Big Belfast Choir
Musical director Aoife Cormacain gets the best of her newly formed ensemble at the Grand Opera House
It’s early evening at the Grand Opera House in Belfast, and there’s a busy hum in the air as the audience foregathers for a performance of 9 to 5: The Musical. Above the hubbub, the strains of the title song from the show become audible.
It isn’t the cast flash-mobbing to warm their voices up, however, but something different – the Big Belfast Choir, no less, singing from an elevated position on the Level One balcony, rocking the atrium with a breezily upbeat version of the Dolly Parton number.
Two months ago, the Big Belfast Choir was a mere figment of Aoife Cormacain’s imagination. Then she started hitting social media with her idea for a new choir 'designed for everyone’, where all ages and voice types are welcome without auditions, and no knowledge of music reading is necessary.
Cormacain is a violin teacher in her day job, but as founder and musical director of the Big Belfast Choir is also a dedicated exponent of choral singing. 120 people have attended rehearsals of the new ensemble so far, with a core of 30 representing them at this inaugural Grand Opera House appearance.
You might expect the drastically short preparation period Cormacain has had with her singers to result in a play-it-safe policy regarding repertoire. But that is not the case. There’s an impressive alto harmony in the choir’s rendition of the Leonard Cohen standard ‘Hallelujah’, and both the fresh tonal quality of the singing and the clear diction already grip the attention.
The arrangement of ‘Amazing Grace’ that follows subdivides the parts further, and slots the piece into a jaunty, upbeat groove while mixing in a soupçon of underlying reggae. Again the choir’s discipline is impressive, and an extra lift is provided rhythmically by the electric keyboard and small percussion section locked in as accompaniment.
It’s literally hotting up by now, the warm air of a sunny afternoon in Belfast wafting upward from the lobby area, causing choir members to flap their music sheets vigorously between numbers for ventilation.
Energy levels remain high, however, in a sweetly-tuned rendition of Billy Joel’s ‘She’s Always a Woman’, and in Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)’, where the choir deftly negotiates a tricky modulation.
A Ghanaian folk song, performed confidently as a canon, further underlines the technical progress that the Big Belfast Choir has already made in its brief period of existence. The concentration of the singers and the excellent eye contact they keep with conductor Cormacain are striking, easily rivalling many a more experienced choral grouping.
There are smiles all round when the music’s over, friends and family milling about, chatting animatedly and taking pictures. It’s that infectious enthusiasm – a sense of new discovery – which is particularly striking about this group of singers at present.
If Aoife Cormacain can bottle it, and bring it out again when rehearsals kick in for the 2013-14 season in September, I think it’s safe to say we will be hearing a good deal more about the Big Belfast Choir in the future.