Portishead Choral Society – a Reminiscence by Freda Scrase, 2005

50 years ago Portishead Choral Society came into being. In the 1950s there was support from the Government, due to the success of the World War II Classical Concerts, for encouraging musical education evenings among other ‘night school’ courses. Portishead had its own Ladies’ Choir, but this was, at the time, without a conductor. Winston Jackson, a great local musician was engaged to lead the Ladies. Obviously his enthusiasm was great enough to encourage the original choir to expand as at the first AGM rules were written up and Portishead Choral Society was born.

The early days were much more formal than today as we can see from early printed programmes – members of the full choir were listed as Mr & Mrs …..! The early programmes also tell us that admission was free. One tradition that has come down to us from those early days is the Christmas Concert, with a collection at the end for local charities. Winston was ably supported by Cynthia Glover, who sang frequently for him. Another well-known singer who sang with us was Mollie Petrie. He was also well known to have an eye or ear to pick young singers who were still to make their way in the world of song. Several of them are now coming to the end of their successful careers! In those days, The Choral Society usually sang excerpts from larger works, but after becoming affiliated to the NFMS, we had to include ‘enterprising’ (and therefore modern) music as part of the requirements to gain grant aid.

After 21 years we had our first anniversary celebration. The President, who was also a singer, Brigadier Drummond enabled us to commission a work from his son Malcolm called In the Gordano Valley. By the 25th season things were more difficult. The number of tenors dropped away and in spite of efforts to replace them we were soon reduced to one tenor. Winston felt that he couldn’t go on and retired, leaving the choir in shock. Sadly Winston, who retained an interest in the progress of the choir, died late last year just missing this celebration.

Luckily we had a bass, Alan Shield who made up his mind to re-form the society and his enthusiasm and energy brought us new hope and a new conductor, Ian Sloane , a music master at The Downs School. This was a time of much activity. We needed to raise funds and Ian was keen to teach us to enjoy our music as well as making us think as a choir rather than as the separate vocal lines. At this time we also received an infusion of members from the Gordano School Choir, which had folded. Much to our benefit, several of the teachers joined us – something we’ve never regretted.

The really big concert at this time was to mark our 30th Anniversary. We joined with a number of other local choirs to sing Verdi’s Requiem in the Colston Hall. It was something to really remember.

Unfortunately for us Ian was offered a job at Malvern School and we waved him off with many regrets. A young man was recommended in his place, John Beswick. It was a fun year we had with him – without decrying his musical ability in any way – although older he looked about 16 and those brightly coloured braces and psychedelic socks will never be forgotten. We auditioned three potential conductors next and it was a hard task but Chris Hewlett was our choice. He drew out the romantic side of music and Dvorak’s Stabat Mater was a delight. Unfortunately he too moved on and we have lost touch with him.

Once again we were fortunate as Chris’s replacement at The Downs School, Robert Fielding, accepted our vacancy bringing a further different aspect to our musicianship. He wanted to produce Brahms’ German Requiem at St Nicholas’ Church, which was our regular concert venue at the time, but the organ was half a tone down and had the habit of seizing up at the most inconvenient moments. Once, in the middle of a concert it had to be kicked into submission by its regular organist! So, Robert decided to do the Brahms the way it was originally played when first premièred in England – with two pianos and timpani. This turned out to be a Fielding family exercise with a professional pianist who happened to be Robert’s brother on one grand piano and his Dad on the other. It seems inevitable, but our conductors are so good they move on and Robert went from us to the staff of Salisbury Cathedral. Leaving us without a conductor once again.

Fortunately, Viv Kew went to a conference in Bristol and was approached by Dr John Bishop who ‘wished to find a choir needing a conductor’. In spite of some apprehension at the thought of such an exalted personage conducting us, we accepted and waited to see what sort of a slave driver he would be. We need not have worried. He was lovely – stern about teaching us to hone our singing, but otherwise a rather Father Christmas figure without the red gown. The sopranos in particular found a range they had never had before and sang the Chorus Angelorum – just like angels!

Another surprising aspect of John Bishop was his knowledge of bawdy pub songs, which he brought forth for our rather rowdy AGMs, so raucous in fact we even drowned out a thunderstorm one night! It was with great regret that we heard of his sudden illness in the summer of 2000 after which he had to resign because of his ill health. Our luck held and his friend John Marsh, known to us through playing the organ at several of our concerts and a known conductor stood in until we could find a more permanent replacement for the other John, taking on two choirs on a Thursday! His energy exhausted the rest of us but we felt we wanted to please him. In fact if we could have kept him we would, but he had to move on. Our last concert with him was the Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances and RVW’s In Windsor Forest.

So now we introduce Jonathan Coore our latest and, we hope, long lasting replacement. He thought he’d like to have a go with us, which shows how brave he is, because he had no previous experience of conducting amateur adults. He can sing any part with a struggling section having sung in choirs himself – again we are on a learning curve together. To our delight we seem also to have a budding composer and in our Lenten Concert this spring we sang his Neretva Mass, a work inspired by his own visits to Mostar. We all hope it won’t be too long before we can sing it again. We are proud to have him as our Anniversary conductor.

Perhaps not enough has been said about the music but we are all here because of our love of it. It is a thread which binds us as a choir and if the audience enjoys our concerts then that is all we ask, as learning can be painful at times (and not only for the conductor).

Dr John Bishop became President of the choir, but has decided to retire because he can no longer make the contribution he would wish to. So we would like to welcome our new President, Pamela Rudge, who has always been a good friend to us and graced many of our concerts with her beautiful mezzo soprano voice.

Please raise a glass with us and drink a toast to our very resilient Society and wish us the best for, at the least, the next 50 years.