Café to concert hall: the Royal Scottish National Orchestra Chorus

The Royal Scottish National Orchestra Chorus had humble beginnings as an amateur singing group, meeting weekly in a café on Glasgow’s Argyle Street – but 175 years later, it is not only an established choir that performs internationally but the longest continuously operational performing arts organisation in Scotland. Francesca Treadaway of the ISM speaks to Chorus Director Gregory Batsleer to find out more.

The Glasgow Choral Union was formed as an amateur singing group in 1843/44 to give concerts to charities, and met weekly in a café in Argyle Street, a major thoroughfare in the city centre of Glasgow, Scotland.

In its first months, the Choral Union gave the first Scottish performance of Handel’s Messiah in April 1844, a tradition, Gregory Batsleer, who joined the Chorus’ as their full-time Director from 2015, says the Chorus has ‘maintained every year since, with only a few exceptions’. The scratch orchestra they made from gathering local orchestral players for this pioneering concert later became the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

‘The choir has always had its roots in Glasgow’, Gregory explains to me. ‘It rehearses in Glasgow although it carries the name of ‘Scotland’ on it. The vast majority of the singers are also from Glasgow, with only a handful travelling from further away. It is made up of very committed, very talented amateur singers. The Chorus is really seen as the pinnacle of amateur singing. It has been like that from the very beginning.’

The RSNO Chorus performs in around six different programmes in up to 20 concerts across Scotland with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra each year. ‘We take it very seriously that the Chorus is heard by as many as possible throughout other cities in Scotland’, Gregory explains to me.

‘The RSNO Chorus is a really active choir and one of the things we try to do – even though its origins were as a choral society – is to ensure it aligns with the orchestra.’

‘The Chorus bears the name of an orchestra with a leading reputation, which has lots of ambition and expected to perform at a very high level by the audiences that come to watch. It is our duty – even as an ‘amateur’ chorus – to aspire to be the same standard as the orchestra. It requires a professional mind-set to music making and it is a big commitment for the members – we can’t pretend it’s not – but on the flipside the rewards are huge.’

The RSNO Chorus has also had great success in recording with the Orchestra. Its recordings, amongst others, of Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky, conducted by Neeme Jӓrvi, and Holst's The Planets, conducted by David Lloyd-Jones, have both been subject to high critical acclaim.

Gregory laughs, ‘The Chorus has been part of many recordings, so whether people have known it or not, they have probably heard them perform on disc at some point, or in some film music.’

In addition to its commitment to the Orchestra, the RSNO Chorus performs independently and has been invited to perform with orchestras in many different parts of the world, establishing an international status for the choir. In the past, the RSNO Chorus has toured in Copenhagen, Hong Kong, Israel, Germany, Belfast, Australia, Trondheim and most recently, Amsterdam. This is something that has lessened in recent years due to the cuts in arts funding.

‘Due to the natural economy of the arts, international touring has declined in recent years, but we are hoping to bring it back. Lots of budgets are being cut in the arts, and it is harder to secure those tours. It is definitely within our ambition though to organise another tour’.

The funding for the Chorus comes from the main core budget of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra – ‘that was a big decision that the Chorus took but from it there are lots of benefits, which outweigh any negatives’, Gregory explains. It was the Chorus’ history that inspired the move, as it was important that the future was just as bright. ‘The Chorus has a lot of ambition and wants to achieve even more’, Gregory says.

Historically the RSNO Chorus was self-governing, Gregory tells me, initially run by its members with a committee and Chairman, which ran alongside the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. That changed, with the management of the Chorus as an organisation becoming full time within the management of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

One thing that really stood out whilst reading about the RSNO Chorus was the real diversity of repertoire that it performs. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Gregory explains to me, retains a responsibility to do lots of different types of concerts rather than classically-centric ones.

‘Both the Orchestra and the Chorus really take responsibility for being Scotland’s “Orchestra and Chorus of the People”’, Gregory says.

This has been the case since the founding of the Chorus, to have that remit – not just to perform the big choral classics but also to do performances and recordings with the Orchestra.’

Sir Alexander Gibson, the Music Director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in 1959 – 1984, was a significant influence in the rise of the Chorus and their diversity in repertoire, Gregory explains. Sir Alexander was the driving force behind bringing new and exciting works that were only performed in London to Scotland.

‘It’s a privilege to lead a Chorus with such an incredibly history. The Chorus has previously done a lot of touring with the orchestra and had a close relationship with their directors.’

Gregory’s job is to oversee the development and the artistic side of the Chorus’ current ambition, as well as take the majority of the rehearsals in preparation for our performances with the orchestra.

‘There is a team of wonderful people who support the Chorus, including a pianist who rehearses with us every week and a vocal coach. We also have the Gibson Conducting Fellowship – this year awarded to Abigail Kitching, who joins us for rehearsals too.’

The Gibson Conducting Fellowship, made from a generous endowment from Sir Alexander, supports young and upcoming choral conductors with a year-long choral training post. It is a crucial part of the RSNO Chorus' identity and has over the years provided many young choral conductors with the rare opportunity of working with a symphony chorus.

‘We had a wonderfully high level of applicants this year and saw some fantastic auditions but it was Abi's exciting potential and overwhelming passion for choral conducting and choral music that made her the obvious candidate for the Fellowship.

The Fellowship is a unique facet to the Chorus.’

The RSNO Chorus also extends to a Junior Chorus, which has quickly established itself as one of the leading children and youth choirs in the UK, with over 400 members aged seven to 18. It was formed in 1978 by Jean Kidd and since 1994 has been directed by Christopher Bell. It has built up a considerable reputation singing under some of the world's most distinguished conductors and appearing on radio and television. The Junior Chorus also sings regularly with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, at BBC concerts and regularly appears at the Edinburgh International Festival.

Gregory also heads up the RSNO Chorus Academy for those who are passionate about choral music but not yet joined the RSNO Chorus. Each date focuses on choral techniques, singing techniques and musicianship, including reading a musical score.

The 2017/18 season sees the main RSNO Chorus celebrate their 175th anniversary, with a performance – of course, as tradition dictates – of Handel’s Messiah in January 2018. Other season highlights are performances of Bernstein’s Mass and Chichester Psalms, Brahms’ A German Requiem and Holst’s The Planets.

Francesca Treadaway, Communications Manager, ISM

This feature first appeared in the September/October 2017 issue of ISM Music Journal.