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Bury St Edmunds-based choir whose stirring sound is turning Suffolk into the ‘land of song’

For sheer soul-stirring power it would be hard to beat the sound of a male voice choir. And most of us probably imagine it echoing over the Welsh valleys in the legendary ‘land of song’.

But west Suffolk has its own homegrown version bringing those magical tones to venues in the county and beyond.

St Edmundsbury Male Voice Choir has been going strong for close on 40 years. They have given more than 350 concerts - often for charity - and performed across the country and in Europe.

St Edmundsbury Male Voice Choir, which was founded in 1988, pictured in the early days
St Edmundsbury Male Voice Choir, which was founded in 1988, pictured in the early days

The choir has sung in churches, chapels, cathedrals, village halls, open air venues, and restaurants as they also perform at weddings and private functions.

It was founded in 1988 and three original members are still singing. Many past choristers are now Friends of the Choir.

But on rehearsal nights their thrilling sound fills a Bury St Edmunds school hall … and it swoops from a crescendo that makes the walls tremble to a soft and tender almost-whisper.

St Edmundsbury Male Voice Choir singing at a recent concert
St Edmundsbury Male Voice Choir singing at a recent concert

The choir consists of four sections - 1st tenor, 2nd tenor, baritone and bass - which weave together to give richness and depth to the music.

They are currently rehearsing for their Music for a Summer’s Night concert in Stowmarket on June 22.

And anyone who thinks male voice choirs sing only Welsh hymns is in for a shock because - while not turning their backs on tradition - their repertoire skips through 1940s swing, classical and traditional songs, spirituals, folk, and musicals to tunes from the charts.

Leslie Olive, music director of St Edmundsbury Male Voice Choir, conducts a rehearsal
Leslie Olive, music director of St Edmundsbury Male Voice Choir, conducts a rehearsal

They can tug your heartstrings with Speed Your Journey (the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from the opera Nabucco), get feet tapping to the irresistibly pacy Rhythm of Life - every word clear as a bell - then launch into One Day Like This by Elbow.

It was the reopening of Howard Middle School in Bury St Edmunds in 1986, following a catastrophic fire, that proved the surprising springboard for the choir.

As part of the recovery process a new head of music, Stephen Linden, was appointed jointly with the town’s County Upper School.

St Edmundsbury Male Voice Choir rehearses at Howard Community Academy in Bury St Edmunds
St Edmundsbury Male Voice Choir rehearses at Howard Community Academy in Bury St Edmunds

Part of his task was to involve the local community in musical projects and as an ex-music director of Basingstoke Male Voice Choir he was keen to start one in Bury.

Following a meeting between Stephen, headteacher Brian Raistrick, and fellow teachers Paul Deane and David Bailey the choir was formed. It is one of only two in the county - the other is Suffolk Constabulary Male Voice Choi based in Martlesham.

The first rehearsal was held at the middle school on 14 January 1988, The choir still rehearses at the school which became Howard Community Academy in 2020.

Leslie Olive, who took over as music director of St Edmundsbury Male Voice Choir in 2023
Leslie Olive, who took over as music director of St Edmundsbury Male Voice Choir in 2023

With Stephen’s enthusiasm numbers quickly grew. The first performance was at County Upper School in July 1988 with the school’s swing band.

In 1993 it made its first foreign visit to Kevelaer in Germany. one of Bury's win towns. In 1994 and 1995 it won the Pontarddulais cup at the South Woodham Ferrers Festival of Male Voice Choirs.

A highlight of 1996 was two open-air Last Night of the Proms concerts at Colchester and Brentwood in front of more than 7,000 people.

Calvin Goymer, accompanist for St Edmundsbury Male Voice Choir
Calvin Goymer, accompanist for St Edmundsbury Male Voice Choir

Links made during a 2006 tour of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia led to the choir being the first British participant in the two day Estonian Song Festival.

Three music directors have steered the choir since Stephen left in 1992, starting with James Recknell, who was head of music at Culford School.

Mark Jefferson took over in 2000, and under his tutelage the choir grew to over 90 members and recorded three CDs, Angels Watching Over Me (2001), Colours (2006), and Mysterium (2010) plus their DVD Men At Song.

He conducted 232 concerts in 10 countries, created over 400 training songs with baritone David Sadler and added 66 new songs to the choir’s repertoire. Their fourth CD Bacharach and Beyond was released in 2023.

Last September the baton was handed on to Leslie Olive, a highly-experienced choir director and founder of Suffolk Philharmonic Orchestra.

He conducted his first concert at St Mary’s Church in Pakenham, where the choir had rehearsed outdoors during Covid, in recognition of their help in the pandemic.

Another vital job is accompanying the choir, and a succession of pianists have taken on the role. David Owen was followed in 1990 by John Ottley. Calvin Goymer joined the music team in 2000 and after John’s retirement in 2016, took over as principal accompanist.

Choir chairman Ian Cooper who joined in 2015, said: “I’d been in lots of choirs but never a male voice one - I was in church choirs since I was a little lad in short trousers. That’s how a lot of our members started.

“We now have around 60 members. The youngest is 35, some are in their 80s. Singing is good for your lungs, and general physical wellbeing, also mentally - you have to remember the songs - and good socially too.

