History of Wombourne and District Choral Society

 

Musical Directors:

 

Harry England: 1929-1942

Patricia Groves: 1942-1958

Dennis Powell: 1958-1993

David Parkes: 1993-2006

Ian Clarke: 2006-present day

 

 History of Wombourne & District Choral Society

 The choir, originally called the Wombourne Choral Society, was founded in 1929 by Harry England.  Formerly a professional baritone, he had been headmaster of Enville School near Kinver, and organist of Enville Church.  Following Harry’s death in 1942 in his late eighties, Miss Groves, head of music at the Technical High School, became the choir’s second conductor. She left the district in 1958 and was then succeeded by Dennis Powell who remained the conductor until 1993.  (At some stage the original Wombourne Choral Society changed its name to Wombourne and District to reflect the fact that many of its members come from much further afield.)

 

The rehearsal venue was originally the Wesleyan Chapel, now the United Reformed Church, in Wombourne's centre, where the first concert under Dennis Powell took place.  The main work was Edward German's ‘Merrie England’.  Later the rehearsal venue moved to the Church School, Wombourne. It was decided that the choir should become an evening class, initially under Sedgley Evening Institute's wing, but later under Staffordshire Education Committee.  This lasted until the choir moved to Springdale Junior School, Wolverhampton, when we were adopted by Wolverhampton Education Committee.  Several years later, independence was resumed.

 

Under Dennis Powells’ tenure, the choir developed to become essentially the choir it has become today. It accompanied the Wolverhampton Symphony Orchestra in many large scale works, including Vaughan-Williams's ‘Sea Symphony’, Elgar's ‘Dream of Gerontius’ and ‘Music Makers’, Tippet's ‘A Child Of Our Time’, Constant Lambert's ‘Rio Grande’, JS Bach's ‘St Matthew Passions’ and ‘B Minor Mass’ and Handel's ‘Messiah’.  Dennis also conducted the choir in a number of smaller works by less well known composers, such as Moeran, Finzi and Poulenc.

 

When Dennis Powell retired in 1993, David Parkes became the fourth conductor and the choir continued to go from strength to strength.  Well-established favourites were mixed with challenges such as Honegger’s ‘Christmas Cantata’. There were ambitious large-scale performances, notably the Verdi 'Requiem' and Elgar’s ‘Dream of Gerontius’ both in Wolverhampton Civic Hall, the latter with Paul Nilon as an overwhelming Gerontius, Brahms’s ‘A German Requiem’ in Dudley Town Hall with Denise Leigh as soloist.  Summer concerts became well-established, giving us opportunities to explore a lighter repertoire including virtual excursions to Broadway. 

 

David also led us on a real excursion to France in 2003, starting a fascinating musical and social association with Chantemoy choir from Orléans.  This was followed by a return visit from Chantemoy in 2005.  Our choir made a second visit to the Loire Valley in 2007 and Chantemoy returned to Wolverhampton in 2010.

 

In 2006, David reluctantly took his leave of us, and was succeeded by Ian Clarke, already well known to the choir for his splendid organ and continuo playing in several of our concerts.  Under Ian’s direction, the choir continues to develop its repertoire and skills, with performances of steadily increasing scale and musical quality. Membership currently stands at around 100 singers.  Those interested in joining may be attracted by the policy of "no auditions".  The mix of old and new continues.  Vaughan-Williams makes a welcome return in his centenary year.   

 

The choir has frequently used local solo singers, including the baritone John Oxley who is a member of the choir.   Other soloists are often drawn from past and present students of the Guildhall School of Music and we have over the years been fortunate enough to sing with young soloists who have later progressed to establish themselves as major performers on the concert stage. The choir has been accompanied over the years by a number of smaller orchestral groups, including most recently Chameleon Arts and the Orchestra da Chiesa.  We have also been very fortunate in the pianists who have accompanied us both at rehearsals and performances. Anthea Podmore, our accompanist of very long standing, retired in 2006 and we were very pleased that the equally brilliant Beryl Beech was willing to join us.

 

As the choir, in its various incarnations, approaches its eightieth birthday, we look forward from a position of musical, numerical and financial strength to a future as a focus for choral activity in this area.  And we look back with thanks to the gifted, talented and dedicated individuals who have made this possible.

 [This article has been condensed by Anthony Rathbone in 2008 from articles written in April 2000 by Dennis Powell, the choir’s former conductor and by Giles Job, our archivist and member of the bass section, who kindly agreed to bring the story up to date.]

 

 

 

 

International Link

 

WDCS has forged a link with a choir called Chantemoy from the French city of Orleans. We visited and sang with Chantemoy in May 2003, and we returned their hospitality when they joined us in May 2005..... then we went back to them in May 2007 ... now they're coming back in May 2010 to join us in a concert 'Vive la Différence!'

