Category Archives: Programme Notes

Rebecca Lea

Rebecca completed her MMus with Distinction at the Royal Northern College of Music. Previous to this she studied at The Queen’s College, Oxford, and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

Recent solo performances include Poulenc’s La voix humaine at the Purcell Room, Judith Weir’s The Consolations of Scholarship at The Sage, Gateshead, King Harald’s Saga at the Wigmore Hall and William Bolcom’s Cabaret Songs at the Royal Albert Hall as part of the BBC Proms Lates Series. She has appeared as a soloist in concert and on BBC Radio 3 with Manchester Camerata, Northern Sinfonia, The Liverpool Philharmonic Ensemble 10/10.

She gave her first solo performance at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in 2011, performing Gary Carpenter’s One Million Tiny Operas about Britain and at the Lake District Summer Music Festival in 2012 in the newly-devised production The Mask Behind the Face.

Opera roles include Elle (La voix humaine), Galatea (Acis and Galatea), Cis (Albert Herring), Susanna(Le Nozze di Figaro), The Governess (The Turn of the Screw) and Venus (The Judgement of Paris). She recently played the role of Paula in the newly commissioned work, Amy’s Last Dive, by Cheryl Frances Hoad, with the company Wingbeats as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, touring to Leeds and Bridlington Spa Theatre.

She also works as a freelance  consort and ensemble singer  with the BBC Singers, Britten Sinfonia Voices, Buxton Opera Festival Chorus, Cries of London, the NDR Radio Choir in Hamburg, Howard Goodall’s Enchanted Voices, Platinum Consort, as well as with many of the professional church choirs in London. She is also busy as an oratorio soloist throughout the UK.

Rebecca has been the grateful recipient of the Oxford Lieder Festival Scholarship, the RNCM Contemporary Music Prize, the RNCM Kate Snape Award and the Liverpool Opera Circle Bursary.

Rebecca is also Co-Artistic Director of the classical music theatre company Re:Sound, with whom she has performed at various venues across the UK, including Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, The Royal Albert Hall, the Shulman Auditorium, Oxford, and the RNCM Studio Theatre. Their latest production, Battles Within and Without, will tour to King’s Place, London, in 2013.

Rebecca Lea’s website is www.rebeccalea.co.uk

Appearances with Chester Bach Singers

Katie Bray

British mezzo-soprano, Katie Bray is fast establishing a colourful international career, most recently engaged as Charlotte Werther in the 2014 Grimeborn Festival. That year, she made her solo début with Garsington Opera as Emma in Offenbach’s Vert Vert, directed by Martin Duncan and conducted by David Parry. Other recent operatic roles include Lazuli L’Étoile with New Sussex Opera, cover Cherubino Le Nozze di Figaro in McVicar’s production at ROH, and NancyAlbert Herring with Opera North.

This season, Katie makes her solo début with English National Opera in Joanna Lee’s The Way Back Home at the Young Vic Theatre, and in 2015, she will join Opera Holland Park as Mallika Lakmé and Opera North as Rosina Il barbiere di Siviglia.

Katie is also a keen recitalist, and has performed in prestigious venues such as the Wigmore Hall, Cadogan Hall, The Forge, the Holywell Music Room and St George’s, Hanover Square. She has given recitals in many song festivals including the City of London Festival, the London English Song Festival and the Oxford Lieder Festival.

Other recent highlights include a recording of Zemlinsky’s Opus 13 with Trevor Pinnock, and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde in the Loch Shiel Spring Festival.

Katie graduated as a Karaviotis Scholar from the opera course at the Royal Academy of Music, and was awarded the 2012 Principal’s Prize. Taught by Elizabeth Ritchie and Iain Ledingham, she won First Prize in the Academy’s prestigious Richard Lewis Singing Competition in 2011.

Her website is www.katieemilybray.com

Appearances with Chester Bach Singers

Tom Kelly

Tom became a chorister at St. Paul’s Cathedral aged 7 where he sang for six years under John Scott. He read Music at The University of Manchester where he studied with Martin Bussey. He was a Lay Clerk at Manchester Cathedral and a regular member of the Daily Service Singers on BBC Radio 4.

Since graduating, Tom has been a Lay Clerk of New College Oxford, and has sung with a range of professional choirs including Ex Cathedra, The Sixteen, La Nuova Musica, The Fieri Consort, Britten Sinfonia Voices, The Gabrieli Consort, and Chapelle du Roi. He looks forward to upcoming engagements with Polyphony and The Marian Consort.

