Bach Mass in B Minor by Annette Mann

I love singing Bach - the mighty St Matthew Passion, the St John Passion, the Magnificat which I would willingly sing every Christmas.

I have sung all his Motets for double choir (I can't decide which is my favourite - 'Furchte Dich Nicht' or 'Der Geist Hilft'?)

I have not yet sung his Christmas Oratorio apart from the lovely chorale (which is in the green carol book) 'Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light', but hopefully that joy is to come.

But Bach's B Minor Mass is a work of such scale and intense expression and I am lucky to have sung it twice before - at Codsall Methodist church in December 1985, conducted by dear Dennis Powell and accompanied by the Daemon Orchestra.

But more memorable was the first occasion - at Walsall Town Hall with the Walsall Choral Society in May 1976. We were to sing with them again in 1977 - a performance of Elgar's 'Dream of Gerontius' with Robert Tear singing the part of Gerontius and Anne Marie Wilkens, a tiny blonde in a long white dress who looked like the Angel and sang like one too.

For the B minor, the soloists were Alison Jack, Shirley Thomas, Declan McCusker and Michael Underwood. The continuo was John Engleheart, the Orchestra de Camera played and we were conducted by Walsall's conductor, Peter Barlow.

I clearly remember that he took the work much faster than we had done in rehearsal with Dennis but nevertheless I revelled in the splendour of the 'Gratias Agimus', the dark introverted character of 'Qui Tollis' and Bach's unshakeable faith which is revealed in the 'Confiteor'.....and of course the emotional climax of the work - the 'Sanctus'.

I first sang the B Minor Mass when I had a young family. Now they are grown up and I am a grandmother. But the music of J S Bach never ages.

Time to build the choir

Our society is a real opportunity for people to get the most from singing. We have a great musical director, immensely skilled and fun to sing for. Every rehearsal gives us something to discover about the music of all kinds of different styles, how to sing, communication with the audience , keeping time, tuning, rhythm etc.

The choir works with musically trained people and singers entirely new to singing; some read music and some not.
We give great concerts, sometimes of classics such as Elijah (Nov 2012), madrigals, anthems, and lighter music such as the delightful Noah and his Floating Zoo.

Like all choirs however we need more singers to keep the choir progressing. We are therefore expanding the ways we reach out to people who might like to give singing a try, or who would like to return to singing after a break, perhaps to have a family or because of a house move. Everyone is welcome (tenors are especially celebrated!!).

You will now find the choir has a Facebook page ( on which you can find details of concerts past and future, photos of the choir, entertaining conversations between choir members, features for example about the musical director and so on. Click 'like' to join us,get updates about activities and add to the fun by sharing your thoughts.

Better still, come and join us at our next rehearsal at 7.30pm on Monday at Ounsdale High School, Ounsdale Road, Wombourne, Wolverhampton.

Don't Look Down!
An interview with our retiring Musical Director, David Parkes, 2006

Do you have an earliest musical memory, or a piece that first got you hooked on music?
The earliest I have is, as a 3 or 4-year-old, hearing a trio of violin, cello and piano playing at the old 'Cadena Café' in Worcester during World War II. I was entranced by that.

Did you always want a career in music? What might you have done otherwise?
Yes. My other main interest has always been in literature, so that an academic career in that field would have been tolerable.

You became MD of WDCS some 13 years ago ? what did you do before that?
I devoted myself exclusively for over 20 years to the music of the school at which I taught: we ran an orchestra, Junior Choir, Senior Choir, Folk Group, Madrigal Choir and Sixth Form Production, not much spare time!

What do you think has been our finest performance? And our worst?!
The performance of the Verdi Requiem at the Civic Hall was excellent and I doubt we can beat that. I can't think of one that was particularly bad!

If you could wave a magic wand instead of a baton, is there anything you would like to change about the choir?
That all members could sight-read, thus cancelling the need for 'note-bashing'.

Do you recognise any particular strengths of the choir?
The choir is now making a lovely sound in all sections almost invariably, and there is great enthusiasm and desire to please.

If you could direct any choir in the world, which would it be?
European Voices, a professional choir I heard do the Brahms Requiem with Rattle in London.

Do you prefer conducting choral or orchestral works?
I enjoy both enormously.

Is your taste in music confined to the classical and choral, or do you enjoy any other styles?
Very occasionally I have enjoyed lighter music such as Abba or The Carpenters provided, but it's rather like comparing the Beano with Trollope. I enjoy some 'musicals', and have directed many.