What’s the French for ‘harmony’?

by Katherine Dixson, June 2007

When thy soft accents,

through mine ear,

Into my soul do fly,

What angel would not quit

his sphere

To hear such harmony?

THOMAS STANLEY, 1625-78

When an uncharacteristic lull descended over the huge, heaving table, it was interpreted as ‘an angel passing over’, in a French saying that was new to me. Three sets of neighbouring host families and guests had gathered together after Chantemoy and Wombourne’s Sunday concert. This was the third leg of a fruitful alliance between Wombourne and District Choral Society and Chorale Chantemoy. It began four years ago with our first trip to Joan of Arc territory in this unspoilt corner of the Loire Valley, and was followed up in 2005 with our welcoming 75 French guests to help us entertain our Midlands audiences. That conversation on Pentecost Sunday 2007 – in English, French, a mixture of both, plus sign language and ladlefuls of laughter – had been buzzing. One way or another, we were communicating.

Although I found I needed half a day to acclimatise to the language after our overnight journey to Orléans, the sense of renewed friendship was conveyed with no delay whatsoever, two-year gap notwithstanding. The weather was wintry but the welcome was warm. Any vestiges of apprehension were soon despatched up into the soaring vaulted ceiling of the church at Saint Denis en Val when we reaffirmed our raison d’être and started singing, as separate choirs and together. In rehearsal you could almost reach out and touch the rapport and encouragement, within and between the two choirs and their respective – and respected – directors, Ian Clarke and Benoît Fallou. A connection.

Add an audience into the mix, and communication multiplied still further. Bright eyes reflected the highly charged atmosphere, that unmistakable live music atmosphere in which even the mistakes – yes, there were a few – were forgiven, because you could sense everyone was on your side. If there were any mistakes during the last few bars of Rutter’s The Lord bless you and keep you – or Ze Lord in Chantemoy’s parlance – they passed me by as I was too busy welcoming back the old familiar tingling down the spine while the top A flat of Amen went flying up into the roof. There goes that angel again.

Having the courage to attempt a repertoire of unaccompanied music brought tangible rewards, not least a heightened awareness of what the rest of the team was up to and a satisfying sense of achievement. Not only were our voices in communion with the audience, but the programme was beautifully balanced with instrumental interludes. Afterwards I spoke to Hilaire, one of our French friends in the audience. As if to illustrate his point, he beamed from ear to ear and claimed ‘even the organ was smiling’.

The following day we reached the narrow cobbled streets of Meung sur Loire in conditions more appropriate to a performance of Noye’s Fludde. Just as the joint choir poured their hearts and voices into the Italian original of Look how the sunbeams shine in the glass from Verdi’s Anvil chorus, the sun came pouring through the rich ultramarine stained glass, past the ancient ochre frescoes and kissed the pale stone floor. The angel’s still with us, then. As part of the town’s arts festival, the performance was being recorded for local radio, and I believe we amateurs made a better job of our other Verdi piece, The chorus of the Hebrew slaves, than the professionals we’d heard on the car radio en route. Having pricked up our ears when we recognised the opening bars, the whole carload joined in, only to fall into helpless giggles on realising that the tempo on Radio Classic was about 100% too slow. The packed audience judged our version pretty good; in fact, so good we sang it twice.

Even on our day’s excursion the vocal cords were at it again, with some impromptu singing, score-less and more intimate, in the Basilique de Cléry Saint André. Here it was that our wonderful coach driver, Colin, was hijacked for page-turning duties while Ian played the organ. Les deux conducteurs? It was also the imposing last resting place of Louis XI and his wife, and our hosts were insistent that we didn’t leave the premises until we’d viewed the skulls. ‘You realise you could learn all this on the internet?’ teased one facetious soprano, thus inspiring the strapline ‘broadband broadens the mind’. But give me travel any day – nothing enriches the soul as much as actively being there.

All too soon it was time for the thank-you speeches at the farewell party. The French Chairwoman, Delphine, gave individual homegrown roses to everyone on her organising committee, and the beautiful simplicity of this gesture was almost as moving as the international language of music.

Vive l’harmonie!

The three tenors from Wombourne take Orléans by storm

by Katherine Dixson, June 2007

Spring bank holiday saw a coachload of us from Wombourne and District Choral Society travelling to France to perform with our partner choir, Chorale Chantemoy. Roughly a third of the 100-strong Wombourne choir, whose members hail from South Staffordshire, Shropshire and the West Midlands, had decided to make this return trip. The alliance had begun four years ago with our first successful foray into France, and we returned Chantemoy’s hospitality in 2005 when they enjoyed staging concerts with us in Wolverhampton and Brewood, as well as exploring Ironbridge, Blists Hill and Bridgnorth. It’s certainly a novel way to take a holiday.

