Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - May 26, 2023

"Land of Song"

When sightseeing, husband Art often drops me and any travel companions by an attraction and then goes to find a parking place. So I was ready for his "Get out now!" command when we took his grandson Josh to see the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, a World Heritage site in Wales.

Art stayed with the car, while Josh and I visited the aqueduct. We struck up a conversation with Joel, who was walking his canine companion Ralph. While Joel is an ambulance medic, he also sings with the Fron Male Voice Choir. They practice at a nearby school and he invited us to drop by at their twice-weekly rehearsals.

The Welsh are famous for their male choirs, so we asked friend Jan if she wanted to accompany us. She immediately accepted, adding the group is world famous and she couldn't believe we could just "pop in."

The Fron (vr-own) website explained:

The Fron Choir was formed in 1947 to compete at the Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod. ... The choir became successful very quickly and over the intervening years has toured a lot of the world and sold well over 1 million of the VOICES OF THE VALLEY series of albums ... The Fron is a concert choir but is also still active in the competition world and in the past few years has won major competitions such as the Cornwall International Male Choral Festival and our fourth win of the Male Voice Choir Competition at the Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod.

Eisteddfod (eye-steth-vaud) is the Welsh word for a session or meeting. Llangollen is a village about five miles west. The multi-day programs feature performers from around the world. In 1955, Luciano Pavarotti was a member of a choir that won first prize and he said it inspired him to become a professional singer. The Fron choir will be competing this coming July.

Upon arrival, Art, Josh, Jan and I were greeted warmly. Two choir members quickly brought comfy chairs from an adjacent room and placed them in the front where we could watch both the conductor and the 40-plus choir members. Roger Williams, the group's chairman, made note from the answers we gave as to where we were from and how we learned about them.

The first hour was devoted to warming up and working on details of individual pieces. Deputy conductor Owen Maelor Roberts explained pronunciations of the French, Latin, and Welsh words in the songs, urged the tenors and basses to be more cognizant of how to maintain balance in their voices, and indicated where the music should be softer, louder, etc.

Just before the break, Roger introduced us to the group and made a few business announcements.

He had joined just over 10 years ago. He had been heavily involved in a local theater group, but a change in his work meant he couldn't continue.

After a year or so, my wife suggested that I needed a new hobby and a chance meeting with an old friend from our time in the church choir as youngsters lead to me going with him to a choir practice - and that was it. I was hooked and I now wish I'd joined 40 years ago!

So many members stopped to speak with us during the break, you would have thought they were there to meet us rather than the reverse.

During the second hour, members sang several complete songs, including "Bring Him Home," "And So It Goes," and the Welsh national anthem - "Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau" - which translates to "Land Of My Fathers."

After, they invited us to join them at a local pub; however, we declined as we had a full day planned for the following day. But Art and I decided to go back for the next rehearsal. When they saw us, several joked we were gluttons for punishment. One said, "Sadism is illegal in the UK, you know!"

Leigh Mason, the group's regular conductor, led the second rehearsal. One of the men, trying to find just the right words to describe her, had settled on she's a "force of nature." He was accurate. She was very demonstrative, both in facial expressions and body language, and was a demanding taskmaster. Yet it was easy to tell she was someone they respected. At one point, she said, "You know your music, so put the sheets away and just 'feel' the songs."

At the break, we talked to Den Williams, 92, who has been with the choir since it began. A retired engineer for Monsanto, his website profile says, "Singing is good for your health whilst also bringing joy and friendships."

All of the men seemed to pour their hearts into the music.

So where does this enthusiasm for music come from? An October 2018 bbc.com article said singing is part of Welsh identity and tradition.

The bardic tradition of the eisteddfod ... can be traced back to the 12th Century. At this time, music and poetry had great cultural significance, with folk traditions enabling stories to be told and recanted down the generations. Singing and reciting poetry ... was often part of this and still plays a prominent role in the modern eisteddfod.

In the 18th century, Wales changed from a country of sheep herders to one where many men worked in the coal, iron and slate mines. Male singing grew in popularity as a way to escape the harshness of the mines. Today, it's far more than just singing. The liner from the Fron choir's "Echoes" CD says:

... The Fron is being a member of an extended family, with all that entails, good and bad, happy and sad, but the one thing of which each of us can be sure is that we are part of a brotherhood that looks out for each other and carries us on our way. ...

Who would have thought a chance meeting on an aqueduct would cause us to appreciate the "Land of Song" and its friendly people even more than we had before?

A sound snippet from A Million Dreams

Top (l-r): Pontcysyllte Aqueduct; Ralph, Joel and Josh; Deputy Conductor Owen Maelor Roberts conducting the choir; Roger Williams, chairman, on Gloria's right, and Allan Smith, treasurer, on her left. Keith Williams, far left, is Roger's son and also sings bass in choir. Bottom (l-r): Conductor Leigh Mason; Roberts; choir in their performance dress; bass Den Williams is one of two original members of the choir, joining in 1947 at the age of 16. (aqueduct image from pontcysyllte-aqueduct.co.uk)

An internet search on Fron Mail Voice Choir will locate the choir's website and their music.

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