Leicestershire Chorale
Next event: War Requiem, Saturday 10 November

The History of Leicestershire Chorale – 35 Years On

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.

While many say that the strength of the choir lies in music of the Baroque period, 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.

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, Rouen. 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 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 the 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, Musica Donum Dei, Saraband, the Fitzwilliam String Quartet and has its own invited orchestra the Leicestershire Camerata.

“Motets, madrigals, masses, canticles, cantatas, chorals, 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 of 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.

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 such country houses of Leicestershire (listed below) where each year over a hundred guests attend. They have been the main effort by choir members to raise funds but equally important has been the generosity of many charitable trusts which have the promotion music among their objectives.

Date Country House
1991 - 15 February 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 November Quenby Hall, Hungarton
2000 – 5 February Whatton House, Loughborough
2001 – 3 February Melbourne Hall, Derbyshire
2002 – 26 January Schools Concert – no dinner
2003 - 14 February Launde Abbey, Loddington
2004 – 14 February Uppingham School Memorial Hall
2005 – 26 February Quenby Hall, Hungarton
2006 – 4 February Wartnaby Hall
2007 – 3 February Neville Holt Hall
2008 - 7 June Osbaston Hall
2009 – 5 July Bridge House Allexton
2010 – 11 July East Norton Hall
2011 – 4 June Neville Holt Hall

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 say a hundred 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 “Youth finds a Voice” capacity. Andrew Fairbairn persuaded many sponsors that this major initiative was needed if the demise of choral singing among young people was to be prevented. Peripatetic singing teachers were employed to support the schools in preparing young singers for this concert in January 2002.

When Peter Fletcher became Principal of the Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff in 1984, the new musical director was Paul McCreesh, who at that time was a peripatetic cello teacher with the Leicestershire School of Music. 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 from the 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, who 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 as director Paul conducted Handel’s Solomon. Despite his growing international reputation and commitments, he has been back to conduct and is now the patron of the choir.

Following Paul’s departure, there was a brief interlude during which John York Skinner was in charge for Leicestershire Chorale’s first performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, and former conductors were invited back. 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 Bartok, Bernstein, Martinu, Zelenka, Kodaly, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky and Lutoslawski 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 Stravinsky’s Les Noces as well as a commissioned work by Matthew King Time Piece.” said the Loughborough Echo.

Tilbrook conducts Leicestershire Chorale and Schools in Verdi Requiem

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 instrumentalists and this showed in the quality of players 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 soloists and instrumentalists to further their careers.

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 called 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 Solomnelle) as well as revisiting Vivaldi’s Gloria, Handel’s Dixit Dominus and Bach’s Magnificat, with memorable trumpet playing from Crispin Steele-Perkins.

Leicestershire Chorale and 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.

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 donors like the Hollicks, the Brunnings, Lionel Anthony and from the music director, enabling the selection of at least four scholars a year. The Choral Scholars (see below) 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.

Leicestershire Chorale membership includes medics, university staff, clerics, businessmen as well as educators, but not surprisingly there has been a complete change in membership since the choir was founded, with only Wanda Davies remaining from the original choir. Tom Williams has been working for a vibrant but more cohesive sound and this process has been helped by the latest additions to the membership, some of whom have professional music experience. Although somewhat flexible, numbers in the bass section have doubled. Tom has also been able to call on deputies when needed or to augment the choir for works with orchestra. The numbers of sopranos and altos have also increased, and auditions help to keep numbers down and ensure a balanced sound.

Tom is also working 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 tome – 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 (see below) – have become honorary friends of Leicestershire Chorale; and Ruth is the current composer-in-residence for the choir. She has added to the repertoire for the Christmas concerts, which have in recent years included works by Messiaen, Poulenc, Maxwell Davies, Villette, Byrt, 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 BMV 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.

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 the De Montfort Hall. Leicestershire Chorale continued to work with The Saraband Concert. The last cooperation with the Leicestershire Schools Orchestra was for the Youth Find A Voice 2008 performance of the Dvorak Te Deum. Uppingham Church has been the venue for several well-supported concerts, including the Brahms German Requiem with piano duet accompaniment in 2011.

In the past 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. Leicestershire Chorale sang the services in the beautiful St David’s Cathedral and performed a concert in the international Fishguard Festival. Music (see above) in a concert programme which featured Bach, Brahms, Saint-Saens and Rutter. . The Festal Evensong at St Marylebone featured music by Charles Wood and Elgar.

As with his predecessors, Tom is helped by an experienced and hard working committee who, under current chairman, Claire Deare, do much to ensure that programmes are successful. Recent 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), and Peter Easton (1977-1980). As the Secretary and ‘General Administrator’ for many years Gillian Smith and Mary Moore were key figures in the success of Leicestershire Chorale.

Dr Fairbairn has been 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 BT East Midlands, East Midlands Arts, Pedigree Masterfoods, The Florence Turner Trust, Coopers & Lybrand, Maud Elkington, Hickingbotham 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. The 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 both for fund-raising and attracting people to concerts.

Leicestershire Chorale has been fortunate with the services of accompanists; some incumbents have been soloists in their own right like David Cowan (organist of Holy Cross Priory) and Margie Todd (teacher of keyboard at Uppingham School). Howard Gregory was the accompanist before them, and members of the choir like Richard Haynes, and Margaret or Peter Williams deputise 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 a better librarian. The main challenges remain to raise the standards of performance, to attract young people into choirs and to find good audiences for the concerts. As Leicestershire Chorale reaches its 35th year, there is no slowing down in its development; the years ahead will be full of excitement.