A History of the Exeter Festival Chorus

The Exeter Festival Chorus (EFC) was formed in the spring of 1993 by Peter O’Brien, Lecturer in Music and Director of Music at the University of Exeter, at the request of the distinguished composer, Paul Patterson, who went to school in Exeter, and was at that time Director of the annual Exeter Summer Festival. Its original purpose, as its name implies, was to accompany guest singers and orchestras in major Festival events, particularly the very popular Opera Gala concerts held on the last night. Numbering around 45 singers drawn from all over Devon and beyond, its premiere performance was the Opera Gala concert in the University Great Hall in July 1993, accompanying Lesley Garrett in favourite solos and choruses under the baton of Robert Tear.

That proved a great success and led among other things to an invitation by the Latin American group Caliche, made up of Chilean and Peruvian musicians performing on traditional instruments, to share in concerts they were mounting in southern England. We sang Ramirez’s Missa Criolla and Navidad Nuestra in Stratford, the Stables at Wavendon (Johnny Dankworth’s concert venue) and St Luke’s Church, Chelsea. We felt suitably encouraged to extend our programme and repertoire beyond the summer Festival. Thus, alongside our annual appearances in the Festival (1994-8), we developed a programme of three to four concerts a year in Exeter, Buckfast Abbey and other Devon venues, of choral masterworks by, amongst others, Mozart, Handel, Brahms, Bach and Fauré. The Festival concerts featured the first performance in England of Arvo Pärt’s Berliner Messe under Charles Hazlewood (1994), an Opera Gala with Robin Stapleton and the BBC Concert Orchestra broadcast on Radio (1995), a joint concert with Jeremy Summerly and his Oxford Schola Cantorum (1996), a performance of Paul Patterson’s Mass of the Sea with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Richard Hickox (1997), and again under Hickox and his City of London Sinfonia, a performance of Haydn’s Nelson Mass (1998).

Sadly Peter O’Brien died in autumn 1998 of cancer. We were fortunate enough to be able to engage Sir David Willcocks to conduct Peter’s Memorial Concert, a joint performance with the Truro Three Spires Singers in February 1999 of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. We were greatly honoured and delighted when Sir David, himself a Cornishman, agreed to become our President. He continues to take an interest in our activities, conducting a lively and unforgettable performance of Handel’s Messiah in Exeter Cathedral in December 2002. It was Sir David who suggested to our then Chair, Robin Palmer, that we approach Nigel Perrin, the high voice in the original King’s Singers, to replace Peter. He became our second Musical Director in 1999, enlarging our numbers to 65, improving our standards and widening our repertoire to take in challenging pieces, old and contemporary: the Vespers of Monteverdi (March 2000 and July 2002 in Exeter) and of Rachmaninov (July 2000 in Topsham, November 2001 in Buckfast Abbey), David Fanshawe’s African Sanctus with the internationally renowned BackBeat group in the presence of the composer (June 2001 in Exeter Cathedral, May 2002 in Sherborne Abbey), Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time with Catherine Bott, as part of our Tenth Anniversary programme (April 2003 in Exeter Cathedral), Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man, again in the presence of the composer (in two memorable concerts for the charity WaterAid, the first in November 2004 in Exeter Cathedral, the second with Jenkins conducting in November 2005 in Truro), and Jenkins’ Requiem (Exeter Cathedral in June 2006). It was a particular pleasure for the Chorus to have our founder, Paul Patterson, in the Cathedral to hear us perform his attractive and tuneful Millennium Mass in April 2006. Another new departure for us was a semi-staged performance of Bach’s St John Passion in March 2007 in the Cathedral, in which, using Neil Jenkins’s new edition, we performed the choruses learned by heart in English, and the chorales in German, accompanied by the fine period band, Music for Awhile.. Not only was Neil an eloquent Evangelist, he also coached us in acting out the piece.