Having announced your retirement as MD at the end of this year, is there any lasting legacy you hope to leave us with? How would you like to be remembered?
The lasting legacy I would hope for: belief in choral music as a group activity which brings spiritual refreshment and satisfaction as no other can, and unifies people in seeking after artistic excellence; that it is our job, as performers, to try to realise fully the composer's intentions and that we are only the intermediary between composer and listener.
I'd like to be remembered as someone who always demanded high standards and (hopefully) achieved them from time to time. I do believe that our country is bedevilled by acceptance of mediocrity in too many respects (the arts and sport, for a start).

If this were 'Desert Island Discs', what would you take as your favourite piece of music, book and luxury item?
I should be unlikely to survive on a desert island long enough to have time to listen to music or to read but, if the expected rapid demise did not happen, I would choose Palgrave's Golden Treasury (poetry is easy to dip into and to re-read and would remind me of the splendours of our language); certainly not Shakespeare or the Bible, which is so full of blood, vengeance, and disaster. As for music, though I think the Verdi Requiem the most perfect work I know, it would not do for a desert island.

I would choose my favourite CD, which is of Murray Perahia playing Chopin's Ballades and assorted other pieces - a pianist with superlative technique and the most poetic musical imagination playing music which has an astonishing range of emotion in a unique and beautiful style. As for a luxury - am I allowed my wife? If not, a hot-water-bottle (with ample hot water) would help me through those chilly desert island nights - but the whole idea fills me with horror!

Madrigal Masterclass by Katherine Dixson

One of our altos confided in me that she was like a dizzy schoolgirl in anticipation of our VIP visitor. So when John Rutter exhorted greater attack at the opening of It was a lover and his lass - "I like my altos fiery!" - I feared for a fainting fit.

We'd been well drilled already in John's Birthday Madrigals, our own Musical Director Ian Clarke guiding us through the jazz-influenced rhythms and doo-ba-doos, oo-oos and cuck-oos of these five songs based on Elizabethan poetry. It was challenging close-harmony stuff, but the prospect of the composer himself leading a rehearsal, shortly before our concert, added an extra incentive. What on earth would this globetrotting celebrity, a huge name in contemporary British choral music, make of a bunch of amateurs like us?

The fact of the matter was, the atmosphere from the first note, though displaying unprecedented best behaviour from our members, was thoroughly relaxed. Considering he'd never worked with us before, the maestro had the measure of us straight away. During the hour or so that sped by, he managed the dual achievement of reassuring us that we were in with a chance of pulling off a reasonable performance and pinpointing areas where we could add more polish. And he made us want to shine.

I had an inkling we'd be in for some musical gems, of course, but what took me by surprise was the wicked sense of humour. This came out in the composer's evident relish for the language and meaning within the texts, full of the innuendo and double-entendre typical of the era. Metaphorical light bulbs pinged on around me as some of my colleagues, listening to John's emphasis and explanation, realised for the first time just what Shakespeare, Marlowe and Raleigh were going on about.

In Come live with me John urged us to focus on the dialogue, which conveyed a story in this 'words-driven' movement. With intense concentration in his eyes, and metronomically clicking fingers, he helped us get into character - namely the gents were shepherds making multifarious promises but doubtless after one thing only, and the ladies seeing right through it and likely to have none of it ... although there was no harm in leading them on a bit. Offering a spot of 'retail therapy', the men sang A gown made of the finest wool, Which from our pretty lambs we pull; Fair lin-ed slippers for the cold, with buckles of the purest gold', answered cynically by the ladies, Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy beds of roses, Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten, In folly ripe, in reason rotten. All the ladies sang the last phrase in unison, right in the basement of the sopranos' range, hovering around and below middle C. Ian had encouraged us to adopt a chesty tone and shout it out with vehemence. John's reaction? A genuinely impressed "Not bad!"

When daisies pied called for even greater bawdiness, but before John graphically illustrated how he wanted this story of bucolic adultery told, he highlighted the importance of correct balance between voices. The sopranos, with the tune, weren't to be drowned out by everyone else's fa-la-la-ing underneath. It was a question of realising whether at any given time you were the icing or the cake.

To carry his analogy a stage further, I can honestly say that John Rutter's rehearsal gave us not only the cake and the icing, but a generous helping of cherries and birthday candles on top. Surely it would light up our performance, give sustenance to our audience, and the overall winner would be the music, just as it should be.

