Chichester Singers offer Berlioz for the Festival of Chichester

Berlioz really didn’t do things by halves, muses musical director Jonathan Willcocks as he prepares to present the great man’s Te Deum with the Chichester Singers at the Festival of Chichester.

Their programme in Chichester Cathedral on Saturday, June 20 at 7.30pm will also include Puccini’s Missa di Gloria.

“For the first performance, Berlioz had more than 900 singers in a huge church in Paris,” Jonathan says. “It’s one of the largest-scale choral works both in ambition and numbers. The scale of the cathedral obviously won’t allow us to do that, but we will still have the full force of the Chichester Singers, 150 voices, and a large orchestra of something like 75-80 players.

“It really is one of the major works for the repertoire. We last performed it in 2004. But always when you come to something again, you always try to look at it afresh because music definitely isn’t something that is static. The great thing about music is you vary the ingredients. Each time you come to something, you try to give it the best possible interpretation. You have the raw ingredients, and you combine them to the best effect. Perhaps 50 per cent of the Singers were in our last performance, but that’s 11 years ago now.”

One of the challenges comes from the fact the piece requires the choir to be divided into a double chorus: “They are literally two different choral forces. Berlioz explores the extreme choral dynamics from the extremely quiet to the absolutely thunderous.”

The Chichester Singers come to the task having performed the piece in the Royal Albert Hall debut earlier this month, combining with the Guildford Choral Society which Jonathan has directed for the past three years and also the Portsmouth Choral Union which he directed for 37 years. For the prestigious London venue, the combined choirs numbered around 450 – ‘a wonderful opportunity before we get the chance to sing it on home turf’.

For Chichester, the Puccini will provide the perfect complement: “His Missa di Gloria is a very early work, but it is very tuneful and attractive, and you can hear all the hints of the great things that were to come in his great operas. Even though this isn’t opera, you can hear that it is very operatic.

“It is a contrast to the Berlioz, but they are both works at the heart of the romantic 19th century. They share the same musical genres – though Berlioz was the leading light in France and Puccini was the up-and-coming opera composer from Italy. They both need large orchestras, they both need tenor soloists... they are quite a natural pairing.”

The concert comes in a year in which the choir won’t be touring, after a successful trip to Italy last year: “We usually try to tour every three years. Our away trip this year was really the trip to the Royal Albert Hall.

“If you try to tour too often, it can compromise your programming because touring is such a big undertaking. Once every three years, we find, works very well. We will be looking to tour again in 2017. It might be Italy or it might be Spain. We haven’t decided yet.”

The Chichester Singers will be back in Chichester Cathedral on Saturday, November 7 at 7.30pm when they offer Godfree and Mozart. They conclude the year on December 5 at 7.30pm with a Christmas concert in 
St Paul’s Church.

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