CBSO Chorus at 40 years old: Rose Watts

Rose Watts cr Tom WhiteVoice type: Alto
Occupation: Producer of BBC Radio 4’s The Archers
Member of the chorus for 15 years

I vividly remember my first rehearsal with the chorus way back in the late 90’s. We were learning Harmonium by John Adams, an extraordinarily complex and relatively new work. I’d achieved a music degree some 15 years earlier, but hadn’t sung in a choir since, and I was a bit nervous. At that rehearsal I can just remember repeatedly singing ‘no, no, no, no, no, no’  and whipping over the pages of the score as quickly as I could; trying to turn the pages at the same time as everyone else, so they wouldn’t know I was lost!  I really wondered whether it had all been some ghastly mistake. But some 15 or so years later, I know joining the CBSO Chorus was the best thing I ever did. I’ve been lucky enough to perform with the fantastic CBSO and several other brilliant orchestras, under many talented conductors.  I’ve sung in concert halls across the UK, in France, Germany, Switzerland, Finland, Malaysia, Canada and Australia.

My abiding memory of Australia was singing Mahler’s Eighth Symphony for the first time at the opening concert of the Olympic Arts Festival at the Olympic Superdome in 2000. It was an extraordinary sound; the symphony is not called ‘the symphony of a thousand’ for nothing, as we joined choirs from across Australia under the baton of Edo de Waart. We all had great fun learning the Australian National Anthem, which we sang before the start of the concert. And singing  ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’ to an audience of over 17,000 was a truly uplifting experience, and something I’ll never forget

The Chorus should fit in with everything else in life, but I find that it’s often the other way round, and when I’m not singing, I’m proud to be working for Radio 4 at the BBC in Birmingham.  My partner Andy is a great support, and happy to wave me off to rehearsals which may occur three or four times a week.   I’m a bell ringer, and occasionally play the organ for church services.   I spend any free time I have left on my allotment.

The CBSO Chorus marks its anniversary with a performance of the UK Premiere of the CBSO co-commission, James MacMillan’s St Luke Passion, conducted by the composer himself. Tickets are still available, book now.

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CBSO Chorus at 40 years old: Charles Barwell

Charles Barwell with Bridget Blow and Simon Halsey cr Anthea BevanVoice type: Tenor
Occupation: Private Banker at Barclays Wealth & Investment Management
Deputy Chairman of the CBSO Board of Trustees
Member of the Chorus for 8 years

Singing in the CBSO Chorus is an honour and a pleasure. Its also so important in keeping perspective on the pressures of professional life for the volunteers of the Chorus many of whom have highly responsible and challenging careers. When you’re singing an engaging piece, focusing on the conductor, listening to our amazing orchestra, to your section and the other voices around you, and thinking ahead, your phone can’t ring, emails can’t be answered, and time sensitive projects just have to go on hold. What an inspiration and mental release this can be.

I’ve been so lucky, joining in 2005, to sing with some of the world’s great conductors in some simply amazing venues. Highlights beyond Birmingham include Mahler’s Second Symphony in Hong Kong and Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony in Kuala Lumpur. Musically my most fulfilling experiences have been performing Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius with the CBSO under Sakari Oramo at the Philharmonie in Berlin, Andris’s amazing and beautiful interpretation of Puccini’s La bohème in 2009 (even though the Chorus part is very small),  the exhausting performance of Brahms’s A German Requiem in 2008 when Sakari forgot that the Chorus needs a moment between movements to sit and catch one’s breath, and of course the extraordinarily emotional performance of Britten’s War Requiem in Coventry Cathedral in 2012 where almost everyone from Andris to the whole soprano section were moved to tears.

We’ve had some fun too. I’ll never forget the horn section of the Orchestre National de Lyon almost jumping out of the seats at the volume and precision of the Chorus entry “Freude” in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Only rarely do they hear a massed choir in France, so the reaction was tremendous. In Cologne after the performance all the performers are greeted back stage with a glass of local beer, that goes down extremely well – Symphony Hall take note!

