Founding the Choir

This is the first of a series of posts giving the history of the choir.

David Bowman and the first meeting

David Bowman was already organist and choir master at Holy Trinity Church, Southport, when he conceived the idea of forming a choir of mixed adult voices. The first meeting of the Southport Bach Society (as it was then called) was held on 7 January 1965. It was decided that rehearsals would be held in Holy Trinity Parochial Hall at 8.30 pm ‘with no break for refreshment’, and a first concert was arranged for Tuesday, 13 April 1965.

There were 19 singers at the first meeting (3 others sent apologies); one of them still sings with the choir. Alma Dootson had a break of several years while she was singing with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir, but she and her husband Peter, an organist, played a large part in the choir’s early life. Another founding singer was Barbara Dix, who soon left to pursue her career as a professional singer and singing teacher. There are several other names I recognise because they were still singing in the choir when I joined in 1968, but Alma and I are the only members of today’s choir to have sung under David Bowman.

The ‘Society’ appellation was decided on because the original idea was to have an orchestra linked to the choir, and in minutes of a committee meeting held in March 1965 David Bowman is reported as firmly stating that it was important for the choir to be accompanied by an orchestra ‘of some size’ in the first performance. The treasurer advised that a sum of £50 (a figure that would amaze today’s treasurer!) could be set aside for this ‘with safety’. In the event, an orchestra was drawn from members of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra for early concerts. Although in succeeding years the choir has regularly performed with orchestral accompaniment as well as with smaller instrumental groups, or organ, it has never had its ‘own’ orchestra, so eventually the name was changed to Southport Bach Choir.

First performances

The illustrious Bach Choir in London was formed originally (in 1875) for the sole purpose of giving the first complete British performance of J. S. Bach’s Mass in B minor. The Southport choir set its sights a little lower, but Bach certainly featured in the first performance on 13 April 1965. His Easter cantata no.4, ‘Christ lay in death’s dark prison’, was part of the first concert, which also included Heinrich Schütz’s St Matthew Passion. According to the programme, the soloists were Derek Perry (tenor) and William Morris (bass). But the secretary’s report for the year says that Edwin Twigg was the tenor soloist, so I imagine there was a last-minute substitution, possibly because of illness. Eddie Twigg was the Southport Librarian, one of the founding members of the choir, and together with his wife a huge support to David Bowman.

In that first year the choir gave another concert in October in support of the Southport Society of Polio Research, when they sang works by Vaughan Williams – one of which, his Serenade to Music, will feature in our Summer Anniversary Concert 2015 – and Bartók’s Slovak folk songs. Another concert was given in Holy Trinity on 9 December, which included the Fauré Requiem, with organ accompaniment. The 1965-66 year was considered to run up to an AGM on 5 May 1966, when it was reported that the choir had also given a lunchtime recital (Bach’s Peasant Cantata) at the Art Gallery, Southport on 30 March 1966, when the conductor was not David Bowman (who taught at Preston Grammar School), but Peter Dootson.

From the start the choir became involved in the local community, being represented at a public meeting at the Art Gallery in December 1965, when it was agreed to form a Southport Association for the Arts. The main object of the Association, it seems, was to organize a festival during April and May 1967 to celebrate the centenary of the borough. However, there is nothing in the annual report for 1967-68 about singing at such a festival.

In January 1966 the choir joined the National Federation of Music Societies, an organization now called Making Music, to which the Southport Bach Choir is still affiliated.

In the next post I’ll write about the period up to the summer of 1970 when David Bowman left Southport to take up a post at Ampleforth College, where he founded another choir, the Schola Cantorum.

December choir concerts 2014

Messiah

December is always a busy month for the choir, but this year it has been even busier than usual. On 13 December we performed Messiah at Holy Trinity. It was a splendid occasion; the church was packed and the feedback afterwards was that it had been a wonderful performance, by choir, soloists and the accompanying instruments. Our Director, Ian Crawford, had rehearsed the choir hard to make sure the choral numbers came to life and didn’t slip into a stale rehash of music that most members had sung countless times. I was delighted to hear from a member of the audience who hadn’t heard either the choir or Messiah before that the choir sang with passionate involvement.

Barbara Ruzsics, who was to have sung the soprano solos, had to withdraw at the last moment because of ill health, and we were very grateful to Nicola Howard for taking over at short notice. She joined Joyce Tinsley, Tim Kennedy and Mark Rawlinson to make a wonderful team of soloists. Stephen Hargreaves (organ), no stranger to Merseyside audiences,  and members of the Liverpool Concert Orchestra – Owen Baker and Julie Baker trumpets), Nick Byrne (cello) and Tony Lucas (timpani) – provided a splendid accompaniment. Having the solo numbers accompanied by the cello and organ made for an interesting change of musical texture.

An added dimension to this concert was that it was promoted in association with Crosby Rotary Club. Thanks to the efforts of a choir member who is currently their President, publicity for our performance was disseminated much more widely than usual, and people who had never heard us sing before were encouraged to attend. Proceeds from the concert were shared between the choir and Crosby Rotary – so we were very glad to see the large audience!

Melling Tithebarn concert

No sooner was that concert over than we were back to rehearsal: this time for a concert at Melling Tithebarn. The choir did once sing in this delightful venue, many years ago, but it was unfamiliar to most people. We were warmly welcomed and thoroughly enjoyed singing carols old and new, as well as a  couple of choruses from Messiah. Ian conducted, introducing the various items with his inimitable humour and enthusiasm, and cajoling the audience into energetic participation. We were ably accompanied on this occasion by Judy Blakemore.

Carol singing

There were plenty of opportunities for choir members to sing carols this year, since we were asked to do two slots in Marks and Spencer, when collections were made for Derian House, the children’s hospice.

Furthermore, on the day of our final choir rehearsal for Messiah we received a request to sing carols for holiday-makers at Pontins holiday camp in Ainsdale. This was a new experience, and we weren’t quite sure how it would go. On the second date, 30 December, we were told that there were some three thousand people, mainly I think in family groups, gathered for New Year celebrations. The huge hall was packed, noisy and cheerful, with children running round and people clustered round tables, chatting and drinking. We were certainly not listened to in reverent silence, but there was a row of children at the foot of the stage, gazing up at us, and occasionally joining in, which was enormously appealing, and the jolly atmosphere made the occasion most enjoyable.

Looking back over the past few weeks, I realise that while Christmas does generally mean a time for families to get together, for a choir it is also a time to get involved in the wider community and to reach out to audiences beyond those who normally come to concerts. There is a chance that one or two people who heard us for the first time this December may come to Holy Trinity to hear us again, and it would be great if that happened. But what is more important is that we shared our pleasure in choral singing and hopefully gave a musical lift to people’s feelings. I shall treasure the comment of a man who, having heard us sing at Pontins on 23 December, said that our carol-singing reminded him what Christmas was all about.