A brief history of Riding Mill Choral Society

Although there are records of a choral society in a parish magazine in 1887, it is thought that this refers to the St. James Church Choir. The Choral Society was eventually formed by Canon Bill Hinkley, the Vicar of Riding Mill. This was intended to be in addition to the church’s own choir and Bill Hinkley was the first conductor.

The earliest record is in 1965, when a draft constitution was prepared. Early practices were very informal, the choir grew, and they won four different classes in the Tynedale Music Festival and the Barnett Rose Bowl in Hexham. The first recorded concert was in the Parish Hall on December 17th 1966 when the society had grown to 35 members and was becoming more ambitious. The Christmas concert in 1967 included Vaughan William’s ‘Fantasia’, and the following spring, they gave a performance of Gluck’s ‘Orpheus’, and a selection from Strauss’ ‘Die Fledermaus’. The price of tickets at the time was 25p and 15p for students. These days they cost around £8.00, which is quite an increase!

In 1970, the Society joined forces with the Drama Club and presented a three night stage production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘The Sorcerer’, which was extremely successful. Constance was played by Di Dickinson, who is still giving loyal service in the sopranos. In 1971 the Society presented a version of “Down in the Valley”, and another Gilbert and Sullivan, “The Mikado”.

In 1972, Peter Gacsall became Conductor of the choir, although he appears to have resigned after 3 years. In 1972, a young man named Bobby Turner also joined the choir, is still giving loyal service, and has been a member of the committee for most of these years. As a result of advertising in the Hexham Courant, Harold King agreed to take up the baton, but sadly was only able to be with the choir for two years due to his sudden death at the age of 49.

In 1977 Gordon Grant, a music advisor to Northumberland LEA, and a well-known organist in the North-East, became the conductor. Within a year the choir had again grown to a membership of about 44 and was performing regular concerts with varied programmes. He continued to direct until 1982, when Mrs Jennifer Dudley agreed to take over the baton, but due to pressure of work she only completed one concert.

Canon Bill Hardy became president in 1977, retiring in 1988, when Rev Malcolm Adams, the Methodist Minister, took up the post. As far as we are aware he was the only president who was an active singing member, and a useful addition to the bass line.

Jean Latham and Bobby Turner relate an incident during a concert when the makeshift platform made from wood and milk-crates collapsed at one end. The platform tilted and the men at the back slid down, disappearing from view. Jean also relates that, on another occasion, “A group of ladies always did a large, elaborate flower arrangement for the stage and, on one particularly windy day, the back door was left open and a gust of wind sent the beautiful display flying.

David Kilner joined the Society, and was invited to become the conductor in May 1983 when they performed Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, although due to business commitments he relinquished the post after 18 months. On a number of occasions, David has stood in as conductor and has acted as accompanist and organist, and he has also been the chairman of the Society.

Richard Pomfret, of Stamfordham, took up the baton in October 1984, and during the early 1980s, Robert Laws was their regular accompanist on the piano and organ, giving unstinted service. In 1986 the role was filled by Charles Setz, who proved to be a tremendous asset. It was later revealed that he had been an official accompanist at the BBC. Sadly he had to give up in 1990 due to ill health. Gordon Barker followed and ably took up the mantle of accompanist, performing to the highest standard at concerts. In May 1988, Richard Pomfret decided, due to illness and moving house, to have a sabbatical, and once again David Kilner stepped into the breach.

In May 1986 David Cave, conductor of the Hexham Orpheus Choir invited the Society to a joint concert with performances of Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana”, which was performed in the Sands Centre in Carlisle and Hexham Abbey. The Abbey concert was a sell-out, but only eleven members of the Riding Mill Choral Society were singing due a reluctance to sing in a foreign language. Nevertheless choir numbers were increasing again.

In 1987 Brenda and Bob Tully, who were very experienced choristers and soloists, moved into the village. Brenda studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and had sung in a professional capacity with the George Mitchell Singers, whilst Bob had been lead tenor soloist with Felling Male Voice Choir. They also introduced three other members of “The Croft Singers”, a semi-professional group, who eventually appeared quite frequently as soloists in concerts; Robin and Ann Makepeace and Evelyn Mitchell. Ann has accompanied as well as sung in the choir, even though they live 25 miles away. Bob also provided a great deal of artwork, hand drawn posters and programme covers for a number of years until the advent of computers. There is a selection of these on the Past Concerts page.

In May 1988 Richard Pomfret took a short sabbatical and once again David Kilner stepped into breach, conducting the Christmas concert of “Scrooge” and Carols. Richard returned in January 1989 and, by 1990, the choir was strong all sections and Faure’s Requiem was performed during the spring. Richard remained with the choir for seven years and the choir flourished, but in 1992 he had also become conductor of the Hexham Festival Chorus and decided that he should relinquish the position at Riding Mill. David again stepped into the position of conductor, leading the choir with a performance of Coleridge’s “Death of Minnehaha” and excerpts from the Mikado which was much enjoyed. Following the concert, consideration was given to finding a new conductor and, after three applicants had taken the choir during a rehearsal, it was agreed to appoint Renee Shill, an experienced conductor and singing teacher.

