Choirs that move a nation

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Never let it be said that Welsh men don't know how to express emotion. Just listen to them sing out loud and strong, harmonies oozing together, sending sinners to hell and putting the righteous on the path to heaven. Then their voices get soft and sweet and you fall in love with them.

Choral music has long been a major component of church and school in this small country next door to England. But no other nation I know has fostered male choral music like Wales, where the tradition has grown out of industrialization, harsh economics, nonconformist religion, rugby and a bittersweet love of country.

There are more than 100 male choirs scattered from Newport near the English border to the Isle of Anglesey on the Irish Sea. Some groups are world-renowned, such as the Treorchy and Morriston Orpheus choirs. Others are collections of local guys — basses, baritones, first and second tenors — who get together to rehearse twice a week so they don't have to wash the dinner dishes.

They may be accountants or real estate agents who never get dirt under their fingernails, but when they practice or perform, you hear the voices of their grandfathers. Up in the valleys north of Cardiff, they're still digging for coal and singing to scare away ghosts from dark mines.

I came to Wales in late November to hear the choirs sing in rehearsals, which are free and open to the public in one town or another almost every night of the week. It seemed a good chance to get to know Welsh male choral music in its shirt sleeves and to begin preparing my soul for the holidays.

Voices of history The male choir tradition is a story of quiet, well-ordered, rural life interrupted by the Industrial Revolution; of 14-hour days in the mines, martyred union organizers, horrendous accidents underground; of once-bucolic valleys defiled; of a hard-working, churchgoing, persistently hopeful people.

Some of that is in the air at the Museum of Welsh Life in the village of St. Fagans, my first stop after landing at Cardiff International Airport on the country's south coast. The museum, set on about 100 acres in an area west of the capital known as the Vale of Glamorgan, brings together historic structures from all over the country. It includes an austere little Unitarian chapel with a teal blue interior dating to the 18th century, when Wales ignited with the fire and brimstone of Protestant religious sects breaking away from the Church of England. "You won't find any graven images here," a docent volunteered.

Beyond it is a terrace of snug workers' houses built around 1800 in the town of Merthyr Tydfil, then an iron manufacturing center. Peeking inside was like seeing a page from "How Green Was My Valley," a 1939 novel by Richard Llewellyn (transformed into an Oscar-winning movie) about a family from a similar terrace in a mining village that always echoed with song.

Driving west after that, I saw the ugly petroleum refineries of Port Talbot and sheep grazing on a gorse-dappled hill to the right. The sky was a depressing, gray bowl, but there was brightness at its rim.

Ahead lay Swansea, a gritty port city about 40 miles west of Cardiff that was targeted by German bombers in World War II. It has a prison and a squalid downtown that boasts little more of interest than a forlorn Woolworth's.

But it's also the birthplace of Dylan Thomas, and the Dylan Thomas Center near the waterfront has an excellent exhibit on the stormy life of the Welsh poet, who died, drunk, in New York City in 1953. Wales, he said, was "the land of my fathersÂ…. I leave it to my fathers."

Thomas was well-known in the bars of Mumbles, just around the bay from Swansea, a holiday hamlet at the threshold of the golden strands fringing the Gower Peninsula.

There I checked into the modest Carlton Hotel on the waterfront and asked how to get to the shopping center in Llanelli, where the Llanelli Male Voice Choir was giving a "Festival of Light" concert that night.

Three people gave me three different sets of directions and collaborated in teaching me how to pronounce the double l's in Llanelli by tucking my tongue to the roof of my mouth and lisping out the side.

I got lost for an hour in the dark on a drive that should have taken 20 minutes, rounding enough rotaries to make my head spin. I finally reached the shopping center, dominated by a big ASDA store, the Wal-Mart of Wales, to which Christmas had already come in the form of merchandise and decorations, and followed a mom speaking Welsh with her two children to the mall atrium. By then the choir, made up of about 40 blazer-clad men, mostly old enough to have fought in World War II, was singing its last amen. Then the vicar of Llanelli led prayers in front of Hair Express and Claire's accessories.

I was sorry not to have heard more of the Llanelli Male Voice Choir, but still remained upbeat because I had arranged to attend a rehearsal of the acclaimed Morriston Orpheus Choir and meet with its director, Alwyn Humphreys, the next evening.

Choirs and CDs Before that, I hiked to the lighthouse atop the cliffs at the end of Swansea Bay and idled along the Mumbles waterfront, where low tide had exposed half a mile of spongy muck. I climbed to the scenic ruins of 12th century Oystermouth Castle in the center of Mumbles, bought a box of Christmas cards in Welsh just for the fun of it and had a conversation with a man in a shop, who acknowledged a little ruefully that he didn't sing. "If you're a Welshman," he said, "everyone expects you to the way they expect French women to be good in bed."

