Every Event is special in its own way but some performances excel above all others.
One of the most sensational events that typifies this is the biennial Festival of Male Choirs hosted by London Welsh Male Voice Choir and performed at London’s renowned Royal Albert Hall. The first of these feasts of Welsh Male Choral tradition was staged in 1969, and 2016 will mark the 25th Anniversary of this wonderful Festival.
Since 2004 the renowned broadcaster and presenter Frank Lincoln has compèred this event and Frank provides us with his perspective on the Festival in his inimitable style.
The London Welsh Festival of Male Choirs by Frank Lincoln
There was once a famous singing teacher in Italy who used to sell bottled air from Milan to his pupils. The bottles were bought in their thousands by singers who hoped that the special oxygen supplied in them would improve their voices, and enable them to sing in the city's world famous La Scala Opera House. There is no record of any of them actually succeeding in their ambition because of this, although the professor apparently retired at an early age having made a veritable fortune!
No one, as far as I know, has ever advocated bottling Welsh air as an aid to singing, but perhaps that is because there was never any need for it, as Wales over the centuries, for such a comparatively small nation, has produced an extraordinary number of world class singers - and their choirs are truly world renowned. Remembering that George Bernard Shaw once wrote that 'the Welsh are Italians in the rain' - perhaps the secret lies not in the air but in Welsh water, and there's usually plenty of that available in the Principality. Whatever the reason, there is no denying the truth of the Reverend Eli Jenkins' statement in Dylan Thomas' 'Under Milk Wood' - 'Thank the lord we are a musical nation'. There have been many magnificent mixed choirs in Wales, singing opera and oratorios in chapels, vestries, churches, draughty halls and eisteddfod tents all over the country, but the crowning glory of the musical tradition has been the male voice choirs, or the Côrau Meibion as they are referred to in Welsh. It was a tradition which flourished in nineteenth century Wales, fuelled by the industrial revolution that was bringing Welshmen together in large numbers - miners, steelworkers and quarrymen. Non-conformist Christianity was a dominating and inspirational influence as well - this is often reflected in the dramatic hymns of the period with their glorious climactic 'Amens'.
The choirs' repertoire gained popularity throughout the UK and far beyond - in fact, wherever in the world Welshmen gathered to tell tales and breathe fire - so there is little wonder that Welsh community hymn singing (the Gymanfa Ganu) became, and continue to be, regular and vastly popular events in countries as far afield as Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the Far East.
At the turn of the twentieth century many Welsh people moved to London to find work as teachers and preachers - some farmers migrated to sell milk in the capital. Anxious to preserve their culture and traditions, they built their own schools and chapels, and inevitably formed their own choirs - the illustrious London Welsh Male Voice Choir was formed in 1902. Whilst maintaining the best of Welsh male choral tradition, they also sought to be innovative, and in 1969 it introduced the first of the now famous London Welsh Festival of Male Choirs held biennially at the renowned Royal Albert Hall. Next year will be the 25th anniversary of this remarkable Festival, which by now has been widely copied.
Choirs from all over Britain, and from many parts of the world are invited to participate, and there are always many hundreds of choristers to be heard in full voice the Royal Albert Hall. The repertoire, reflects opera choruses, Spirituals, the traditional hymns and anthems, and also the contemporary - arrangements from the very latest and most popular West End and Broadway musicals. There are sometimes world premiers of specially commissioned works - for example 'Heroes Journey' by renowned composer Karl Jenkins in 2012. There are always two soloists as well - up and coming Welsh stars of the future, or well established world famous opera stars such as Dennis O'Neill and Rebecca Evans. With first class pianists and organists, world champion brass bands and an inspired conductor, a feast of music awaits the packed auditorium - 5,400 seats, always sold out.
The climax is of course that concert at the Albert Hall, but the preparation beforehand entails months of rehearsal in the participating choirs' home territories - learning new repertoire and arrangements, mastering foreign tongues (I've often wondered how many of the choirs get along with some of the tongue twisting eccentricities involved in the items sung in Welsh). And then on the day of the concert itself seven hundred or so choristers have just five hours in which to rehearse and to sound as if they've been together for a lifetime. The camaraderie has to be seen to be believed. They are like one great family, and in some ways that is exactly what they are, and many of the choirs include different generations of the same family bonded together by the love of singing.
After the concert many of the choristers wander over from the Albert Hall, to a local hostelry, and there they sing to each other in an impromptu concert. They genuinely seem to enjoy listening to each other, and they seem to inspire each other as well - the Cenestra Male Choir from South Africa for example who took part in the London Welsh Festival in 2014, was established in 1992 following encouragement by members of the Cwm Bach Male Choir whom they met at the Cork International Festival in Ireland in 1988. The Male Choir seems to be as popular as it has ever been - witness the fact that the London Welsh Choir now has nearly twenty percent of its membership under the age of forty. No mean feat.
Since 2004 I have been lucky enough to have compèred the marvellous London Welsh Festival of Male Voice Choirs. My role is a fairly simple one - to 'bring it all together' as they say, with a little information about the soloists and the music where necessary, with a few relevant anecdotes and the occasional joke thrown in for good measure; at the end there is a simple but very moving ceremony where all the participating choirs' conductors and accompanists are presented to the audience, who literally raise the roof with the enthusiasm of their applause. During my career as a broadcaster and presenter, I have worked in many a wonderful venue - the Suntory Hall in Tokyo, the Barbican, The Novello Theatre in the West End, The National Concert Hall in Dublin, St. David's Hall and the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff among them, - but my favourite venue without a doubt is the Royal Albert Hall. It's a magical place - vast, but yet somehow you feel extremely close to the audience, both physically and emotionally. In the 1980's and 90's I presented many live promenade concerts for BBC Radio 3 from the Hall, and that entailed sitting in a box more of less surrounded by members of the audience. That was a nerve tingling experience believe me. But it doesn't compare with the thrill of walking on to the stage to present an enchanting evening of music as provided by the London Welsh Festival of Male Voice Choirs and their guests. That is why I have decided that the next Festival in 2016 will be my swan song - no more compèring of any kind, anywhere, because any other event at any other venue would simply be an anti-climax. Listening to or performing in the Festival is truly an unique, unforgettable and humbling experience.
A male voice choir in full cry
Makes music unlike others -
It's all for one and one for all,
A community of brothers.
And in a world of so much loss
Of war, of deprivation –
This is the note that gives us faith,
And hope, and inspiration.