David Williams as conductor (2)


This is the fourth in a series of posts about the choir’s history. Scroll down to see the earlier posts.

David Williams as conductor (2)

During the years that David Williams was in charge, the choir continued to expand its repertoire, covering music from the 17th to the 20th century that could be sung by a choir of fewer than fifty singers. However, Southport singers were given the opportunity of singing in a larger scale work in 1978, when David arranged a joint performance of Verdi’s Requiem with Altringham Choral Society and King’s Macclesfield School Choir. In fact there were two performances, one on 20 May at Wythenshaw Forum, when Neil Chaffey conducted, and one the following evening at Holy Trinity Southport, when David conducted.

In 1980, the choir (without choral reinforcements) performed the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610, a major undertaking because of the forces involved. This was the first time that the choir had performed with a period orchestra (the Guildhall Waites), and the first time it had employed an international soloist: Ian Partridge. The ‘echo’ tenor, incidentally, was sung by Adrian Thompson, who went on to gain similar renown. He clearly pleased the choir, because he was invited back to give a solo recital the following year.

Furthermore Adrian Thompson was engaged to sing the Evangelist when the choir performed Bach’s St Matthew Passion in 1985. This was an even more ambitious undertaking than the Monteverdi, because of the forces involved. Stephen Varcoe sang the part of Christus, and the other soloists were Elizabeth Lane, Kevin Smith, Christopher Underwood, Barry Banks and Andrew Greenan. The orchestra was the Yorkshire Baroque Soloists. The performance was a big success, filling the church and giving audience and performers alike a moving and rewarding experience.

But there were setbacks from time to time. One of the most dramatic, and in this part of the country most unexpected, was in December 1981 when a sudden snow-storm prevented the orchestra’s leader, among others, from reaching the church, and the concert had to be cancelled.

Colonel Roger Hesketh

In its early years the choir enjoyed the support of a patron, Colonel Roger Hesketh, who also composed small pieces for the choir. During the 1975-6 season the choir sang his anthem, ‘My soul cleaveth to the dust’ and during the 1985-6 season they performed his setting of Psalm 23. Colonel Hesketh died in November 1987, and members of the choir sang Schubert’s setting of that Psalm, one of his favourite pieces, at his funeral. The Easter concert in March 1988, when works by César Franck, Gerald Finzi, Poulenc and Rutter were performed,  was dedicated to his memory. Colonel Hesketh holds an exceptional place in the choir’s history, for he has never been replaced as patron.


In 1985 members of the choir sang carols in Wayfarers’ Arcade, under the direction of Margaret Cowling, and a collection was made in aid of Age Concern. Thus was started a tradition that continues to this day. The location has changed from Wayfarers’ Arcade, to the Cambridge Arcade, to more recently the Marks and Spencer on Chapel Street, and the charity supported has changed from year to year, but singing carols for Christmas shoppers in the town centre is an enjoyable part of the choir’s season. We have, over the years, also sung carols in other locations: retirement homes, Birkdale village, Speke Hall and even, in 2014, the Pontins in Ainsdale.


I expect my next post about the history of the choir to be my last on this subject, bringing things up to the present.





David Williams as conductor (1)

This is the third in a series of posts about the choir’s history. Scroll down to see the earlier posts.

When David Williams took over as conductor of the Southport Bach Society (now Choir) in 1970, the choir was definitely a going concern, with a nucleus of committed singers, a regular season of concerts, and the ambition of establishing itself as a fundamental part of the town’s cultural life.

Management of the choir

At this time the choir was governed by a committee of just four people: Chair, Conductor, Treasurer and Secretary. David Bowman had been greatly supported by Eddie and Joan Twigg, as Treasurer and Secretary, and when he left Joan Twigg resigned from her role. Joy Lea took over as Secretary until 1981, when Jean Sutton took on this important and onerous job. Eddie Twigg continued as Treasurer until 1974, when he and his wife left Southport. There were several changes of Treasurer before Peter Woodhead took over in 1977, to be followed by Bob Bride in 1980. Arthur Baldwin stayed as Chairman until 1972, when he was succeeded by John Watts, who held the chair for the next nine years. Valerie Pedlar was Chairman from 198-85, and Bleddyn Davies from 1985-1991.

By the time the choir reached its 10th anniversary in 1975, it was clear that the financial position was rather precarious. It was decided to increase the membership subscription, and the price of concert tickets, but it was felt that more attention should be given to fund-raising activities and to improving publicity. To this end, it was agreed to add extra committee members to cope with the all the work that needed to be done, and at the same time ensure that different voice parts were represented. Six new members joined the committee and immediately set to work.

At the AGM the following year it was reported that the choir’s finances had improved considerably, partly as a result of a grant from Merseyside Arts Association, but also because of the fund-raising and social activities that had been organized. Much of the money raised went towards the purchase of half a grand piano, the other half being purchased by Holy Trinity Church, but enough had been raised to ensure that there was money in the bank at the end of the season.

Another vital feature of the choir’s life is the rehearsal pianist. Mary Crayston was been appointed as accompanist in 1976 and was greatly appreciated. When she gave up in 1982, Keith Matthews was recruited and he remained as the choir’s much-loved accompanist until 2010. And he still occasionally helps out when necessary!


