When we were planning how we would celebrate our 90th birthday, the committee all agreed that it was very important to us to not only celebrate what had come before, but also to look to the future, and to the next 90 years of music-making.
We really wanted a new work to sing in our Gala Concert, and we applied to Making Music to be part of their Adopt-a-Composer scheme. Unfortunately we were not successful, but it got Ian thinking and he suggested that we run our own competition. So we set about writing the criteria (how long should the piece be, what sort of piece did we want), deciding on a celebrity judge (the well-known choral composer, Alan Bullard), and allocating a prize fund.
In this wonderful digital age, as soon as we launched the competition on-line news spread far and wide. Entries began to come in – slowly at first – but by the time the deadline arrived we had received 122 entries from composers from all over the world! Quite literally – we had entries from every continent.
Ian conducted an initial review of the entries, and was able to discard a few that had very clearly not met our criteria. Then four of us spent a morning reading through and listening to each entry and scoring them in accordance to our criteria. Our ultimate aim was to whittle the entries down to a shortlist of 8-10 pieces to send to Alan Bullard for final judging. At the end of the first morning we had a ‘long-list’ of around 20 pieces, so another session was required! It was a very enjoyable process and fascinating too; we were all very privileged to be part of it. We do, of course, have very different ideas about what we like to sing, but we had to think about the choir; ensuring it was challenging enough but not impossible to learn, and that it was a suitable celebration for our big birthday. After that second session we finally had a short-list of 8 to send to Alan, and we were all satisfied that whichever one of the 8 he chose, it would be a wonderful experience for the choir.
At this juncture I should point out that we judged all the entries blind; we did not know anything about who had written each piece. And out of those 122 entries from all over the world, Alan Bullard chose the piece ‘A Birthday’ by UK composer Paul Burnell, who actually lives in Lewisham in South East London! This was wonderful news as we knew that Paul would be able to come and meet the choir to help rehearse the piece, and also be present at the premiere performance.
It all sounds like a lot of work but really it was a straightforward and pleasurable experience and I think we wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. The response we had from composers shows just how much appetite there is for writing new music at the moment, and we should all be making sure that we are doing what we can to support the creation of new choral music for future generations.
We performed A Birthday on 7th July 2018 on a very hot summer’s night. We were delighted to be singing to Paul Burnell himself and I hope that he was as pleased with the performance as we were with his piece! I have no doubt that we will find another opportunity to sing it again in the near future, and we hope that other choirs will too.