In January 2006, a small group of singers gathered in a state of nervous excitement. They had responded to an advertisement from Glasgow Life (the cultural arm of Glasgow City Council), announcing the formation of a community choir based at the City Halls. At the time, the halls were being refurbished as a new base for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and there were grants available for community music-making as part of the orchestra’s educational remit. As the venue lies at the heart of Glasgow’s Merchant City, the name Merchant Voices was chosen, though in reality the choir has drawn its members from all walks of life, from students to pensioners.
Dominic Peckham, then working for his Bachelor of Music at the RSAMD, was the founding conductor, with Laura Baxter as accompanist. “There were about 45 of us and we were told to go out and recruit more men,” recalls founder member Polly Ewart, who went home and promptly press ganged her husband Robin. Both are still Merchant Voices stalwarts.
2006 had been named “Year of the Voice” and the choir was told that as part of this it would be joining others to sing at the Proms. Numbers had swollen to 80 by the time they assembled in London in July to sing We Turned on the Light, part of a piece written by Orlando Gough, based on a work about climate change by dramatist Caryl Churchill.
Other early favourites included a delightful version of the traditional Irish folk song As She Moved Through the Fair. In 2008 Dominic left to pursue a career in London, where he is now regarded as one of the finest young choral conductors.
Affable Irishman, Eric Dunlea, a trumpeter with the SSO, took over, determined to develop the choir. Generally, there is a concert at Christmas and another in early summer, followed by a short break. Occasionally the choir has also given free concerts at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery. Kelvingrove was also the setting for an unusual venture in Mach 2009 when Merchant Voices joined other choirs to participate in a performance of Soft Rains by Gareth Patrick Williams, a celebration of the Clyde Tunnel. Here the choir first encountered Stephen Langston, who conducted those rehearsals.
Merchant Voices also worked with Oliver Searle on his piece Pride, Poverty and Pianos, which uses the words and voices of children and other sounds associated with Glasgow.
Under Eric Dunlea, soon joined by accompanist Gilmour Macleod, the choir thrived and grew, soon tackling some of the big choral classics, including the Fauré Requiem, Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana and the choral suite from The Armed Man by Carl Jenkins. In addition, it developed a wide repertoire, including Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine and Hugh Roberton’s All in an April Evening, as well as songs from popular musicals and traditional numbers like Johnny Cope. Occasionally we come across items that seem to fit well with the sound of our particular blend of voices and the result can be rather magical: a 16th Century hymn called Tibe Paiom and the much-loved traditional Irish Blessing are examples.
In 2011 Merchant Voices was required to become self-financing and became a registered charity the following year. Today it is funded largely through modest subscriptions and profits from performing, and is run by a board of trustees, drawn from the choir. It is still able to rehearse in the comfortable surroundings of Studio One at the City Halls and to enjoy the privilege of performing concerts in the Grand Hall, thanks to the support of Glasgow Life.
In 2013 Stephen Langston took over the baton. As well as conducting, Stephen is a talented arranger and composer and was soon at work weaving some of our favourites into an ambitious medley, A Gift in Ten, and even creating for us a brand new piece, The Faerie Requiem. Both formed part of the programme in 2015 when the choir participated in the North Wales Choral Festival in Llandudno. Since Stephen’s arrival the choir has tackled, amongst other pieces, both the Vivaldi and the Poulenc Gloria, Mozart’s Requiem, and Constant Lambert’s eccentric piece The Rio Grande. Our summer concert in 2019 featured musical excerpts from Broadway shows.
The choir has participated in the Glasgow Music Festival three times under Stephen’s guidance, and in 2017 was awarded first place in the mixed voices section, performing Berakhot by Casey Rule and Jabberwocky by Sam Pottle.
Merchant Voices has a policy of no auditions for members and it is not necessary to be able to read music. Singers need not possess “good” voices, whatever that means. We believe it is the ensemble that creates a pleasing sound. Aids such as downloads are made available to help members learn their parts. As individuals we all have burdens to carry in life but we like to think that we leave them at the door of Studio One when we arrive there to rehearse each Wednesday. An eavesdropper would hear much mirth mixed in with the music and we all enjoy the buzz and sense of well-being that ensemble singing generates. If you enjoy singing and listening to choral music, come and join us.