History

The History of Leicestershire Chorale – 40 Years On

Leicestershire Chorale celebrated its 40th anniversary season in 2017-18. It is not the oldest choir in the region (Leicester Philharmonic was founded in 1886) but it is the most high-achieving of chamber choirs. Its members are all good musicians and so it was fitting to celebrate 40 years in great style. Invitations were sent to all known past and present members and 120 joined the rehearsals leading to a Gala Concert at De Montfort Hall on Sunday 19th November 2017, almost 40 years to the day of the first rehearsal. Director of Leicestershire Chorale, Tom Williams, conducted the Verdi Requiem with the Bardi Orchestra and four nationally renowned soloists – Maureen Brathwaite (Soprano), Catherine Griffiths (Mezzo), Andrew Kennedy (Tenor), and Jimmy Holliday (Bass). As a prelude to the main work our patron, Paul McCreesh (a previous director of Leicestershire Chorale and now director of the Gabrieli Consort), conducted Walton’s Coronation Te Deum. The excellence of the performance confirmed  Leicestershire Chorale’s special character: a choir that sings to the highest standards, that performs each year with an orchestra and professional soloists, that is committed to promoting opportunities for young people to develop as musicians and provides the regional community with a programme of interesting and challenging choral music. In fact in our 40th season we had a second orchestral concert presenting Handel’s Messiah to a large audience in Uppingham. All of the solos were sung by members of the choir and scholars.

The highlights of recent seasons reinforce the picture.  Each year we have at least four scholars and many of these have gone on to study music at University or at Music College. Some have won choral scholarships to Oxford, Cambridge and London. At least one, Tim Morgan (counter-tenor) is already launched on a professional career, while still at the Royal Academy. Others are singing with university choirs or have joined choirs where they live after graduation. For so many of them to return to sing in the Verdi, and prior to that in Tallis’ Spem in Alium, was thrilling. Hopefully, there will continue to be special occasions when a large choir is required, perhaps to balance the Bardi orchestra in a major work like Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. At the other end, Leicestershire Chorale continues to enjoy the services of some very experienced singers, indeed at least two of the original members – Cameron Fraser and Gillian Bindley – returned for the Verdi.

A Long Tradition of New Music
Leicestershire Chorale has a long established tradition of singing new music. The April 2017 concert in the amazing acoustic of Holy Cross Priory featured the recent composition of our Honorary Friend, James Weeks, Orlando Tenebrae. In June 2018, in celebration of our 40th season, David Fisher, a restored original member of the choir, presented Tom Williams and Leicestershire Chorale with his cantata The Gift to Sing: Alleluia for performance in St Aidan’s Church in memory of Wanda Davies, another original member of 38 years, recently deceased.  At the invitation of the Bardi Orchestra, Leicestershire Chorale gave its first performance of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, and are shortly to perform Britten’s War Requiem with Tom Williams as chorus-master with Leicestershire Chorale providing the semi-chorus and nucleus of a large choir including the Leicestershire Philharmonic and the Leicester Bach choirs. Leicester Cathedral was the venue for a concert in March 2016 in cooperation with the Cathedral Youth Choir and the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble. The music was a recent reconstruction of settings for a Venetian Vespers by 17th century composer Johann Rosenmüller.

 

Cooperation with Young Singers and Schools
This cooperation with young singers and schools was a feature of several concerts. Bach’s St John Passion was sung in April 2014 at Leicester Cathedral with their Youth Choir (under their Director, and Leicestershire Chorale member Dr Christopher Ouvry-Johns) and The Camerata Baroque orchestra. European Christmas music was featured in Ratcliffe College Chapel. Combined School and Youth choirs sang the Duruflé Requiem with the Bardi Orchestra at Leicester Grammar School under the YFAV banner in November 2014. The Finchley Children’s Music Group performed Britten’s Ceremony of Carols with Leicestershire Chorale at Christmas 2013 and the Huddersfield Boys’ Choir under Keith Roberts performed Rutter’s Filled with the Spirit in 2012. Loughborough Schools Foundation partnered Leicestershire Chorale in concerts in 2012 and 2017 and Nicky Bouckley, Head of Academic Music there, is the current chair of Leicestershire Chorale. LSF have encouraged their students to become choral scholars. Uppingham School has provided much support over the years: not only does Tom Williams teach singing there but several of his colleagues, singers with an international reputation, have been soloists in Leicestershire Chorale concerts, and the school chapel has been the venue for concerts and for the choir’s acclaimed CD recording Laudibus in Sanctis. Leicestershire Chorale’s tradition of singing in far-distant locations has been maintained with performances at St George’s Bloomsbury (2014) and St David’s Cathedral and St Mary’s Haverfordwest (2018). Locally, new venues have been discovered at Countesthorpe (for a kiddies’ Christmas concert) and in New Parks, where St Aidan’s provides an attractive acoustic and good support from parishioners