Her first concert, where they performed Vaughan Williams, “Hodie” and Geoffrey Bush’s “Christmas Cantata” and carols was in December 1992 with Gordon Barker as accompanist; last concert with the choir. John Ross, a pianist and organist of the highest standard, became accompanist in 1993, and he went on to serve the choir for several years. He used to play twenty bars of ‘Tea for Two’ in the tea-break, but claimed he didn’t know the rest. Ann Fenwick recalled that, “Bobby had provided her and Betty Chicken with boiled sweets, which made singing difficult and reduced them to fits of giggles”, which displeased Renee no end. During a Christmas concert Denis Peel wore a very nice bow-tie, which during the last item “We wish you a Merry Christmas” he switched on. It lit up, much to Renee’s consternation. Under the direction of Renee Shill the choir performed various additional concerts outside the village including, Newcastle Civic Centre, Wentworth Leisure Centre, Wylam Methodist Church, Queen’s Hall Hexham and Hexham Abbey. That at the Civic Centre had ‘Pongos’, Richard Pomfret’s children’s choir taking part and the proceedings were compared by Tom Kilgour, a well-known local BBC personality. At Wentworth, there was a performance of Haydn’s “The Seasons”, which was conducted by Michael Brewer of Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester, with two other choirs – Hexham Orpheus and North-Tyne and Redewater. The soloists were from the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. This was a great experience for many of the choir, who had not all worked with an orchestra before.

There was a “Messiah for All” in St. James Church in 1994, where the society was joined by other singers and 76 of them were crammed into the South transept. This was part of a fund-raising weekend for the Village Hall Trust. The night before was another enjoyable, “Music Hall Evening”, with a pie and peas supper followed by entertainment by choral society members, suitably attired in authentic costume. Half-an-hour before the start there was a power cut, but members rushed home, returned with candles and the whole evening resumed in candlelight. As Canon Malcolm Fenwick rose to give thanks, on came the lights, and he remarked, “I would like to take credit for the return from darkness, but I cannot”.

In Spring 1997 the choir performed a concert version of Edward German’s “Merrie England”, when the Croft Singers (Brenda and Bob Tully, Robin Makepeace and Evelyn Mitchell) took the principle roles and Ann Makepeace shared the accompaniment with John Ross. The following year Schubert’s “Lilac Time” was performed, and was a popular choice for choir and audience alike. The Christmas concert contained Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols” with harp accompaniment provided by Helen Radice, who played brilliantly, and was a sell-out.

In 1998 Renee Shill stood down as conductor, and due to other commitments, John Ross was having difficulty attending rehearsals. Ann Makepeace became the accompanist, Derrick Parkin Marshall the conductor and rehearsals began on the preparation of Handel’s “Messiah”, a work that people often think they know. However, Derrick sought perfection and a great deal of hard work was necessary, but the end result was rewarding with two performances to full houses, one of which was at Minsteracres. Many excellent concerts followed under his direction including Lehar’s “Merry Widow”, Faure’s and Mozart’s “Requiems”, Stainer’s “Crucifixion” and, in a lighter vein, Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance”. To celebrate the Millenium it was decided to have a dinner at Allendale Arms Hotel, and a coach was hired. Another memorable occasion came in 2002, with the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, when the choir gave three concerts, in Riding Mill Parish Hall, St. Peter’s Bywell and St. Andrew’s Corbridge, singing Handel’s “Coronation Anthems”, Mozart’s “Mass in C”, and Parry’s “I was Glad”. The society received two letters from Her Majesty, expressing her thanks.

Soon after this concert, Lisa Hardy became the accompanist, replacing John Ross who had resigned and in Christmas 2002, the choir performed “Captain and his Floating Zoo” by Flanders and Horowitz. The following year, works performed included “The Gypsy Baron” by Johann Strauss and Eric Thurman’s “The Nativity”. Guest soloists were Judith Thompson (Soprano), Pauline Ash (Mezzo Soprano) and Peter Pengilli (Tenor). Also in 2002 the new incumbent, Canon Christopher Lewis, was elected as President.

The Society has raised considerable sums of money over the years, for the maintenance of the Parish Hall. Usually they have provided a tombola stall on the Annual Village Day. More recently they presented some light entertainment and supper. In 2007 the Parish Hall Development Committee organised a series of fund-raising events, among them Flower and Music Festival, which concluded with a “Songs of Praise”, where the Choral Society joined with the Church Choir. About 60 singers sang two anthems and lead the singing of some hymns. The ladies also provided a splendid display of flowers in the Parish Hall.

In 2007 Derrick decided to take a one year sabbatical, and Alastair Lord, a young man who had studied at Chethams School in Manchester and the Royal Northern College of Music agreed to stand in. In September we started work on Elgar’s “Music Makers” for a concert in November with The Tynedale Orchestra, conducted by Alex Lewis. In the Spring of 2008 the Society took part in a joint concert with Jesmond Choral Society, with two performances of Haydn’s “Creation” this time with Alastair conducting. As the year completed, Derrick Parkyn Marshall decided that, as the choir seemed to be in very capable hands, he would retire, having been reassured by the way the new conductor had maintained the continuity of good music-making.

The fiftieth anniversary of the Choral Society came round in 2008, and to mark the occasion a celebratory dinner was held in the Parish Hall to which past conductors and accompanists were invited. In 2012, Lisa Hardy moved away from the Tyne Valley and was unable to continue as accompanist. She had served the Society well and would be sorely missed. After some thought it was suggested that Robert Laws should be approached, and to the Society’s delight he accepted. Of course Robert has been the accompanist before!

In 2014, Alastair Lord was appointed to be the conductor of the Northumberland Orchestral Society who rehearse on Monday evenings, so the choir had to find another conductor. After lots of enquiries and discussion, Andrew Wyatt was appointed as his successor. Sadly after just one year, and two concerts, Andrew was appointed to be the Assistant Organist of Chester Cathedral, which was a post that clearly took him out of the area. Sarah Robinson has kindly agreed to take over the reins from September 2015.

This brief history has been drawn largely from a booklet about Choral Society, produced in 2008 by Bob Tully.

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