In the March 2012 edition of ‘the LINK’ I wrote an article entitled “My Musical Journey of Faith”. For the last sixteen years I have also been on a parallel musical journey which began on 2nd May 1997. Historians will record that this was the date on which Tony Blair became Prime Minister, for me it was far more important—the date when I presented myself at the Methodist Mission in Huddersfield to audition for the Huddersfield Choral Society.
For some time I had felt that I needed to broaden my musical horizons. I had spent many years singing in the choir at Thornhill Lees and later as pianist and choirmaster, but numbers in the choir had dwindled and younger people were no longer coming forward to fill the gaps. I had been a performing member of Batley Gilbert & Sullivan Society for many years, playing a variety of principal roles, but I had never intended to carry on performing into old age. I needed a new challenge and so I decided that I should join a choral society, but which one?
My decision was to start at the top, if Huddersfield didn’t want me, I knew of other choirs where I would be welcomed with open arms. So here I was, wondering how the audition would go. I had been instructed to report to Andrea Crawshaw, the choir secretary, a lady who in subsequent years I came to hold in very high regard. I was obviously not the only one, judging by the number of singers who turned up to sing at her funeral after her untimely death three years ago.
I had known a number of singers from The Choral over the years and was fortunate that one of them, who was well respected, had sponsored me on my application form. The Chorus Master at that time was Paul Leddington Wright, a name many of you will recognise from his many appearances on “Songs of Praise”. I knew that in the past he had been the director of the National Methodist Youth Choir and he had also directed Gilbert & Sullivan in his university years, so I thought it would do no harm to mention my Methodist and Gilbert & Sullivan connections on my application. Whether any of this carried weight at all I shall never know, but I felt my audition had gone quite well, and after a brief time waiting outside I was joined by Andrea and the society President who were both smiling. They offered me a place in the first bass section of the choir and I was invited to attend my first rehearsal that night, and so began another wonderful musical journey.
On that first night the choir was rehearsing William Walton’s “Gloria” and “Belshazzar’s Feast”, two works which were far more difficult than anything I had ever sung before, but as I sat in the midst of all those singers and was engulfed by wave upon wave of the most wonderful music, I knew that this was where I wanted to be hopefully for many years to come. We sang those two works at my first concert when I found myself on the back row of the choir, a very long way from the conductor, and sitting next to just one other man who I found it very difficult to hear, talk about a baptism of fire!
I did wonder after that first concert how long it would take me to progress to the front of the choir, the answer was “Not very long”. The following Summer we were to sing in the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall as one of the groups taking part in a “Choir Day”. As part of our twenty minute programme we were to sing Hubert Parry’s “I was Glad”, one of the anthems sung at the coronation in 1953 and on many royal occasions since. It is a particular favourite of mine and I was very surprised to be asked to sing in the semi-chorus, a smaller group who sing one of the movements in the anthem, and so for this concert only I was promoted to the second row! It was in that concert that I found myself next to Neil Stones. Those who have sung in the Methodist Circuit Choir will know Neil as he has come over from Barnsley a number of times to help us in concerts. Back in Huddersfield of course I had to return to the back row and begin a very slow descent through the ranks until I now find myself more often than not on the third row from the front.
The Choral is of course famous for its annual performances of “Messiah” in Huddersfield Town Hall. I can remember very clearly my first performance which was conducted by Jane Glover, who has become one of my favourite conductors with whom to work. In the lead up to the concerts we had rehearsed with the chorus master for just half of one rehearsal, about one hour in all, and we only clapped eyes on Jane Glover when she walked on to the platform to conduct the performance. I shall remember that performance for ever. Jane Glover, as she always does, brought out the very best from the choir, and the performance rose to a climax in the “Amen” chorus. On the last page the sopranos enter on a loud top A, at that point I had to stop singing, a lump came to my throat and tears filled my eyes and I could not finish the chorus. That soprano top A affects me every time we sing “Messiah”, but I do now usually manage to complete the chorus, sometimes with a very wobbly voice!
Where has my wonderful journey taken me over the years? I have sung in many venues on the UK mainland; Albert Hall, The Barbican, Birmingham Symphony Hall, The Sage Gateshead, The Usher Hall Edinburgh, St David’s Hall Cardiff, Bridgewater Hall, both Liverpool Cathedrals, York Minster and Coventry Cathedral to name but a few. We have twice sung for the Queen. We have sung in the St Magnus Festival on the Orkneys, and further afield we have been to France, Portugal, the Czech Republic, and as I write we are about to visit Spain in the next few weeks. But I guess the most amazing trip was to Japan six years ago when we sang in a very emotionally charged concert. We sang Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem” with a very large Japanese choir just two days before Hiroshima Day, Wow! Another experience I will never forget.
Wherever the journey has taken me, one thing has remained constant, the importance of the music. There are the mammoth works like Delius’ “Mass of Life”, Mahler “Symphony No. 8”or Berlioz “Requiem” which we sang with two other choirs and an orchestra of over one hundred players at The Proms last Summer. I clearly remember the rehearsal down in London when all the forces came together for the first time. Sitting in front of me was one of our new young members who, after we had sung the first chorus, turned to those of us behind saying “I think I’ve just died and gone to heaven”. Music can make you feel like that, sometimes the enormity of it all is just overwhelming! And then there are the very simple things like the version of “Love came down at Christmas” on our “Carols Album”. It begins with a verse sung by the altos, absolutely beautiful! Some music is memorable for different reasons. We once sang a newly commissioned work entitled “Agamemnon’s Tomb” and, yes, the title says it all! So which work do I most enjoy singing? A very difficult question to answer, but if I had to make a choice Verdi’s “Requiem” would come very near the top of the list, the orchestral interlude just before the “Tuba Mirum” always sends a shiver down my spine!
So where will my journey take me next? What new music will I learn? With which famous singers and conductors will I get the opportunity to perform? The answer is “I don’t know”, but I do know that the music will be frequently moving, occasionally frustrating, sometimes challenging, but always in the final performance fulfilling, and that this is a journey I want to stay with for as long as I possibly can.