 

A Diverse Membership
Leicestershire Chorale membership includes medics, clerics, businessmen as well as educators, but not surprisingly there has been a complete change in membership since the choir was founded, by 2016 only Wanda Davies remained from the original choir, though subsequently David Fisher returned. Tom Williams has been working for a vibrant yet more cohesive sound and this objective has been helped by recent additions to the membership, some of whom have professional music experience. While membership is somewhat flexible, numbers in the bass section have doubled. Tom has also been able to call on a deputy (Chris Ouvry-Johns or Nicky Bouckley) when needed or to augment the choir for big works with orchestra. The number of sopranos and altos is stable and auditions help to ensure a balanced sound. Contributing to that sound is the extensive and rigorous warm-up that Tom insists on before each rehearsal. Tom Williams is always interested to hear from potential new singing members.

 

Leicestershire Choral Founder
Leicestershire Chorale was founded in 1977 largely by the efforts of Dr Andrew Fairbairn, the then Director of Education for Leicestershire and Rutland, and a former choral scholar at Trinity College Cambridge. He took his ideas for a choir, which would provide in particular for teachers in Leicestershire, to Peter Fletcher, the County Principal Music Adviser and Peter agreed to be the first musical director of Leicestershire Chorale. Peter has been an organ scholar and a Cathedral organist and gained experience conducting many choirs and orchestras in Britain and Canada. He taught at Uppingham School and had acquired a remarkable reputation for getting the best music out of young people, and so from its earliest days Leicestershire Chorale was closely linked with youth music. The very first rehearsal was held on 24th November 1977 in Hazel Street School in Leicester. Most of the members were in education from all parts of the City and the County. By March 1978 Leicestershire Chorale was ready to perform its first concert: a programme of sacred motets by Gabrieli, Monteverdi, Schutz, Cavalli, Purcell and Bach in St Andrew’s Kegworth, and then in St Mary de Castro, one of the oldest churches in the city.

 

Traditional and Contemporary
Some may say that the strength of the choir lies in music of the Baroque period but Leicestershire Chorale has always been willing to accept the challenge of modern and contemporary composers. Several pieces have been written for first performance by Leicestershire Chorale. By May of 1978 pieces by Messiaen, Poulenc and Bruckner had been added to a repertoire, already wide enough to support a tour to Normandy, with concerts in Dieppe and Etretat.

 

Countrywide Performances
Within the first two seasons Leicestershire Chorale had performed fifteen concerts in venues including the Cathedrals of Westminster, Lincoln and Leicester. The choir visited several other cathedrals in the years that followed including Southwell, Norwich, Peterborough, and Rouen. It also sang in Tewkesbury Abbey, Beverley Minster, Great St Mary’s Cambridge and St John’s Smith Square. However, in the main, Leicestershire Chorale serves the county from which it takes its name and there is no town, nor many large villages, where the choir has not sung. Of all the churches St James the Greater has been most used because of its magnificent acoustic and its convenient location for many supporters.

 

Peter Fletcher
Peter Fletcher conducted Leicestershire Chorale until 1984. By then good links had been established with the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra which accompanied several Leicestershire Chorale performances. This was the beginning of the tradition, unique among chamber choirs in the region, of having at least one major work accompanied by orchestra in each season. The performance of the Verdi Requiem in De Montfort Hall in March 1984 also involved other adult and school choirs. In addition to the LSSO, Leicestershire Chorale has worked with the Gabrieli Consort, English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble, Musica Donum Dei, Saraband, the Fitzwilliam String Quartet and its own invited orchestra, the Leicestershire Camerata.  More recently, joint concerts have been held with the Bardi Orchestra.