But for many the highlight of our short history was the ‘Triangle of Hope’ project of March to June 2005. This, a remarkable symbol of international reconciliation and the power of music to transcend all barriers, involved the choir joining a church choir from Hanau in Germany and the Glas Choir from Yaroslavl in Russia, twin city of both Hanau and Exeter, to perform Benjamin Britten’s powerful and moving War Requiem. Three joint concerts were given: the first on 19th March in Hanau, 60th anniversary of its destruction by RAF bombers; the second on 7th May in Yaroslavl, eve of the 60th anniversary of the end of WWII in Russia; and the third on 18th June in Exeter, inaugural concert of the Summer Festival. Our soloists were as Britten had intended: Russian soprano, English tenor, German baritone, with Russian, German and English orchestras under the three conductors in varied combinations. The project also involved making a DVD, circulated to all Devon secondary schools, and setting up a website; this recorded wartime experiences of people from all three cities, and was funded by the National Lottery wartime anniversary programme, ‘We Were There’. This was not only a remarkable feat of organisation involving the choir’s first trip abroad, but provided an unforgettable series of concerts and forged many lasting friendships.

Encouraged by this experience the choir formed official links with choirs from its German and French twin cities, Bad Homburg and Rennes respectively. The first resulted in a lively performance of Haydn’s Creation sung in German in Exeter in November 2006 with choir members of the Erlöserkirche in Bad Homburg. They invited us back to Bad Homburg in late November 2007 to join in two moving performances of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, a work which, although frequently performed in Germany before WWI, is scarcely known there nowadays. Keen to involve both our German choirs and Résonance, a fine chamber choir from Rennes, we organised a splendid four-choir performance of Verdi’s evergreen Requiem as part of the 2008 Exeter Summer Festival, involving a chorus of over 200 singers, four gifted soloists including our soprano from the War Requiem, and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. This was a logistical nightmare, a linguistic Babel but a musical triumph, proving once again that the language of music is universal.

We have continued to widen our repertoire and to perform challenging contemporary works, often for the first time in the South West. These have included James MacMillan’s austere The Seven Last Words from the Cross (March 2008 in Exeter Cathedral), Will Todd’s catchy jazz mass, Mass in Blue (Barnfield Theatre, Exeter in June 2008), for which we were coached by Scott Stroman, Professor of Jazz at the Guildhall School of Music, and most recently in our first joint concert with the Exeter Philharmonic Choir, the American John Adams’s hypnotic Harmonium coupled with Walton’s fiery Belshazzar’s Feast, with our regular orchestral accompanists, Richard Studt and his Sinfonietta, and Alan Opie as our soloist (November 2008).

Other highlights of our brief history have included the introduction of very popular choral workshops every January, usually of works we intend to perform later in the year. These now attract over 400 singers from the UK and abroad, with people signing up a year in advance. We have also pioneered a new form of Christmas carol concert, CarolSing, involving much more audience participation than is usual, with local artistes performing guest slots, including a teenage female saxophone quartet and the Exmouth Community College balalaika orchestra. We have won first prizes in national and local performing arts festivals, notably in the Elgar Triennial Festival in Worcester in 2000, where Janet Baker was the adjudicator. We have made two CDs, one of Christmas music, ‘The Time of Snow’, the other a brass band version of Jenkins’ Armed Man, recorded by some of the best brass players in the UK, in which a number of us formed part of the chorus.

In its short history the Chorus has achieved much and become much more than simply a choir for the Exeter Festival. Under the inspiring leadership of Nigel Perrin we have grown to around 77 members performing up to eight concerts a year and attracting a loyal following, enabling us to fill our various venues. We have a growing body of Friends and Patrons, individual and corporate. The choir is always seeking new challenges and new forms of cooperation with other local choirs and groups. There is a real buzz about our concerts and a genuine sense among our members of belonging to a group that combines high musical standards with an open, friendly, welcoming and supportive ethos.

Alastair Logan
Chair 2000 - 2010