In 1902 Maidstone had a Ladies Glee Club, whose conductor was Frank Wilson Parish, the organist at All Saints’ Church. In October that year some musical gentlemen sought to join them and the Maidstone Choral Union was born. Their inaugural concert came the following year, with a performance of Mendelssohn’s St Paul. Under Frank Parish’s baton the Choral Union flourished.
Each year they learned and performed one major choral work The Messiah, Elijah, The Dream of Gerontius. As their confidence and musicianship grew, they took part in both local and national musical festivals, winning many of these. The choir continued to sing throughout both world wars: honorary membership was offered to singers temporarily stationed in the Maidstone area.
Ill health forced Frank Parish’s resignation in 1942, and the much loved Albert Croucher, himself a tenor in the choir, became the new conductor. Ambitious extensions to the choir’s repertoire followed, including Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony and Verdi’s Requiem, and well known soloists such as Isobel Baillie appeared with the Choral Union.
Peter Moorse was the society’s next conductor, taking command in 1966, when his dynamic personality brought in new young singers. He will be especially remembered for the Good Friday performances of Bach’s St Matthew Passion at All Saints’ Church. During his tenure two contrasting works were learned, and performed, each year.
Jeffrey Vaughan Martin, was the society’s conductor, from 1974 until 2008. Within a very short time his adventurous programme had enlivened the choir with works such as David Fanshawe’s African Sanctus and Rutter’s Magnificat. He introduced singers and audiences to the music of Bruckner, Dvorak, Vivaldi and many others, and to contemporary composers such as John Tavener, Paul Patterson and Andrew Gant. A host of young soloists, including some now internationally famous like Bryn Terfel and Felicity Lott, have sung with the Maidstone Choral Union.
The choir’s ‘season’ now extends to four or five concerts. Particularly appreciated by audiences are the Christmas events, one in the Mote Hall and the Twelfth Night concert of more traditional carols held in one of the town’s churches.
Over the last twenty years co operation with singers from abroad has grown steadily, originating with visits to Beauvais as part of Maidstone’s twinning initiative, and culminating in a short annual tour to another European destination the choir has sung in the Cathedrals of Bayeux, Beauvais and other venues in Appeldorn, Koblenz and Witten.
The Choral Union also takes part in Maidstone’s International Music Festival each summer. The choir has also sung at a variety of other occasions the opening of the Dartford Bridge by the Queen, the switching on of the Christmas lights in Maidstone, entertaining guests at Leeds Castle, in BBC broadcasts of Songs of Praise. The repertoire ranges from simple carols to the challenging music of Bernstein or Walton, and from the motets of Byrd and Palestrina to Slade!
In 2008, a new era began as Martin Hindmarsh took up the position of our 5th Music Director. Martin is himself a professional singer and rehearsals are filled with very helpful advice on relaxation, singing technique, phrasing and pitch. The choir works hard but leaves rehearsals energised and full of the pleasure of singing.
Much has changed during a hundred years of the society’s existence. Ladies no longer wear hats for rehearsals, and choir dress has changed a few times. Audiences have grown, and the Corn Exchange, where makeshift staging was based on beer barrels, has been superseded by the Mote Hall. But the essential core of the Maidstone Choral Union remains unchanged: it is a group of people of all ages and backgrounds who are united in the joy of singing, and in their desire to communicate this joy to others.
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