Glo­ri­ous mu­sic rolls back the years

Kentish Express Ashford & District - - ROUNDABOUT -

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

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