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Portsmouth Choral Union 1880-2014

When William Green, a fervent Nonconformist and teetotaller, first raised his baton to conduct his newly-formed Portsmouth Temperance Choral Union in 1880, he could not have known how strong a tradition of choral music-making he was setting in train.

One hundred and twenty-three years on he would have regretted the 1927 decision to drop the restrictive ‘Temperance’ epithet, but he would surely have recognised and approved the style, content and quality of PCU’s concerts and applauded the boundless loyalty and enthusiasm of its 21st century members. In his 42 years with the PTCU, Green instilled the principles of dedication and high musical standards on which his Choir could build, and set important precedents for performing far afield from Portsmouth and employing professional orchestras and soloists.

After Green’s founding years ended with his failing eyesight in 1922 the established repertoire was maintained and steadily broadened by a series of successors, particularly Bertram Bradshaw conducted from 1932 until 1962. Maintaining traditions like the Good Friday Messiah, he introduced more works by the great composers but further stretched the Choir with relatively modern works from British composers such as Stanford and Parry. Concurrently he recognised the fundamental need (and a continuing concern to this day) for choral music in Portsmouth to compete with other forms of public entertainment and pay its way. So Berlioz’ Enfance du Christ, Bach’s St.Matthew Passion, Beethoven’s Choral Symphony, and concert performances of Verdi’s operas were brought in but were necessarily subsidised by the more certain audiences generated by Coleridge Taylor’s Hiawatha, Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius and the annual Christmas Concert. Costs continued to rise, however, and the vital tradition of choir fundraising in many forms was begun. With Hugh Davis’ appointment in 1964, and later under David Williams, the repertoire developed a markedly more modern flavour for both saw that a choral society of such ability risked limiting its appeal and musical reputation if it did not include more contemporary works in its programmes. Lambert’s Rio Grande had caused a stir many years earlier, and in the next ten years did so again, together with Orff’s Carmina Burana, Britten’s St. Nicholas and several works by Vaughan Williams.

With the appointment of Jonathan Willcocks as Musical Director in 1975 the Choir found itself with a dynamic young professional who espoused higher standards of singing, better stage presentation and more formality in auditioning both new and current members.

He also operated with humour and a lightness of touch welcomed by both members and audiences; these influences rapidly became characteristic of the Choir as a whole. He was already composing and it was not long before the Choir commissioned and performed in 1980 his song-cycle Voices of Time. Since then Willcocks has continued to develop the repertoire widely, occasionally including his own compositions such as Riddle of the World, Worcester Mass, Magnificat, Great is the Glory, and Lux Perpetua and successfully finding the mix of works necessary to satisfy audiences, critics and members alike. He also widened the field of orchestral players employed by the Choir, and had a large part in the continuing development of Southern Pro Musica, now a widely-respected professional orchestra with whom the Choir frequently appears.

The tradition of encouraging younger people to take part in PCU concerts continued. Outstanding young soloists emerging from the major national Music Conservatoires, and the 100-strong Hampshire County Youth Orchestra, were frequently employed, and works for combined adult and children’s choir included in many programmes. With generous help from Southern Arts and Portsmouth City Council a Te Deum, by Portsmouth composer Ian Schofield, was commissioned and completed for premiere performance on 9 November 2002.

Willcocks’ many initiatives included wider co-operation with other choral societies – particularly those in Chichester and Worcester – and taking PCU’s music-making on member-funded concert tours abroad. The Choir has sung in Rouen and Lisieux in France, and Bruges in Belgium. In June 2000 the Choir sang at Carnegie Hall, New York, in a programme which included the work many members feel is Willcocks’ finest to date – the evocative and reflective Lux Perpetua. In May 2003 the choir visited Osterode and Clausthal, Germany where they performed Carmina Burana and Tippett’s Spirituals.

A major change took place in the choir’s history during 2012. Jonathan Willcocks decided to lay his baton down after 37 years with the choir due to increasing commitments in the U.K. and abroad. His last concert with the choir was on 15th June 2012 conducting his own Sing Africa and Zimbe ! composed by Alexander L’Estrange.

The choir was extremely fortunate in being able to appoint David Gostick as its new musical director in 2012. He had been the choir’s accompanist for the previous ten years. October 2012 was his first concert as musical director with the choir.

During June 2013 the choir visited Italy giving concerts in Florence and San Gimignano singing various works by Handel, Palestrina, Parry, Standford and Vivaldi

Under David’s baton the choir continues to sing both established and new choral works: J.S. Bach’s Magnificat and St John Passion, McDowell’s Magnificat, Britten’s War Requiem and Patterson’s The Fifth Continent.

William Green would approve.

The Portsmouth Choral Union archives are maintained by Jim Sweasey. If you would like any further information or have any articles you wish to share with the choir please email Jim at jim.sweasey@talktalk.net.

Portsmouth Choral Union