Morriston Orpheus Choir has made 28 CDs in 25 years and sung in such venues as Australia's Sydney Opera House and New York's Carnegie Hall. Its 120 members meet in the low-ceilinged canteen of the Morganite Carbon plant outside Swansea where they socialize briefly before taking seats in a semicircle around Humphreys and the piano.

"Come on baritones, settle down," said Humphreys the night I was there and he launched the men on a stately rendition of the Welsh hymn "Cwm Rhondda," with its once heard, never forgotten chorus: "Bread of heaven, bread of heaven/Feed me now and evermore." Then the choir demonstrated the range of its repertoire, singing the old Everly Brothers tune "Let It Be Me" and Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel's "If We Only Have Love."

Like many Welsh male voice choirs, Morriston Orpheus is a charitable organization that sings to raise money for good causes and doesn't pay its members, except in satisfaction. Humphreys, a trim, energetic man about to retire, says achieving a homogenous sound is more important than nurturing soloists — though hard-to-find tenors tend to be prima donnas — and that almost no one in the choir reads music. So it was fascinating to watch Humphreys teach four-part harmonies by rote and then put them together.

Later, I had coffee with the new director, Sian Pearce, a trained singer and the first woman to wield the baton of a big Welsh men's choir. She plans to offer music-reading workshops to choir members and, like the strong Welsh woman she is, doesn't flinch at the challenge of leading 100 men twice her age.

The Morriston Orpheus Choir grew out of a wrenching 1935 schism in the older Morriston United Choir, ultimately showing up its parent at national eisteddfodau, contests of poetry and song still held in Wales.

Now there are about a dozen male choirs in the greater Swansea area alone, including the Morriston R.F.C., formed 25 years ago out of a rugby club. Layton Watkins, an R.F.C. member and general secretary of the South Wales division of the Welsh Assn. of Male Choirs, later told me that though competition between choirs is keen, many groups sometimes perform together and that singing helped unite slate quarry workers in the north with miners in the south.

Coal mining village With a Morriston R.F.C. tape playing in my rental car, I drove northeast, skirting the high country of the Brecon Beacons, out of which the rivers of the coal mining valleys rise. In about 30 miles, I turned onto a small winding road, headed to the village of Treorchy in the Rhondda Valley and caught my first sight of a shaft at Tower Colliery, one of the last operating coal mines, owned by its employees for the last decade.

In 1920 there were more than 600 coal mines in south Wales valleys such as the Rhondda, and before that, iron foundries, where salaries were good enough to put hearty food on laborers' tables. But the price of coal sagged, immigrants arrived willing to work for a pittance and more efficient fuels were discovered, resulting in strikes, layoffs and mine closures. At such times men's choirs thrived, giving idle miners an outlet for their energy and a reason for pride.

Proud the Treorchy Male Choir must have been when Queen Victoria commanded it to perform at Windsor Castle in 1885. Afterward, she said, "They behaved like gentlemen and sang like angels."

On Tuesday and Thursday nights, as lights flicker on in a string of little Rhondda valley towns, the 104-member choir, with a few teenagers but more octogenarians, gathers in the auditorium of Treorchy Primary School. They stand through practice, looking like giants in teeny-tot land and sing like giants too, in an air shaft of sound, powerful, pumping, soul-stirring.

The night I was there, conductor Andrew Badham led the choir through a repertoire that was as diverse as show tunes and spirituals. But it was tender old songs such as "A Valley Called the Rhondda" that turned me to mush.

The next day, it was on to Blaenavon, a village on the northeast side of coal country that was the setting for "Rape of the Fair Country," by Alexander Cordell, another mining saga, somewhat less romantic than "How Green Was My Valley." Cordell's protagonist is a boy who goes to work underground at age 8 and watches the pristine valley he loves slowly die, its river polluted, its flanks lined with rows of squalid workers' quarters half-engulfed by heaps of slag.

Hills to healing In the years since the pits closed, the healing hand of nature has been at work in valley towns, all seemingly little worlds unto themselves, separated by mounded hills, with lots of weather in the sky and big white boulders that turn out to be sheep. I stopped for a walk at Blorenge Summit, between Blaenavon and its neighboring town Abergavenny, thinking of the courtships, church picnics and illicit union meetings held on the hilltops in Cordell's book.

To bring those days to even more vivid life, Blaenavon's Big Pit, which yielded iron until the coal industry arrived around 1860, is now the National Mining Museum of Wales. I stopped there for the 60-minute underground tour, led by veteran miner Tony Barlow, who began by canvassing the women in the group for sweets. "You'd better give them to me because the rats will go after them," he joked.

As the cage elevator dropped down the 300-foot shaft, he described how oil-burning lamps were used to detect deadly gases in mines, children were given such tasks as pulling heavy coal carts, or drams, and that helping your mate was an unspoken rule underground. That profound camaraderie made it hard for many longtime miners to adjust to other jobs, Barlow said.