Lastly, we have the privilege of being trained by one of the world’s great choral directors, Simon Halsey. Demanding, of course. Challenging, often. Precise, always. But respectful and appreciative of the commitment of so many volunteers who come together to make up one of Birmingham’s cultural jewels. CBSO and CBSO Chorus, thank you. Here’s to the next forty years!

The CBSO Chorus marks its anniversary with a performance of the UK Premiere of the CBSO co-commission, James MacMillan’s St Luke Passion, conducted by the composer himself. Tickets are still available, book now.

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CBSO Chorus at 40 years old: Alison Bownass

Alison Bownes cr Tom WhiteVoice type: Alto
Occupation: Priest in the Church of England
Member of the chorus for 34 years

The wonderful CBSO Chorus has been one of the main ‘constants’ in my life for the past thirty four years – through happy times and some very sad times. For most of that time Simon Halsey has been the person who has had the knack to lift me out of my ‘normal’ life in marvellously inspirational rehearsals on Wednesday evenings.

In the early 1980s my Wednesday evenings were my ‘escape to sanity’ and the ‘adult’ world away from a busy home life with very small children. The nature of our rehearsals means that you have to concentrate hard on the music in front of you – it can range from tricky sight-reading through to polishing a piece you know well in readiness for performance. The pace that we move at is very fast and as a result whatever your ‘normal’ life is throwing at you, it has to disappear into the background. I really value that! And – unlike other choirs I have sung with – there is no chatting allowed when we are working on a piece so much is achieved in a rehearsal.

Back in 1980 I had heard the chorus a number of times – most notably singing The Dream Of Gerontius very beautifully in Town Hall, Birmingham, a piece that I studied in A’ Level Music at school. It didn’t occur to me that I might try to join such a great choir. I was asked to accompany a friend who wanted to audition for the chorus – it was September 1980 and as we drove in I vividly remember our conversation along the Aston Expressway and it resulted in me agreeing to have a go also. I happened to have a hymn book in the car so randomly chose a hymn to sing – oh dear – that would not do nowadays would it?

Much to my delight I was asked to become a member – a First Alto – and so the journey began.

So many concerts and so many tours in my thirty-four years , but if you forced me to single one out as my most memorable project in the chorus it has to be the CBSO European Festivals Tour of 1992 with (the now Sir) Simon Rattle, Simon Halsey and Peter King who was our Deputy Chorus Director & Organist.

At the time I had two children of nine and seven years old and was working full time as a Primary School Teacher. My husband, Millar, had also joined the chorus by this time as a tenor so childcare had to be carefully organised.

The music was a delight:

  • Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass which we had just performed in a Prom Concert in the Royal Albert Hall, London, on 19th July
  • Durufle’s Requiem
  • Three Motets by Bruckner
  • Heilig & Kyrie by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy

As I look at the beloved ‘scrap book’ of that project I am amazed to realise that the trip was for only a week – in my memory it was about two weeks in length or longer as we crammed so much in!

Even to go anywhere by plane was a great treat for us at that time – our holidays, if we had one, were very modest affairs in those days, for instance a short stay in a borrowed log cabin in North Wales in the pouring rain was typical.

Imagine our excitement when the schedule was released and the plan was to fly from Birmingham to Hamburg with coach transfer to the Forte Crest Hotel in Hamburg. Almost more exciting was the long train journey from Hamburg travelling via Nuremberg to Treuchtlingen fuelled with a lunch bag that had been provided with rather unusual food items!; then on by coach to the very beautiful minster church in medieval Ingolstadt. After what I described as a ‘magical experience’, performing the Requiem by Maurice Duruflé almost in the dark we went by coach to Munich where we stayed one night and gave a concert in St Matthew’s Church the following day.

