CHORUS MASTER STEPHEN DOUGHTY IN CONVERSATION WITH ROBERT BEATTIE

01/06/2019

Stephen Doughty Tells Robert Beattie About the Work of the Belfast Philharmonic Choir

Stephen Doughty conducts the Belfast Philharmonic Choir (c) Linda Salem

The Belfast Philharmonic Choir is Northern Ireland’s only symphonic choir.  I went to listen to them perform in St Anne’s Cathedral a few months ago and was impressed with the quality of the singing and the range of their repertoire. The repertoire of the choir is exceptionally varied and includes key works by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner. The Phil also champion new works and in 2015 they performed the world premiere of James Whitbourn’s The Seven Heavens which was written especially to commemorate the choir’s 140th anniversary.

They will be performing Mendelssohn’s Elijah with the Ulster Orchestra on 7 June.  I spoke to their Chorus Master Stephen Doughty about preparations for the performance and about the work of the choir more generally.

Robert Beattie:  Can you tell us about your work with the Belfast Philharmonic Choir (the ‘Phil’) to date?

Stephen Doughty:  This is my eighth season working as Chorus Master of the Belfast Philharmonic Choir.  My main job is to prepare the choir for a series of concerts with the Ulster Orchestra.  The choir has a tradition of performing Handel’s Messiah every Christmas – a tradition that goes back to 1886!  We performed Mozart’s Requiem and Brahms’ Song of Destiny with the Ulster Orchestra at Easter.

RB:  Can you tell us about some of the repertoire which you have worked on with the Phil?

SD:  We recently performed Poulenc’s Stabat Mater– a chromatically difficult work, not least with the bass line divided into two parts.  This was followed by a tour to Poland and Ukraine where we performed the Poulenc and Mozart’s C Minor Mass. Other recent repertoire has included Brahms’ German Requiem and Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast.  The Phil also has a tradition of introducing new music to wider audiences.  In the 2017-18 season we performed two European premieres:  Stuart Scott’s Requiem Brevis and Christopher Marshall’s Earthsong.

RB:  I always find the Brahms Requiem highly unusual not least because it is a secular rather than a religious work.

SD:  Yes, indeed – Brahms saw it as a means of comfort for the living rather than a requiem for the dead.

RB:  You will shortly be performing Mendelssohn’s Elijah with the Ulster Orchestra.  Can you tell us about the challenges associated with that work?

SD:  While it is not a ferociously difficult piece to sing in terms of notes, there Is a lot of stamina involved: a large portion of the piece is comprised of choruses, with the ‘contest’ involving Elijah challenging the priests of Baal lasting for 20 minutes. The dynamics are often very loud which reflects Mendelssohn’s characterisation of the ‘people’ (a lot of it is marked forte and above!) so it is important for the singers to build up vocal stamina in preparation for this.  I am delighted to have had two additional rehearsal sessions with the Ulster Orchestra prior to the concert.  The Ulster Orchestra are very professional and will play the music as perfectly as always, so I therefore want to use these sessions to focus on coordination and to ensure that the movements link together as smoothly as possible and the thread in the story is shown as clearly as possible.

RB:  I believe you are also music director for two choirs in Scotland.  Can you tell us about them?

SD:  Yes, I direct a choir called the Garleton Singers who are based in East Lothian, some 15 miles from Edinburgh. The choir has about 70 members at the moment and most recently performed Handel’s Alexander’s Feast and a concert of Italian Baroque music with a small Orchestra.  They have a wide repertoire from ranging from folk music to the Verdi Requiem.  I also direct the Edinburgh Bach Choir who, as the name suggests, have a focus on the works of Bach.  There is some overlap in repertoire between the two choirs but, in general terms, one might say the Bach Choir tend to focus on slightly more ‘serious’ music.

RB:  I understand the Phil has been running ‘Come and Sing’ sessions over the last 10 or so years.  Can you tell us about them?

SD:  The clue is in the title!  The choir invite members of the general public of all ages and abilities to turn up and we sing some of the staples of the repertoire.  It is an excellent forum for amateur musicians who want to have an opportunity to perform some familiar music in a big choir.  Earlier this year we performed an abbreviated version of Handel’s Messiah with the added treat of the Ulster Orchestra and in February next year the Phil will be promoting a ‘Come & Sing Choral Favourites’.  In Scotland I have directed several similar events to raise money for charity and these have been highly successful, performing works such as Mozart’s Requiem and Verdi’s Requiem, with full orchestra!

RB:  That sounds like great fun – I may join you for the next session.  Have you any other concerts planned after the performance of Elijah next month?

SD:  Elijah is our final concert for this season, but after the summer we are looking forward to a range of concerts from musicals to Mahler’s mammoth Second Symphony, the ‘Resurrection’, as well as our annual performance of Messiah.   We will be holding open rehearsals for the Phil at the beginning of September and would encourage anyone who is interested to come along.

RB:  Thank you very much for talking to us and all the best with Elijah.    

For more about the Belfast Philharmonic Choir click here.

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