Gerontius Choral Piece

All images provided courtesy of Bristol Classical Players

Four incredible musical collectives will join forces on 18 May to perform Edward Elgar’s transcendent The Dream of Gerontius at Bristol Cathedral. We hear from Tom Gauterin, conductor of Bristol Classical Players – one of the 250 talented people involved in the show.

Something special is happening in Bristol Cathedral this month. Two well-established city choirs – Bristol Phoenix Choir and Bristol Cabot Choir – are joining forces with renowned orchestra Bristol Classical Players and leading south west chamber choir The Fitzhardinge Consort. So, what’s attracted 250 of the region’s finest vocalists and musicians to perform under the same roof?

The Dream of Gerontius: a gloriously transcendant and emotive 1900 composition by Edward Elgar, created using text from the poem of the same name by John Henry Newman. It tells the story of a soul’s plight from deathbed to God’s judgment, then arriving in Purgatory.

It’s one of those very special pieces that generates an immense emotional impact for everyone”

“We’ve chosen to perform this particular piece because it’s one of, if not the greatest British choral works,” explains Tom Gauterin (pictured, top right), conductor of Bristol Classical Players – speaking to The Bristol Magazine on behalf of all the performing groups. “Although the first peformance in 1900 wasn’t a great success, it was quickly taken up by choirs all over the UK (starting in the midlands, where Elgar himself regularly conducted the work in Birmingham and Worcester) and has been a cherished highlight in the choral repertoire ever since.

“It’s one of those very special pieces that generates an immense emotional impact for everyone, both audience and participants. Although on an overtly Christian theme (the journey of the soul from life to death, and what lies beyond) it has an intense spirituality that appeals to believers and non-believers alike.”

It’s not the first time the groups have collaborated – Gauterin explains that they worked together on Mahler’s Resurrection symphony in 2019 and Verdi’s Requiem in 2022. “Both were wonderful events and we are hoping to make the performance of a big choral work at Bristol Cathedral an annual event.”

The 250 performers comprise 75 singers in each choir, 80 orchestral musicians and 20 people from The Fitzhardinge Consort, who are taking the role of semi-chorus.

The soloists are tenor James Atherton (who has sung at several major cathedrals and with world-famous choirs for many years), mezzo Jenna Brown (who is from Bristol and regularly sings with the Fitzhardinges) and bass-baritone Malachy Frame, a rising young opera singer who is based in London.

A dramatic space
The setting plays an important role in any choral performance, of course, so we asked Gauterin just how the cathedral’s space and acoustics will impact the arrangement of Gerontius?

“The biggest feature is the resonance of the building, as the echo lasts around six seconds,” he says. “That means we have to adapt the way we play and sing to try to maintain clarity and it can be quite tricky to manage that in some of the busier passages. On the other hand, it puts a lovely ‘glow’ around the sound in the slower-moving parts.

“Visually, the cathedral is a very dramatic space, with the audience in near-darkness and the choir on steep risers. Works like this were written with the composers fully expecting them to be performed in cathedrals and, given the text, it feels appropriate to do it here rather than necessarily in a concert hall.”

Rehearsing for such an important performance no doubt brings its challenges, especially when so many people from different groups are involved. Gauterin explains that the solution is lots of planning in advance, and plenty of communication along the way. Bristol’s Phoenix and Cabot choirs have been rehearsing separately under the guidance of Paul Walton and Beccy Holdeman respectively, though the groups will come together to rehearse in the weeks leading up to the concert.

“One oddity of working in this way is that, given the need to use rehearsal time efficiently, we will only play the entire work in order during the concert itself,” Gauterin notes. “That is in part because it is a lot to ask the soloists to sing it twice in a day, but it does have the benefit of keeping things fresh. Even experienced singers and players can be caught out by the power of certain moments in the concert.”

Watch in awe
If you’re curious about seeing Gerontius, but have never been to a classical choral concert in Bristol before, Gauterin urges you to give it a try.

“Even if you’re a bit wary of classical music in general, the experience of seeing 250 people making both very loud and very quiet sounds with one voice can’t fail to impress. The great Praise to the Holiest chorus, in particular, has an overwhelming impact. It’s very different, and much more visceral, than hearing music on a radio or iPod.”

For those involved, it’s a thrilling experience, and Gauterin notes on behalf of all the groups that it’s always a privilege to perform a masterpiece such as Gerontius. “It’s very moving to be part of 250 people all working as one and reacting to each other in the moment. It’s live and alive.”

The magical performance will take place at 7.30pm on 18 May at Bristol Cathedral. Tickets can be booked by searching ‘Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius’ on (some tickets will also be available on the door). For more info on the groups visit,, and