Anyone involved with choral singing will realise that tenors are like gold dust. Of our smallish tenor section, just three had dusted off their French phrase books and packed their scores for the journey to this unspoilt corner of the Loire Valley. Our most senior member, Jimmy, 86, gave us younger ones a run for our money and showed no sign of flagging during the action-packed long weekend. He even did a solo turn, singing some beautiful ballads from his native Scotland at the impressive farewell party. In the heart of the choir, he was sandwiched between John, another of our long-serving singers and hard-working committee member, and Keith, one of our newest recruits who claims that he never used to be able to sing. He can now, by the way. What our three tenors lacked in numbers, they more than made up for in enthusiasm.

Torrential rain did little to dampen the enthusiasm, either. The weather was wintry but the welcome was warm. It was a chance to renew old friendships and establish new ones, both within our own ranks and amongst our French counterparts. Communication took many forms – English, French, a mixture of both, sign language and ladlefuls of laughter. Respect and trust in the social sphere spilled over into our music-making, and there was true spine-tingling communication with our packed audiences in the setting of lovely gothic churches. I could get used to encores and standing ovations.

Back home, the experience has brought a renewed vigour and we look forward to further exchange visits plus our domestic activities in the meantime. We shall be performing Handel’s Messiah on 1st December at the Church of St Mary and St Chad, Brewood, and again on 8th December at the Church of St John-in-the-Square, Wolverhampton.

Listen very carefully, we shall sing this only once

by Katherine Dixson, June 2007

Actually, this is blatantly untrue, as we sang our repertoire at least twice on a recent visit to France. Four years ago saw the start of a fruitful alliance between Wombourne and District Choral Society, which attracts singers from Shropshire, South Staffordshire and the West Midlands, and Chorale Chantemoy, who are based in Joan of Arc territory near Orléans. Our action-packed long weekend back in 2003, featuring roof-raising concerts and diet-challenging hospitality, was so successful that the exchange continued in the opposite direction two years later. The choirs’ complementary singing styles charmed audiences in Wolverhampton and Brewood. For a lovely day out, we headed to Shropshire, and our seventy-five visitors were fascinated by a glimpse of old England on a guided tour of Blists Hill Victorian Town at Ironbridge Gorge. In fact, they were moved to break into song in the restored chapel, bringing tears of joy to the eye of the costumed guide.

This time, at Whitsun 2007, not only did we stage joint concerts at two fine churches, playing to packed audiences, but we’d also been invited to participate in a sung Mass for Pentecost at another. The pattern for our performances is a varied combination of pieces by the individual choirs plus a voiceboxful of joint works. Our collaborative signature pieces are The Lord bless you and keep you by contemporary English composer John Rutter and Cantique de Jean Racine by French composer Gabriel Fauré. These were the obvious sublime choices for the church service.

Rather more informally, we sang them again during a day trip in the lovely Loire Valley, where the weather was chilly but the friendship was warm. A visit to the Basilica of Cléry St André, the burial place of Louis XI, gave us another opportunity to send those notes heavenward. From the angelic to the bucolic, after a delightful lunch of homegrown produce at an establishment that translated as The Little Farm, we serenaded the chefs with a rendition of Thomas Morley’s madrigal Now is the month of maying. At the risk of confusing my comedy programmes, this would have been quite at home in a Two Ronnies finale, all ‘Fa la la’ and double-entendre, to borrow a phrase from our hosts.

Our concert repertoire featured more English madrigals, plus a French one – telling the laudable story of a husband who does all the housework and feeds the chickens, leaving his wife free to take her pleasure – as well as other unaccompanied songs. This was where listening very carefully really came into its own. Our professional musical director, Ian Clarke, had rehearsed us up to the rafters to achieve our best tuning possible, and the result was improved teamwork and enjoyment for singers and audience alike. At least, our audiences must have approved, since they didn’t let us get away with singing everything only once.

Assezez-vous, s’il vous plait (or For goodness' sake, sit down!)

by Katherine Dixson, May 2005

It gave a whole new meaning to the term Chairman. Nick had taken over the helm of Wombourne and District Choral Society’s management committee and had received plenty of helpful advice from outgoing Chairman John in terms of choir seating arrangements at concerts. Meticulous plans were drawn up, with strategically arranged coloured squares, varying on each occasion depending on the configuration of the concert venue in question and the numbers of sopranos, altos, basses and tenors (usually with 1sts and 2nds in each) singing. Plans on paper are all very well, but faced with an excited, augmented choir, including 50 French visitors, it was a veritable tour de force persuading everyone to sit in the right place for our first rehearsal.