As a soloist, Tom has regularly performed a range of concert works including Mozart’s Requiem, Bach’s Mass in B Minor and Monteverdi’s Vespers, and a particular highlight has been performing the Evangelist of The St. John Passion.

On stage, Tom has performed the role of Jupiter in Semele, and the Mudlark in Mudlark Dances, a setting of music by Monteverdi commissioned as a groundbreaking touring opera for Spitalfields Music with performances designed specifically for babies aged 6 months to 2 years old.

Appearances with Chester Bach Singers

Graham McCusker

Graham was born in Glasgow, Scotland and raised in Paisley. Born into a musical family (his father an opera singer with Scottish Opera and his mother a singing teacher) he began singing at the age of five as a chorister in the Paisley Abbey Choir. During his 16 years in the choir, he became Head Boy at the age of nine and a Choral Scholar at age 15. As a treble, Graham sang with the Scottish Opera Children’s Chorus in productions of The Queen of Spades, The Cunning Little Vixen, La Bohème, Tosca and Hansel and Gretel. He also played Amahl in Amahl and the Night Visitors and Miles in the RSAMD’s production of The Turn of the Screw. Whilst singing as a treble Graham also studied the piano, and when his voice changed, he continued with piano studies at the Junior RSAMD.
Graham gained a place at Douglas Academy Music School in Milngavie for his final two years of school, studying voice with Ruth Dean and piano with Anna Rastopchina. During this time he sang in many choirs, including The National Youth Chamber Choir of Scotland, Strathclyde University Chamber Choir, RSNO Chorus and the RSAMD Chamber Choir, with which he performed in such renowned venues as the Royal Albert Hall, the Usher Hall and Queens Hall in Edinburgh, Royal Concert Hall and City Halls in Glasgow, His Majesty’s Theatre and St Thomas’s Church in Leipzig. Shortly after completing his studies at Douglas Academy, Graham was offered a position as tutor with the Renfrewshire Schools Senior Choir.
In his second year at the Royal Northern College of Music he was chosen as one of the apostles to sing in performances at the Bridgewater Hall and in the proms at the Royal Albert Hall and which they made a recording of ‘The Apostles’ by Elgar. The CD got Gramophone recording of the year, amongst other awards, and No. 4 in the classical charts.
Recent highlights as a soloist include performing Handel’s Messiah with Chesterfield Choral Society, Beethoven no. 9th symphony with Salford Choral Society, Brahm’s German Requiem with critically acclaimed chamber choir Caledonian Voices and Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle with Southwell Choral Society. Graham also recently sang with Boy George and Clean bandit live on Radio 1 & 2 alongside the BBC Philharmonic.
On the opera stage Graham is recently played the role of Bogdanovich in the RNCM production of ‘The Merry Widow’ and is soon to play Oreste in Gluck’s ‘Iphigenie en Tauride’ in June in St. Andrew’s. Graham is currently on the Post Graduate Diploma course studying singing with Peter Alexander Wilson at the RNCM.

Appearances with Chester Bach Singers

Feedback – Mar2014

Just to say how much we enjoyed the last concert. The Vaughan Williams was the first choral piece I ever sang, 43 years ago as a young teacher in Nigeria. Haven’t heard it since so it was very nostalgic.
Also thought Martin’s piece was great. So quirky and lively and reachable. Glad I wasn’t doing the piano duet – looked hard!
– Greg and Anne Yates

Review: Chester Bach Singers Present Handel’s Messiah at Chester Cathedral 30th November 2013

REVIEW by Kate Sawallisch

Before the concert I wondered if the Messiah I was going to hear by the Chester Bach Singers and the 18th century Sinfonia would be full-bodied enough to fill Chester Cathedral, the choir having only 39 members and the 18th Century Sinfonia consisting of 16 members. And, later, after sitting down in the Cathedral and perusing the programme, I began to worry about whether I was going to be bored sitting through 53 pieces of choral and orchestral music. But as the choir and orchestra took their places a sense of something special about to happen began to fill me. By the time the choir starting singing “And the glory of the Lord” (piece number 4) I found myself being inexorably drawn into the story of Jesus’ life in a way that I have never been before. The small size of the choir and orchestra augmented by 4 very fine soloists created an intense, intimate atmosphere as the story of Jesus’s life, from the announcements of his coming in verses from the Old Testament through his birth, crucifixion and resurrection, began to unfold. It was a story set to glorious music performed on a human scale about a remarkable, but very human, man.

