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A Chorister Reminisces

Mary Wilson of Ilkley has been a singing member of Leeds Philharmonic Chorus for over half a century.

"I joined the Phil in September 1952 after leaving the Royal Manchester College of Music in June of that year. My first concert was the Brahms German Requiem under Sir Malcolm Sargent, our principal conductor from 1949-1967.  We sang two concerts a year under his baton. Sir Malcolm's rehearsals were always very calm and thoughtful. He was an inspiring conductor and his conducting of the Verdi Requiem for his 70th birthday concert in 1965 was unforgettable. Sargent died in 1967 and we sang from Messiah and Verdi's Requiem with his other choirs (the Royal Choral Society and Huddersfield Choral Society) at an unforgettable memorial concert in the Royal Albert Hall.

Disciplinarians with a light touch
The annual performance of Handel's Messiah was traditionally conducted by our chorus master who, at that time, was Alan Wickes. His rehearsals (in the old City Museum lecture hall) were always scintillating. Herbert Bardgett followed and then Donald Hunt, Simon Lindley, Graham Barber, Darius Battiwala, Martin Pickard and, currently, Jill Henderson Wild.  Rehearsals have always been taken very seriously, chatting strictly forbidden. The best chorus masters were disciplinarians with a light touch. In different ways they had amusing stories to tell so that rehearsals were often a combination of concentration and fun. To wind down, after two hours of heavy concentration, during the 70s and 80s a few of us used to repair to the nearby Berni Inn on the Headrow to have a laugh over a Berni coffee.

Town Hall acoustics
I love singing in Leeds Town Hall- more comfortable for the choir since the orchestra rises have been improved. When there is a large orchestra it is still not easy to hear the other parts and one cannot hear the soloists well. The acoustics are not as good as they should be. The best concert halls that I have sung in are Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, and Birmingham's Symphony Hall. There we performed, I think, the Verdi Requiem with Neeme Jarvi - another conductor who has left a lasting, spine tingling impression.

Favourite conductors
I have sung in at least 160 concerts with the Phil and have travelled over 64,000 miles to rehearsals and performances! One of my great pleasures has been collecting autographs of conductors and soloists in my own scores.  My two copies of Messiah contain the signatures of Isobel Baillie, Peter Pears, Norma Proctor, Richard Lewis, Elizabeth Harwood and many more in my Dream of Gerontius. Conductors I have sung with include Carlo Maria Giulini (inspiring), Charles Mackerras (highly organised), Richard Hickox (flashy), Meredith Davies (beat hard to follow), Paul Daniels (lively), and Charles Groves (amiable and warm). In the Triennial Festival years Georg Solti (hard and critical) and perhaps the most exciting and charismatic of them all, Simon Rattle (Mahler Symphony of a Thousand, Wow!)

Singers from Phil join Festival Chorus
The Leeds Festival Chorus was always in those days a specially auditioned choir with singers from the Leeds Phil, joined by members of the Huddersfield, Halifax and other choral societies. I remember a specially significant Festival (1972) when in one week we sang Handel's Saul; Mozart's Requiem and Walton's Belshazzar's Feast.

A thrilling sound
In my early days the Phil was a very large choir (around 300 choristers) and the sound was tremendous and quite thrilling. Harry Moat, secretary, kept us in order. He was succeeded by Elsie Wigglesworth (red hair and discipline) who had joined the Young Phil in her teens and was still going strong and still with red hair until turned eighty.  Roland Purdy, chorus secretary, did all the arrangements of venues and seating plans - a very hard working and likeable man. The smaller sized choir of today is more selective, with voice auditions every third year to maintain quality. Audition days are a nightmare of anxiety, but necessary. I was a first soprano when I joined; now I am second alto - the voice I thought I had before I went to College. Elsie Thurston pushed me up to soprano. The smaller choir now is possibly more tuneful, but I loved the wonderful sound the larger choirs made. Today, if we need large forces, we produce joint concerts with the Sheffield, Halifax or Huddersfield Choral Societies.

Clothes rationing
The ladies, when I joined towards the end of clothes rationing, wore any style of long white dress - evening gowns bought and home made - even wedding dresses! We have changed to a uniform style through white to pale blue, bright red (to match the Town Hall carpet) and now dark red. I preferred the bright red because it was a comfortable style and suited any figure.

Mastering different languages
Learning to sing in different languages - Russian, Slavonic and Jewish as well as the more familiar French, German and Latin adds to the challenge of mastering very difficult scores. We had language coaches to help us by transcribing the words phonetically.  On some occasions we worked from a typed script with the correct pronunciation written out. Although we did not always understand the meanings of individual words, the chorus masters always made sure that we knew what they were intended to mean.

Mother and daughter sing together
My elder daughter joined me in the soprano section in 1975, and in 1976 when we both successfully auditioned (mine was a re-audition) for the semi chorus in The Dream of Gerontius, thanks to Simon Lindley, and thoroughly enjoyed the concert (Gerontius is my favourite oratorio). I had been in the semi chorus since the days of Herbert Bardgett and remained in it for 35 years - what a privilege.

Serving on the committee
I have also been on the committee for many years, firstly as soprano representative and more recently as ticket secretary. We have had some very fine people as Chairman - Malcolm Barr, Horace Shakleton, Murray Jaap and John Brodwell. He was such a wonderful and knowledgeable musician whom we miss very much since his untimely death last year. I personally had a great respect and fondness for him.
The Phil has been a great part of my life. Dvorak's St Ludmilla in May 2004 will be my last concert. Though I shall not give up singing - Bolton Priory Choir, with three Phil members in it, will help to fill the gap. The effort of leaving home at six in the evening and not getting home until nearly half past ten has begun to feel like hard work.

I love and shall miss the rehearsals, the concerts and the many friends. Long live the Phil and God Bless Them All."
MARY WILSON
April 2004




Associated Links
Leeds Philharmonic Chorus

Click images to enlarge
Mary singing in Messiah, c.1990
Mary singing in Messiah, c.1990
70th birthday concert for Sir Charles Groves, 1985
70th birthday concert for Sir Charles Groves, 1985
Sir Charles and Lady Groves, 1990
Sir Charles and Lady Groves, 1990
Mary's autographed score of Britten's War Requiem
Mary's autographed score of Britten's War Requiem
Mary's autographed score of Messiah
Mary's autographed score of Messiah
Second autographed score of Messiah
Second autographed score of Messiah
Mary's autographed score of Elgar's Dream of Gerontius
Mary's autographed score of Elgar's Dream of Gerontius




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© 2003 Leeds City Council | Site created by: LCC electronic information team | 25 March 2003