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January 3, 2005

Let yourself fall under Wales' harmonic spell

Los Angeles Times (CA):

Never let it be said that Welsh men don't know how to express emotion. Just listen to them sing out loud and strong, harmonies oozing together, sending sinners to hell and putting the righteous on the path to heaven. Then their voices get soft and sweet and you fall in love with them. Choral music has long been a major component of church and school in this small country next door to England. But no other nation I know has fostered male choral music like Wales, where the tradition has grown out of industrialization, harsh economics, nonconformist religion, rugby and a bittersweet love of country.

There are more than 100 male choirs scattered from Newport near the English border to the Isle of Anglesey on the Irish Sea. Some groups are world-renowned, such as the Treorchy and Morriston Orpheus choirs. Others are collections of local guys -- basses, baritones, first and second tenors -- who get together to rehearse twice a week so they don't have to wash the dinner dishes. They may be accountants or real estate agents who never get dirt under their fingernails, but when they practice or perform, you hear the voices of their grandfathers. Up in the valleys north of Cardiff, they're still digging for coal and singing to scare away ghosts from dark mines.

I came to Wales in late November to hear the choirs sing in rehearsals, which are free and open to the public in one town or another almost every night of the week. It seemed a good chance to get to know Welsh male choral music in its shirt sleeves and to begin preparing my soul for the holidays. The male choir tradition is a story of quiet, well-ordered, rural life interrupted by the Industrial Revolution; of 14-hour days in the mines, martyred union organizers, horrendous accidents underground; of once-bucolic valleys defiled; of a hard-working, churchgoing, persistently hopeful people.

Morriston Orpheus Choir has made 28 CDs in 25 years and sung in such venues as Australia's Sydney Opera House and New York's Carnegie Hall. Its 120 members meet in the low-ceilinged canteen of the Morganite Carbon plant outside Swansea, where they socialize briefly before taking seats in a semicircle around Humphreys and the piano.

"Come on baritones, settle down," said Humphreys the night I was there and he launched the men on a stately rendition of the Welsh hymn "Cwm Rhondda," with its once-heard, never-forgotten chorus: "Bread of heaven, bread of heaven/Feed me now and evermore." Then the choir demonstrated the range of its repertoire, singing the old Everly Brothers tune "Let It Be Me" and Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel's "If We Only Have Love."

Like many Welsh male voice choirs, Morriston Orpheus is a charitable organization that sings to raise money for good causes and doesn't pay its members, except in satisfaction. Humphreys, a trim, energetic man about to retire, says achieving a homogenous sound is more important than nurturing soloists -- though hard-to-find tenors tend to be prima donnas -- and that almost no one in the choir reads music. So it was fascinating to watch Humphreys teach four-part harmonies by rote and then put them together. More

Posted by acapnews at January 3, 2005 12:15 AM