The University of Manchester Chorus was established in 1936 at the same time as the Victoria University’s Department of Music (hereafter ‘Music’). Its founder was Humphrey Procter-Gregg CBE (1895-1980), Reader and subsequently the University’s first Professor of Music from 1954-62.
“P.-G.”, as he was usually known, envisaged Chorus as a body of singers that would include staff and students from the University as a whole, not just in Music, as well as the wider community. His original aims have been honoured ever since.
Procter-Gregg himself conducted Chorus in the early days, including his own compositions in the programme. He was succeeded as Professor of Music by Hans Redlich, a Viennese émigré who as a young boy met Mahler, and who wrote a book about him for the Master Musicians series. In 1963 Brian Runnett was appointed Lecturer in Music and University Organist and was principal conductor for the next four years until the arrival of Keith Elcombe in 1967. Keith led Chorus uninterrupted (he lost just two rehearsals to indisposition) for the next thirty-four years, until serious illness brought his career to a premature close in 2002. John Casken rescued the 2001-2 season, stepping in to conduct a Bach Mass and the Brahms Requiem, and was able to take the helm for 2002-3 until pressure of other commitments forced him to step down. Following John’s departure, the posts of Conductor and Musical Director were separated, clearing the way for a succession of younger conductors, often at early stages of their careers, hence the relatively high turnover: James Burton (2003-4), Stephen Williams (2004-5), Marcus Farnsworth (2005-2009), Robert Houssart (2009-10), Gregory Batsleer (2010-12), Justin Doyle (2012-16) and Robert Guy (2017-) – all differing in their approach, but all inspirational.
Conductors have traditionally chosen repertoire, in consultation with Musical Directors, the Chorus Committee, and sometimes the membership at large, informed by the credo that a university chorus should reach out beyond the stalwarts of the choral canon, vital though they are. Often the first concert of each season has focused on a more familiar piece, the second on something less familiar. Thus, across eighty seasons, and more than 160 concerts, there have been multiple performances of Elijah, the Brahms and Verdi Requiems, The Dream of Gerontius, The Creation, and Masses in C by Mozart and Beethoven. At the same time, Chorus has performed less familiar works by often-visited composers: Poulenc’s Stabat Mater, Mendelssohn’s St Paul or Britten’s Paul Bunyan.
Indeed, reaching back through the history of Chorus produces some surprises. In December 1967 Hans Redlich conducted a concert performance of Berlioz’ Damnation of Faust; in 1976 Chorus sang Honegger’s unusual dramatic psalm King David; in December 1992 Keith Elcombe’s scholarship yielded a world premiere of the original version of the Janáček Glagolitic Mass; and a British season in 1993-4 saw, in addition to Belshazzar’s Feast and A Child of our Time, Delius’s Sea Drift and Howard Ferguson’s Dream of the Rood.
Nor have the challenges posed by more adventurous works been merely musical. Chorus members have had to come to grips with unfamiliar texts in a variety of languages: Hebrew in the case of Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms (1988 & 1995); Polish in the case of the Szymanowski Stabat Mater; Church Slavonic for John Tavener’s Svyati, and again, this time with strongly Czech inflexions, in the Glagolitic Mass (1992 & 2010); even Hungarian (Doberdoi dál 2014). Not to mention the rapid-fire tongue-twisting Italian of Verdi choruses (2014).
Every concert is memorable in its own way, not just those involving a UK premiere, like Górecki’s Ad Matrem (2002); or indeed a world premiere: for the 2002-3 season, Chorus Life Member Paul Hindle commissioned Howard Skempton’s That Music Always Round Me in memory of the then recently deceased Keith Elcombe.
One concert, however, stands out if only for its venue. In recent times Chorus has performed in the Victorian splendour of the Whitworth Hall (1883-7, completed 1902), by Alfred and Paul Waterhouse. Further back a frequent venue was the equally lofty, yet somehow intimate, Church of the Holy Name of Jesus, Oxford Road, by Joseph Aloysius Hansom (1869-71). But 2009 saw Chorus in Manchester’s major modern concert venue, the Bridgewater Hall, for the first and to date the only time (another event there is envisaged).
Britten’s War Requiem had featured back in 1984 and 1996, but this occasion stands out not least for its trio of stellar soloists – Amanda Roocroft, Roderick Williams and Allan Clayton. Manchester Music alumnus Marcus Farnsworth conducted, and also spearheaded the substantial organisational effort on the part of the Chorus committee, with vital input coming also from staff in Music.
For many years the organising committee of Chorus was small, consisting of just a handful of students, plus a senior secretary and a conductor/music director. But the committee mushroomed after Keith Elcombe’s death: a coalition of the willing formed under the imaginative leadership of John Casken to support Keith’s long-serving secretary Gerard McKenna and to re-distribute functions. Initially the balance between young and older members was roughly even, but over time student participation has steadily increased. Many students have gone on to transfer their committee-acquired skills to future employment with major orchestras, conservatoires and other musical organisations. Older co-opted committee members provide continuity and institutional memory.
One of the problems associated with a non-auditioned choir open to amateurs (in the best sense) and under-confident sight-readers is that emerging professionals can feel insufficiently stretched by the Chorus experience. To address this issue, the Cosmo Singers – named after the main rehearsal space, the Cosmo Rodewald Concert Hall at the University’s Martin Harris Centre for Music and Drama – came into being in December 2010. Since then it has gone from strength to strength, not only lending support to less able singers but also giving concerts in its own right, and even undertaking foreign tours. Being able to call on gifted performers has emboldened conductors to incorporate harder repertoire, combining for example the Duruflé Requiem with Dvořák’s Mass in D; or Arvo Pärt’s Adam’s Lament with Mozart’s Great Mass in C Minor.
