Music interview: Christopher Bell looks back on over a decade in charge of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus

The week ahead will be one of mixed feelings for one of Scotland's much-loved musical personalities. For the past 11 years, he has been intrinsic to the musical success of the Edinburgh International Festival, yet his stage appearances are mostly brief. For almost a quarter of a century he has transformed the country's musical youth, in a way the current education system is struggling to do. He is a bundle of creative energy. He wears outrageous shoes. He is the irrepressible Christopher Bell.
Christopher Bell became chorus master of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus in 2007Christopher Bell became chorus master of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus in 2007
Christopher Bell became chorus master of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus in 2007

“I’m leaving what I’ve always considered to be the one job I desperately wanted,” says Bell, who, following Tuesday’s Dvořák Requiem and the Festival finale of Mahler Eight, stands down as chorus master of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus to become music director of the Washington Chorus in America.

As always, he will watch from a seat in the Usher Hall grand circle, powerless to control the actual performances – the Mahler will be down to conductor Daniel Harding with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra – yet confident that the discipline and adaptability of his chorus will deliver the goods.

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Has there ever been a moment when he thought he should be up there conducting the performance himself? “That is the first step to misunderstanding the job of a chorus master,” he says. “If you spend the time resenting the fact you are handing it over to somebody else, then you don’t understand the job and should stop being one.”

The Festival job has given him some of his proudest moments. “Watching them sing Mahler Three at the 2010 Proms with the BBC SSO under Donald Runnicles was a high point,” he says.

“We went down to the Royal Albert Hall [that included the RSNO Junior Chorus, a choir Bell also stepped down from recently after 23 years as director] having prepared the piece completely from memory. Donald asked for a few things at rehearsal, and the concert went extremely well.

“Fast forward ten days, where we are singing the same piece in Edinburgh, but this time with Mariss Jansons and the Concertgebouw.

“In comes Jansons, who proceeds to stop every two seconds and change just about every aspect of the performance. For the entire 45 minutes I watched a masterclass in chorus/piano rehearsal, and saw this wonderful musician reshape an entire symphony in his own vision. What followed? Another great performance, but different.”

Not that Bell sees his role as musically neutral. “No conductor can rub out all the markings I make in a piece during the extensive rehearsal process,” he says. “There’s always a bit of me in most performances.”

Everywhere you look in Scotland, there’s more than a bit of Bell influencing the singing health of the nation. Think back to the opening concert of this year’s Festival, and a performance of Haydn’s Creation featuring the extraordinary National Youth Choir of Scotland, an outfit he founded in 1996, which subsequently spawned 14 satellite regional choirs, as well as separate boys and girls choirs, all of which were formed, recalls Bell, to address the demise of singing in schools.

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The main NYCoS choir is now an international phenomenon. It has sung at the Proms, at Chicago’s Grant Park Festival where Bell is the resident chorus director, and in October will appear at New York’s Carnegie Hall. “People hear the term youth choir, and immediately think of light voices, choreographed moves, happy clapping, a few cheesy folk songs and an African number. NYCoS has moved on from that onto the main stage,” says Bell.

His Girls Choir also features in Sunday’s Mahler, but he won’t be leaving NYCoS anytime soon. Yes, he’s said goodbye to the RSNO Juniors, and has already impressed American critics in his initial work with the Washington Chorus, but NYCoS stays. “I’d be mad to give that up,” says Bell.

But if the Festival Chorus really was the job he so desired, why has the 57-year-old decided to leave now? “The truth is, I’m not moving to a better chorus, but one that gives me new challenges and opportunities,” he says. “Besides preparing the Washington choir for its performances with the National Symphony Orchestra, we promote our own concerts at the Kennedy Centre which I conduct. That excites me.”

As does the outrageous range of shoes that are his trademark, from sparkling gold to last week’s all-the-colours-of-the-rainbow look. “Like me, they’re remaining resident in Edinburgh. Despite what many have assumed, I’m keeping my flat here.” But America calls. n

The Edinburgh Festival Chorus appears in Dvořák’s Requiem on 21 August and in Mahler’s Eighth Symphony on 26 August, both at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh,