In aid of the Bradby Club for Young People, 1919-201
It says a great deal for the spirit and togetherness of Rugby as a town that the Philharmonic Choir, in the year after its own much-acclaimed 150th anniversary, chose to offer the proceeds of one of its three subsequent concerts to a neighbouring charity, the Bradby Club in its centenary. Mervyn Bethell, the musical director, and the committee, and all the performers and hard-working supporters of the ‘Phil’, deserved the warmth and gratitude which were expressed on this evening of generosity.
They earned the eager applause for their music, too. The programme drew on lyricists and composers whose song-writing careers covered all decades of the past 100 years: indeed, as a taster, the choir started much further back than that with ‘All through the Night’, and, putting Scotland alongside Wales, followed up with ‘The Road to the Isles’. After that, to Liverpool in the sixties, with a tribute to the ballad-writing genius of Lennon and McCartney: the richness of tone of this large choir, and their beautiful restraint, expressed a depth so different from the original renditions, yet so complementary to them, that it was a lovely demonstration of just how good the Beatles were and are. And after that, into the 70s, 80s and 90’s with Stephen Sondheim, described by many from Cameron Mackintosh to the New York Times as probably the greatest lyricist ever, and that’s before we consider his fiendishly innovative music. Fiendish it may be, but there was no sense of strain in the choir: as well as some fine big choral numbers, the massed precision and flexibility of ‘Send in the Clowns’, a song we usually associate with a solo voice, was very moving.
The second half of the concert, like the first, opened with a couple of pleasing one-off songs - in this case, Bob Chilcott’s ‘Give Me Strength’, and Peter Hunt’s arrangement of Lowry’s once-neglected hymn ‘How Can I Keep from Singing’. Then back in time to Cole Porter, who remarkably spanned the eras from the late 20s to the 50s: yet another great innovator, with outstanding skills with words and composition, who like the Beatles and Sondheim achieved permanent changes in the tunes ‘which everyone knows’, and yet also intrigued and inspired professional musicians and musicologists with his invention. ‘Just One of those Things’ and ‘You Do Something to Me’ brought out the best in the choir’s rhythm, tuning and harmonies. Finally, another innovator: we swayed as an audience to the familiar and powerfully-performed beats and emotions of Schonberg’s music for ‘Les Miserables’, the longest-running musical of modern times, and a ground-breaker which has inspired countless imitations, and millions of lifelong devotees.
Whether they present a major oratorio or a series of medleys, the Rugby Philharmonic Choir have developed over the past few years under Mervyn Bethell a distinctive professionalism and sense of enjoyment which shone through again in this concert. They were skilfully supported by Jo Foote, their regular repetiteur, whose accompaniments capture the subtleties and moods of diverse pieces; and on this occasion by a varied accompaniment of brass, woodwind, guitars and percussion from Tony Godfrey, Will O’Rourke, Josephine Allen, Christophe Le Garrec, Callum Newlands, Max Markham and Robin Payne. With the massed, disciplined, yet relaxed Philharmonic choir of over 100, they combined to give a big audience an evening to remember with great pleasure.