Choirs Up North - Round and Warm at the Bottom
John Robert Brown

Joseph Cullen

Joseph Cullen, Chorus Master,
Huddersfield Choral Society

Where exactly is 'up north'? One can loosely (and no doubt controversially) define it as being north of Birmingham and south of Newcastle. In that region Yorkshire, Britain's largest county, has a population of more than five million, and includes the cities of Hull, York, Bradford, Leeds and Sheffield. Indeed, the city of York was once the capital of Northern England. And, while Manchester is often referred to as the UK's second city, Leeds, with a population of only 750,000, claims to be the most important British financial and legal centre outside London, and to have the busiest railway station outside central London. In whichever way one defines 'the north', there's no doubt that it covers too large an area for the region's choral music to be discussed in a single article.

In Leeds, Matthew Sims, principal music officer for the city's International Concert Series, emphasises the historical importance of the great music festivals. 'Leeds Triennial Festival was one of the big three festivals in the UK, together with the Three Choirs and the Birmingham Festival,' he says. 'Through those festivals the great commissions came, particularly the great choral commissions.' Indeed, Elgar's Caractacus was commissioned for the 1898 Leeds Festival. Vaughan Williams' Sea Symphony was first performed in 1910 at the Leeds Festival, and Belshazzars Feast was first performed at the Leeds Festival in 1931.

'So the Festival Chorus in Leeds, along with the Philharmonic Chorus and the Huddersfield Choral Society, are the continuation of that tradition, which is pretty much unbroken for 150 years,' says Sims. 'The choruses in Leeds are still commissioning: Philip Wilby's A Brontë Mass was commissioned last year by the Philharmonic Chorus. The Festival Chorus (who celebrate their 150th anniversary this year) have commissioned a requiem combining Shakespeare texts with a mass, from Judith Bingham.'

In Wakefield, Andrew Padmore has conducted Yorkshire Philharmonic Choir (YPC) for 19 years. 'When I took it over, it was a small chamber choir of 30 voices,' he says. 'Now we're 110, because that's the maximum we can get on the stage in either Wakefield Cathedral or Dewsbury Town Hall! But we have quite a long waiting list. Called Yorkshire Chamber Choir when I took it over, it got too big, so we called it Yorkshire Philharmonic.'

Padmore says that the YPC has a buzz about it. 'They do a lot of exciting repertoire. Recently we gave the first performance of a new opera by Oliver Rudland, in the Royal College of Music. We've done concerts with Willard White and Emma Kirkby, and have a concert coming up with Emma Johnson. The YPC is a real go-ahead choir, with quite a lot of young people. We have fifteen young people in the age bracket of 15-25.'

For the last three years Padmore has also conducted the Harrogate Choral Society. 'We're over 160 voices,' he says. 'Again, we've got a lot more young people coming into it. I decided two years ago that this year we would do a joint concert. So we did a Verdi Requiem in Leeds Town Hall. We invited Leeds Met singers as well. So we had a choir of over 300, and Manchester Camerata, with Bonaventura Bottone, tenor, in a good line-up of soloists. Being a very expensive concert to put on - nearly £40,000 - we wondered how it would do. But it was a sell out. We had terrific reviews in the press from four different reviewers.

Padmore is clearly enthusiastic about his northern choirs. 'Over the years I've had lots of soloists come up from London. They all say:'Wow, the standard of these choirs is so much higher than we have in the south'. Yorkshire Philharmonic Choir made a Christmas carol CD last year. Harrogate have just finished one a couple of weeks ago, which I'm editing at the moment. So, yes, there's a lot of exciting stuff going on up here.' Harrogate Choral Society celebrate their 60th anniversary on 14th March 2009, performing Andrew Carter's Benedicite and Karl Jenkins' Requiem, in Ripon Cathedral. Yorkshire Philharmonic Choir are doing Jenkins' Stabat Mater and Rutter's Feel the Spirit.