 

Country House Dinner Concerts
Date Country House Dinner Concerts
1991 – 15 Feb Quenby Hall, Hungarton
1992 – 8 May Noseley Hall, Billesdon
1993 – 14 May Stanford Hall, Lutterworth
1994 – 4 March Papplewick Hall, Nottinghamshire
1995 – 23 June Burrough House, Burrough-on-the hill
1996 – 31 May Quenby Hall, Hungarton
1997 – 30 May Osbaston Hall, Market Bosworth
1998 – 22 Nov Quenby Hall, Hungarton
2000 – 5 Feb Whatton House, Loughborough
2001 – 3 Feb Melbourne Hall, Derbyshire
2003 – 14 Feb Launde Abbey, Loddington
2004 – 14 Feb Uppingham School Memorial Hall
2005 – 26 Feb Quenby Hall, Hungarton
2006 – 4 Feb Wartnaby Hall
2007 – 3 Feb Neville Holt Hall
2007 – 7 July Tower House, Burley on the Hill
2008 – 7 June Osbaston Hall
2009 – 5 July Bridge House Allexton
2010 – 11 July East Norton Hall
2011 – 4 June Neville Holt Hall
2012 – 7 July The Brand, Woodhouse Eaves
2013 – 14 July The Green, Lyddington
2014 – 12 July Tower House, Burley on the Hill
2015 – 6 June Padwell Lane, Bushby
2016 – 4 June Wardley House
2017 – 28 May The Brand, Woodhouse Eaves
2018 – 9 June The Old Rectory, Whissendine

 

Motets, Madrigals, Masses and More
“Motets, madrigals, masses, canticles, cantatas, chorales, anthems, oratorios and passions all form part of the repertoires of one of the most interesting and versatile choirs in the county” wrote Neil Crutchley about Leicestershire Chorale in the Leicester Mercury in 1990. Well before that the choir had taken on some major challenges. They had recorded music by Tippett, mastered the complexities of a Stravinsky Mass and Copland’s Motet In the Beginning, and taken Britten Cantatas and Missa Brevis on tour in Europe. The first performance of a Bach Passion did not occur until 1981 when the St John was performed in All Saints, Loughborough. Thereafter Passions and major oratorios came in close succession. The St Matthew was performed, again in All Saints, in 1982; Messiah, for the first time, at Christmas time in 1981; Tippett’s Child of our Time in 1982 and, of all works for a chamber choir, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis in 1983. Before he retired as Music Director, Peter Fletcher, had steered the choir through Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and the two major Requiems of Verdi and Brahms. His final work with Leicestershire Chorale was the one he returned to conduct in the final year of his life, Bach’s B Minor Mass.

 

Finance and Fundraising
Many things limit the ability of chamber choirs to perform major works of the kind undertaken by Leicestershire Chorale. First and foremost is finance: putting on any work that involves a professional orchestra and soloists is likely to lose money. Ticket sales go some way to meeting the costs. Choirs have to find sponsors and undertake fund raising activities. In the early years Leicestershire Chorale was supported as an adult education/teacher training activity by the education authority. When that support ended Leicestershire Chorale turned to a major fundraising dinner in the fine country houses of Leicestershire (listed here) where each year over a hundred guests attend. The concert/dinners have been the main effort by choir members to raise funds. Until 2007 these events were held inside prestigious country houses and, attractive as this was, the number of guests was severely limited. Since the President hosted the event at Allexton, the buffet dinners have been held in marquees set up in spectacular garden scenery and a hundred or more guests have attended. Concerts have been held in neighbouring, often small country, churches and locals invited to attend. Equally important has been the generosity of the charitable trusts which support music and include the promotion of youth music among their objectives.

