After 130 years of rehearsals, Highgate Choral Society is far from amateurish

PUBLISHED: 13:33 26 March 2009 | UPDATED: 16:03 07 September 2010

BY MICHEAL WHITE If you ve ever wondered why the top of Highgate Hill gets crowded around 8pm on Mondays, or why the neighbouring pubs are suddenly full two hours later, the answer in both cases is the Highgate Choral Society. Mondays are rehearsal nights. They always hav

If you've ever wondered why the top of Highgate Hill gets crowded around 8pm on Mondays, or why the neighbouring pubs are suddenly full two hours later, the answer in both cases is the Highgate Choral Society.

Mondays are rehearsal nights. They always have been. And in this case, always is a big word, because HCS has been rehearsing for 130 years, which makes it one of the oldest institutions of its kind in London, and means it ought to be pretty good by now. As, of course, it is.

Founded in 1878 as a cosy sort of singing club that met in people's houses to sing madrigals, part-songs and glees with piano accompaniment, it has grown into a vocal juggernaut with 220 members on the books. And next week it marks the highlight of its anniversary season with a big work at the Barbican - Elgar's The Apostles, conducted by its music director Ronald Corp and accompanied as usual by the New London Orchestra.

It's curious to think that HCS was up and running well before a note of The Apostles had been written: that's antiquity for you. And though the society was a far more modest proposition all those years ago, its aims were much the same - part functional, part educational, part social, with a definite emphasis on pleasurable self-development.

Records show that in 1922 there were 48 members with an average attendance of 35 at each meeting. During the war years it went into suspension, but after the Second World War it reconvened under a music teacher from Highgate School, the remarkable Edward Chapman, who, also encouraged Highgate alumni like John Rutter and John Tavener to become composers.

In the 1970s the baton passed to Brian Wright, a well-known choir trainer and conductor, closely associated with the BBC. And since 1985 it's been with Corp, another BBC recruit, who not only conducts, composes, talks (his genial introductions to the music make it more accessible) and is a Church of England priest. A busy man.

"The great thing about Ron," says HCS chairman Chris Ashley, "is that quite apart from being a good musician, he knows how to get the best out of people. He knows the kind of blended sound he wants, and he gets it without upsetting anyone."

One of the critical issues in a choir like HCS, whose current age range spans 18 to 87, is auditions. To maintain any kind of standard they have to be held fairly regularly, and HCS does it every five years. But as Ashley stresses: "We are a community choir with the responsibilities that word suggests." In other words, tempering justice with mercy.

Joining a choir like this of course requires commitment, all those Monday nights. Then there's the fee of £210 a year,which isn't negligible. Some of the big central London choirs with whom HCS is in competition charge nothing at all. So what makes people want to join?

"Because we're based in the community," says Ashley. "That has definite advantages. And for the fee you get at least five high-quality concerts a year, at least three of the them with the NLO. You get the chance to go on tours to amazing places. In the past we've sung at St Mark's, Venice, at Notre Dame in Paris, at St Vitus Cathedral, Prague - it's a fantastic experience to sing in buildings like that, and we've got a trip coming up to Finland and Estonia in May that should be wonderful, too.

"As a group of people we're much what you'd expect to find in Highgate - lawyers, doctors, teachers, civil servants - but a real mix of personalities and a relaxed atmosphere, which is why our turnover is low.

"Apart from anything else, singing is like therapy. If you have a high-pressure job, you sometimes need to let off steam, and a few hours of good hard singing does it perfectly."

Another critical attraction for a chorus is the chance to sing in major London venues, which is why HCS makes an occasional point of deserting its usual concert homes at All Hallows Gospel Oak and St Michael's Highgate for the Barbican, with its additional expense.

"In fact the economics of a concert at the Barbican don't work out too badly for us when you compute the fact that everything there is laid on as part of the fee. At All Hallows we have to organise the staging, the lighting, and everything else ourselves."

And then there's the small matter of acoustics. All Hallows has a forgiving resonance that's fun to sing in and supportive, but devoid of clarity. As things stand, it's the best and only place available to HCS for large-scale works (St Michael's Highgate can't accommodate an orchestra of decent size).

"We've had some larger concerts in St Joseph's Highgate, including Paul Patterson's Stabat Mater last year," says Ashley, "and we liked it. But the clergy there are reluctant to hire the building out. They want to maintain it as a sacred space, and we of course respect their decision. But it's a pity. If they could be persuaded to change their minds... who knows?'

Highgate Choral Society perform Elgar's The Apostles at the Barbican, Thurs 2 April, 7.30pm. Tickets: 020 7638 8891.

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