Double anniversaries as the Chichester Singers perform for the Festival of Chichester

Jonathan Willcocks
Jonathan Willcocks

This year’s Festival of Chichester concert from the Chichester Singers sees Jonathan Willcocks mark 40 years as their musical director.

The concert will also celebrate the 60th anniversary of the twinning of Chichester with Chartres.

Offering a joint French-English programme in Chichester Cathedral on Saturday, June 22, the Chichester Singers will be joined for the concert by a contingent of singers from the Grand Choeur du Conservatoire de Chartres.

In attendance will be other representatives from France through the association of the Friends of Chartres.

The programme features John Rutter – Gloria; Gabriel Fauré – Cantique de Jean Racine; César Franck – Panis Angelicus; Jonathan Little – Crucifixus; and Louis Vierne – Messe Solennelle. Also on the programme will be Jonathan’s own From Darkness to Light – at the encouragement of the Singers themselves to mark Jonathan’s four decades at their head.

“My first concert with them was in May 1979,” Jonathan said. “The founder conductor of the choir Anne Lawrence was taken ill. They were in preparation for Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius when she was diagnosed with cancer and needed immediate treatment, and sadly she died within four or five weeks. I was asked to stand in for her and conduct the concert which was two or three weeks after she died. We never actually met. We spoke on the phone. We discussed the work and at that stage she was hopeful that if I took a couple of rehearsals, she might be able to resume. She had founded the choir as a very small choir. Hence the rather quaint title. She was the music advisor for West Sussex. I think the choir has been going for about 70 years now. She directed it for about 30 years and then I took over, since when it has gone from being just a small group of like-minded music teachers to being a properly formed and large choir. I think it must be rather unusual that a choir that has been going for 70 years has only ever had two conductors.

“I conducted the concert in May 1979 and they asked me if I would conduct another concert in the October, and then they asked if I was prepared to conduct on a permanent basis, and the rest, as they say, is history.”

A key part of the enjoyment has always been to introduce new work: “We are always doing new repertoire every season. There are some great works that we have performed on a regular basis. Each season I make sure that there are great works, but I have never had a season in 40 years where I have not conducted a work I have not conducted before. This time we have got Vierne’s Messe Solennelle, and we have also got the piece by Jonathan Little which is completely new.

“There are still three members that were in the choir before I took over and very good, experienced singers they are and much valued. But I think I have broadened the repertoire quite a lot in terms of the range of the music we perform. Both audience members and members of the choir say that they enjoy the music, and we have been very lucky to have good audiences. We are in a fortunate position in that we are the leading large choir in the area. Bigger cities might have two or three large choirs which obviously dilutes the singing population.”

And so they have been able – with around ten per cent of the choir moving on every year – to continue with an ongoing process of self-renewal. It helps that these days there is a much greater appreciation of both the physical and mental health benefits of singing: “There have been a number of times when a singer has come up to me at the end of the rehearsal and said ‘I had a really hard day at work and I got home and I thought I wasn’t going to come to the rehearsal tonight, but I am so glad I did because I now feel completely refreshed and rejuvenated!’”

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