein, the central composers of tonight’s concert, come from Jewish backgrounds, and the use of the Hebrew language became a theme of the evening’s texts. Demonstrating this I believe in the Sun (Howard Goodall) takes its lyrics from graffiti found on a cell wall in Cologne left by Jewish prisoners held there before being taken to concentration camps. The words Al Shlosha D’Varim (Allan Naplan) mean ‘the world is sustained by truth, justice and peace.” The Bishopwearmouth Young singers delivered these moving pieces with a blissfully innocent and pure sound, making these performances deeply touching.

The final work before the intermission was the most exciting performance by the two pianos (David Murray and Eileen Bown) and three percussionists (Andy Booth, Ollie Newton and Ed Chapman). They treated us to Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. The two piano texture was used throughout most of the concert to accompany the choir. Here the addition of three percussionists playing it seems every possible instrument you could have thought of – was stunning. From timps through to bongos, drum kit, marimba, vibraphone, gong, vibraphone, woodblock, xylophone and even at one point a police whistle this was a dazzling array of sounds. The integration of the two pianos and this percussion feast was truly awe inspiring and it evoked all the atmospheres and emotions of Bernstein’s great musical West Side Story. This was a dazzling, and at times extremely emotional, conclusion to a brilliant first half.

Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms was commissioned by the Chichester Festival in 1965. These three psalm settings are in Hebrew, not in English. I wonder what the patrons of the Chichester Festival thought when they first arrived? Nevertheless these settings have found their way firmly into the choral repertoire and are regularly performed all over the world notwithstanding their technical difficultly and the challenge of the texts themselves. Bishopwearmouth Choral Society delivered their account with boldness and confidence and Robert Chavner sang the middle movement with great beauty and expression, showing off the impressive range of his countertenor voice. The performance demonstrated vocal agility, the ability to cope with very tricky irregular rhythms, and then in the last movement the ability to sing expressively and quietly. The final unaccompanied bars were magical and a real feat for any choral group. The atmosphere resonating throughout the Church at the end of this work was one of real devotional calm and peace.

This concert was a resounding success. I have experienced first-hand the teaching ability of the two pianists Eileen Bown and David Murray, so I anticipated a thrilling performance, and I was not disappointed. The audience was large, and the responses to the performances during and afterwards were long-lasting and most complimentary. This was the first time I have experienced listening to a concert in Sunderland Minster with this Society and I can highly recommend that you come see for yourselves the special music making that is happening here.

Colin Greener