The CBSO Chorus is one of the world’s great choirs – 180 people from all walks of life who come together to sing symphonic choral music. Trained for over 30 years by Simon Halsey CBE, its main role is to perform with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra on tour and at its home, Birmingham’s Symphony Hall. But it’s also an ensemble with a global reputation in its own right, a hard-working team of “amateur professionals” who give up their own time to perform the most challenging works in the choral repertoire to the highest international standard.
The Chorus was founded in 1973 at the instigation of the CBSO’s music director Louis Frémaux, and gave its first concert – a performance of Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust – in January 1974. In 1983, Simon Halsey became chorus master, forming a close musical partnership with the CBSO’s then-music director Simon Rattle, and beginning an enduring relationship with the Chorus which would see it travel the world with the CBSO and perform works ranging from Mahler’s Resurrection symphony and Janačék’s Glagolitic Mass to Henze’s The Raft of the Medusa and John Adams’s Harmonium.
It’s been at the centre of the CBSO story throughout: singing at the official opening of Symphony Hall in 1991, at Rattle’s final concert in Birmingham in 1998, and giving centenary performances of all three of Elgar’s great choral works: The Dream of Gerontius, The Apostles and The Kingdom under Sakari Oramo. It gave the 40th anniversary performance of Britten’s War Requiem at Coventry Cathedral in 2002, and returned in 2012 to give the 50th anniversary performance under Andris Nelsons – an occasion that was broadcast live to 17 countries. As versatile as it is virtuosic, the CBSO Chorus regularly takes part in the CBSO’s concert performances of operas – ranging from Gilbert and Sullivan to Szymanowski, Wagner, Puccini and Richard Strauss. And of course, every year it leads Birmingham’s Christmas celebrations, when Simon Halsey conducts the CBSO’s annual carol concerts.
The CBSO Chorus is in demand far beyond Birmingham. It’s sung and toured with some of the greatest orchestras in the world, including the Vienna Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Czech Philharmonic, Helsinki Philharmonic and the Cleveland Orchestra, and has built a special relationship with the BBC Philharmonic. It’s a regular guest at the BBC Proms, and has toured to Europe, Asia, North America and Australia, where in 2000 it sang in Mahler’s Eighth Symphony for the opening concert of XXVII Olympic Games in Sydney. In September 2015, it made its first appearance in Mexico. As well as performing in Birmingham and around the world Chorus has made over 50 recordings, winning four Gramophone awards, as well as numerous other international accolades.
All this has been achieved by amateur singers from Birmingham and the Midlands, aged from 18 years old, whose day-jobs range from students to nurses, teachers and pilots. The entry requirements are demanding, and with weekly rehearsals and up to 30 performances a year, the commitment is huge. But members of the CBSO Chorus are repaid with a lively social life and the unforgettable experience of singing great music to the highest standard with some of the world’s finest conductors, orchestras and soloists.