Graham Stevenson reports on the recent concert.
Birmingham's Clarion Singers, 77 years young this year, recently celebrated with an Autumn Concert with a full programme of songs at All Saints Centre, in Kings Heath, Birmingham.
The 25-strong amateur choir – women dressed in red, men in black – led with Cavalry of the Steppes, a well known song by Lev Knipper, often associated with Cossacks.
With typical aplomb, Clarion has changed the arguably slightly pompous standard final verse into an altogether more subtle refrain, sung with gusto and speed, almost boomingly reverberating around the hall.
Strong in our courage and determination
Never shall invaders take our freedom.
Jane Scott, choir leader, applies seemingly effortless command of the many and varied singers, unquestionably having changed lives by allowing the joy of music into open hearts. Wonderfully, the soundness and sureness of her judgement is clear in the flawless sound that emerges from the ultimate display of collectivity. No special test of skill or prior experience is demanded of new members, no audition. In the spirit of Music for all, Clarion welcomes all into its left-of-centre heartstrings.
An impressive rendering of the Funeral March, immortalising victims of Tsarist repression in 1905, which prompted initial revolutionary stirrings that came back in a dozen years, whilst honouring those who fell as victims as the song intends, sees Clarion view the work as not just for funerals but for life itself. They start in despair, "banners lowered" but end with stirring hope, the message being that death shall not defeat. Our dead live on: our music will always reflect that.
Scarecrow by John Tams is an anti-war song. A solo goes: "I see the line advancing with a steady timeless grace." But it is the repeated refrain that conveys powerful message in its poetry:
Blame it on the generals
Blame it on their guns
Blame it on the poppies and the pain
Blame it on the scarecrow in the rain.
Reconciliation by Irishman, Ron Kavana, to Clarion's own arrangement, tells us that there's a "time to fight and a there's a time for healing". After “the struggle the sweetness comes”, a song about comradeship, with a clear eye on "Fair weather friends".
The Song of John Ball, by Sydney Carter, celebrates the 1381 Peasants' Revolt. It is amazing to think it was written only 40 years ago, as Carter succeeded in making it sound like a mediaeval ballad. It is a clear, lyrical vision of an egalitarian, caring communism, and particularly appropriate as we celebrate the centenary of the Russian Revolution:
Who'll be the Lady,
Who'll be the Lord,
When we are ruled by the love of one another?
Sydney Carter's piece gave the baritones more work to do and the audience clearly loved the message:
Sing, John Ball, and tell it to them all
Long live the day that is dawning!
For I'll crow like a cock,
I'll carol like a lark,
For the light that is coming in the morning.
Special guests Bournville Brass performed several pieces before the interlude. A long way from former mining villages, Britain's second biggest city has far fewer big brass bands of 28 players that it once did when giant fortresses of labour, hundreds of factories, dominated the skylines.
Five pieces, a tuba, a horn, a cornet or two, and a trombone, effortlessly melded into the distinctive bright, mellow sound one would expect in a larger ensemble – especially when rendering Singin' in the Rain, when a definite jaunty note sauntered into the room. Feet tapping in tune, the audience instinctively began swaying:
Surely, that was Gene Kelly I saw getting out his umbrella?
Song of Peace or Finlandia, by Sibelius, in an arrangement for women's voices speaks for itself, but the delivery makes more of the music and words combined.
Quite Early Morning by Pete Seeger is of its time. A time that has reasserted itself, hopefully the second time as farce, if international thermonuclear war could ever be so treated:
Some say that humankind won't long endure
But what makes them so doggone sure?
I know that you who hear my singing
Could make those freedom bells go ringing.
In 1951, Geoffrey Parsons of Unity Theatre wrote Civilisation, rediscovered in Clarion's archives. Musical Director, Jane Scott, has produced a remarkable four part arrangement.
Tell shopping centres that Ode to Joy is not just for Xmas! And tell the EU that Beethoven integrated Schiller's poem into his 9th Symphony for the brotherhood of humanity, not the Single Market.
The choir, rather sweetly, slipped in an additional song just before their traditional finale. Long standing Clarion members, Jan and Chris, are about to depart for Northern climes, and they were treated to a specially written farewell song (by Annie Banham) to the tune of England Arise! The classic socialist hymn. Not a dry eye in the house:
Shall we shed a tear?
Sheffield's fairly near
An hour and a quarter if you get the train.
Jan and Chris, like Clarion, have
sung it all,
on fire trucks and pavements,
Cradley Heath and Kendal.
Then came, of course, The Internationale, song of the most militant sections of the working class the whole world over.