Glorious music rolls back the years
THE county’s oldest choral society has just celebrated its 150th anniversary with a triumphant concert at Canterbury Cathedral. Hundreds of music-lovers enjoyed the concert by Ashford Choral Society on Saturday, May 12, which featured 150 singers, a full orchestra and guest soloists. The large and appreciative audience, which included the Lord Lieutenant Allan Willett and Ashford MP Damian Green, gave the performers a standing ovation at the end of the concert. Fifteen years ago the society held what it believed to be its centenary concert at the same venue. Then, five years later, members discovered it was the wrong date and the history of the society actually stretched back even further, making it one of the longest established choirs in the South. An advertisement spotted in the Ashford & Alfred News (now called the Kentish Express) of May 30, 1857, announced a concert of sacred music in the town’s Assembly Rooms. It was so well supported that two weeks later a notice appeared announcing the formation of the choral society.
So the group was born and staged its first major concert billed as a “grand vocal and instrumental concert” the following year, when they were assisted by eminent professional singers, a celebrated flautist and a military bandmaster with front row seats for a shilling (5p). Over the years many contributed to the singing group’s development. Among them was John Matson, who was organist at Ashford parish church for 43 years, who acted as leader until 1868 when George Wilks, a doctor of both medicine and music, returned to his birth town after years of study to join his father’s medical practice. He drove them forward with a repertoire of impressive choral works held in the impressive Corn Exchange at the bottom of Bank Street that could seat more than 1,000 people. Those were the halcyon days of the choir when it is know that the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh, then resident at Eastwell Manor, and patients of Dr Wilks regularly attended concerts and one time took along composer Sir Arthur Sullivan who it was reported was impressed. After 15 years, ill health forced Dr Wilks to stand down and there were some lean times during the 1920s until the next conductor of note, Dr Paul Steinitz, took the baton in the 1930s.
He came to Ashford to teach at Ashford School for Girls and accepted the job as organist and choirmaster at St Mary’s and leader of the choral society, which he did with distinction for eight years. As Dr Steinitz was a conscientious objector and pacifist and many members were involved with action and Home Guard duties, the Second World War brought many difficulties, but they continued under several conductors until Mary Mitchell, head of music at the County School for Girls, agreed to take the lead in 1952. For the next two decades the group expanded until she was forced to stand down due to illhealth to be replaced by David Spackman for two years. He left the area in the middle of the 1969/70 season to be replaced by the young Mark Deller. Such is the international reputation of conductor Mr Deller, that top quality professional musicians travel to form the orchestras and perform as soloists. Son of renowned counter-tenor Alfred Deller, he has now been at the helm for nearly four decades. Starting as a cathedral chorister, he went on to read music at Cambridge before singing with the Deller Consort, concentrating on early music at performances at home and abroad. His enthusiasm encouraged the Choral Society to travel themselves and in the late 1970s they joined forces with a French choir for concerts in Paris. Those exchange visits have continued, with the most recent being cross-Channel joint concerts in both Boulogne and Kent.
Members of Ashford Choral Society in 1970 with conductor Mark Deller
Ashford Choral Society performs Bach’s Christmas Oratorio in Wye Church
Rehearsal in the old Ashford Girls’ Grammar School in 1957
Mark Deller directs the musicians and choir