St Mary’s choir reunion: Memories aplenty at celebration of Hitchin church’s musical tradition

Andrew Weight, Ben Morgan, Paul Linford, Colin Hick, Jeffrey Gray, Nick Franks, Roger Bailey, Nick M

Andrew Weight, Ben Morgan, Paul Linford, Colin Hick, Jeffrey Gray, Nick Franks, Roger Bailey, Nick Morgan and Peter Bailey. Picture: Hugo Richardson - Credit: Archant

Friends returned to Hitchin from near and far at the weekend for a unique celebration of the historic parish church’s musical heritage.

Sheila Mole, Mary Day, Coralie Ovenden, Tim Gray, Angela Gray and Colin Banyard. Picture: Hugo Richa

Sheila Mole, Mary Day, Coralie Ovenden, Tim Gray, Angela Gray and Colin Banyard. Picture: Hugo Richardson - Credit: Archant

The choir reunion at St Mary’s Church – featuring choristers, choirmasters, organists and organ scholars from the past half century and beyond – took in the whole weekend, centred around a three-hour organ gala on Saturday night.

The bill of 10 organ soloists included Iain Farrington, who memorably played Chariots of Fire alongside comic legend Rowan Atkinson during the London 2012 Olympics’ opening ceremony – and St Mary’s was packed out for the emotional night of memories and music.

The highlights included the 40th anniversary performance of Silver Jub-Elation, a piece composed by 19-year-old Andrew Weight in 1977 to mark the Queen’s Silver Jubilee – with about a dozen of the original choristers returning to sing alongside today’s choir.

The 1977 choristers entered noisily from the back of the church with school badges and ties, jackets, boaters, hockey sticks and even a bicycle. The teachers appeared with gowns, mortarboards and canes.

Mary Day and Rachel Gould. Picture: Hugo Richardson

Mary Day and Rachel Gould. Picture: Hugo Richardson - Credit: Archant

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Andrew said: “Singing with all of these childhood counterparts, together with the superb current choir, was a combination of excellent teamwork, great fun and high emotion too. Alan Childs, today’s organist and choirmaster, was a delight to work with.

“It was a performance of many emotions for performers and audience alike – and such a thing will be hard to repeat.”

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Andrew Tillett, who introduced Silver Jub-Elation in 1977 as head of music at Hitchin Girls’ School, returned from York to do so again using the same words.

The reunion was three years in the making and organised primarily by Chris Ambler, whose efforts were repeatedly saluted by the speakers amid many amusing anecdotes and fond recollections.

Paul Linford, a chorister from 1975 to 1983, paid an eloquent tribute to much-missed South African organist Colin Howard – in his words, “a wonderfully gifted musician who had an uncanny ability to get the very best out of the choir”.

Paul said: “I so wish he were here tonight. But I think we can rest assured that, in the words of that wonderful Christmas Eve prayer, Colin rejoices with us upon another shore and in a greater light.”

Dave Allen, who was in the choir from 1960 to 1970, gave a similarly heartfelt speech about organist Percy Wells, who tragically died while in post at St Mary’s in 1966.

Dave remembered how Percy had suddenly died less than 48 hours after a Tuesday night choir rehearsal – and that it was the first time, as a 15-year-old, he had seen adults cry.

“He was a really inspirational character to us boys,” said Dave. “I live and breathe Percy Wells.”

A card was passed around during the evening to be signed for 92-year-old Gordon Wharton, a chorister from 1942 who was unable to attend.

Collections were taken for the St Mary’s choir fund and the Dorothy Wells Organ Foundation, which trains and supports organ scholars at St Mary’s.

Present senior and junior organ scholars Rose Norris and Tristan Rodway both performed on the night, as did 11-year-old virtuoso James Watson.

Their companions on the bill included old St Mary’s hands Anthony Smith, Tim Gray, Mike Webb, Martin Penny, Roger Harrison and Peter Noyce, the last of whom contributed through a video recording.

Former St Mary’s head chorister and organ scholar Iain Farrington – who still lives in Hitchin, and arranged Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance for the 2011 Royal Wedding – wrapped things up in style with an extraordinary performance of his energetic composition Live Wire.

Iain told the Comet: “It’s great to see everyone still making music. Being an organist, you don’t often get to hear others play because it’s just you – but tonight we’ve had 10! That’s very rare.

“The fact that all this has come from the background of a parish church rather than a cathedral is amazing, and I’m delighted St Mary’s now has this organ foundation that will keep all of it going for years to come.”

The programme of events over the weekend also included a special choral evensong on Sunday afternoon.

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