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Bury St Edmunds' Bury Bach Choir looks back on 90 years of making music

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For 90 years their concerts have filled cathedrals, halls and churches with a glorious soundscape of voices.

Bury Bach Choir – now a blend of up to 100 singers – has long been known for immersing its audiences in high quality renditions of the great choral works.

To mark the milestone anniversary it has already performed Bach’s St John Passion in St Edmundsbury Cathedral, and the celebration continues with a summer concert of Bach and Vivaldi in the cathedral on May 21.

Bury Bach Choir at the Apex in 2021. Picture John Martyn
Bury Bach Choir at the Apex in 2021. Picture John Martyn

Nine decades of music-making have seen hundreds of concerts enjoyed by tens of thousands of people with works spanning composers from Bach to Benjamin Britten.

The choir’s chair, Tess Wright, has done extensive research into its history and written its story for publication in anniversary year programmes and online.

Long-term members also recall a few dramas along the way, including being evacuated from the cathedral when scaffolding poles crashed down onto the roof.

Percy Hallam, founder of Bury Bach Choir. Picture: Brenda Downie
Percy Hallam, founder of Bury Bach Choir. Picture: Brenda Downie

In all its 90 years it has only had three conductors. The story began when founder Percy Hallam recruited 33 singers from Bury Musical Society to perform Bach’s St Matthew Passion.

The gifted musician, who was organist at St Mary’s Church, Bury, and later the cathedral, led the choir until 1957 and retired just a few months before his death the same year.

For the first 15 years they sang mainly Bach, Handel’s Messiah, and the Brahms Requiem, but Percy later branched out to include works by composers such as Holst, Mozart and Vaughan Williams.

Wilfred Mothersole, who was the choir’s first chronicler, described him as a true musician to his fingertips, blessed with an innate skill in charming his choir into producing wonderfully expressive singing and beautiful tone.

Harrison (Fred) Oxley, conductor of Bury Bach Choir from 1958 to 2001. Picture: Bury Free Press
Harrison (Fred) Oxley, conductor of Bury Bach Choir from 1958 to 2001. Picture: Bury Free Press

Harrison Oxley – known to his friends as Fred – was the youngest cathedral organist in the country when he succeeded Percy Hallam at St Edmundsbury aged just 24.

Stepping into his predecessor’s shoes with the Bach Choir in 1958 he found many of the singers bemused at being directed by someone less than half their age.

But his extraordinary talent was quickly appreciated and he led the choir to new heights that included performing major 20th century works such as Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast and Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius.

The choir’s only recording, to mark its 50th anniversary, was produced under his direction, and he also instigated singing trips to Europe.

On a more quirky note some also recall his ability, when the temperature rose, to take off his jumper while conducting without missing a beat.

Fred Oxley, who died in 2009, retired after 43 years with the choir and is remembered as leader of phenomenal vision and energy who inspired all around him.

Current holder of the baton, Philip Reed, has been in charge since 2001.

Philip Reed, music director and conductor of Bury Bach Choir. Picture Sarah Mansfield
Philip Reed, music director and conductor of Bury Bach Choir. Picture Sarah Mansfield

He is a renowned authority on Benjamin Britten and his musical history includes a long association with Aldeburgh, preparing choirs for festival productions and as staff musicologist at the Britten-Pears Library.

His demand for high standards and attention to detail with the Bach Choir has seen impressive development in its musicality, diction, dynamics and expression. Audiences and the choir’s reputation have grown correspondingly.

The choir is entirely run by its singers, with members from many different backgrounds, although years ago many were teachers.

Carolyn Heywood, who joined with her husband Mike in the 1970s, remembers being asked by an older member at her first rehearsal: “And where do you teach?”

Now they have accountants, solicitors – whatever needs doing they can usually find someone to help out from within their own ranks.

And in a medical emergency there will most likely be a doctor ready to step forward and help.

One member’s baby chose to make its debut in the middle of an oratorio. “Her waters broke – luckily she was sitting next to a nurse and her husband was in the audience,” said Carolyn.

“They went straight to the hospital and all was fine,” she added, also recalling singing the St Matthew Passion propped up against a pillar in the cathedral close to the due date of one of her own children.

Singers who took part in the choirs concert for the Queen's Golden Jubilee, who are still members today
Singers who took part in the choirs concert for the Queen's Golden Jubilee, who are still members today

But not much fazes the Bach Choir. “While the cathedral tower was being built we were rehearsing and scaffold poles started to crash down on to the roof. Bits of mortar were falling on to our music and we had to evacuate.”

They also once had to make a quick exit due to a gas leak in the Apex. “You have to be prepared for anything in the concert world,” she said.

“One of the churchwardens at Lavenham said having Bury Bach Choir is like a military operation – but in a good way. With so many people we are always very organised.”