 

Voice Power
Some major choral works can be sustained only if a choir has enough voice power. Sometimes quality can make up for quantity, but for works like Missa Solemnis and Verdi Requiem it helps to have a choir of a hundred or more voices. In earlier days a performance of the Requiem was undertaken in the De Montfort Hall with a choir of 250 singers from a dozen or more schools supported by Leicestershire Chorale. This was among the first of the projects undertaken by Leicestershire Chorale in its YouthFindAVoice capacity. Andrew Fairbairn persuaded many sponsors that this major initiative was needed if the demise of choral singing among the young was to be prevented. Peripatetic singing teachers supported the schools in preparing young singers for this concert in January 2002.

 

Paul McCreesh
When Peter Fletcher became Principal of the Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff in 1984, Paul McCreesh, who at that time was a peripatetic cello teacher with the Leicestershire Schools Music, became the new music director. This turned out to be an inspired appointment for he built up the choir in both numbers and quality. A May 1994 photograph of the performers of Handel’s Solomon in St James the Greater shows a rather bigger choir than the 40 voices it has been through most of its history. Minutes of a committee meeting in 1979 indicate a desire to increase numbers from the existing 13 Sopranos, 11 Altos, 7 Tenors and 9 Basses.  Paul developed the choir in many ways. It became particularly well known for performances of early baroque music including works by Buxtehude, Allegri, Biber, Sheppard, Vittoria, Scheidt and Praetorius. Nevertheless the repertoire remained broad and less common works, including Handel’s Theodora and his Carmelite Vespers, were performed. Slowly but surely Paul was developing a national reputation, partly as a result of his research and performance of these early works. He founded the Gabrieli Consort and Players, and they performed with Leicestershire Chorale for several seasons. Not surprisingly music of the Italian School and Purcell featured strongly; Leicestershire Chorale sang both his verse anthems and the Fairie Queen. In June 1993 Leicestershire Chorale undertook an unusual engagement in singing at the degree congregation for the University of Loughborough. What they made of the 16th and 17th Century madrigals from Spain and England is not recorded. For his last concert Paul conducted Handel’s Solomon. Despite his growing international fame and commitments, he has not forgotten Leicestershire Chorale and has been back to conduct or support and is now patron of the choir.

 

John York Skinner to Jonathan Tilbrook
Following Paul’s departure, there was a brief interlude when John York Skinner was in charge. He conducted Leicestershire Chorale’s first performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Former conductors were invited back to fill the interregnum; Malcolm Goldring conducted a performance of Handel’s Athalia.

Jonathan Tilbrook was appointed in 1996, and was musical director for nine years. It has been one of the strengths of Leicestershire Chorale that musical directors have stayed long enough to stamp their own character on the choir. Jonathan had studied conducting under Sir Charles Mackerras and in 1993 had been appointed Conducting Fellow at Nottingham University. He had been a chorister at St Albans Abbey and was much influenced by his experience as assistant conductor with the Bohuslav Martinu Philharmonic. Under him Leicestershire Chorale sang a good deal of music in foreign languages including Czech, Russian, Polish and Hebrew, as well as the more usual French, German, Italian and Spanish. Composers such as Bartók, Bernstein, Martinu, Zelenka, Kodaly, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky and Lutosławski were added to the repertoire. Critics thought the most exciting piece undertaken for the millennium celebrations was Stravinsky’s Les Noces. “Four grand pianos, a battery of percussion and months of preparation; that’s what our finest and most ambitious amateur choir, Leicestershire Chorale, brought to their last concert. What other local choir would attempt Les Noces as well as a commissioned work by Matthew King Time Piece.” said the Loughborough Echo. Jonathan brought an intense musicality to performances. He made few concessions to the fact that Leicestershire Chorale is not a professional group. Interpretations were as demanding as the music chosen. The performance of the Messiah in 1996 was considered by local critics to be among the most dramatic they had heard. Much benefit was derived from Jonathan’s close association with professional players and this showed in the quality of those asked to perform with the Leicestershire Camerata. Leicestershire Chorale was also fortunate in cooperating with the Fitzwilliam String Quartet. He was happy to continue the association of Leicestershire Chorale with the International Music Festivals in Leicester and Loughborough, for which Leicestershire Chorale performed King Arthur and the Fairie Queen, both by Purcell. Jonathan also took Leicestershire Chorale to the Yorkshire Dales to sing in the Festival in Swaledale. Under his leadership Leicestershire Chorale continued its tradition of giving opportunities to young professional soloists and instrumentalists to further their careers.