Talking of food, John had accepted my invitation to a pre-rehearsal dinner. In a fit of public-spiritedness I'd opened this up to the choir committee, which meant I didn't get much chance to talk to our guest about his composing; as a wannabe writer, it would have been fascinating to hear his views on the isolation of the creative process. Hugging my glass of sparkling water, I asked what he'd like to drink. "Just a sparkling water, please." I must be doing something right then, I thought, conspiratorially but completely irrationally. And the choir and I are sparkling still.

Feeling Crotchety? Join a choir! by Katherine Dixson

Conduct a straw poll of choral colleagues to find out why they decided to join the choir and what they get out of it, and they all start turning into creative writers. Pause. Hang on a minute, who's supposed to be the feature-writer round here. Must be something to do with artistic temperament and an innate compulsion to communicate.

Many members of Wombourne and District Choral Society, a 100-strong mixed-voice amateur choir in the Midlands, have been singing for years and years, but for others it?s a fresh interest that opens up new horizons and gives tremendous, perhaps even unexpected, satisfaction. Choir Webmaster, Anthony Rathbone, who sings in the bass section, finds the experience reminiscent of when he leant his tall frame to a rowing eight. The whole is only as good as the sum of the parts. Most of the time one person is slightly out of time, but just occasionally all eight oarsmen get into a rhythm, the boat starts to run smoothly and actually lifts out of the water, the next best thing to flying!? With a slightly unfortunate mixing of the metaphor, he enjoys the fact you can become totally immersed in singing, and all the other worries of the day seem to disappear.

Another sporting analogy comes from one of the newest members, Robert Ely, also a bass. I'm no sportsman, so perhaps the rugby scrum does it for some, but for me there?s no experience to compare with that of making music for the pleasure of others in the company of like-minded singers. And yet another from Stage Manager, Mike Hayward (you guessed it, a bass): It's like playing squash; while you're singing, you can't think of anything else, it provides spiritual and emotional release. Singing is, in fact, physically demanding in its own way, with an emphasis on good breathing techniques, in addition to the intellectual challenges posed. As soprano Linda Cox puts it my knowledge is stretched and my lungs are too!

Linda goes on to say sometimes we come up to standards way beyond our own expectations, which means that choral singing can give an enormous boost in the self-esteem department. This is especially so for those who aren?t sure what to expect when they join ? which they can do without audition, although they need to be fairly confident they can at least hold a tune, and find the learning curve, or the climb up the musical stave, rather a steep one. Lesley Cook, in the alto section, admits to finding it daunting at first. Everyone else seemed to sight read with ease and I couldn't even work out which line we were on! However, what a feeling when you've mastered it, when you see the conductor grinning back at you happy with the performance, I guess there's a certain amount of 'pleasing the teacher' , even from a 50 year old! The conductor in question, Musical Director Ian Clarke, comments, I love the music we perform, and if some of that is transmitted to the choir and communicated to the audience, then something worthwhile has been achieved.

Doug Graham, another bass and ex-Treasurer, jokes that he joined the choir at 44, to find out whether his voice had broken. Age is largely irrelevant. Although it's always good to welcome younger singers and why on earth wouldn't they enjoy the beauty of the classical music that we tackle, the more elderly contingent are an audible advert for the fact that choral singing is good for you.

Perhaps most important of all is the social aspect. Stella Walsh, an alto and fundraiser for the choir, suggests joining a choir is a great way of meeting people when you move to a new area for work. There's the feelgood factor, too, it gives you some good tunes to sing while washing up and driving the car, says Stella, but be careful at traffic lights where the driver in front can see you in the rear view mirror. How about an ambulance-style reverse-print banner across the bonnet to let that driver in front know how to join in if he wants a piece of the action.

The Generation Game by Katherine Dixson

So what's it's like being conducted by your little brother, then? Terrible!? joked Adrian Clarke, after our performance of Rossini's Petite Messe Solennelle. A family spokeswoman (our MD's better half) said it gave Ian an opportunity to have the upper hand for once. Then, more seriously, that it was a welcome chance to work together, which they hadn?t done for a while.

Back in civvies, Adrian was completely relaxed and looked as though he'd just had a stroll in the park rather than a leading role in a demanding choral work. His rich baritone was delivered with true professionalism and appeared as effortless to produce as it was to listen to.

Sarah Pring, incidentally Adrian's wife won the audience over with her command of the mezzo-soprano role. She told me the Agnus Dei is her favourite of all arias, and it showed.