Fund-raising events could also be fun and included Victorian evenings, coffee mornings and garden parties as well as more routine bring and buy or jumble sales. The secretary’s report for the 1982-3 season shows how busy the choir could be, since in addition to the normal three concerts in December, April and June, there were the following events:

October – 1) Second-hand book sale; 2) the choir sang at a Gala concert at Southport Arts Centre as part of the town’s Music Festival.

November – A Victorian evening at a member’s house.

February – 1) A concert at URC Church, Trafalgar Road in aid of the church re-building fund; 2) a 12-hour music marathon.

April – A recital by Emma Kirkby and Anthony Rooley at St Cuthbert’s Church.

June – A garden party in a member’s garden.

July – A social evening at Rufford Old Hall.

Energetic fund-raising by the choir meant that David could be more ambitious in his concert-planning, including professional soloists and orchestras from time to time, but the choir was also greatly helped by grants from the National Federation of Music Societies and Merseyside Arts Association. Less frequently the choir was able to attract commercial sponsors.


In my next post I’ll write about some of the more ambitious works that the choir performed during the first 20 years of David’s tenure.


The years 1965-1970

This is the second in the series of posts about the choir’s history.

The years 1965-1970 saw the choir (the Southport Bach Society, as it then was) develop a wide-ranging repertoire. David Bowman’s programming in the years that followed the choir’s foundation in 1965 was ambitious and exciting, including Matyas Seiber, Bartok and Vaughan Williams, as well as Bach, Haydn, Mozart and a Messiah in the Watkins Shaw edition. David ensured that the choir kept in touch with new music. As one of the early annual reports puts it, ‘a small piece of musical history’ was made when the choir, accompanied by instrumentalists drawn from the RLPO, performed Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms as part of the summer concert in 1968. This was the first performance in the north of England, and, as David told me in a recent phone call, the percussionist had to make some of his own instruments for the performance!

‘New music’ in those days included compositions by David Bowman himself. The first was a setting of ‘O care, thou wilt dispatch me’, anonymous words that speak of music as an antidote to care, best known in a setting by Thomas Morley. This piece was partnered by Seiber’s four Slovak Folk Songs and performed at the Mayoress’s Charity Concert in March 1967. Another work by David was a cantata for choir and contralto solo, Dira Nox Animae, with Alma Dootson as soloist, which included a setting of John Donne’s Holy Sonnet 7, ‘At the round earth’s imagin’d corners’.

Soloists and orchestra

Soloists were regularly drawn from the choir. As well as Alma, there were Sylvia Forshaw, a soprano, and her husband Eric, who sang tenor, and Eddie Twigg, another tenor. Lesley Threlfall and Judith Barritt, both founder members, took bass and contralto parts respectively. Another soprano drawn from the choir was Margaret Edwards, and towards the end of this period another contralto, Judith Barker, started to sing with the choir. For the Messiah that was performed in 1967, as part of the second Holy Trinity Festival, there was a different line-up of soloists. Alma was the contralto soloist, but the other soloists were not drawn from the choir. Peter Bamber (a name I don’t recognize) sang tenor, the soprano was Caroline Crawshaw and the bass was Patrick McGuigan. I don’t know if Patrick and Caroline were married at the time, but they did marry and both became singing teachers at the Royal Northern College of Music.

From the beginning David Bowman insisted on having an orchestra for at least one concert in the year. But the minutes of one AGM record his dissatisfaction with the quality of playing in the orchestra at the summer concert in 1969, and he suggested that he should contact someone in the orchestra with a view to forming a small chamber orchestra who would play for future concerts. When there wasn’t an orchestra the accompaniment was played on the organ; the two names that crop up most frequently are Brian Runnett and Keith Elcombe.

David Bowman’s last season

The newly formed Liverpool Concertante joined the choir for a Christmas concert in 1969 of instrumental as well as choral pieces, which seems to have been a great success. The secretary’s report says that it ‘received more appreciation both at the time and subsequently than any previous concert’. However, this was followed by a bad falling-off in choir attendance. The choir had been booked by Revd Roger Wikeley, who had previously been a curate at Holy Trinity, to sing at a festival in Woolston in May to celebrate the consecration of the Church of the Ascension, where he was now vicar. David said in his report at the 1970 AGM that he had been ‘very depressed and worried’ by the poor attendance and had seriously considered giving up as conductor of the choir. ‘It was impossible’, he said ‘to give concerts of the high quality associated with the name of the Southport Bach Society if members did not attend rehearsals regularly’.

As it turned out, David did indeed leave the choir at the end of that season, but not because of his dissatisfaction with the choir. The Woolston concert, in which the Concertante played Lennox Berkeley’s Serenade for Strings, and the choir sang Vivaldi’s Gloria and Haydn’s Nelson Mass, was repeated in June at Holy Trinity, Southport. David’s departure was caused by a change of job. He moved from Preston Grammar School, which had recently converted to a Sixth Form College, to Ampleforth – where, in the course of time and with the support of Patrick Barry (the then headmaster) and Basil Hume, he founded Scuola Cantorum, a polyphonic choir for boys and a few monks from the Abbey, which also continues to this day.


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.