Our present conductor, Robert Guy, has pledged to integrate another elite ensemble, the Ad Solem choir, into the University’s choral family. This new interdependence promises much for the future – to have “three choirs” feels auspicious indeed.
2020/21 85th Season: President. Esther Simkiss, Director. Prof Caroline Bithell, Conductor. Robert Guy
No concerts were held this season due to the pandemic. Online rehearsals consisted of mainly a cappella pieces by Lili Boulanger, Elgar, Erb, Fauré, Grieg, Josquin, Parry, Paulus, Tavener, Toch and Vaughan Williams; works by living composers Rebecca Dale, Eleanor Daley, Eric Jones, Áine Mallon and Oliver Tarney; and premieres of student compositions by Cameron Biles-Liddell, Eleanor Jarvis, George Parris and Juliette Waterhouse.
2019/20 84th Season: President. Grace Gammell, Director. Prof Caroline Bithell, Conductor. Robert Guy
Semester I Beethoven: Missa Solemnis
Semester II Britten: War Requiem (concert cancelled due to pandemic)
2018/19 83rd Season: President. Freya Parry, Director. Prof Caroline Bithell, Conductor. Robert Guy
Semester I Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem and Vaughan Williams: Toward the Unknown Region
Semester II Kevin Malone: Creations and Orff: Carmina Burana
2017/18 82nd Season: President. Patrick Shepherd, Director. Prof Caroline Bithell, Conductor. Robert Guy
Semester I Haydn: St Nicholas Mass and Britten: St Nicolas
Semester II Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius
2016/17 81st Season: President. Max Thomas, Director. Prof Camden Reeves
Semester I Verdi: Requiem (cond. Justin Doyle)
Semester II Dvorák: Mass in D (cond. Robert Guy)
2015/16 80th Season: President. Áine Mallon, Director. Dr Camden Reeves, Conductor. Justin Doyle
Semester I Borodin: Polovtsian Dances and Rachmaninov: The Bells
Semester II Mozart: Great Mass in C Minor
2014/15 79th Season: President. Hannah Salter, Director. Dr Camden Reeves, Conductor. Justin Doyle
Semester I Kodály: Missa Brevis and Haydn: Missa in Tempora Belli
Semester II Mendelssohn: St. Paul
2013/14 78th Season: President. Megan Watt, Director. Dr Rebecca Herissone, Conductor. Justin Doyle
Semester I Dvorák: Stabat Mater
Semester II Verdi: Opera Choruses
2012/13 77th Season: President. Naomi Ryder, Director. Dr Rebecca Herissone, Conductor. Justin Doyle
Semester I Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem
Semester II Walton: Belshazzar’s Feast
2011/12 76th Season: President. Bekki Gocher, Director. Dr Rebecca Herissone, Conductor. Gregory Batsleer
Semester I Bach: Mass in B Minor
Semester II Tippett: A Child of Our Time
2010/11 75th Season: President. Seb Huckle, Director. Prof Philip Grange, Conductor. Gregory Batsleer
Semester I Haydn: The Creation
Semester II John Adams: Harmonium
2009/10 74th Season: President. Imogen Hurst, Director. Prof David Fallows, Conductor. Robert Houssart
Semester I Tavener: Svyati and Vaughan Williams: A Sea Symphony
Semester II Verdi: Te Deum (Four Sacred Pieces) and Janáček: Glagolitic Mass
2008/9 73rd Season: President. Suzanne Saperia, Director. Dr James Garratt, Conductor. Marcus Farnsworth
Semester I Mendelssohn: Elijah (two performances)
Semester ii Britten: War Requiem
2007/8 72nd Season: President. Francesca Mastaglio, Director. Dr James Garratt, Conductor. Marcus Farnsworth
Semester I James MacMillan: Magnificat and Orff: Carmina Burana
Semester II Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius
2006/7 71st Season: President. Cat Harrison, Director. Prof John Casken, Condutor. Marcus Farnsworth
Semester I Bach: Magnificat and Poulenc: Gloria
Semester II Verdi: Requiem
2005/6 70th Season: President. Ben Muskett, Director. Prof John Casken, Conductor. Marcus Farnsworth
Semester I Handel: Israel in Egypt
Semester II Delius: Sea Drift and Haydn: Nelson Mass
2004/5 69th Season: President. Amy Sutherland, Director. Prof John Casken, Conductor. Stephen Williams
Semester I Darius Battiwalla (arr): Carillon – Angelus ad Virginem, Finzi: In Terra Pax and Rózsa: Music from Ben Hur, King of Kings, Darius Battiwalla (arr): O Holy Night and Gershwin: Suite from Porgy and Bess
Semester II Britten: Paul Bunyan
2003/4 68th Season President. Stephanie Collier, Director. Prof John Casken, Conductor. James Burton
Semester I Howard Skempton: That Music Always Round Me (two performances) and Mozart: Great Mass in C Minor
Semester II Vaughan Williams: Five Mystical Songs and Poulenc: Stabat Mater
2002/3 67th Season: President. Megan Davies, Director & Conductor. Prof John Casken
Semester I Haydn: Te Deum, Górecki: Ad Matrem and Beethoven: Mass in C
Semester II Vaughan Williams: Toward the Unknown Region and Szymanowski: Stabat Mater
2001/2 66th Season: Directors Keith Elcombe & Prof John Casken
Semester I Haydn: The Creation (cond. Keith Elcombe)
Semester II Brahms: A German Requiem (cond. John Casken)
[Source: concert programmes.]