The Wimbledon Choral Society is preparing for its first concert of the year, performing work from British composers at Guildford Cathedral.
Nick Hitchens caught up with the top amateur group’s musical director Neil Ferris as he fine tunes the ensemble ahead of the big day.
Nick Hitchens: What music will the Wimbledon Choral Society be performing in Guildford?
Neil Ferris: We are performing three wonderful pieces by English composers. William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast caused a storm when it was first heard in 1931; an uproarious depiction of the fall of Babylon full of adrenaline-pumping music, huge orchestral soundscapes and a massive choir belting out lots of music that at times sounds like it has come straight from a blockbuster movie.
Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations is one of his best-loved pieces, mini-portraits of his friends and colleagues, including the famous and stirring Nimrod.
We start the concert with Vaughan Williams Five Mystical Songs for baritone solo, choir and orchestra. They are a collection of beautiful songs packed with sublime harmonies that we associate with the composer of The Lark Ascending and Tallis Fantasia.
NH: Can you explain the reason behind the music choice?
NF: We try to programme British music as often and as sensibly as possible – it is important that we celebrate the rich choral heritage that we have – while making sure we also balance that out with the other great choral works.
Belshazzar’s Feast is such an iconic piece that when I was appointed five years ago I said that I wanted the choir to be able to perform this work within five years – so here we are. And you can come and judge for yourselves whether we are ready or not.
NH: How big will the choir be and who is providing the accompaniment?
NF: The choir will be huge – more than 200 people. I am also bringing my choir from Wales, Cardiff Polyphonic Choir, to join us. The orchestra is Orchestra Vitae, a new orchestra on the London scene set up by a conducting student of mine, Michael Cobb. They are largely made up of students from the London conservatoires and bring a youthfulness and vitality to their performance, perfect for this programme.
NH: I understand you will be using a baritone soloist Matthew Brook – can you tell me a bit about your connection with him.
NF: Matthew is an outstanding soloist and we are lucky to have him. He travels all around the world and has recently returned from a tour of Australia. He sings a lot of opera and is a superb singer/ actor, perfect for capturing the drama in Belshazzar’s Feast. And his wife is also my singing teacher.
NH: I’m interested in joining but worried I’m not good enough – what standard is required?
NF: We are a welcoming and friendly choir – believe me, I wouldn’t let it happen any other way – so please don’t be afraid to come along and try us out. We have singers of all ages and all different levels of singing and music reading ability.
NH: Are there any tricks to improving my voice?
NF: Like most things there aren't many quick fixes but the main things are making sure you have good posture, your jaw is relaxed and that you breathe from low down – stomach and lower – and not high up (chest/throat).