The next day we travelled by coach through some sensational countryside to Salzburg in preparation for the highlight of the tour – a performance of Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass sung from memory in the famous Salzburg Festival. I found Salzburg to be utterly stunning – an incredibly beautiful city set in a magnificent landscape. For a number of years it became my most favourite place in the world. Millar & I returned there for our 25th Wedding Anniversary and had great time.

We performed in the amazing concert hall which is featured in the film The Sound of Music. I recall the whole experience as being totally exhilarating but also very frightening – partly because the Glagolitic Mass is a tricky work to do from memory (one is always terrified of coming in too early in a number of places in the score) but also because I was standing on the very back row with two other altos on a slightly wobbly piece of staging. We were incredibly well-received by the audience, many of whom were wearing beautiful traditional Austrian outfits. Sir Simon Rattle is the most remarkable conductor. He is a complete joy to work with and I can still remember so many very special piano rehearsals with him for many different works. He gives so much of himself and his vision for the piece that the most hard-hearted singer cannot fail to be uplifted and transported. For me it feels as if he has one in the palm of his hand.

What a fabulous trip! And that is only one of many wonderful trips with CBSO Chorus.

The CBSO Chorus marks its anniversary with a performance of the UK Premiere of the CBSO co-commission, James MacMillan’s St Luke Passion, conducted by the composer himself. Tickets are still available, book now.


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CBSO Chorus at 40 years old: Charlotte Roberts-Rhodes

Charlotte Roberts-Rhodes Landscape cr Tom WhiteVoice type: Soprano
Occupation: Medical Student at University of Birmingham
Member of the chorus for 2 years

I joined the CBSO Chorus in September 2012 having just started studying at the University of Birmingham. It was recommended to me by a friend I was in the National Youth Choir with, so I knew it must have been a high standard. And I was not disappointed in any way. Although technically an amateur choir, the sound produced is anything but, and I vividly remember the feeling after my first concert – stunned at the sound a full-bodied adult chorus could produce! Having come from an all-girl’s school, the roar of a fully-mature tenor and bass section was incredible.

One concert that will always stay with me was singing Britten’s War Requiem in St Paul’s Cathedral. Although the War Requiem is probably one of the most performed pieces by the Chorus, it was completely new to me, and is still one of my favourite pieces to sing. The atmosphere generated by the grandeur of the venue, plus some of the most emotive music I have ever had the pleasure of singing is going to be hard to beat in the future! However, knowing the excellent repertoire chosen by the CBSO team, it probably won’t be too long before it is challenged!

The CBSO Chorus marks its anniversary with a performance of the UK Premiere of the CBSO co-commission, James MacMillan’s St Luke Passion, conducted by the composer himself. Tickets are still available, book now.

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CBSO Chorus at 40 years old: Phil Rawle

Phil Rawle cr Tom WhiteVoice type: Bass
Occupation: Retired Teacher
Member of the chorus for 41 years

To select the most memorable moments from a 41 year association with the Chorus is almost an impossible task.

Here are some statistics that make it so difficult:

I have sung in nearly 850 concerts, under the direction of 110 conductors in over 100 different venues, with more than 40 orchestras, including over 30 tours and more than 50 recordings.

Where would you like me to start? Perhaps at the beginning.

The first concert was at Town Hall, Birmingham, January 31st 1974, with Louis Fremaux conducting the CBSO in Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust. The soloists were Anne Howles, William Dupre, Pierre Thau, and chorus member Tom Marsh.

The concert opened with the singing of the English and French national anthems. It was a great success and we were all relieved to get through our first performance without any major mishaps, especially as this was such a difficult work for a new chorus to attempt!

The next day we had our second concert which was the same programme at The Royal Festival Hall, London – this was very different! We were overawed by such a big, important venue, and suddenly it dawned on us that this was a serious business. Everybody was very nervous and on the edge of our seats. It was as if our continuing existence depended on giving the very best performance to the London audience.