 

Links with Schools and Local Choirs
Tilbrook played a valuable role in fostering links with schools, and in 2004 conducted the combined choirs in Orff’s Carmina Burana and a commissioned humorous work by Andrew Carter, Healthy Eating. Another outreach activity of Leicestershire Chorale has been to organise “Come and Sing” events, inviting schools and other choirs to participate. Under his generous leadership the choir took music to private homes, weddings and villages and gradually developed a more light-hearted repertoire. In the years before he moved on from Leicestershire Chorale to meet the increased demand for his services at Trinity College of Music in Greenwich, Jonathan had introduced the new generation of choristers to the music of Poulenc (Gloria and Christmas Motets), both Taverners (Western Wynde Mass and The Tyger), Rossini (Petite Messe Solennelle) as well as revisiting Vivaldi’s Gloria, Handel’s Dixit Dominus and Bach’s Magnificat, with memorable trumpet playing from Crispin Steele-Perkins.

 

Tom Williams
Leicestershire Chorale chose Tom Williams as its conductor in January 2005. As the senior choral scholar at King’s College Cambridge, he had been musical director of Collegium Regale. He combines a successful singing career with Exaudi, Polyphony and the Temple Church, with singing teaching at Uppingham School. It has taken him very little time to come to terms with the expectations and needs of a successful amateur choir, perhaps not surprising when his father has been a well-known choral conductor in Derbyshire, and his mother not only sings but accompanies choirs. Under his direction Leicestershire Chorale has already won the prize for the Best Classical Performance of the Year awarded by the Leicester Mercury newspaper.

 

Youth Programme and Scholarships
Leicestershire Chorale has benefited from an influx of younger voices in all parts and with its current youth programme, which offers choral scholarships for students from schools and universities. Four years of choral scholars have had a remarkable effect on Leicestershire Chorale. Funding for scholarships has been received from the Ernest Cook and Radcliffe Trusts and from generous individual donors and from the music director, enabling the selection of at least four scholars a year. The Choral Scholars have made a valuable contribution and have learned a great deal in the process, some of them going on to full-time study of music in higher education.

 

Expanding Repetoire
Tom Williams also aims to expand the choir’s repertoire even further. One of his early triumphs was “a stirring performance of the Vespers” of Rachmaninov in the church of Holy Cross Priory, which has an acoustic to rival that of St James. The Leicester Mercury newspaper described the performance as “sonorous, passionate and colourful – a tour de force of choral agility”. It also reported that “all eyes were on Tom Williams who produced a superbly balanced tapestry of sound, with wide-ranging dynamics, good attack and glowing tone – underpinned by the splendid basses who came near to the ‘organ pedal’ sonority of their Russian counterparts.” This is evidence, if needed, of growing discipline in the choir. Tom has a good idea of what he wants to achieve and expects all his singers to be focussed on that. In his first two years Tom had conducted works by composers as varied as Handel, Lauridsen, Whitacre, Britten, Skempton, Sullivan, Vaughan Williams, Gabrieli and Schutz. He has been thoroughly involved in the work with schools, and has plans for recordings, tours and new works, including commissions. His own musical experience gives him the background and confidence to choose music which will keep members on their toes, if such an analogy is appropriate for singers. Through his links with Exaudi, Tom is in contact with contemporary composers and three of them – James Weeks, Ruth Almgill and Howard Skempton – have become honorary friends of Leicestershire Chorale; Ruth was composer-in-residence for the choir and she added to the repertoire for the Christmas concerts, which have, in recent years, included works by Messiaen, Poulenc, Maxwell Davies, Villette, Byrd, Berkeley and Rogers, as well as more traditional fare by Vaughan Williams, Rutter, Willcocks, and even Bach. The choir still greatly enjoys its forays back into baroque music like the Bachfest in 2010 (including Cantata BWV 36 and Christmas Oratorio) in the acoustically friendly St Mary’s Church, Melton Mowbray, or the Purcell concert with James Bowman at St James in 2009 or Handel’s Judas Maccabeus at Leicester Cathedral the same year.

