The St George's Singers

Andrea Rea sings the praises of the little choir with big ideas

There’s no denying that Northern Ireland is a very musical place. One gets the impression that just about everyone you meet has been involved in music in some way at some time in their life. This isn’t exactly true, of course, but the sense of music’s importance in the culture here is a strong one.

A measure of this might be found in the number of choirs that exist in towns and cities right across the country, all formed for various reasons. Church choirs sing a certain type of repertoire. Some sacred music, however, requires many more resources in terms of space, time and orchestral accompaniment than a church choir can manage. One Belfast choir in particular is committed to presenting those large scale classics on a regular basis.

The St George’s Singers have always been associated with St George’s Church, High Street, but are not the church choir for that congregation. They do rehearse there each week, however, and perform their Christmas concert in the church every year. The choir are also committed to using their concerts as a way to illuminate the historical settings that other traditional churches provide, regardless of denomination.

Membership, which is cross-community and very diverse, now numbers around 70 singers.

The choir was formed in 1984 to fill a gap in the repertoire being performed by other choirs at the time. Their mission was to present the big choral masterpieces of the Baroque era, most particularly the St Matthew and St John Passions of Bach, which they traditionally sang every year.

They often work with an orchestra, the Saint George’s Sinfonia, which is becoming an increasingly important part of the concerts. Other repertoire has included music by Purcell, Monteverdi and Palestrina, as well as more standard works by Haydn, Handel and Mozart.

One departure from Baroque and Classical music that came early on in the choir’s history was a performance of the Britten War Requiem. Other more contemporary composers featured in concerts by The Saint George’s Singers include Leonard Bernstein, Avro Pärt and Ralph Vaughn Williams.

Unlike many choirs and choral societies which have one conductor for a very long time, the St George’s Singers has had five directors since it’s formation. Each has brought with him (for they’ve all been men!) something different.

In 2002, Belfast-born, Dublin-based conductor Brian MacKay was appointed. His focus has been on the development of vocal and choral technique within the choir. His background is in conducting and he’s also well known as a vocal coach for opera, song and choral music.

He studied singing at the Kodály Institute in Hungary. Zoltán Kodály was the pioneering musicologist who devised the method of music teaching using tonic sol-fa. This is an especially effective tool for use in choral training.

MacKay was a regular conductor for Castle Ward Opera, and his approach to large-scale choral work is not unlike his approach to opera. The story is key, as is attention to detail and an awareness of historical performance practices. He’s committed to maintaining and indeed raising the standards of the choir and reaching out to new audiences.

He’s also dedicated to the repertoire that the St George’s Singers performs and the quality of those performances. The Singers and Sinfonia performed Bach’s B Minor Mass in the Spring of 2006. This was a huge undertaking for what is essentially an amateur choral society, but an undertaking which Brian MacKay feels is not only worthwhile, but essential for the cultural life of a city.

‘A capital city should be providing the opportunity for these works to be heard on a regular basis. It should be there and should be seen as valuable’, he says. This is a reference to the ongoing need of funding for mainstream choral classics of the sort that the Singers perform.

‘If large-scale choral works only exist as CDs on the shelves of educated musicians, they become like paintings that never get seen or great buildings that never get used.

'It’s a big danger these days that people say you can buy a recording of a work, rather than see a live performance. But there’s no substitute for actually being there with other people while a piece of music unfolds.’

MacKay and the rest of the St George’s Singers would like to develop as an organisation and bring their work to a wider audience, which includes being able to perform large choral pieces outside of Belfast. The amount of work that goes into preparing a big piece means that it seems a shame to only be in a position to give one performance.

Part of the vision the choir has for the future includes a programme of outreach that would bring the music to a more diverse audience throughout Northern Ireland. This concept rests on building a sense of trust with audiences who know that every performance will be worthwhile, well-programmed and professionally presented.

This would enable an expansion of the repertoire of the choir, both in Baroque and contemporary directions.

The St George’s Singers provide a platform for talented local musicians in company with distinguished national and international soloists, presenting the best in choral music on a large scale.