Bristol sings!

Today’s guest blog is from Val Williams, alto in Bristol Choral Society

Bristol has many reasons to be proud of its amateur music scene, but this is our chance to express that pride in a public vote.

Bristol Choral Society and our musical director, Hilary Campbell, have many reasons to celebrate right now. The most important is that we have been shortlisted for the Inspiration Award from the Royal Philharmonic Society. This is a bit like a BAFTA for musicians! And Hilary really is an inspiration to the many singers, friends and other musicians who support the choir today. This is a public vote, so it would be great if all of Bristol could get behind its choir by voting before the deadline of September 30th!

There is a vast range of choirs and other music-making groups in Bristol. Despite the pandemic, many of us have kept going and still fill our city with beautiful sounds. But none is as established as Bristol Choral Society, founded in 1889, and still going strong today.

An inspirational leader

What has Hilary meant for Bristol over the pandemic? Social isolation and ‘keeping safe’ have been the mantras for well over a year now, and the emotional outlets provided by music making have been limited. There may not be much that singers can do by rehearsing alone in their garden sheds! Members of Bristol Choral Society however soon took up opportunities to rehearse, to learn new music, and to keep meeting week after week. We have hardly missed one week in the past 18 months, and the choir rehearsals have been a real anchor in the lives of over ninety singers who regularly joined in by zoom.

We probably all know by now that joint music making online is almost impossible. But Hilary still found ways of making this experience real. Although singers were on ‘mute’, it really did feel that Hilary could hear us, as she commented on our singing, praised our enthusiasm, or suggested better ways of tackling the dots. Supported by Steve Kings, our amazing accompanist and deputy, Hilary forged ahead with her creativity and musical leadership. She engaged professional singers to make guide tracks for the choir to follow, and she even arranged for the choir to tune in on live rehearsals which she set up with professional singers in London.

As tenor Julian Rivers comments:
“In a time of unprecedented difficulty for musicians, Hilary responded with unbounded creativity and optimism. Week by week her cheerful energy and encouragement kept us singing, exploring new repertoire, improving technique, and constantly reminding us of our shared hope that we would in time experience real choral singing once again. She has been a model of courage in adversity and a bright point during the dark weeks of lockdown, worthy of wide public recognition.”

Choir celebrations and honours

It was only 18 months ago, but in that other world before the pandemic, the choir recorded its first ever CD in over 125 years! Along with Bristol Youth Choir, Hilary led the singing at St George’s Bristol in January 2020. Little did we know that this would be almost the last chance for rubbing shoulders and actually singing together. But the CD was released during the pandemic, and has been a great success!

The CD features female composers, such as Judith Weir, many of whom have been overlooked over the years. Diversity has also been the keyword in other choir projects during the past year. For instance, the choir went ahead with a planned Christmas carol competition in December 2020, where new composers were invited to submit a carol. Over 70 compositions were received from all over the world, and were whittled down to a shortlist of five. Last autumn again we could not meet in person, but choir members submitted tracks for a virtual recording of each carol.

The competition was eventually won by Pam Slater, a retired music teacher. The carol project was named in memory of Mary Otty, daughter of Sue Otty, a well known local musician and choir member. And we now have confirmation that we did them proud, since the project has just been recognised with another award in the ‘Making Music’ ceremony on September 8th.

In fact, in an exceptional evening for the choir, we also learnt that Hilary had succeeded in winning the ‘best vocal music director’ award from Making Music. So now we are geared up for a hat trick of three awards, with the RPS award open for public vote until the end of September.

What next for Bristol Choral Society?

Come and see Hilary Campbell in action and hear Bristol Choral on November 6th, as well as the return of Handel’s Messiah on December 11th – both in Bristol Cathedral. And thank you for voting for us!