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Singing with BBC National Chorus of Wales

28 June 2018
Qugang Chen
Qugang Chen courtesy of Vale of Glamorgan Festival

By Thomas Mottershead

On the last day of February, I received an email from the Chorus Manager of the BBC National Chorus of Wales (BBC NCW), Osian Rowlands, asking me if I wanted to be involved in an upcoming project as part of the Vale of Glamorgan Festival. There were just under 50 singers in total that were asked to be involved in the project. The piece was by a Chinese composer called Qigang Chen, called Jiang Tcheng Tse based on a poem written in the 11th Century by the poet Su Shi (1037-1101). I studied Mandarin when I was in school and, as a result, I was interested to see how I would find the tradition of Chinese-style music.

The piece was composed for a Peking Opera-style female singer (on this occasion, the soloist was Meng Meng), mixed chorus (BBC NCW were split into two choirs) and symphony orchestra (BBC National Orchestra of Wales). The performance in Cardiff was only the second performance of the piece and was a European Premiere.

Jiang Tcheng Tse is an aesthetic and sensuous love song. In the poem, Shi mourns the death of his wife, Wang Fu, after a dream in which his wife returned to their old home and talks about how he cannot forget her after 10 years and how her grave is 10,000 miles away – meaning that he is unable to talk to her about the desolation that he feels. He laments how time has altered his features.

The piece opens with a very still atmosphere, as though you can sense the mourning. The solo French horn enters on an Eb, before the strings join in. Choir 1 (the choir I sang with) then entered part by part on those notes, holding it for an eternity. Choir 2 then entered with their own notes, creating a harmonic clash between the two choirs. The harmonic clashes play a significant part in the piece.

There are two main climaxes of the piece, the main one being towards the end – when the men of the choir were required to speak Mandarin very fast. The tenors of Choir 1, for example, split into three parts (there were only four tenors in Choir 1), with one having septuplets, another sextuplets and quintuplets. The pitch also had to be approximate, but rising in pitch. This concluded with an almighty eruption of noise from the choirs and the orchestra, before coming back to a more reserved and melancholic ending. The music memorialises a generally happy marriage, though these outbursts in the music might suggest periods of turmoil.

In the first few rehearsals, we got to know the piece by working through it and repeating the sections constantly. None of the choir were able to speak Mandarin fluently but, fortunately, we did have the ‘pinyin’, which gave us a rough idea of the kind of sounds, vowel shapes and words we should be making. Rehearsals lasted for around 2 hours, including some Saturday rehearsals, so commitment was needed outside of the normal rehearsal times.

Performing this piece had its own set of challenges :

  • The language – although I studied Mandarin at a basic level and knew a few of the sounds, there were many that I did not, so getting around the sounds and diphthongs of words was challenging.
  • The style of composition – there were times in the piece where we would have to hold a note for around 15-20 seconds. With only around 50 singers in the choir there was not much room for staggered breathing, so we had to be very careful that we did not breathe at the same time as the person next to us. There were also about 8 page turns where it was one bar per page, which during rehearsals caught a few people (myself included) out!
  • From piano to orchestra – when you have the piano right next to you in rehearsals, most of the time you can hear all of the notes that the piano plays to you. The strings were instructed to play quietly, so it was difficult to hear them when they entered, which meant that the choir needed to know the pitches. Qigang also rewrote part of his composition the night before the performance where he might have cut some instruments, meaning that it was even more vital that we knew our notes… fortunately, we did!

When I moved to Cardiff, I became aware of the BBC National Chorus of Wales and was fortunate enough to audition and be accepted into the choir. It has become an important part of my Cardiff life – the choir is so welcoming, friendly, passionate and dedicated to being the best. It is that what makes projects like this possible (not to mention performances at the BBC Proms or our recent tour to Brittany).

The highest praise must go to our amazing Artistic Director, Adrian Partington, for his wisdom and guidance in learning the piece in only 8 rehearsals! Christopher Williams, the accompanist for BBC NCW is also always there with us to help along the way and rehearsals would not be the same without him.

If you are considering joining a choir in Cardiff, I could not suggest a better choir to be involved with – I enjoy every moment of it, you will learn so much from Adrian and you may even get the chance to do some of these projects. Why not?

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