Concert marks 65 years of Sunderland choir

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A CONCERT of note will mark the 65th anniversary of a Wearside choir.

Bishopwearmouth Choral Society will join forces with Ryton Choral Society and Bishopwearmouth Young Singers for a performance of Bach: St Matthew Passion this Saturday.

The event, to be held at Sunderland Minster from 7pm, marks the conclusion of months of hard work and rehearsals. Tickets are now on sale at £12, with concessions of £8 and £6.

“The last time all three groups sang together was at the Sage in Gateshead, and people seemed to love it. We received a really good response,” said member Vera Vincent.

“We will be hoping to repeat that success on Saturday, and it should be an uplifting evening. We are very fortunate to have such talented people, from our directors to our singers.”

Wearsiders were still struggling to rebuild their town and lives following the Second World War when the idea for a new choral society was suggested by members of Bishopwearmouth Church.

Church rector J.F. Richardson and choir master Clifford Hartley called an informal meeting to discuss the plan on November 18, 1948 – and the idea was green-lighted in December.

“The name of Bishopwearmouth Choral Society was agreed, despite no direct link to the church, as Sunderland Choral Society already existed,” said society archivist Norman Duncan.

“The nucleus of the choir was to be the men of the Parish Church Choir and the Senior Girls Choir of Bede Girls’ Grammar School, where Mr Hartley was music master.

“These were to be augmented by other singers, subject to approval, and it was also suggested that The Creation by Haydn be performed at the first concert in March 1949.”

Soloists Isobel Baillie – then a leading figure in the musical establishment – as well as Cyril Lackey and Radley Cooper all captured the imagination, and hearts, of visitors young and old.

“Admission to the concert was by programme, which cost three shillings each. That was not a cheap night out – as good class cinema seats at the time were half the price,” said Norman.

“The total cost of the concert is not known, but the fees for soloists amounted to 57 guineas, of which the greater part was paid to Isobel Baillie. Other costs included advertising.

“It is also known that some music was hired, and the overall expense was around £75. But, as there was a balance of £26 in June, it can be assumed the concert was well attended.”

From little acorns grew a mighty oak. Indeed, within five years of Bishopwearmouth Choral Society’s birth, its major singing rival – Sunderland Choral Society – had become defunct.

By 1956 Bishopwearmouth was performing two concerts a year – with orchestral accompaniment – and by 1960 its 80 members were regulars at the Sunderland Empire Theatre too.

“Mr Hartley, who’d been chairman and conductor of the Society since its inception, retired from conducting in 1974. His final performance was Bach’s B Minor Mass,” said Norman.

“Since then, the Society has continued to flourish. Its membership, which is auditioned, though occasionally variable, has remained relatively stable at 80 singers.”

The sweet tones of Bishopwearmouth Choral Society have been heard at 150-plus concerts over the past 65 years – as well as at several events for charitable purposes.

And, since 1993, the dedicated members have sung under the baton of David Murray – a highly experienced and professional musician well known throughout the North East.

This Saturday’s performance of St Matthew Passion, written by Johann Sebastian Bach, will present an extra challenge for the singers – as it to be performed in its original German.

But Vera is confident, following the successful collaboration between Bishopwearmouth, Ryton and the Young Singers at Sage last year, that the concert will prove to be spectacular. “It sets chapters 26 and 17 of the Gospel of St Matthew to music, with interspersed chorales and arias. It is regarded as one of the masterpieces of classical sacred music,” she said.

•Tickets can be booked online at

They are also available from any member, or at the door on the night.

Choir facts

l Seaham-born opera star Sir Thomas Allen sang with Bishopwearmouth Choir as a young man. He has since returned to perform as a guest soloist on several occasions.

l Dame Janet Baker, a Yorkshire-born mezzo-soprano best known as an opera, concert and lieder singer, has performed as guest soloist three times with Bishopwearmouth.

l Bishopwearmouth Choral Society took part in a choir competition in the Albert Hall, London, in 1974.

l Present conductor David Murray has appeared at recitals around the world as an accompanist for David Haslam, Thomas Allen, Ian Partridge and Alison Pearce.

l The Bishopwearmouth Young Singers rehearse each Friday at Ewesley Road Methodist Church, under the direction of Eileen Brown. New members welcome.

l Bishopwearmouth Choral Society performed Handel’s Messiah in November 1950 – featuring soloists Penelope Short, Gladys Ripley, Rene Soames and Conrad Eden.

l Original choir master Clifford Hartley came to Sunderland from Halifax in 1947, to become the organist for Bishopwearmouth Parish Church – now the Minster.

l The Choral Society performed Mendelssohn’s Hymn of Praise at Bishopwearmouth Church in March 1952 – featuring Mary Worth, Audrey Collie and Parry Jones.