It started magnificently with the Britten setting of the National Anthem. The first few bars were so quiet that I was not quite sure if anybody was singing! The tingle factor was tremendous and the whole event a triumph.

The rest, as they say, is history.

The CBSO Chorus marks its anniversary with a performance of the UK Premiere of the CBSO co-commission, James MacMillan’s St Luke Passion, conducted by the composer himself. Tickets are still available, book now.

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Commissioning “Passchendaele” – Richard Bratby

One of the most satisfying aspects of managing the CBSO Youth Orchestra has been commissioning and premiering new music. Contemporary music is a vital part of the training of 21st century orchestral players, and over the ten years since we launched the Youth Orchestra in 2004, we’ve been lucky to work with some of the most exciting of the rising generation of British composers. Tansy Davies’ Streamlines (2007), Luke Bedford’s Più Mosso (2009), Ben Foskett’s Leckey (2011) and Charlotte Bray’s Black Rainbow (February this year) are all striking, colourful and powerfully original – and have been thoroughly enjoyed by our young players.

Obviously we wanted to commission something special for the Orchestra’s 10th birthday in November 2014 – so when an old friend of the CBSO, Mark-Anthony Turnage, let us know that he was planning an orchestral work to commemorate the anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, we jumped at the chance. It’s a co-commission with the Brugge Concertgebouw in Belgium and the Orange County Youth Symphony in the USA; we agreed that the CBSO Youth Orchestra would give its UK premiere. When we learned that he’d called it Passchendaele – after the savage battle on the Belgian section of the Western Front in the autumn of 1917 – we knew to expect to expect something personal and deeply-felt; after all, Turnage has already addressed the Great War unforgettably in his BCMG commission The Torn Fields and his opera The Silver Tassie.


Four days into rehearsals, it’s already made a powerful impact on us. I’m not giving too much away to say that it begins with a lamenting solo trombone and fades to silence with a quiet horn call. In between, in just 10 minutes, it moves through hope, pain and sorrow: there are distant trumpets, haunted string melodies, and great jagged eruptions of feeling. I keep being reminded of a sort of modern answer to Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad, written with the benefit of a century of painful hindsight. Passchendaele is raw, lyrical and poetic without a trace of sentimentality: in other words, exactly what we’d hoped for from Turnage. It’ll fit perfectly before Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge and Holst’s The Planets at its UK premiere on Sunday: new music with a timeless appeal.


Ivan Hewett in The Telegraph, ‘Can Composers ever effectively commemorate WWI

Richard Bratby

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CBSO Youth Orchestra at 10 years old – Charlotte Howdle: Violin 2013 – present


CBSO Youth Orchestra rehearses in 2013 with Ilan Volkov

Charlotte Howdle

Violin 2013 – present

Current Member

I remember being quite nervous before my first rehearsal as I didn’t really have any friends in the orchestra and I was worried that everyone would be much older than me. But by the end of just the first day, I had loved playing Debussy’s La Mer and had started to make friends very quickly. In fact, I couldn’t wait for day 2! Simply put, I have had a fabulous year with the Youth Orchestra and have been given the opportunity to work alongside some of the world’s greatest conductors, including Jac Van Steen and Ilan Volkov. I have also met some great (and very funny!) friends.

Sunday 3 November 2013

Ilan Volkov  conductor
Allison Bell  soprano

Debussy  La Mer

Messiaen  Poèmes pour Mi
Sibelius  Symphony No.5

Conductor Ilan Volkov meticulously focused on balance and dynamics (sometimes with a finger to his lips) to turn it into a tapestry of almost pointillistic delicacy. The Dialogue du vent et de la mer was particularly well ordered, allowing brass and woodwind details to emerge from the maelstrom like shafts of brilliant sunlight. 

