Homecoming with Simon Halsey
Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus
Director of the London Symphony Chorus
Director of Choral Studies, University of Birmingham
As night fell (at 4:00 p.m.), I walked across the street from our Birmingham hotel to the New Street station and caught a train out to the University. I was a little apprehensive, not having made the trek before, but the train was clean and neat, and it was easy to know at which stop "to alight," as they say in the UK. I followed the "way out" signs, climbed up the stairs to the street, and was greeted by a big billboard, "University of Birmingham — Home to Eleven Nobel Prize Winners." Impressive. The entrance to campus was a couple of blocks away. The campus looked — American. The buildings were relatively new, and the students were diverse. After the posh, privileged culture of ancient Oxbridge, it felt like a homecoming.
I made my way to the music building, and it was locked tight. A keycard, which I didn't have, was required for entry. Some sympathetic students let me in anyway. (I'm certain they have been warned a hundred times not to do that, but I was grateful.) I explained that I was there at the invitation of Simon Halsey, and they pointed to his office. I knocked on his door, and he opened it immediately. I was clearly interrupting a lesson, but he exclaimed, "Betsy! I'm just finishing up here, but let me give you a gift!" It was a beautiful, newly-published anthology of Christmas carols arranged by his father, Louis Halsey, who served as chorus master for Benjamin Britten. I sat in the lobby marveling at that substantial collection while the lesson concluded.
Simon came bounding out. He showed me around the relatively new music building, including a beautiful concert venue complete with two organs. "We have organs, but no organists," I was told. We traipsed up to the choral rehearsal room on the top floor. "It's going to be cold," he warned. "We leave the windows open because of Covid."
The rehearsal consisted of Simon's six Master's students each running a brief rehearsal on a different piece of music. Simon believes in keeping his graduate program relatively small (typically four students), a philosophy we share at the University of Houston. The choir was very well-prepared; this was not a note-teaching session. One of Simon's colleagues gave comments as the evening progressed. (Simon had dashed off to rehearsal with the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus.) The conducting students were clearly talented and well-prepared. I was particularly interested in observing a young Texan who came to Birmingham after his undergraduate work at TCU. (Well done, Chris Aspaas!) As the students exited, I was amused when one student asked me, "Are you considering enrolling in the conducting program here?"
There was a brief pause, and a new choir, The University Singers, walked in to rehearse with guest conductor, Bob Chilcott. They worked on a variety of repertoire, including a beautiful, new composition of his, "The Pear Tree Carol." Mr. Chilcott ran a lovely, productive, fun rehearsal. He had told me beforehand, "This music is in good shape; we should have a good concert this weekend." I agreed. Simon had told me, "Each year, we try to give the students the opportunity to work with a famous conductor, and each year we try to commission a new piece of music from a well-known composer. We want other choirs to open up their scores and say, "Oh, look! There is another University of Birmingham commission!"
The next day, I sat in on a three-hour seminar with the graduate conductors as they worked their way through the Fauré Requiem. It was fun to watch them and to hear Simon's commentary, which began with a comparison of editions. Again, it felt like home.
One evening, Rick and I headed to the Birmingham Symphony Hall, which resides in the same building as the Birmingham International Convention Center, an interesting and, apparently, successful concept. The program consisted of a concert performance of Janáček's Cunning Little Vixen. The music is absolutely ravishing, and this performance, conducted by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, was a fine one. All the marketing and all the conversations I overheard about this conductor simply referred to her as "Mirga." (No one attempted to pronounce her surname.) She is young, energetic, and masterful on the podium. The orchestra played very well, the vocal soloists, including a number of children, were wonderful, and the chorus performed admirably from the choir loft. The opera calls for a bit of off-stage chorus. In the Birmingham production, the Chorus simply turned and faced the back of the loft to create an appropriately-muffled sound while Simon served as sub-conductor from the top of the loft. It was an interesting and successful solution.
The next evening, I found my way to a City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus rehearsal on different repertoire. This chorus has an illustrious reputation and history. As two small examples, this is the choir that premiered the Vaughan Williams Mass in G Minor and the Britten War Requiem. Can you imagine how daunting it must have been to be the first chorus master and chorus to work on those massive pieces?