“Often we sing at concerts with other choirs, We regularly have soloists with us as well, often women, which gives a contrast to the programme,

“New members are always welcome, and we invite anyone to come and try the choir free for four rehearsals. Music and tuition are all included in our £14 monthly subscription and that includes refreshments.There are no voice tests, we welcome all.

“When we do a concert like the one at Stowmarket you’re looking at 18 songs. You want to have a nice mix.”

They learn all their songs by heart and perform without music. “ We’ve sung in Latin, Swahili, but we don’t sing in Welsh as a lot of choirs do.”

There have been impromptu performances too. “We did a tour of southern France, and had to unexpectedly change trains in Avignon,” said Ian.

“There was a piano in the station, and we’d been sat on the train for hours, so our pianist Calvin said right, come on.” Fittingly one of the songs they sang was Speed Your Journey.

Ian, who lives in Drinkstone and is a culture and sports management consultant. added: :“Unlike most male voice choirs, we also occasionally do synchronised clapping. Usually they tend to stand still.”

Ivor Thulborn is the choir’s longest serving member. “I was here at the first session in January 1988,” he said. “At the first rehearsal there were 20 people - news spread by word of mouth and within months we had 50 or 60 members.”

Ivor, a retired teacher, started singing as a choirboy at Ely Cathedral. “I’ve always sung, including a lot of amateur dramatics and panto.”

Like several members he also sings with other groups among them Chedburgh Community Choir.

“Singing is great exercise and it keeps you young. The wonderful thing about this choir is that it’s a community. If someone is ill, or in hospital,we’ll visit them and help out by doing things like mowing their lawn.

“A highlight for me was in 2009 when we sang at the Estonian Song Festival. It was held outdoors and there were more than 25,000 singers together at the end, and over 200,000 people in the audience. There was an enormous stage and we were all crammed in like sardines.

“The songs we sing have changed since 1988. Then it was more traditional, like Welsh hymns. We still do that, but a lot more besides.”

Ken Sawyer, from Great Barton, is another of the choir’s most senior members, and joined six months after Ivor.

“I came here from London in the 1970s,” said Ken who was once a semi-pro footballer for Crystal Palace. He went on to run Anglia Stainless, a major supplier of nuts and bolts including for prestigious marine projects.

“I’ve been in quite a lot of am-dram,” said Ken. “I joined the choir after one of the members came to a panto I was in and invited me to come along.

“My wife died 17 years ago, and I met my partner Pat through the choir - she was a friend of one of the other choristers.

“With the choir we have visited lots of places and met lots of people. It’s so friendly, joining was one of the best things I have ever done. You don’t need to read music to join, but you need to have an ear for a note.”

The third original member still singing is retired bank manager Richard Everett who was originally from Staffordshire where he had been in a church choir.

And like Ken, he found love again through the choir after being widowed. “I moved here in 1982. In 1988 I lost my wife, then I was introduced to the choir,” he said.

Later, friends in the group introduced him to his second wife, Anne, and their marriage was the first time the choir sang at a wedding.

He stressed the importance of the camaraderie between the members, as did Mike Boocock, the choir’s newest member, who was struck by the warm reception he received as a newcomer. “I was told they were a friendly bunch, and they are,” he says.

“I think the repertoire they have here is very good,” said the former church chorister, who used to work for British Rail’s civil engineering division and also describes himself as a “lifelong hopeless pianist” .

He moved to Suffolk about five years ago after living in France, then met his partner Sally who came from Bury.

Leslie Olive has been the choir’s music director and conductor since last September.

“It’s very exciting because I’ve never worked with a male voice choir before,” he said. “I’ve had mixed and youth choirs, and orchestras.

“But I’ve always loved the sound of a male voice choir - it has a certain power to it.”

His musical career includes founding the Suffolk Philharmonic Orchestra, made up of professional musicians who bring world-class playing to the county.

“I’ve conducted Eye Bach Choir, and before that the Stowmarket Chorale. I also started the English Arts Chorale in Surrey,” said Leslie, who lives in Rattlesden.

“My music began with Sunday school. I used to pick out the tunes we had sung on my granny’s piano. I read music at university and did a diploma in conducting at the Royal Academy of Music.”

Teaching jobs included 11 years at Colchester Royal Grammar School. He was also headhunted by the BBC and spent time as music director for live broadcasts of Radio 4’s Daily Service.

Accompanist Calvin Goymer grew up in Elmswell and lives in Stowmarket. HIs talent for improvisation brings a unique touch to his work with the choir.

“I love to improvise, a lot of the accompaniment has room for embellishment,” said Calvin who started learning the piano at six years old, and did an accompaniment diploma with the London College of Music.

He also plays for Dance East and the Royal Ballet outreach programme, and over the years has worked with many other local groups and choirs.

But the choir is now searching for a successor because he is leaving in December to take on more responsibility with Dance East.

The choir’s next concert Music for a Summer’s Night is at 7pm on Saturday June 22, at Stowmarket United Reformed Church, in aid of St Elizabeth Hospice.

For more information about the choir, and to join, go online to semvc.com