St James Priory in Bristol hosted a wonderful choral performance on Friday evening, namely the Great Sea Choir's Annual Winter Concert. The packed church (formerly a Benedictine Priory) was treated to a stunning array of traditional and contemporary Folk songs, all sung a capella and with complex harmonies. With a soulful and contemplative first half and an exciting and festive second section, the audience were also treated to a glass of mulled wine to warm them during the chilly evening. The candle-lit setting of the Priory and the stunning acoustics of the building made this a truly special experience.
Such a wonderful setting for a Winter concert. The building was packed, and there was a tangible buzz of excitement before the performance began.
Formed in 2012 by gifted musician and songwriter Heg Brignall, the choir has grown from a small group of singers to a thriving, 40-strong community that is a genuine credit to the city of Bristol. Performing everywhere from a boat in Bristol harbour to major music festivals in the city, the Great Sea Choir (GSC) also won the radio Heart FM choral competition in 2016. This coming year is set to be an exciting one, with the choir recording their first EP (once voting has determined the song choice). This is the second GSC performance that I have seen, and I cannot wait to see them again next year.
I felt deeply moved by the emotive songs that the choir faultlessly delivered, and I also felt very moved by the ethos of the GSC. I knew that they had signed and supported Bristol's 'Zero Tolerance Pledge' which seeks to promote an open and tolerant ethos in the Bristol community, but I was moved to see that they also champion respectful community at grassroots level. The Winter Concert was held as a fundraiser for the charities 'Bristol Mind' and 'Woman Kind', and two speakers explained to the audience the invaluable work that they do within Bristol. I felt honoured to have been a part of a gathering that supports Mental Health concerns and seeks to care for some of the most vulnerable people in society.
A serene statue of St Mary oversaw the preceedings: a very fitting ambassador for the evening's charities and ethos.
The sound of Forty voices, at times singing up to eight different harmonies, was extraordinary. Even more so considering that different groups of singers seemed to be arrayed in and around the choir itself. Many of the songs expressed a deep love and fascination for the sea, and I truly felt that the harmonies were akin to waves of sound, or a tide of notes, washing over me. I was particularly moved by an arrangement of folk singer Kate Rusby's 'Underneath the Stars', which was accompanied by guitar. By the evening's close, I had enjoyed Ukranian songs, adaptations of local poet's works and several rousing traditional 'Wassail' songs, once a staple part of Christmas in Britain.
A Dedicated Crew With A Great Leader
It is absolutely clear from watching this choir that they are all a dedicated and committed group of people. Incredibly, all of the songs are sung entirely from memory and performed without any sheet music or lyrics. The deep musicality of this group felt palpable, and I was especially struck by the complexity of the different voice parts in smaller group songs. A rendition of Joni Mitchell's 'River' was incredible, and moved me to (happy) tears. What is also abundantly clear is that the ethos of trust, respect and passion for music stems directly from the conductor, Heg Brignall. It is always powerful to listen to a person speak about their passion, and Heg's love of music and storytelling was infectious! I felt honoured to experience some time in Heg and the choir's company.
Heg Brignall, the conductor of the Great Sea Choir. Watching her conduct forty a capella singers with nothing more than a tuning pipe was brilliant.
I have loved Folk music for as long as I can remember, and this choir have captured the essence of what folk should be. They have harnessed both a yearning for the past, its people and traditions, yet also weaved in an exciting contemporary spirit to the music. Don't just take my word for it though. Have a look and a listen to this clip of the choir in action:
The choir also have an informative and attractive website which is well worth a look. If you are planning to be in or around the Bristol area in 2018, then I urge you to time your visit to coincide with a Great Sea Choir performance. You will have a wonderful experience. I might just see you there.