First published in The Herald on 24 June, 2015
There is a reason for the sparkly shoes. Initially it was a bit of fun, says Edinburgh Festival Chorus chorus master Christopher Bell, whose signature concert gear includes black leopard print brogues and shiny ties. Bell is the first to admit he’s not above a bit of playful bling, but there’s a deeper point here. He believes that a successful concert is all about partnership: between chorus and chorus master, between chorus and orchestra, between musicians and conductor, between stage and audience. And he believes in due recognition.
“A son travels through life,” he says, leaning back from the small cafe table and dropping his voice into anecdote mode; if there’s one thing any chorus master loves, it’s a good anecdote. “And this son is hoping that one day his father will tell him that he’s been a good son. What the son doesn’t realise is that the father travels through life hoping that the son will tell him he’s been a good father.” He pauses to make sure I’m grasping the metaphor.
“Jildying a chorus along, guddling them, finding the right alchemy, keeping them entertained with enough background stories so that it’s interesting but not too many so that it’s boring…” he waves his hand, suggesting a list that could go on and on. “There’s a lot of input I give to the chorus to get them where they need to be. Every single note the chorus sings has had attention from me. The elephant in the room – the one presence who cannot be taken away but is hardly visible on stage – is the chorus master.” If those sparkly shoes might help draw a little attention, sparkly shoes he shall wear.
The strategy seems to be working. Today there is no person more recognisable in Scotland’s choral world than Bell. He was chorus master of the RSNO chorus from 1989-2002; he founded the National Youth Choir of Scotland in 1996; he has been EFC chorus master since 2007. Bell’s impact on youth singing in Scotland has been immeasurable, and he has rejuvenated the ranks of the EFC with a new generation of energetic recruits. A spry man in his early 50s, his life hasn’t been without its hurdles – he suffered a brain tumour in 2008 – but his energy and ambition seem dauntless. When the EFC celebrates its 50th anniversary by opening the Usher Hall series at this summer’s Edinburgh International Festival, the wall of sound unleashed by the ensemble will have been propelled, compelled and propped up by Bell’s illimitable enthusiasm.
Son of a clergyman, choirboy from the age of nine, Bell describes growing up in a Belfast “patrolled by the soldiers and dark angst”. He was always interested in buildings – he wanted to study architecture as a boy – but a life in music was inevitable. He arrived in Edinburgh in 1979 as an undergraduate organist and oboist (slicing off the top of a finger in a wood planer in 1986 caused problems for the latter) and he went on to do a masters on the history of instruments and north German organ music.
Towards the end of his degree, Bell was approached by the music department’s director of studies. “The university choir needs a conductor,” he was informed. “Would you do it?” Bell said no: he couldn’t fathom conducting a non-auditioned ensemble. A few weeks later he was contacted again and told that he “would do the job as well as anyone else”. He laughs at the memory. “What a ringing endorsement to launch my career!”
His first rehearsal was “utterly clueless,” he says. But his second? “I got this energy. Maybe it was the link with my father and his love of preaching to people. Maybe it was the opportunity to show leadership. I discovered I had a natural ability to work with volunteers and youth choirs, to find ways of fixing things. I love when something isn’t working; I can rip it apart, fix the intonation, put it back together again. It’s like screwing together a bookcase. The singers feel better, I feel better. Beautiful.”
Inevitably the fix-it skills only accumulated over time. Bell refers to his nearly two decades of work with NYCoS as “the single most beneficial thing” for his own musical development: the young singers are offered professional coaching through which Bell, too, has gleaned invaluable technical tips. He twice applied for the EFC job and was twice turned down. Eventually the festival came to him.
“I was sitting in my apartment in Chicago,” he recalls; the Chicago connection is that he is chorus director of the city’s Grant Park Music Festival. “The phone rang. A voice from Edinburgh said ‘our chorus director has tendered his resignation effective September this year and we want to know whether you’d like to come on board’. I held the phone still for a moment and didn’t speak. This was the job I’d been waiting for.” Perhaps he had been waiting, but he acknowledges that only then was he ready for the job. Thanks to his work with NYCoS and a growing career as an orchestral conductor, his ear was now honed enough, his technical tool-kit well enough equipped.
If anything, he says, he prefers his work with the EFC to his work with professionals in Chicago. “The thrill of a volunteer chorus singing with a visiting international orchestra and a great maestro and world-class soloists — that creates a kind of electricity that you can’t necessarily achieve with professional choirs. A large volunteer chorus can harness something quite natural: it’s the desire in us all to be part of something bigger and better than ourselves.”
And, when on top form, the dynamism the EFC produces under his watch can be monumental. Today’s chorus is younger, more energetic, more versatile and more committed than it has been since the days of its formidable founder Arthur Oldham. “Take one nice-but-fairly-ordinary voice and put it next to another nice-but-fairly-ordinary voice, train them to face forward and sing out…” Bell shrugs. “The results can be staggeringly good.”
The Edinburgh Festival Chorus opens the Usher Hall of the Edinburgh International Festival with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Donald Runnicles on August 8