80 years of song

Hert­ford Cho­ral So­ci­ety is cel­e­brat­ing 80 years of sing­ing. With the pub­li­ca­tion of a book on its his­tory and an up­com­ing Christ­mas con­cert, its mu­si­cal di­rec­tor dis­cusses its suc­cess

Hertfordshire Life - - CONTENTS - WORDS: San­dra Dee­ble

Mark­ing a ma­jor mile­stone for Hert­ford Cho­ral So­ci­ety plus carol con­cert guide

Com­mu­nity sing­ing is good for our health and that’s both men­tal and phys­i­cal. It’s so good for us in fact that en­light­ened GPs are pre­scrib­ing ‘join a choir’ to those feel­ing anx­ious, de­pressed or lonely. And it goes with­out say­ing that a dose of al­leluias is the per­fect win­ter salve for heart and lungs.

‘Peo­ple do say that a re­hearsal with me is like a phys­i­cal and men­tal work­out,’ says Her­ford Cho­ral So­ci­ety (HCS) mu­si­cal di­rec­tor Derek Har­ri­son. ‘I start with pos­ture and breath­ing; some mu­si­cal games and some oohing and aahing. I go at a fairly fast pace.’

Derek has been at the helm of the so­ci­ety for an im­pres­sive 41 years, which is just over half the age of the choir it­self. He has been in­volved with sing­ing and mu­sic all his life, start­ing as a cho­ris­ter in Sal­is­bury Cathe­dral and later gar­ner­ing an or­gan schol­ar­ship to Ox­ford Univer­sity. His mu­si­cal achieve­ments are too nu­mer­ous to list. Most note­wor­thy of all per­haps is his on­go­ing suc­cess con­duct­ing and lead­ing one of Herts’ finest choirs. To­day num­ber­ing 130 mem­bers, it was founded in 1938 by Grace Adams when 12 peo­ple got

to­gether to sing at the Par­ents’ Na­tional Ed­u­ca­tional Union School, lo­cated at what is now 4 and 6 Ben­geo Street, Hert­ford. 80 years on, HCS is in rude health.

‘We’re a thriv­ing and ro­bust group of peo­ple,’ Derek says with en­ergy, de­spite the fact he has just come back from a bus­man’s hol­i­day to Hert­ford’s twin town Wilde­shausen with 40 of the choir’s mem­bers. HCS sings in Ger­many reg­u­larly, and strong cho­ral bonds have been formed. Af­ter a day or two of rest, the choir will start re­hears­ing for the next two con­certs: Han­del’s Mes­siah and Christ­mas Cheer, both to be per­formed at Hert­ford’s All Saints’ Church.

Derek says that while there is lots of sing­ing go­ing on in Hert­ford­shire, there is some­thing about a choir as large as HCS that cre­ates a sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity.

‘The un­der­ly­ing thread of a choir like this is sus­tain­ing the core reper­toire. It’s im­por­tant to per­form the pieces which re­quire an orches­tra of 50 up­wards and a choir of 100 plus.’

When it comes to keep­ing the reper­toire go­ing, HCS is do­ing well. Read­ing the re­cently pub­lished 80-year his­tory of the choir, Hert­ford Cho­ral

So­ci­ety: A his­tory 1938-2018, which is also a fas­ci­nat­ing his­tory of Hert­ford it­self, the choir has per­formed Verdi’s Re­quiem, Bach’s Mass in B Mi­nor, Haydn’s The Creation, Vaughan’s A Sea Sym­phony,

Brit­ten’s War Re­quiem and Mahler’s Sym­phony no. 8, but this only scratches the sur­face. This il­lus­tri­ous choir doesn’t seem to stop re­hears­ing and per­form­ing and it has so many achieve­ments.

It was judged one of the nine most dy­namic mu­sic so­ci­eties in the coun­try. It has per­formed at the Royal Al­bert Hall. It has made sev­eral record­ings. It of­fers bur­saries to young singers and has a dy­namic pro­gramme of voice coach­ing work­shops that are open to non­mem­bers. The choir also has great links with Hert­ford schools and through­out the year it sings with gusto to raise funds for char­i­ties.

The choir is made up of one third men and two-thirds women, rang­ing in age from their 20s to their 90s, and per­forms four con­certs a year at All Saints with pro­fes­sional or­ches­tras and soloists. Re­hearsals are on Tues­day evenings at The Sele School. Such is the pop­u­lar­ity of this warm-hearted and tal­ented choir that mem­bers travel to re­hearsals from

north Herts and north Lon­don.

So what’s the key to main­tain­ing an even tenor in a large group of di­verse peo­ple? ‘Re­tain­ing a sense of hu­mour,’ says Derek, dead­pan.

What does he thinks about the new vo­cal groups such as Rock Choir? And what about Gareth Malone?

‘All of th­ese other choirs are great. And I think that what Gareth has done is ter­rific. He’s made peo­ple think that, yes, I can sing.’

Derek may be clas­si­cally trained, but he’s not afraid to mix things up. For the sum­mer gala next June the choir will sing with Blue Steel Band and Ac­cor­dian5. And the Christ­mas Cheer con­cert on De­cem­ber 15 along­side Hert­ford’s Mor­gans Pri­mary School Choir will in­clude mu­sic by three liv­ing com­posers, one of whom, Ce­cilia McDowall, is an HCS mem­ber.

‘Part of our mis­sion is to in­tro­duce the mem­bers of the choir and also our au­di­ences to a wide range of mu­sic.’

When we talk about the fact that out of

‘The choir are pre­pared to go along with my hair­brained schemes’

the many dis­tin­guished mu­si­cal di­rec­tors and con­duc­tors HCS has had over the years, Derek has lasted the long­est, he smiles and says, ‘We both still like each other, and the choir are pre­pared to go along with my hair-brained schemes.’

As for those who have never sung or for whom the thought of be­ing faced with sheet mu­sic is ter­ri­fy­ing, Derek has writ­ten a book­let, Wel­come to Cho­ral Sing­ing.

So what does he de­mand of his choir? ‘The ap­proach to at­tend­ing re­hearsals is pro­fes­sional, with a 75 per cent at­ten­dance rule. Peo­ple are do­ing this as a hobby but we don’t want peo­ple just drop­ping in.’

As pro­fes­sional as the choir sounds, Derek is keen to em­pha­sise that HCS is, and al­ways will be, a com­mu­nity choir.

‘You don’t have to au­di­tion,’ he ex­plains. ‘New mem­bers are al­ways wel­come.’

Hert­ford Cho­ral So­ci­ety’s fes­tive con­cert, Christ­mas Cheer, is on De­cem­ber 15 at 7.30pm at All Saints’ Church, Hert­ford.

Hert­ford Cho­ral So­ci­ety: A his­tory 1938-2018 is avail­able from hert­ford­choral.org.uk (£12 incl p&p).

HCS per­form­ing Verdi’s Re­quiem at the Royal Al­bert Hall

RIGHT:Many con­duc­tors join in the fun at an HCS con­certBE­LOW: Mu­si­cian Mary Ib­ber­son, founder of Hitchin’s Ru­ral Mu­sic School (now Benslow Mu­sic), took up the ba­ton in 1940, to cre­ate a for­mal choirBOT­TOM:Christ­mas con­cert at All Saints with con­duc­tor and mu­si­cal di­rec­tor Derek in white

Mem­bers of the choir in May this year

ABOVE: Per­form­ing in Wilde­shausen in Ger­many. The so­ci­ety has strong links with Hert­ford’s twin town

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