30-Nov-13: Handel's Messiah performed by Martin Bussey with Chester Bach Singers, the 18th Century Sinfonia, Eleanor Gregory (soprano), Katie Bray (alto), Richard Dowling (tenor) and Louis Hurst (bass)

30-Nov-13: Handel’s Messiah performed by Martin Bussey with Chester Bach Singers, the 18th Century Sinfonia, Eleanor Gregory (soprano), Katie Bray (alto), Richard Dowling (tenor) and Louis Hurst (bass)

The soloists were well chosen – their voices suited their roles. However, Katie Bray, contralto and Louis Hurst, bass baritone stood apart for they were outstanding for their total engagement in the story. They rarely looked at their copy. Instead, they sang to the audience as a story teller tells a story to his audience. They told their part of the story with commitment and intensity. And when they weren’t singing they were listening and responding to the music. I was riveted by their performances and will be following their careers with great interest.

The choir sang well together although their very average diction let them down. It is extremely difficult to sing and be understood. Having sung with the Halle Choir first under the direction of Fanny Cooke and latterly with Madeleine Venner, I began to hear and understand the importance of good diction in taking a choral performance from very good to outstanding as the Halle Choir most certainly is. I believe that if the Bach Singers put more effort into perfecting their diction they would instantly become one of the top choirs in the North West.

The soprano section was particularly outstanding. The part is very high and very demanding for the soprano voice and I expected them to struggle to stay in tune. But I was surprised and delighted as they soared upwards with ease and as one voice. I was pleased for them. I could relax and enjoy them. Unsurprisingly they were euphoric after the performance!

There is a wonderful balance between the size of this choir and orchestra which is very pleasing. Overall, I rate this performance of the Messiah as the best one I have ever heard. Well done to Martin Bussey for leading this wonderful choir and orchestra. And a big thank you to all of the musicians for a memorable evening.

Kate Sawallisch
06 December 2013

Handel’s Messiah Programme Notes

Re-visiting Handel’s Messiah
Most choral singers love Handel’s Messiah. Of all choral works it is the one which has entered cultural consciousness to the extent where a movement such as the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus, with all its attendant myths and traditions, is recognisable enough to be used across an immense range of genres and traditions. It is a piece of music that it is assumed will be recognised immediately. This success was similarly immediate in Handel’s day; Handel was, in some ways unlike his contemporary JS Bach, celebrated in his own time and continued to be so after his death. Haydn was stimulated and influenced by the great Handel commemorations held in London at the end of the eighteenth century; they are echoed in his own oratorios. Handel had a gift for universal relevance. Messiah is perhaps the archetype of this trait (although many would argue for other oratorios being even greater works). Unlike Bach’s Passions and Cantatas, Messiah has relevance at any point in the Church’s year. Treated as a compendium of movements on different aspects of Christianity’s development, as it often is, it can be made to point in relevance to Christmas or Easter, as the season demands. Nor, in adopting this approach, can a conductor be accused of marring Handel’s concept. The composer himself presented versions of the work with altered versions of arias and choruses, and some omissions, to suit the occasion. While he might have baulked at Beecham’s version with triangle and cymbals, Handel would perhaps take in his stride performances with just organ, or on ‘modern’ strings.

This November, Chester Bach Singers present Handel’s masterpiece with all the Christmas music complete, followed by the majority of the ensuing movements which trace the Crucifixion story and the glory of Christ’s Resurrection. Thus, familiar movements, such as ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’ and ‘The trumpet shall sound’ remain in place. They follow Handel’s tracing of the Christmas story from Old Testament prophecies, through the experience of the shepherds to the joy of the releasing of burdens that the appearance of the Messiah brings. These are presented with instruments as near as possible to the types with which Handel would have been familiar, played by the 18th Century Sinfonia. A quartet of highly promising young singers brings a freshness to the arias and CBS places its strong choral technical skills at the disposal of Handel’s memorable choruses.

Recordings of Messiah are too numerous to mention and selection is probably invidious. Suffice to say that the listener can find all types of performance to suit their inclination, whether from established groups such as The Sixteen, Polyphony or Cathedral and Collegiate choirs, usually with ‘original instruments’, or larger-scale groups, such as the celebrated performances over the years by the Huddersfield Choral Society.

