Choir leader sets down his baton after five decades

Julian Williamson conducts The Camden Choir at Holy Trinity Church

Julian Williamson conducts The Camden Choir at Holy Trinity Church - Credit: Alejandro Tamagno

Camden Choir founder Julian Williamson has stepped down after nearly five decades and 200 concerts.

Since establishing the choir in 1971, he has built it into one of best amateur choruses in the capital, with a varied repertoire of classics and work by lesser known composers.

More than 100 members and ex-members attended a retirement party at St Mary's Primrose Hill on Monday, with a cake, musical tributes, and speeches celebrating Williamson's major contribution to the borough's musical life.

Over the years the choir has performed at Sadler's Wells, The Royal Albert Hall, St Mary's, Cecil Sharp House, Hampstead Parish Church, and The Barbican.

"I must have played in every venue in London," says Williamson, who ranks The Queen Elizabeth Hall and St John's Smith Square among his favourites.

"I was a freelance musician looking for things to do. I didn't have any work and we wanted to found a new choir in Camden," he adds.

The choir began with around 20 members at the Camden Institute at Parliament Hill School.

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"It grew organically and blossomed during the 70s as we started giving bigger concerts with small orchestras."

Members have to audition and must be able to read music.

"I always kept it reasonably tight because I wanted to make sure they sounded professional. With amateurs it's important to remember they want to have a wonderful experience on the concert night. Professionals are there to do a job and you don't get in their way, but amateurs want an exciting experience which I tried to give them."

Williamson cites premieres of new works by the likes of Iain Hamilton and David Fanshawe among his own exciting experiences. 

"It's difficult to pick one out but I always enjoyed those first performances of a new piece."

With Iestyn Evans taking over, Williamson says the choir is "in good hands."

"I am knocking 80 on the door and when lockdown came I thought 'if there is a time to find another conductor it's now'. It is coming up the 50th anniversary which is lovely."

Julian Williamson

Julian Williamson steps down after nearly five decades leading the Camden Choir - Credit: Alejandro Tamagno

An album of tributes presented to Williamson include Roger Carter's contribution: "Julian has always led the choir with courtesy, humour and enthusiasm combined with consummate professionalism and unflagging stamina. To have sung under him is to have had an unforgettable privilege. All those who have done so have benefited from Julian’s remarkable musicianship and from his commitment to getting the best performances possible out of the choir, challenging its members to master often difficult but always rewarding programmes of music."

The Ealing resident, whose daughter Lucy the BBC's Paris correspondent attended the party, added: "I have made many friends through the choir over the years."