Half a Lifetime Singing with the GCC

by Peter Terry (still singing with the basses)

When I was asked to write a few words about Guildford Chamber Choir and what it has meant to me over the years, I struggled to know where to begin. There has been such a wealth of memories since Richard Fox invited seventeen of us to perform in the first concert in June 1980. My late wife, Ingrid, was also a founder member as is Diana, our current Chair. Apart from Richard we are the only original singers still in the choir although John Bawden, our conductor for that first concert, now sings with us regularly. Richard and John are responsible for so much of our enjoyment over the years - and for my longevity!

There was always a great bonhomie amongst those seventeen founder members. Thankfully it is something that has remained throughout the choir’s history and is still apparent today. We have tried as a group to welcome new members with open arms and bring them in as valued friends as quickly as possible. Ingrid and I, as Yorkshire folk, discovered that joining a choir wherever we found ourselves, in Holland, America and back here in the South of England, was a great way of acquiring a group of likeminded friends who became lifelong friends. I hope that new members of GCC in the future will have the same experience.

Foreign tours stand out as peripheral highlights of the last four decades along with the Cathedral visits to sing services when their own choirs were taking Easter or summer breaks and half-terms. On many occasions we have taken part in services and given concerts in the great English cathedrals of Salisbury, Winchester, Southwark and Guildford, as well as St George’s Chapel Windsor and York Minster. We have sung in Paris, Brussels, Prague, Budapest, Poland, Tuscany, Monserrat and Barcelona in Spain, Lisbon, and in the church in Eisenach where J S Bach was baptised.

A foreign highlight for many of us was a visit in 2015 to the Menin Gate in Ypres. This vast structure is lined with the names of over 54,000 soldiers from World War 1 whose bodies were never found. With the exception of the Second World War years when it was held in Brookwood Cemetery, the Last Post Ceremony has taken place every night at 8 o’clock since the Memorial Gate was constructed in 1928. We joined the Occam Singers under David Gibson to sing Bruckner’s beautiful Ave Maria at this famous evening service. It was an incredibly moving and memorable experience.

If I were to list all the performances that gave us such pleasure this note would be five times its length. But I must mention a few – others will have their own favourites so vast and wide is GCC’s repertoire. First for me must be Handel: his Messiah (performed several times) and the oratorios Deborah and Israel in Egypt. Then J S Bach – memorable performances of the Passions and B Minor Mass, and over the past forty years many performances of his motets and some cantatas. Even in our 21st anniversary programme in 2001, we listed works by Elgar, Finzi, Brahms, Britten, Philip Moore, Mozart, Monteverdi, Poulenc, Purcell, Rutter, Vaughan Williams and our first conductor, John Bawden. By then we had performed 276 different works with over 100 repeats. Sung by 172 different singers. I have not kept up as an archivist so I could only guess at the numbers we have achieved since 2001.

Finally, to the leadership of the choir - the choir cannot function without a leader and committee as well as a great conductor prepared to put on concerts on the minimum of rehearsals. We are not a choir that meets every Tuesday night but only 5 or 6 times in the three weeks or so before a concert.

Richard Fox ran the choir for the first decade, with help from willing Secretaries and from Peter Wright who conducted the majority of our early concerts. At that time Richard invited guest conductors for one concert a year. This gave the choir a taste of performance under some of the country’s premier choral conductors, including David Hill and Stephen Layton. We gradually moved to having a permanent conductor’s appointment with standout tenures being Peter Wright (our first Principal Conductor; Guildford and Southwark Cathedrals) and Steven Grahl (New College, Peterborough and Christchurch, Oxford), both of whom served as Principal Conductors for eleven years. We are now very fortunate indeed to have Max Barley to take us through the next few years.

Since the outset, local newspaper critics have always been complimentary about our performances. After our inaugural concert, the Surrey Advertiser wrote of a new choir bursting brilliantly on the Guildford musical scene and a decade later said, “Let’s hope the GCC is still singing in 10 years time”. Well, here we are thirty years later still, minus a few dear friends and loved ones lost on the way. This may well be my last year in the choir, but I am delighted to know that GCC is so firmly established and loyally supported in the town as well as wider afield. I hope it will continue to entertain for many, many more years to come.