Vaughan Williams – Dona Nobis Pacem

Dona nobis pacem comes from the decade before the Second World War when Vaughan Williams composed a number of works (for example the 4th Symphony) with harder edges than some might expect from the composer most-often (unfairly) seen as ‘pastoral’. Vaughan Williams was a man who assimilated the experiences of his life with great integrity so that much of his music reflects these with thoughtfulness, rather than any sense of immediate reaction. One of the most famous examples of this is his 3rd Symphony, known as ‘Pastoral’, but deeply influenced by the composer’s experience as an ambulance orderly (while in his 40s)in the First World War. Such experiences surely mark the composition and subject matter of Dona nobis pacem. First performed in 1936 to mark the centenary of Huddersfield Choral Society, the work joins together Bible passages (mostly Old Testament prophecy, often of considerable vigour) and passages from the Latin Mass (including the title which roughly translates as ‘grant us peace’). Alongside are three poems by one of the composer’s favourite inspirations, Walt Whitman. These reflect the poet’s experience in the American Civil War, particularly the way, in the ‘Dirge for Two Veterans’ set by other composers as diverse as Holst and Kurt Weill, that war has its impact on whole families. The focus is very much on the human consequences of war. To this end, at the start of the fifth movement, Vaughan Williams sets part of a speech, given in the House of Commons by the Manchester MP John Bright during the Crimean War, which makes reference again to the Old Testament and the Passover. The message given by the Baritone soloist, Andrew Davies, is that there is now no-one to mark the doors so that the Angel of Death will pass on. Vaughan Williams creates music of great rhythmic vigour and uses harsh harmonies at times to focus clearly the devastation of war. Yet throughout the work the Soprano soloist, Donna Lennard, presents the plea for peace, ‘Dona nobis pacem’ until, at the end, a vision of peace and good-will towards all is achieved. There is a definite sense that Vaughan Williams sees this as a vision for the future, rather than something which is imminently to be realised (a true reflection of the times in the 1930s) but his music brings certainty and resolution to the dissonance and turmoil of the early movements. Originally composed for large forces, Chester Bach Singers’ performance is in the arrangement authorised by the composer for piano and strings.

Getting to know the work: performances by Sir Adrian Boult from the 1960s with Sheila Armstrong and John Carol Case and more recently (2010) by David Hill with Christiana Pier and Matthew Brook are the most easily available and reflect the performing traditions of their times.

Vaughan Williams – An Oxford Elegy

An Oxford Elegy is a very unusual choral piece. The main thrust of the text is carried by a speaker, rather than being sung by a vocal soloist. The choir’s role moves from being a prominent part of the accompanying orchestral texture to being either a response to the spoken text or to presenting part of the poem. It is unlike almost any other English choral piece of its time but reflects Vaughan Williams’ awareness of contemporary musical ideas. Composed between 1947 and 1949, and given its premiere in Oxford in 1952, this treatment of music and text reflects works by composers as diverse as Schoenberg (A Survivor from Warsaw), Stravinsky (Oedipus Rex) and Walton (Facade and Henry V). The structure of the work is rhapsodic, changing speed frequently and relying on a verse-like approach which mirrors the poetry in form but which creates musical challenges to ensure coherence in performance. The secret lies in Vaughan Williams’ close attention to the fluctuations of mood in the poetry. He combined sections of two poems by the nineteenth-century poet Matthew Arnold. ‘The Scholar Gypsy’ concerns a mythical figure from centuries back supposed to haunt Oxford and the hillsides which overlook its ‘dreaming spires’ – for this is the poem whence that famous quotation comes. (It has to be said that any fan of Lewis or Morse will feel at home in this piece!) Vaughan Williams skilfully cuts extracts from the poem into parts of another Arnold poem, ‘Thyrsis’. This was a tribute, through comparison with a Classical poet, to his friend the poet Arthur Hugh Clough who died young. Thus, the many references to ‘Thyrsis’ in the piece are references to Clough, and his loss. Hence, the piece as an elegy. The moods through which the music move end with resignation and acceptance as the piece returns to its opening key and the choir urges all to ‘Roam on’ as the scholar gypsy does.

Getting to know the work: the most famous, and still most easily available recording is that by Sir David Willcocks and the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. The poetry is given somewhat ‘classic BBC’ tones by the reader (interestingly at its first performance the reader was a baritone, Sir Steuart Wilson, a practice CBS will follow) but the performance has great warmth.