Encóre Contemporary Choir

Emmet Doherty's ensemble of amateur singers is set for the Millennium Forum on September 8

‘The idea was to do something a wee bit different.’ Emmet Doherty is waxing lyrical about the Encóre Contemporary Choir, an ensemble of amateur singers based in Derry~Londonderry, of which he is musical director.

‘The choir was set up in 2010,’ explains Doherty, ‘at the height of public interest in shows like Last Choir Standing on the BBC, and Don’t Stop Believing on Channel 5, lauding all the contemporary choirs. And Derry didn’t really have one.

‘Derry is known as a city of song, a city of choral music,' he continues, bubbling over with passion. 'But a lot of choirs that are in the city are classical or religious-based. So the idea was to create something for people who maybe hadn’t sung in choirs before.’

To attract recruits to his amateur crew, Doherty was keen that there should be as few barriers to participation in Encóre as possible. ‘There’s no audition process, and you don’t need to read music,’ he says. ‘If you want to join it’s just a matter of showing up. Your enthusiasm is all we really need.’

Enthusiasm has certainly been forthcoming, in the shape of a steady flow of Derry~Londonderry citizens wishing to sample the ‘show choir’ experience. ‘We were actually quite surprised it did as well as it did,’ smiles Doherty. ‘On the very first day that it launched, 30 people showed up, which was fantastic. At the minute we have around the 45 mark, and it peaks at about 60.’

Attracting singers to a choir like Encóre is one thing, keeping them quite another. Choice of repertoire is, argues Doherty, crucial. ‘It’s important that I pick music that, first and foremost, the choir are going to enjoy doing.

‘Part of the idea behind Encóre is to make the idea of a choir more accessible to people. People sometimes have the perception that choirs are stuffy or rigid. So we have something for everyone, from Derry standards like 'Teenage Kicks' to things like 'Something Inside So Strong', The Beatles, a bit of Adele. We keep the members entertained so that they look forward to coming along.’

Much of the burden for arranging material falls on Doherty himself, but it’s something he enjoys doing. ‘We have been four-part harmony from the beginning. A lot of the stuff we’ve done over the last year and a half I’ve arranged myself. It can be time-consuming, but there’s nothing better for me than to hear stuff I’ve written getting performed.’

Doherty – who teaches at St Joseph’s Boys’ School, Derry~Londonderry, and sings in various ensembles himself – is well placed to judge the standard which the members of his Encóre choir have been achieving.

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‘We’ve been very lucky in terms of the members that have joined,’ he says appreciatively. ‘We’re not a professional choir, but we aim to reach a professional standard. All I ask is that people give everything that they can and commit themselves to the music. When it comes to performances they really step up to the mark.’

The performance opportunities have certainly not been slow in coming, in the first two years of the Encóre Contemporary Choir's existence. Some in particular have lodged themselves indelibly in Doherty’s memory.

‘One of the most memorable things we’ve done recently was when I was contacted by a fellow who was getting married. He wanted to surprise his bride. So we hunkered down in the balcony, and when the bride came out we popped up and sang one of her favourite songs, 'Happy Together' by The Turtles. She was delighted.’

Another big moment for the Encóre singers was to perform for the Dalai Lama on his recent Derry~Londonderry visit in April 2013 during the ongoing UK City of Culture celebrations (see the video above). 'We had the privilege to sing for him in The Venue at Ebrington Square,' Doherty recalls. 'We were approached by Children in Crossfire, so of course we said yes. To get the honour of being able to perform for His Holiness was fantastic.’

If that was big, then the choir's forthcoming concert in the Millennium Forum on Sunday, September 8 is, from a logistical point of view, even bigger. Entitled Decades, and billed 'From Glenn Miller to Adele, Abba to Fun', it focuses on music from the past 70 years, reflecting the diverse musical interests of the choir’s members, who span all ages.

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‘The concert starts with a 50s medley including things like Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley and Elvis. Then we go through The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, right up to Adele and Fun. The idea is to celebrate some of the biggest hits from each of the decades, starting with the 50s, and going right up to the present.

‘It’s definitely our biggest solo undertaking,’ Doherty acknowledges. 'It’ll be entirely made up of choir performances, and some members of the choir will get a wee bit of spotlight, stepping forward and doing solo slots, duets and a couple of trios. It’s shaping up to be a great concert, I have to say.’

The confidence to make Encóre’s Millennium Forum debut in a full-scale programme has, says Doherty, come from the reception the choir has regularly been getting at it various appearances in the Derry~Londonderry area.

‘The feedback that I have got since 2011, when we actually launched, has been crazy,’ he comments. ‘Because there’s a pre-existing standard of choir in Derry, and a pre-existing style of choir, people don’t expect us to do what we do.

‘You can see audiences coming to life, audiences that maybe haven’t seen us before. I think it’s their expectation that changes. They expect us to be like your standard choir, and whenever we do “I Gotta Feeling” by The Black Eyed Peas, and “Bless The Broken Road” by Rascal Flatts, they’re just completely surprised by that.’

Doherty is clearly delighted by the acclamation that Encóre has been getting from its audiences. He is, one senses, even more delighted that singing with Encóre has remained a fun experience for its members, something they genuinely look forward to on a weekly basis.

‘The social aspect was always to be a big part of it,’ he says. ‘I do enjoy that. It’s always a good craíc, it’s always light-hearted, there’s always a good bit of banter at rehearsals.’

And what of the future? Is Encóre likely to become a permanent fixture? ‘Oh, it’s definitely likely to continue. I don’t think I’ve got any choice – the members would have my head! They look forward to their Thursday nights too much.’

Decades takes place in the Millennium Forum, Derry~Londonderry on September 8. Visit the Encóre Contemporary Choir website for more information.

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