The Hertfordshire Chorus

A brief history

Malcolm Olver

Much of the information used in compiling this brief history of what is now the Hertfordshire Chorus was taken from the extensive collection of programmes and press cuttings collected by Norma Winder, a long time choir member, who retired from the chorus in 1985, and died in September 1997.  Any inaccuracies in interpreting the archive are entirely of our making.

Distant beginnings

The Hatfield School of Music and Drama was founded in January 1961 at the suggestion of the county music organiser, Eric Brimrose. Its aims were “to provide further opportunities for instrumental music, choral work, speech training and drama, and to extend as far as possible the musical and dramatic life of Hatfield and its neighbourhood.” The School comprised a choir and orchestra under the artistic direction of Vernon Handley. From these distant beginnings we have traced some of the events in the history of what is now The Hertfordshire Chorus.

Chorus conductors

The second director was Arnold Foster, who died suddenly in September 1963. The first record of a performance of Carmina Burana was in July 1965 in the Hatfield College of Technology, later the Polytechnic, now the University of Hertfordshire. Like the School of Music and Drama, names can change over the years, but Carmina goes on, and on.

On 9th July 1966, under the baton of its third conductor, Graham Garton, the concert included Vaughan Williams “Toward the Unknown Region”. Listed in the soprano line was C Kolano (now Olver) and L Yule in the Contraltos. Christine can therefore claim to be the longest serving member of the chorus.

In 1970 Frank Shipway became the fourth conductor with Malcolm Hicks as chorus master. Malcolm has from time to time returned as organist for our concerts.   In 1974, the Chorus Master was Malcolm Cottle and the chorus took part in a performance of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius at the Royal Festival Hall to mark the tenth anniversary of the Forest Philharmonic Orchestra under Frank Shipway’s baton.

In June 1977 the Chorus along with the Royal Choral Society, Bulmershe Girl’s Choir, North East London Polytechnic, Liverpool Philharmonic choruses and the Forest Philharmonic Chorus under the baton of Frank Shipway gave a performance of Mahler’s 8th symphony in the Royal Albert Hall in the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Year. He must have been pleased with the critics’ comments in the broadsheets, as he sent a letter to all chorus members afterwards. Frank Shipway left in 1977, due to pressure of work with other orchestras. He expressed the regret that the orchestra had not performed at more venues.

Hatfield Forum

The first Hatfield Forum opened on 1st July 1977, built at a cost of £700,000.  On 17th December 1977 Michael Kibblewhite conducted the orchestra and chorus in a performance of Poulenc’s Gloria and a commissioned first performance of “All the World’s a Stage” by Phyllis Tate. Amongst the singers were Louise Gordon, Helen Roberts, Jean Cross, Denise Beynon and Shirley Thwaite. On 13th May 1979 at The Forum, the orchestra and chorus performed The Planets under the baton of Howard Burrell, with Michael Kibblewhite as Chorus Master.  The same forces performed Britten’s War Requiem as the opening concert of the Tenth International Organ Festival at St Alban’s Abbey in July of the same year. Soloists were Elizabeth Harwood, Ian Partridge and Benjamin Luxon.

Independence

Due to government spending cuts in 1980 that deprived the Hatfield Philharmonic Society of an essential grant, the orchestra and chorus separated, creating the Hatfield Philharmonic Chorus as an independent organisation.

At the Hatfield Phil’s first London concert in April 1983 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, sponsored by Tesco, the programme included Zadok the Priest, (before it became Classic FM’s Zadok,) and Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater. That July the chorus had its first all Russian evening with Mussorgsky’s ‘Boris Godunov’ and Stravinsky’s ‘Les Noces’. Despite its French title, the words are in Russian, and it was quite an effort to get to grips with both the language and the rhythms.

In February 1985 the soloists for Messiah included Lesley Garrett, who was unable at the last minute to sing, Gillian Fisher taking her place. Other soloists were Charles Brett, Adrian Thompson and Crispian Steele-Perkins on trumpet. Crispian appeared many times with the chorus. That June there was a performance of Balshazzar’s Feast in the RFH with the Forest Philharmonic, NELP and Harlow Chorus, Michael’s other choirs.

