Hexham Courant – Friday, March 13, 2015

Choir turns 60 as a class act

By Helen Compson

New conductor Mark Edwards puts the soloists through their paces before next week's concert marking the Diamond Jubilee of Hexham's Orpheus Choir. Pictured from the left are Michael Haynes, Carolyn Below, Wal Mallinson and Paul Berry.

SIXTY years of making what has mostly been a Sweet music will be celebrated on Saturday night as Hexham Orpheus Choir enters its diamond jubilee year.

Long gone are the days when it was nicknamed the Hexham Awfulness and the audience at its concert in Corbridge’s St Andrew’s Church can look forward to a class act. For today the choir enjoys a reputation that draws professional Soloists from London and many another metropolis to sing with them at their annual Spring concert. This time round, however, newly-appointed music director Mark Edwards has rung the changes and drawn the Soloists from the ranks of the choir itself. The move has been well received, even if Soloists Michael Haynes, Carolyn Below, Val Mallinson and Paul Berry now have good reason to be nervous – Orpheus is used to attracting capacity crowds nowadays.

Choir members are equally delighted to have bagged Mark Edwards while they can. Despite only being in his mid-20s, he brings with him a wealth of experience and a gold-plated CV. After graduating from Newcastle University, where he studied under Bach Choir conductor and local legend Eric Cross, Mark spent time in Finland working with a Series of renowned conductors. Choir member Keith Mallinson said: “We feel very lucky to have Mark, because we don’t think we’ll be able to afford him in a few years!”

Mark has studied at the Kodály Institute in Hungary too, So it was natural for Kodály’s music to feature prominently in his first programme with Orpheus on Saturday: the dramatic Missa Brevis, composed in Budapest amid the ferocious fighting there at the end of the Second World War, and Esti Dal, a haunting folk Song. “The former Stretches the choir in terms of technique and vocal range, while the latter tests the Soloists’ capacity to sing in Hungarian,” said Keith, “The bass line I’m in just has to hum in Hungarian. He’s cleverly balanced the programme to feature those two pieces, which most people probably won’t have heard before, with two pieces that are much more familiar.” They are Mozart’s very tuneful Coronation Massand Morten Lauridsen’s Setting of O Magnum Mysterium which, judging from comments on YouTube, must be one of the most popular and influential pieces of choral music written by any living composer. Accompanying the choir throughout will be distinguished organist Michael Haynes, music director at Hexham Abbey for many years before he moved on to fulfil the same role at St Chad’s College, Durham.

Orpheus was formed in 1955 when a group of Hexham Abbey Festival chorus members decided they would like to perform all year round rather than just at the annual Abbey event. Just two years later, admirably demonstrating their ambitions as they prepared to performMessiah, they brought in Soloist Elsie Suddaby, famed as one of the original 16 singers for whom Vaughan Williams wrote Serenade to Music. The choir made its 21st anniversary in 1976 equally memorable by Supporting internationally-respected soprano Lee Soon-Bee. Some of its more recent soloists have included baritone Philip Smith, soprano Kathryn Jenkin and tenor Robyn Lyn Evans.

Keith said: “We now have a wonderful technical problem in that the choir has grown so big we have to look for venues where we can fit everyone in.” As a result, the three venues they have used most often in recent years have been Hexham Abbey, St Andrew’s Church and the main hall at Queen Elizabeth High School. “We’re broadly classical and tend to do serious work for what we call the winter concert,” said Keith, “but the Summer concert is lighter, featuring songs from the musicals, folk songs and the occasional pop arrangement.” Their most adventurous production to date has been Carmina Burana, composed by Carl Orff. “That worked really well!” he said. Keith himself has been with the choir for 10 of the 60 years it has been going, but he knows it has come a long way. “Not that long ago, the choir was known as the Hexham Awfulness, but then Glenn Davis came along and he was a Superb director of music. “He was with Orpheus from the mid 1990s till Autumn 2014, and he built us up to the point we’re at today.” Asked why Hexham Orpheus Choir had survived for so long, he put it down to a combination of inspiring conductors, excellent accompanists and a very active social life, boasting quiz nights, parties, walks and much, much more. Members tend to stay for a long time. He added: “There’s also the support we receive from family, friends and the wider community, for which we’re all extremely grateful!”

Although tickets can be purchased on the door on Saturday night – the concert starts at 7.45pm – they are better bought in advance from Cogito Books on St Mary’s Chare, Hexham.

Review of the concert itself

Saturday 14th March

Choir is in good hands

(Reviewed by Simon Frith)

Put together a local choir with the confidence that comes from celebrating its 60th anniversary and a young conductor with a subtle and demanding sense of choral textures and what do you get? An uplifting concert in the warm acoustics of St Andrew’s Church, Corbridge.

An exciting future for Hexham’s Orpheus Choir under its new music director, Mark Edwards, seems assured.

His first programme for the choir was cleverly conceived: contrasting short masses, Mozart’s Coronation Mass and Kodály’s Missa Brevis, each followed by an intense mystical song, Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium and Kodály’s Esti Dal.

This was a concert of religious music but the contrasts between these works drew more attention to different kinds of choral singing than to varieties of religious belief. It was as if Edwards was giving his choir a series of vocal challenges while hearing for himself what they are capable of.

For Mozart, the sheer variety of the singing human voice is a matter of wonder. TheCoronation Mass, like Mozart’s operatic writing, spins out different vocal lines to celebrate the sheer pleasure of singing. Edwards sensibly embedded the soloists in the choir and in St. Andrew’s Church the sopranos (featuring Carolyn Below) sounded particularly buoyant. By contrast, in Lauridsen’s unaccompanied O Magnum Mysterium, Edwards wove his choristers’ varying voices into a single resonant rapture, the choir showing a remarkably well disciplined control of movement and volume,

The Kodály works offered different pleasures (not least as low bass notes as one could hope to hear and excellent alto singing from Louise Khazee). Here singing required a different roughness, a sense of folk memory and sonic energy emerging from the shadows.

These were more difficult pieces than the Coronation Mass but at the end of Esti Dal singers and listeners shared that moment of silence in which, reluctantly, we return to earth. Quite rightly, Mark Edwards (and his admirable accompanying organist, Michael Haynes) took their bows with a look of quiet satisfaction.