After the tour, I strolled the streets of Blaenavon, where workmen where hanging Christmas lights and most of the shops were shut tight by 4 o'clock. I sat for a long time over a plate of fish and chips, then waited on the steps of the elementary school for choir practice to start. Eventually a janitor arrived to switch on the lights and about 40 choir members ambled in, carrying battered music satchels under their arms, grinning like schoolboys when they found they had a female guest.

I took a special shine to the Blaenavon Male Voice Choir, a group of average Hughs and Williams, with light shining in their eyes. They clearly liked one another and had a great time harmonizing, led by local schoolmaster Gareth Whitcombe.

Choir membership is a substantial commitment, Whitcombe said. But it gives the men a chance to travel inexpensively to such exotic places as Southern California, where they sang earlier this year.

They did "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "Alexander's Ragtime Band" for me, followed by a show-stopping Nigerian number, accompanied by bongos and maracas, as the choir shuffled through a line dance that looked like something out of "The Full Monty."

Fewer voices Some people say the male voice choir tradition is dying in Wales, as longtime members retire and few youngsters step up. Even rugby matches, where spectators once broke into song to strike fear in the heart of the opposition, have quieted, particularly in the last few decades as Wales succumbed to teams from England, France and Australia. Soon after the 1999 opening of Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, the 70,000-seat home of the Welsh Rugby Union, Hadyn James, musical director of the London Welsh Male Voice Choir, was tapped to bring the sound of men's voices back to the game.

I joined him as he rehearsed three men's choirs in a concrete passageway adjoining the stadium, before Wales trounced Japan, 98-0, on Nov. 26. Nearby, Welsh team mascot Billy the Regimental Goat of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers was being groomed and, between numbers, a member of the Llantrisant Male Choir tried to teach me the rules of rugby.

Then a brass band led the choirs onto the field, followed by the goat, for a pregame rendition of "Delilah," popularized by Welsh-born Tom Jones.

Along the way, the man from Llantrisant turned to me with an endearing smile and confided, "We're a small country, but I think we've made a mark in the world."

I couldn't say, but they made a mark on me.

*

It's off to Wales

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, to Cardiff, connecting service (change of plane) is available on KLM, Northwest and United (connecting to KLM). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $684 until Friday, then drop to $604 until mid-March.

Several major car rental companies, including Europcar, have offices at the Cardiff International Airport, about 10 miles west of the capital. I rented an economy class vehicle via the Internet from Kemwel, 39 Commercial St., Portland, ME; (800) 678-0678 or (207) 842-2285, http://www.kemwel.com . The price was about $265 for seven days.

TELEPHONES:

To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 44 (country code for Britain) and the local number.

WHERE TO STAY:

Carlton Hotel, 654-656 Mumbles Road, Mumbles, 1792-360-450, http://www.carltonmumbles.co.uk . I stayed in this hotel overlooking Swansea Bay. It has small, clean doubles for $125; $135 after Jan. 1.

Morgans, Somerset Place, Swansea; 1792-484-848, http://www.morganshotels.com , is a more upscale choice. It's near the Dylan Thomas Center and waterfront. Doubles begin at $193.

Norton House Hotel and Restaurant, Norton Road, Mumbles; 1792-404-891, http://www.nortonhousehotel.co.uk , in a dignified Georgian manor. Doubles begin at $164.

The Angel Hotel, 15 Cross St., Abergavenny; 1873-857-121, http://www.angelhotelabergavenny.com , is a valley away from Blaenavon's Big Pit museum. Doubles begin at $165.

The Great House Hotel, High Street, Laleston; 1656-657-644, http://www.great-house-laleston.co.uk , has handsomely decorated rooms in a restored building dating from the 16th century, about a 30-minute drive west of Cardiff. Doubles from $165.

St. David's Hotel and Spa, Havannah Street, Cardiff Bay; 2920-454-045, http://www.roccofortehotels.com . This luxurious hotel is an option that will be especially attractive to those attending events at the Wales Millennium Centre, just a short walk away. Doubles begin at $312.

WHERE TO EAT:

The above hotels have restaurants.

Pizzeria Vesuvio, 200 Neath Road, Swansea; 1792-648-346, for pizza and pasta. Prices from $5-$17.

Dylan's Books and Bites, a cafe and used bookstore in the Dylan Thomas Center, Swansea; 1792-463-980. Sandwiches and soups, and a bar menu. $4-$19.

Plymouth Arms, Crofty-Genau Road, St. Fagans; 2920-571-121, a traditional country pub near the Museum of Welsh Life. Steaks, pasta and vegetarian dishes; entrees $11.50-$27.

TO LEARN MORE:

Wales Tourist Board/VisitBritain; (800) 462-2748, http://www.visitwales.com .

The male choirs: A comprehensive listing of male choirs, with rehearsal dates and places, is available from the Wales Tourist Board (above) or at http://www.homecomingwales.com .


On the web: Listen to Welsh male choral music at http://www.latimes.com/welsh .

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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