Yet another member of the Clarke clan, Ian's daughter Amy, made not a sound on stage, capably page-turning for our own rehearsal accompanist, Beryl Beech, at the piano. Behind them, Simon Ball did battle with a temperamental harmonium and won. With the instrument wedged in place, to prevent a moving performance of the wrong sort, Simon commented on the warmth of the atmosphere created by our choir in the otherwise chilly church.

Soprano Faye Hart lit up the church with a voice and smile as bright as her beautiful cerise dress. Tenor Justin Lavender felt he was in safe hands with us. Not, perhaps, because we are famed (yet?) as a choir to be reckoned with, but because his next engagement is at an open-air concert in, of all places, Harare. I'm sure we all wish him well, and hope he and all our soloists will join us again.

As for the choral contributions, the hard work seemed to have paid off. It might not have been technically 100% accurate. I have a sneaky suspicion we sopranos went astray (then found our way back) in Et Resurrexit ? but from within the body of the choir, it felt like we were offering something dynamic, with shape, phrasing and meaning. I'd even go so far as to call the Cum Sancto Spiritu electrifying, and would gladly have sung that movement all over again!

Sadly I didn't get to speak to principal pianist, Samantha Carrasco, but her dazzling display spoke volumes. My daughter, who was envious in equal measure of the press photographer's Nikon and Samantha's Steinway went all starry-eyed and vowed to do more practice. My mother pronounced the concert well worth the trip from Liverpool. My own better half was so impressed he forgot to think about Cardiff City's forthcoming FA Cup Final match for a couple of hours. And even my son, who would rather have been watching Doctor Who, expressed approval with his Spanish phrase of the moment: 'muy bien'. Or, as it was a Latin Mass, should that be 'bonissima'.

As it happened, we could have done with a bit more 'lumen de lumine'. Was the dim lighting in the chancel a secret ploy to encourage learning the work by heart? Because towards the end of the performance, looking at the music was sheer guesswork as far as I was concerned. No matter, looking up reaped far better results and rewards anyway, not least a sense of the enthusiastic engagement of the audience. To those who didn't make it, perhaps we could quote a mangled Specsavers strapline: should've gone to the concert.

Music in Barcelona by Lesley Cook

Having just returned from a stay in Barcelona, I thought I'd recommend two amazing musical experiences, should you be in this wonderful city.

Firstly my husband and I were able on our first morning to buy tickets for the concert that night in the Palau de Musica Catalana. Recommended by Phillippa in the Alto section, this concert hall is a World Heritage building because of its striking 'modernisme' style architecture and as we sat below the flying hooves of a stone horse, surrounded by mosaics, tiles and stained glass we could see why. (There are also bookable guided tours in English every day, but they fill up very quickly.)

The tickets in the upper tier were not cheap but the hall was full. (Try to get a seat towards the middle of the hall for best sight lines) Sir John Eliot Gardiner seemed delighted with the applause. We had never heard the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique with the Monteverdi choir before but we enjoyed the programme of short choral works by Brahms, Schumann and Mendelssohn followed by Brahms' Symphony number 2. (For those of you who went to the concert in Hereford at the suggestion of David Parkes, do you remember the viola player with the expressive face? He was on the front desk!)

Some people seemed to have left at the interval, which may not be surprising since the concert began at 9pm and finished at 11:30pm! Luckily we didn't have far to walk back to the hotel. By the way you do get a free programme, but Catalan is quite tricky to decipher.

Our second musical experience was a trip by train and then rack railway up into the mountains to the Benedictine monastery at Montserrat. There is a famous boys? choir school based here who sing every Sunday in the Basilica, but this was Tuesday. However it must have been our lucky day for as we sat marvelling at the church, an older choir entered and sang four pieces including 'Ave Verum Corpus' by Byrd which you will remember from our first visit to France and then Rutter's 'The Lord Bless You and Keep You'. Wonderful! They were followed by the boys' choir in traditional white surplices who also sang beautifully.

Montserrat is very much geared up to the tourist trade but in a tasteful way! It is a beautiful and inspiring place to visit. Part of the fun is getting there. You could go on a coach trip, but it is more exciting to make your own way by the very efficient public transport system. From the tourist information office you can buy a Tot Monserrat card for 31.50 euros. This includes metro to station, rail, rack railway or cable car to the monastery, two funicular rides further up the mountain side, a three course meal, and admission to audio-visual room and a very good art gallery. So make a day of it!

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