David Hart, The Birmingham Post

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CBSO Youth Orchestra at 10 years old – Zulu Irminger: Violin 2010-2013


John Wilson rehearses CBSO Youth Orchestra in 2011. Photo: Jas Sansi

Zulu Irminger

Violin 2010-2013

Photographer and Travel Writer

I joined the CBSO Youth Orchestra in 2010, not entirely sure of what to expect. What I found was a group of like-minded young people, eager to make the music that I had been listening to for nineteen years. For the next three seasons, I was given the opportunity to play with some of the most respected musicians in the profession, including Andrew Litton, Jac van Steen, Michael Seal and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. One of my fondest memories is performing under the baton of John Wilson in Gershwin’s Piano Concerto and Vaughan Williams’ Sixth Symphony. Since leaving Birmingham, I have taken my photography hobby on the road, travelling to thirty countries. I still make time to attend concerts and I am indebted to the CBSO for having given me the most musically inspiring three years of my life.


Sunday 27 February 2011

John Wilson conductor
Leon McCawley piano

Debussy Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune

Gershwin Concerto in F
Vaughan Williams Symphony No.6

Rich, sumptuous tone at every dynamic level, even in the hushed, testing extended finale of Vaughan Williams’ Sixth Symphony, purity of intonation, a capacity to colour delivery appropriate to the music: I was not the only member of the enthusiastic audience to comment on this.

Christopher Morley, The Birmingham Post

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CBSO Youth Orchestra at 10 years old – Sarah Thornett: 2004-2011


CBSO Youth Orchestra rehearsing in Worcester Cathedral under the baton of Michael Seal, 2008

Sarah Thornett

Violin 2004-2011, leader of the orchestra 2009-10

First violin, Welsh National Opera

I loved all my time in the youth orchestra! Particular favourite concerts were Mahler 7 with Jac van Steen, Beethoven 7 with Michael Seal, and Ravel with Andris Nelsons and Shostakovich 11 with Alan Buribayev. All very different but thrilling concerts. I also remember (not very well – must have blocked some of it from my memory…) having a go at conducting on one of Michael Seal’s Academy courses despite having no experience whatsoever. Mike was very nice to me and it was certainly an experience that I am grateful for.

Sunday 22 February 2009

Andris Nelsons  conductor
Christine Rice  mezzo

Ravel  Daphnis et Chloé – Suite 2
Ravel  Shéhérazade
Mussorgsky – Ravel  Pictures at an Exhibition

This was their first concert under the baton of the CBSO’s music director Andris Nelsons and the chemistry between conductor and players was evident from the opening bars of Ravel’s second suite from his ballet Daphnis et Chloé. From the barely audible chirruping of the flutes and hushed violins Ravel’s musical picture of a radiant dawn gradually blossomed into life.

Norman Stinchcombe, The Birmingham Post

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CBSO Youth Orchestra at 10 years old – Amy Littlewood: Violin 2004-2009


Amy Littlewood leading CBSO Youth Orchestra in 2009.

Amy Littlewood

Violin 2004-2009; leader of the orchestra 2007-2009
Violinist of the Hepplewhite Piano Trio

Playing in the orchestra had a mas
sive effect on me. It provided me with the best training ground – even over and above my training at music college. There are so many great memories, but playing the Ligeti Concert Românesc will always stick in my mind – for many reasons! A great piece, a great solo part and playing it in Symphony Hall alongside the CBSO with whom we shared the concert. I am now playing frequently as an extra player with the CBSO (it’s nice to know I started off in the youth orchestra!).

Saturday 11 October 2008

CBSO Youth Orchestra Academy – joint concert with CBSO

Michael Seal  conductor

Ligeti  Concert Românesc

Ligeti’s folk-tinged Concert Romãnesc follows, performed in four movements – it’s a good test of the orchestra’s adaptability. The piece develops a distinct gypsy feel, with a vibrant solo from Orchestra co-leader, Amy Littlewood.

Steve Beauchampé,  The Stirrer

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