Marion Best, the regional officer of the Association of British Choral Directors (ABCD), lives in Kirkbymoorside, 25 miles north of York. She tells me that the ABCD was founded by people like John Rutter, Andrew Carter and David Wilcox, because they felt that there was a need for training and mutual support. 'Now it's quite a large association, run on a regional basis,' she says. Regions put on events. There's a very active amateur choral scene in York, a number of chamber choirs. My choir was York Cantores, a genuine chamber choir with under twenty singers, SATB. But there's also Chapter House Choir, famous not least because of where they sing, a wonderful building. They've done well in the past, under their founder Andrew Carter.

'There's Micklegate Singers, who tackle a lot of interesting programming. Ebor Singers, which started with Paul Gameson, was formed in 1995 by music students at the University of York. Again, like Cantores, it has fewer than twenty singers. They are of a very high standard. Then there's all the big choral stuff, like York Music Society, traditionally conducted by the Minster organist. The University Choral Society is open to the general public, while the University Chamber Choir is comprised of students.

'So there's a colossal amount going on, aside from the Minster. I probably don't know of them all. One or two groups get together for specific concerts, like the Beningbrough Singers, and Yorkshire Bach Choir. All these chamber choirs- you're really talking predominantly about a capella. In the case of choirs such as Cantores and Micklegate, their repertoire tends towards contemporary art music, compositions of people like Jonathan Harvey and James MacMillan. In this area there's Ryedale Choral Union, there are two choirs in Scarborough that I know of (there may well be more), Staxton Singers, and Scarborough Choral Society. I know about these because of the work I do with ABCD. If we (ABCD) run events in York we get very strong support, including from outlying areas.'

Joseph Cullen began as chorus master of the Huddersfield Choral Society in 1999, on a temporary basis. 'I'd worked in Leeds between 1988 and 1993, at the Catholic Cathedral in the diocese of Leeds. So I knew Yorkshire; it seemed natural coming back. It also seemed natural because my wife is a Leeds lass.'

'Since then I've added a few,' he says modestly. 'I've been doing the Britten-Pears Chamber Choir at Snape, the Chorus of The Academy of St Martin in the Fields, and more recently, from 2001, the London Symphony Chorus. Joseph is also a motor-cyclist, owns two BMW bikes, and has been known to make the long journey from Snape to Yorkshire on two wheels. 'The choir know I'm odd anyway, so they don't find it odder that I use two wheels.'

'I see a resurgence, and a little bit of a renaissance in good choral and orchestral concerts, from my perspective at Huddersfield,' he says. 'We're putting on enlightened choices of programme, with people like Vasily Petrenko over from Liverpool. We've had BBC Philharmonic's Principal Conductor Gianandrea Noseda over. And Martin Brabbins has been. Over the ten years he has been associated with Huddersfield Choral. He has upped their game. He has encouraged them to do repertoire like Rachmaninoff The Bells, Rachmaninoff Vespers, and taken the Choral Society to the Flâneries musicales d'été de Reims. From John Pickard he commissioned Agamemnon's Tomb. We also did a Colin Matthews piece, Aftertones.' Brabbins has taken the choir to the Proms. 'It's been a struggle, in some ways, to raise the expectations of the Choral; that they have to work harder to go further.

I suggest to Joseph Cullen that the Choral Society has long been progressive. 'They are in many ways,' he says. For instance, the Society commissioned Vaughan Williams Dona Nobis Pacem for their centenary in the 1930s. By coincidence, Cullen is going straight from chatting to me - over a coffee in the Harvey Nichols Espresso Bar in Leeds, beneath the spectacular stained glass roof - to catch the London train (no motorbike today), to rehearse Dona Nobis Pacem for a Festival Hall performance. 'They commissioned Walton's Gloria, in 1961, which would have been trend-setting in those days. But where the Huddersfield Choral Society is at its best is in Gerontius, or Elijah. It's a big wall of sound, with great width, not a brittle, clutching, sound. The warmth of their bottom end is distinctive,' he says.

Of the Huddersfield choir's sound, he says there are three sources. 'One is the local warm-heartedness, and openness. So there's a sense of 'giving' in their sound. Their broad vowels do work. And there's a slight bit of it wrapped up in the history, in the Methodist background - if Methodism was their way into singing, and they came from the chapel tradition. There's a staunch and committed way of singing there that lets the hair down, in a praise way. They are good at that.

And also, the beer's great!'

First published in Classical Music, 6th December 2008. Used by kind permission. Reproduction forbidden.

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