 

Bardi Orchestra
Every year there is at least one concert is with an orchestra and recently Leicestershire Chorale has forged a special relationship with the Bardi Orchestra. In 2010 they cooperated with over 200 young people in singing the Poulenc Gloria, and in 2011 they performed the Mozart Requiem in De Montfort Hall. Leicestershire Chorale continued to work with The Sarabande Consort. The last cooperation with the Leicestershire Schools Orchestra was for the YFAV 2008 performance of the Dvorak Te Deum. Uppingham Parish Church has been the venue for several well-supported concerts, including the Brahms German Requiem with piano duet accompaniment in 2011. Tours or away-days have contributed to good morale in the choir and the president has followed up these traditions by organising a tour to Pembrokeshire in 2010 and a visit to St Marylebone in 2011. A Festival Evensong at St Marylebone featured music by Charles Wood and Elgar. Leicestershire Chorale sang the services in the beautiful setting of St David’s Cathedral and performed a concert in the international Fishguard Festival with a programme which featured Bach, Brahms, Saint-Saëns and Rutter.

 

Committee
As with his predecessors, Tom Williams is helped by an experienced and hard working committee, under effective chairs: Nicky Bouckley (2017- current), Neil Waddell (2012-2017), and Claire Deare (2007-2012) have done much to ensure that programmes are successfully executed. Other chairmen have included Nick Butler (2003-7), Vivian Anthony (1998-2003), Bruce Patterson (1995-8), Janet Waring (1993-5), Ruth Foreman (1990-3), Sue Clodd (1988-90), Cameron Fraser and Peter Easton (1977-1980). Chorale has been fortunate in the efforts of secretaries and other members of the committee, like Gillian Bindley, Gillian Smith and Mary Moore, key figures in the early success of the choir. The finances have not always been healthy but the work of treasurers and Presidents have ensured that ambitious programmes could be pursued.

 

Dr Andrew Fairbairn
Dr Andrew Fairbairn was at the centre of fundraising activities from the outset and knows better than anyone how to approach the trusts and grant making bodies which support choral music. On his death, the vice president, Dr Vivian Anthony, became president and took on the fund-raising mantle. Andrew was in contact with some very generous sponsors over the years, including the Gee family and the Brunnings, who have hosted some splendid fund raising dinners. Among the many other sponsors were Angus Allnatt, BT East Midlands, D’Oyly Carte, East Midlands Arts, Florence Turner Trust, Coopers & Lybrand, Maud Elkington, Hickinbotham Trust, Graham Moore, National Heritage Arts Sponsorship Scheme, Ellis & Everard, Swithland, British Federation of Young Choirs, Foundation for Sport and the Arts, Yapp Welfare and Educational Trust, Melton Mowbray Building Society, National Westminster Bank, Alliance & Leicester, Barclays, British Gas, Midland Coop., Making Music (National Federation of Music Societies), the Rayne Foundation, and the Forbes Trust. Leicester, Leicestershire and the borough councils have made grants for particular events. Vivian is now developing links with these and other sponsors and, in most years, grants of over £10,000 are secured. The work of the Friends of Leicestershire Chorale, under Gill Bracey and Tony Gelsthorpe, is valuable in building support for the choir, for fund-raising and for attracting people to concerts.

 

Accompanists
Leicestershire Chorale has been fortunate with the services of accompanists; some incumbents have been soloists in their own right like David Cowen and Margie Todd. Howard Gregory was the accompanist before them, and Margaret and Peter Williams and other choir members like Richard Haynes have deputised when necessary. Equally important are the librarians: Margie Todd did considerable work before handing on the Bob Brown: it is difficult to imagine that any choir has had a better librarian. The main goals remain to raise the standards of performance, to attract young people into choirs and to find good audiences for the concerts. As Leicestershire Chorale enjoyed its 40th year, there was no slowing down in its development; the years ahead will be full of excitement.