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Christmas concert at St John's Church, Keynsham

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Rotary club of Portishead

Sat, 7 Oct 2023
Choir concert Portishead 7/10/23
An informal, impartial review

On an unseasonably mild October evening, the faithful of Portishead gathered at the Methodist church for a concert given by our choir and hosted by the local Rotary Club.  The members were given a warm reception as they filed through the church and mounted the steps to the stage, not without some trepidation.  Once installed in their places, the young and the not-so, the long and the short and the tall, arranged along the stage like crenellations on a mediaeval fort, the choir prepared to do battle with the likes of Lerner and Loewe, Simon and Garfunkel, and Chambers and Williams.

There was a brief introduction by the Rotary Club representative, which was immediately followed by the first song, ‘With a Voice of Singing’, an entirely appropriate choice which was sung with gusto, giving the choir a chance to air their lungs and calm any nerves.  To my untrained ear, the song sounded entirely rounded, with good balance between the four voices, taking full advantage of the excellent acoustics in the church, but one member of the basses told me later that they had missed one of their entrances, but what do I know?

Mike Evans then stepped forward as compere and introduced the Musical Director, Marysia Gorska-Saj (a name he almost pronounced correctly) and the accompanist, Clair Hiles, before giving a brief rundown on the next two songs, which were ‘My Lord What a Morning’ and ‘Let it be Me’, both of which were rendered flawlessly.  Next came the Bette Midler favourite, ‘The Rose’ which, although it began and ended well, was rather let down in the second verse by the fact that the baritones, who were on the melody and, of course, were singing beautifully, were rather drowned out by the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ of the other sections.  Perhaps it was jealousy on their part.  The first part of the concert was concluded by an energetic delivery of ‘Rhythm of Life’ which, after a hesitant start as members fought a briefly losing battle with their memory of the words, drove through to a finish which had the audience applauding with wonder and admiration.  

As the choir returned somewhat heavily to their seats after such an enervating performance, we were treated to an exhibition of solo singing by local Portishead baritone Marcus Evans, accompanied by Sheila Rice, and when he sang ‘Stars’ from Les Miserables, I for one reviewed my own credentials as a baritone soloist within the choir and decided that perhaps I should seek a simpler way to express myself.  Marcus was brilliant.

The choir returned to their places and began the next section of the concert with a rousing performance of ‘The Song of the Jolly Roger’, which put the audience in mind of cutthroats, pieces of eight, wooden legs and parrots on shoulders.  It was all great fun for the audience, and if the choir had joined in by wallowing in the ‘Ha-Ha-Ha-Ha’ at the end, it might have shown that they too were having fun.  There followed an old spiritual, ‘Where Could I go?’ which, after a slightly dreary start, swung beautifully to the rhythms induced by Marysia and concluded with a very satisfying ‘Yeah’.  Elvis would have been proud.  And Robbie Williams would have been proud of the outstanding performance of his outstanding song ‘Angels’, which followed.  The first half of the concert ended with the ‘Anthem’ from ‘Chess’, which, with its patriotic rhetoric, inevitably put the audience as they listened, and the choir as they sang, firmly in mind of the struggle currently taking place in Ukraine.

At some point in his spiel, Mike Evans told a joke about loss of memory in older people that went down very well with the audience and with the choir, but I can’t remember what it was.

The second half of the concert began with a medley from ‘Paint Your Wagon’, so the audience will soon be talking to trees, checking out their supply of beans and reaching down into their boots to sing like Lee Marvin, on the back of a performance of sustained excellence by the choir.  The next song was ‘What would I do without my Music?’, which began a cappella and developed into a very melodic demonstration of how four male voices can work together, with the highlight being the baritone solo.

Marcus Evans returned with his engaging stage presence and fine, rich voice to present three more songs, during one of which, The Pirate King, he invited the choir to join him, which they did, albeit somewhat mutedly, before they returned to their battlements for the last part of the concert.

‘Bridge over Troubled Water’ demonstrated Marysia’s immaculate control of the choir’s rhythms as she swayed back and forth, so that we could almost see the water flowing under the bridge.  ‘Gabriel’s Trumpet’ came next, a jolly song which, once it got going after a rather dreary start, swung along nicely, as did ‘When the Saints go marching in’, catching the audience out as usual with its false ending, despite Mike’s warning.  The concert proper concluded with a rousing rendition of ‘Gwahoddiad’, and the inevitable though richly deserved encore was ‘Rachie’, and if they ever made a mess of those two, having sung them so many times, the choir should be thoroughly ashamed.  They didn’t and weren’t

Just to finish the critical part of my observations, there are just two comments I would make.  Firstly, please open your mouths when you are singing, especially on sounds like ‘Aaah', as in ‘Anthem’ and ‘Angels’.  Secondly, please look as if you’re enjoying yourselves: I know a grin wouldn’t be appropriate for ‘Anthem’ or ‘Troubled Water’ for example, but there are plenty of upbeat songs that demand a happy face.  We enjoy singing, so let’s show it.  Marcus Evans does.  

In conclusion, it was a privilege to be in the audience for this concert, and not just because it didn’t cost me anything, but it’s something I would recommend to every choir member if they ever find themselves in a position to do so.  The sound produced by a male voice choir is unique and the sound we produce is special.

Thanks to the choir, to Marysia for keeping them under control, to Clair for her skills and to Sheila for introducing and accompanying Marcus, for an evening I and the audience thoroughly enjoyed.