A site for singing: ABCD's Choral Leaders’ Festival

Cameron Bray
Saturday, June 1, 2019

For the past few years, we have covered the annual convention of the Association of British Choral Directors. This year's event has been expanded and extended, becoming a fully-fledged Choral Leaders’ Festival. Cameron Bray finds out what this means

 The Choral Festival takes place at the new Royal Birmingham Conservatoire
The Choral Festival takes place at the new Royal Birmingham Conservatoire

Tom Bird

In 1986, the Association of British Choral Directors (ABCD) was formed following a weekend gathering of several choral key players who identified the need for a body which could unite and support choral directors, composers and publishers across the UK. Since then, the organisation has continued to grow and this 34th iteration of its annual convention is set to be its biggest yet, bringing a diverse range of content across a long weekend. A whole extra day has been added on to accommodate a host of exciting plenary sessions, keynote addresses and singing opportunities. The involvement of the European Choral Association (ECA) brings with it a number of distinguished speakers and performers. As a result of these developments, the convention is now being termed a Choral Leaders’ Festival.

‘One of the reasons ECA asked us to collaborate with it on this festival was because of Brexit,’ says the chair of the ABCD, Leslie East, who was responsible for putting together the artistic programme.

‘The ECA is keen to ensure that cultural connections between the UK and the rest of Europe, particularly those of its members will endure, that the relationship continues to exist and strengthen over time. We have picked up on that and we hope that the mix will be attractive to different kinds of choir leaders.’

The festival is taking place in Birmingham, specifically at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. I ask Rachel Greaves, general secretary of the ABCD, why the city was chosen: ‘Birmingham is a favourite location. We last went there in 2011, indeed we've been twice in the old conservatoire and it worked very well. Now it's got a lovely new building, we wanted to take advantage of it!’

The same hymn sheet

One of the key strands of the festival then, will be European choral music. This will be the focus of the Friday but is threaded throughout the entire weekend. Greaves tells me: ‘We wanted to provide the opportunity to have delegates from elsewhere in Europe, while also being able to showcase some of the best of European choral music. We always have an international element to the convention, one of its unique features. Sometimes European, sometimes American – from all over the world really – but this year we wanted a European group. This year it's the National Youth Choir of Hungary, who is coming over especially for the weekend. It will be great to hear the choir sing, learn about its repertoire, and how it's set up. That's something to come for that you won't find elsewhere.’

Alongside this, there will also be a debate on the future of choral music in Europe, featuring the vice president of the ECA, Dermot O’Callaghan, as well as sessions run by renowned guest speakers who represent the very best of choral talent from across the continent, including Jim Daus Hjernøe and Astrid Vang-Pedersen from Denmark. The best of Britain will be represented by luminaries such as John Rutter, David Bednall, and Paul Spicer who will be diving into their favourite repertoire and personal work.

If you're a choral leader who works with open access community choirs, or who is looking to move into this area, then the Saturday sessions will be of particular interest to you. ‘We're very aware that the choral world is widening,’ says Greaves. ‘The people who are looking for choral leadership training, repertoire, and inspiration are coming from a much wider spread of choirs and singers. One of the things we've done for this year is to also have a day which is particularly aimed at those who are leading community choirs in the widest sense of the word. They're leading people of all ages and generally working with non-auditioned choirs made up of people who want to sing but who might not read music. There are therefore different ways of learning repertoire and teaching it – the Saturday is aimed at helping these leaders and these choirs to develop.’

Throughout the day, a robust mix of sessions will see you through every step of the process, from establishing a community choir, to developing and growing one. In the afternoon, David Lawrence will take participants through classic repertoire which always goes down well in community choir setting. Along the way, you'll learn how to find new and suitable repertoire and build leadership skills that will ensure your choir shines as a beacon of collaboration.

What should be clear is the convention's drive for inclusion and diversity, which is reflected through the sessions on offer and the repertoire which is being promoted by exhibitors for SATB, as well as young voices, female voices and more.

Beyond the summer


László Norbert Nemes is bringing the National Youth Choir of Hungary to the festival

New to this year's offering, and very much in keeping with the idea of collaboration, is a research strand. This will be initiated with a keynote speech from Katie Overy, senior lecturer in music at the University of Edinburgh. Additionally, ABCD will be offering the opportunity for people to present their own papers for this part of the festival so keep an eye out for that opportunity. All of this will complement the launch of ABCD's peer-reviewed academic journal, something that the organisation hopes will promote more academic interest in choral work and provide research that will lay the foundation of future best practice. ‘One of our trustees, Martin Ashley, is particularly interested in this,’ says East. ‘We've talked for some time about setting up a research journal as there isn't one in the UK for choral music. We decided that its first manifestation would be taken up by giving over the Sunday morning to this particular aspect. This will lead to an online journal, primarily available to our members, but this will eventually become open access.’

Another strand which looks towards the future is the Young Conductors’ Course which is running in parallel to the festival. Led by Lucy Griffiths, a widely respected conductor-animateur and assistant director of music at the University of Warwick, this course offers group tuition on basic choir training and conducting to budding conductors aged 18 to 25. More details can be found online and bursaries are available.

In all, this year's annual convention promises to be an exciting affair, bursting with song and knowledge. As East puts it, ‘this will be a festival that will celebrate choral leadership in all its aspects and all its glories.’

Fresh talent: Lucy Griffiths (left) is leading a Young Conductors’ Course over the weekend

The 34th ABCD Annual Convention will be held at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire on 22-25 August. For more information, please visit abcd.org.uk