For two singers joining the choir brought romance. Liz and David Hartley found themselves sitting together when they signed up in 1993. They recently sponsored a concert to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary.

Singing with a choir not only brings the joy of being part of a spectacular sound, but is recognised now as a wonderful way of boosting wellbeing.

“When you’re rehearsing you can’t think about anything else, you have to give it all your commitment,” said Mike. You also have to concentrate on your breathing.

They sing the compositions in their original language which is an additional challenge . . . performing Bach in German is helped by having members fluent in the language. Other works can be in Latin, or French. “It’s a doddle when you get to sing in English,” Carolyn said.

To help the audience a translation of the words is always included in their programmes.

Bach is still a lynchpin of their repertoire – especially so in this anniversary year - but they also sing works by many other composers.

The first performance of the St John Passion, in 1935 at St Mary’s Church in Bury with Ipswich Bach Choir, was declared ‘a triumph’ by a local press reviewer, who then fell victim to a slip of the pen and called the composer ‘John Sebastian Bach’ instead of Johann.

They are not afraid of a challenge – the biggest ever was Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem in 2015, with their numbers swelled by choirboys from the cathedral, 60 singers from another choir, and two orchestras.

The choir has a wide age range with some singers in their 80s. “There are lots of people who have been here for 20 or 30 years, and lots of younger people as well,” said Mike.

Ann Brown, who joined in 1957, is the only one to have sung with all three conductors. Still in good voice 65 years later, she is now an honorary life member.

Ann Brown (right) has sung with the choir for 65 years and is its longest-serving member
Ann Brown (right) has sung with the choir for 65 years and is its longest-serving member

Mike and Carolyn, who joined after moving to Bury when he became area sales manager for Massey Ferguson in 1975, are among a handful who have been members for more than 40 years.

“I’ve been singing since I was five, and the first thing I did was look for a choir to join,” said Carolyn, who comes from a family of singers.

“Before we got a house the company put us up at the Angel Hotel where they used to give us ‘high tea’ on rehearsal nights so we could get there on time.”

The couple previously lived in Singapore, where Mike joined his wife in a choir although he had not been a keen singer before.

“I learned by sitting in the back row of the basses in the Bach Choir, you had to sit next to someone who knew what he was doing,” he said.

The first Bury concert they took part in was a memorial to members of the town’s rugby club who had died in a plane crash in 1974.

Choir members rehearse once a week at the King Edward VI school in Bury, where a key contributor is piano accompanist Anne Reece.

She took on the role last year, following the death in 2020 of James Recknell – former director of music at Culford School – to whom the May concert is dedicated.

Singers are also expected to do their homework to learn their parts, which in the past was usually done by picking out the notes on a piano.

“Now there are lots of things you can do online which help you with note learning. Listening to recordings is helpful as well,” said the choir’s marketing manager Susan Kodicek, who moved to Bury from London in 2006.

“I checked online first as I wasn’t prepared to live anywhere that didn’t have a choir,” said Susan, who has worked as an administrator for an orchestra, and at Snape for the Britten Pears young artists’ programme.

“I saw the Bury Bach Choir and thought at first it might be very stuffy – and wondered if I could sing well enough – but then realised it was a very good option.”

Jess Bickers, who joined last year, is the choir’s newest member and, at 27, one of the youngest.

“I found it very welcoming, although at first I was a bit daunted by how difficult it might be, and how challenging.”

New members go to taster session rehearsals before auditioning. “It’s definitely a commitment, but it needs to be – it’s not the sort of music you can browse over and perform with no real work,” said Jess, who works in HR at Greene King in Bury.

She attended St Benedict’s School, in Bury, started singing in choirs at school, and came back to the town after university in 2017.

Top class soloists are happy to sing with the Bach Choir. “Our co-presidents Graeme Danby and Valerie Reid are both opera singers of considerable renown,” said Mike. “They are tremendously supportive and are our link to the professional singing world.”

“Our only condition is that the soloists all have to come to the pub with us afterwards.”

This does not happen everywhere. Some amateur groups are so intimidated by professionals that guest musicians end up spending the rest of the evening alone in their hotel room.

“They love coming here because we’re all so friendly,” said Susan.

The choir is financed through membership fees. The cost of paying soloists and orchestras means concerts do not make a profit. But it has also sung to raise thousands of pounds for local charities.

Tickets for Bury Bach Choir’s summer concert on Saturday, May 21, at St Edmundsbury Cathedral are on sale at The Apex box office in Bury on 01284 758000, or via boxoffice@theapex.co.uk, or burybachchoir.co.uk.

More details and full programme can be seen at www.burybachchoir.co.uk/concerts-and-tickets/21-may-2022-vivaldi-gloria-and-glorious-bach/