Performances of complete works
A male choir is what we would call a repertoire choir; that is, it works on, and sings a variety of pieces during the concert season. Risca Male Choir usually works on a repertoire of as many as sixty pieces or more during the year, quite a considerable amount, in any case, for an amateur choir.
From time to time some male choirs may avail themselves of the chance to perform a complete work, maybe a commissioned piece, but to my certain knowledge this is more unusual than normal. Taking time out to rehearse a large scale piece can involve a considerable amount of work and in the end the piece may only get one performance: most choirs would consider this a waste of time.
With Risca Male Choir things have been somewhat different, and over the years the choir has sung a number of complete works, including complete suites of pieces: more of that later on.
The first complete work we tackled was the Organ Mass by French composer, Charles Gounod. Not a great piece, but quite approachable and only, as the name implies, needing an organ accompaniment. Huw Tregelles Williams was our accompanist for our first performance of the piece which attracted a lot of local attention. As a result, we were asked to perform the work as part of the liturgy in a couple of churches in Newport. This was quite an experience, watching the mass taking place while we sang the relevant parts of the service.
In 1987 the choir commissioned its first work which was to be a suite of five pieces, settings of Elizabethan poetry, by Newport composer Richard Roderick Jones. The melodic and harmonic language was not easy, but we had worked three of the pieces in time to include them in the programme for our first Californian tour. Later that year, in the Annual Concert, we performed the complete suite, Her Triumph. It was the only time we performed the complete cycle, but the three pieces, numbers 1, 3 and 5 of the work we performed on many occasions.
In 1992 Risca Male Choir performed a work that we had been gradually learning, piece meal, over some time. This was the famous Requiem in D for Male voices and orchestra by Italian composer Luigi Cherubini. At the time of composition he was director of the Paris Conservatoire and had already written a Requiem Mass for mixed voices. This had earned the disapproval of the Archbishop of Paris for its lack of gravitas in using female voices. Cherubini then wrote this Requiem for male voices as a response. It is a substantial work and contains many great moments of choral and orchestral writing.
It was a thrilling occasion at the Risca Leisure Centre accompanied by Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra and our performance has stood as a major achievement by any standard, for a male choir.
Another suite of pieces that the choir performed on only one occasion that I can remember was the one by Edward Elgar, From the Greek Anthology. Its rather Victorian salon style, I know, did not appeal to the choristers; but again we sang at least two of the pieces (including the famous Feasting I watch) from the suite on many occasions.
It was another especially composed work that gave us one more memorable musical experience. Mervyn Burtch scored a large scale piece for brass band and male voices with Risca Male Choir and Tredegar Town Band in mind. It was a dramatic setting of the confrontation of Beowulf and the monster, Grendel. The piece was most satisfying to work on and the two performances of Beowulf and Grendel gave us a chance to feel a great sense of achievement.
It was a work by Mervyn’s predecessor and indeed, teacher, David Wynne that took us to yet another musical peak. Scored for brass septet and a great deal of percussion, Owain ab Urien, must stand among our greatest achievements.
The work written in sixth-century Welsh and studying the piece gave us much insight into the history of both the language and the Welsh people. We performed the work in the atmospheric Great Hall at Caerphilly Castle as part of the centenary celebration concert for a remarkable Welsh composer, David Wynne.
Richard Roderick Jones, who had written Her Triumph for us, passed on to me a short suite of pieces he had written as a commission from Cwmbran Male Choir. Psalmody was to be a most useful short suite that we have sung on many occasions, including the 1994 tour of California, and indeed, of which we have made a splendid recording.
Most recently, the male choir working with Crosskeys College Choral Society sang Verdi’s opera Nabucco. We learned the work alongside fulfilling our regular and busy concert schedule. This was yet another huge achievement for the choir and yet another unique experience. Other works we have sung with orchestras have included Carbon 12 for Welsh National Opera, Beethoven’s Choral Symphony for Gareth Jones at the St David’s Hall, Cardiff, and Verdi’s Requiem with Sinfonia Cymru and Crosskeys College Choral Society
To have learned, sung and experienced all of these works has been amongst the most memorable occasions for choristers and director alike. It has offered the choir a tremendous diversity of vocal styles and accompaniments and certainly helped raise the standard and indeed, the reputation of Risca Male Choir
Martin Hodson MBE