At the rehearsal, I again felt at home. The Chorus manager, Poppy, was looking for me and welcomed me (while checking my Covid test). Each chorister who entered the building was required to provide a recent, negative antigen Covid test. A few, apparently new, singers did not have results with them. They were handed a test packet and told to go to the restroom, give themselves the test, and enter the rehearsal as soon as the (negative) results were in. The process was smooth and not at all onerous. England hands out free boxes containing seven tests to anyone who asks for one. I give myself a test every few days.
Individual singers came up to say hello, show me where to sit, and bring me a score. The Chorus uses the orchestra's rehearsal space, which is ideal. Simon seats the Chorus with the men facing the women, something I like very much. They worked on a Nathaniel Dett oratorio, The Ordering of Moses. It has an interesting history, and I was embarrassed to have to go to England to learn about this wonderful American piece. Simon was funny, knowledgeable, and efficient, and the singers worked their way through this new-to-them music with good spirits, even though they had performed the Janáček just the night before.
Simon's other symphony chorus is the London Symphony Chorus, To get to London, we took a lovely 2.5 hour train ride from Birmingham. (Again, hooray for rail transportation!) And, then, to get from our London hotel to rehearsal, I took three different undergrounds — cheap, clean, safe, and easy to figure out. (Again, hooray for rail transportation!). The LSO Chorus' normal rehearsal space, a girls school, is not available because of Covid restrictions, so LSC is using a deconsecrated church designed by Christopher Wren. Although it was visually beautiful, it was cold and poorly lighted — not ideal.
The ceiling of the Christopher Wren-designed St. Mary's Church
Again, Covid test results were required. Again, singers made me feel welcome. And again, Simon ran a great rehearsal, this time on a new consortium commission by Julian Anderson, Les République des Lettres; an homage to Varian Fry. The piece is for double choir and is dense and difficult. Simon was working with Choir 1 only and methodically helped the singers find their way through the music.
Two Simon-isms I liked very much were:
"We get a break when we get to the staples!" (Choristers all over the world know that the staples appear in the middle of a score.)
"One thing that can be said for English choirs is that even when we produce rubbish, we still always manage to put our final 't's' together." :-)
Simon Halsey, working his way to the staples
Chatting with Simon over lunch, before and after rehearsals, and during breaks, I obtained a few take-aways:
He is a warm, approachable, generous guy and a masterful choral conductor and teacher.
His schedule is daunting by any measure. It helps that he has a scheduler — a person who creates, maintains, and enforces his calendar.
No doubt a part of Simon's success lies with the three chorus administrators he uses, one for each of his choruses. These folks have been helping Simon with the non-musical tasks of running "their" choirs for a long time, and they clearly are adept in anticipating what needs doing. Our American symphony choruses also have managers who perform these tasks. (Where would the Houston Symphony Chorus be without Anna Diemer and Brian Miller?) Very few, if any, American collegiate programs have this kind of help, however. Instead, we rely on graduate assistants who, as capable and willing as they are, leave our programs every two or three years due to the pesky tradition called "graduation." As a result, we are constantly retraining our "helpers" and, too often, just handle administrative tasks ourselves because it is easier.
Simon also uses a number of very capable associate conductors who step in to assist with rehearsals as needed and/or whenever he is double-booked. Again, in the States, we tend to use graduate students for these musical tasks. I would not want to change that tradition, but must admit that it would be nice to have more musical continuity from year to year.
The University of Birmingham choruses are extracurricular, and the students do not get college credit for participating. I asked if attendance was an issue, and the answer was, "No! They want to SING!"
Both symphony choruses had fewer men than women in the ranks while I was there. This was true even in the performance of the Janacek. The aural balance was just fine, and I am resolved to stop counting male/female heads and to begin trusting my ears more.
As Simon and I talked about our collegiate and symphonic choir responsibilities — recruiting, retention, standards, schedules, repertoire, etc. — it was clear that our joys and challenges are very similar and that our solutions and philosophies are similar as well.
I should have mentioned this back when I wrote the very first Choircrawl blog, but I have not seen a single mask used by singers in the choirs I have observed. In addition, there has been no distancing. Instead, they rely on frequent testing. I have asked each director about this practice, and their unanimous response has been, "There have been individual Covid cases, but we have had no spread as the result of singing together." There may be a lesson here for American choirs.
Finally, Birmingham is a fun, quirky place working hard on urban renewal, particularly around its many canals.