Touring

The chorus has a long history of touring. The January 1979 tour to Rouen endured freezing weather, the coach had to be dug out of a snow drift, perhaps the first in a series of coach related incidents over the years. The October 1982 tour to Cluny in Burgundy will remain in our memories forever, as we first met during that tour, and were married a year later at St Etheldreda’s, Hatfield. Quite a few of the chorus joined with the choir of St Peter’s St Albans to sing Bruckner’s Ave Maria. Michael Slaney played the organ. In May 1987 the tour party were on their way to Brittany, when the coach broke down. A double decker was commandeered from a local bus company and the 6.00am Portsmouth ferry was held awaiting its mad dash at rather higher speeds than the bus was used to!   The following year the chorus were in Yugoslavia (now “the former Yugoslavia, for our younger readers,) performing in front of diners at a five star hotel, with waiters carrying laden trays right in front of the chorus to strains of the Hallelujah Chorus!!

Fund raising

Fund raising has always been a feature of the chorus. A newsletter from 1986 mentioned a Flea Market at which the chorus had a stall. In February 1989 the Chorus had financial problems due to a lack of sponsorship. A planned Dream of Gerontius at Watford Town Hall (now the Colloseum) was replaced by Messiah at Hatfield Forum. Before the performance, Michael Kibblewhite made a direct appeal for sponsors. “Unless something dramatic happens on the sponsorship front during the next few weeks there will be no more concerts by the Chorus.”   Money problems were resolved by support from Taylor Woodrow who were building the Hatfield Tunnel. The Chorus celebrated its tenth season in 1990-1 with a performance of the Pastoral by Arthur Bliss and Five Tudor Portraits by Vaughan Williams. Most concerts were in the Hatfield Forum, not the best of venues acoustically or in terms of space. The choir changing room made for an intimate, if not altogether desirable, atmosphere. No doubt the chorus’s ability to manage with unisex facilities stemmed from this time.

The ‘98-9 season saw sponsorship by Thameslink (now First Capital Connect), with concerts in Luton, St Albans, The Barbican, Fairfield Hall, Croydon and Brighton. Free train tickets for the audience were a feature of this season.

The Hertfordshire Chorus

Hatfield Philharmonic Chorus became The Hertfordshire Chorus on 1st August 1992. A prime reason for the change of name was to allow the chorus to extend its operations within and without the country, something it was to an extent already achieving. Indeed, with the closure and eventual demolition of The Forum, the chorus no longer had a venue in its home town.   Recordings reached a high water mark in 1994 with the Christmas carol compilation “Follow That Star” reaching number 4 in the national chart for carol recordings, beating Pavarotti into 5th place.

Christmas concerts

Christmas concerts at the Forum usually included local school choirs, for many years Green Lanes Junior School, conducted by Christine Olver. There was a matinee performance most years, one time compered by Brian Kay, entry was free to children carrying a teddy bear. Mr Kibblewhite would pander to the crowds with appropriate arrangements of teddy bear related tunes. Father Christmas, often played by the chairman, always made his presence felt.

Accompanists

Accompanists over the years included Audrey Jones, Michael Slaney, Roger Sayer and Sue Graham-Smith taking over in 1989.The chorus has rehearsed in a number of venues, including Hatfield School and St Audrey’s.

An innovative choir

We will leave the more recent history of the chorus to others to relate. It is always a great pleasure to take part in its concerts, as audience or performer over the past 28 years. It has been an innovative choir and long may it so continue under the baton of David Temple, who became its Musical Director in 2000.

Malcolm Olver, Chorus member from 1982 and Treasurer from 1984-6. Christine Olver, Chorus member since 1965.

Follow this link to find out more about The Hertfordshire Chorus.

This page was added on 10/05/2011.

Comments about this page

  • Came upon this page by accident, but very interested to read it. I sang with the choir while studying at Hatfield in the 1970s and took part in the performance of Gerontius at the Festival Hall in 1974. 

    By John Clibbens (07/01/2015)
  • I’ve just picked up on the fact that Frank Shipway sadly died in a car accident in August 2014, at the age of 79. He was an extraordinary musician and character.

    By John Clibbens (07/01/2015)

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