Apart from anything else, despite the visitors being tired after their overnight journey, and the planners surviving on nervous energy alone, everybody was in high spirits on renewing the friendships made two years earlier during our wonderful visit to Orléans. Seating had not been an issue then, as the style of Chorale Chantemoy was to stand throughout the performance. With the exception of a couple of joint numbers at the end, the two choirs had each taken half the concert, and during their non-singing half they became part of the audience. As it turned out, it was just as well that our plans were more ambitious, with alternating blocks of Wombourne/Chantemoy pieces throughout, necessitating us all to be ‘on stage’ at once, as our Saturday evening concert was packed to the rafters!

A good half-hour behind the scheduled kick-off, and with the prospect of an early start the following day for a tour of Ironbridge Gorge, that first rehearsal eventually got underway. After the interminable musical chairs to ensure the various voices were grouped correctly, did I mind finding myself on the edge of the second sopranos next to a dishy French tenor? No, I was quite happy, thank you very much.

The overall visual effect at the performances was stunning. At the heart was a mosaic of Chantemoy’s brightly coloured silks, cocooned by Wombourne’s calm black and white. The music wasn’t bad, either, judging by the reaction of our audiences. Once again we had proved that such a joint venture was well worth the effort, and this Chantant Cordial is set to continue as we’ve been invited back to Orléans in 2007. My guess is that it will be standing room only.

Chansons sans frontières

By Katherine Dixson, June 2003

Never before have I sung ‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’ in May. But at the party to mark the end of our tour to Orléans to sing with Chorale Chantemoy, it was a case of ‘anything goes’. Coincidentally – though maybe not intentionally – it was reminiscent of the pealing melody of ‘La Campaña del Pueblo’, a Spanish folk song performed by the host choir at our first concert. In other words, it rang a bell.

Whereas Wombourne’s repertoire comprised traditional, classical, sacred pieces by English and French composers, Chantemoy favoured a more cosmopolitan and contemporary approach. This entertaining contrast was reflected in the choirs’ respective dress codes: as always the Wombourne gentlemen were the picture of sartorial elegance in their DJs and the ladies beautiful in their long black skirts and white blouses; to a base layer of black, Chantemoy had added a certain Gallic panache with variously jewel-coloured shirts and blouses.

Everybody agreed that the two choirs complemented each other well and it seemed the most natural thing in the world to combine our efforts for the final two pieces at each concert. By this stage we were becoming firm friends after the extraordinarily warm welcome. The only drawback to such overwhelming hospitality was the prospect of rehearsing after meals of gargantuan proportions. Not surprisingly, a collective agreement emerged that a reciprocal visit should be planned – but how on earth to match the welcome?

Both choirs had a go at singing in each other’s language, and if we had our work cut out perfecting our French pronunciation for the ‘Cantique de Jean Racine’, spare a thought for our French friends who had to tackle not only the 16th century English of Thomas Morley, but also American English with a Puerto Rican accent for extracts from ‘West Side Story’.

Our own pieces were well received, from the confident opening attack of Stanford’s ‘Magificat’, through the hushed reverence of Byrd’s ‘Ave Verum Corpus’ and the final chords of Duruflé’s ‘Tu es Petrus’ reverberating around the gothic vaulted ceiling, to the intimate peacefulness of Rutter’s ‘The Lord Bless You and Keep You’. Our audiences were highly appreciative and as if the sheer joy of taking part weren’t enough, we were rewarded with standing ovations.

Expert accompaniment was provided by Ian Clarke. During a lovely day trip his ‘magic fingers’ finally found an organ to match the size of the organist (to quote our hosts) at the church of St Benoît-sur-Loire, a fine setting in which to indulge in yet more singing. In glorious sunshine, the excursion was a treat for all the senses, what with the music, the inevitable magnificent lunch, the gentle countryside and the grandeur of the buildings, including the Château de Chamerolles and its perfume museum.

British reserve forgotten, we let our hair down at that evening’s farewell party. There were speeches of appreciation from local dignitaries and organisers from both sides, on the general theme of music being an international language and a powerful harmonising force between strangers. Gifts were presented, absent friends remembered and much excellent food and drink consumed. The soirée was interspersed with spontaneous dancing and singing of every complexion, from ‘Alouette’ and ‘YMCA’ (both complete with actions) to ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Auld Lang Syne’.

So, where to next? And more urgently, after such an abundance of companionable music-making, will we survive until next term’s rehearsals without withdrawal symptoms?