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Leeds Male Voice Choir celebrates its centenary

PUBLISHED: 17:00 06 December 2016

Leeds Male Voice Choir celebrate their centenary this year led by musical director Tim Knight

Leeds Male Voice Choir celebrate their centenary this year led by musical director Tim Knight

Joan Russell Photography

Leeds Male Voice Choir is still loud and proud after 100 tuneful years, as Jo Haywood discovers

The choir are looking forward to performing their Spirit of Christmas concert at Leeds Cathedral on December 10th The choir are looking forward to performing their Spirit of Christmas concert at Leeds Cathedral on December 10th

South Leeds organist Thomas Crosland gathered 40 chaps together on September 16th 1916 for a pre-match fundraising sing-song at Leeds City FC (The Whites hadn’t been invented then) to garner funds for servicemen wounded in the Battle of the Somme.

The Stourton Wesleyan Chapel stalwart must have known he was doing a good deed, but what he could not have known was that he was also creating a choir that would still be hitting the high notes (and more than its fair share of sonorous low ones) 100 years later.

It’s not all been plain-sailing though for what was then Broom Excelsior Male Voice Choir (named after Middleton’s Broom Colliery, where many of the singers worked) and what is now Leeds Male Voice Choir.

They have had times when they’ve been in great demand, most notably in the interwar years when they appeared on the newly-founded BBC wireless service and at the Houses of Parliament, and in the Seventies when, brace yourselves, they sang very sincerely on Hughie Green’s Opportunity Knocks.

Tim Knight, musical director of the Leeds Male Voice Choir in rehearsal at Yorkshire College of Music and Drama Tim Knight, musical director of the Leeds Male Voice Choir in rehearsal at Yorkshire College of Music and Drama

But, perhaps inevitably, the decline of the mining industry took its toll and, as the decades ticked by with the regularity of a metronome, the choir began to seem a little tired and dated in the eyes (and ears) of modern audiences.

‘There was this perception that all male voice choir members were retired men in fawn-coloured blazers,’ said chairman Robert Butler. ‘That meant that we weren’t attracting new, younger people and, five years ago, we were down to 12 members.’

But that all began to change when musical director Tim Knight joined the team, launching a series of taster ‘open mic’ sessions across the city and taking a long, hard look at the traditional repertoire.

Robert, an HR manager with a healthcare organisation, was one of the numerous new members who joined after popping in for an informal try-out and, as a result, has witnessed the rise of a revitalised, re-energised choir fit for millennial audiences.

Sam Poulton in full voice during rehearsals Sam Poulton in full voice during rehearsals

‘With Tim’s guidance, we thought seriously about what we were singing, what we enjoy singing and what our audience would enjoy hearing,’ he explained. ‘We knew we had to move away from the old Welsh hymn traditions and look further around the world for inspiration, to America, Canada, the Baltics, wherever we could find it.’

Blazers were banned, although members still dress to impress in sharp suits, and the choir began to explore more popular musical avenues. Broadway and West End favourites became part of the repertoire, and they even got permission from Leeds band the Kaiser Chiefs to perform a specially arranged version of their hit I Predict A Riot.

As a result, Leeds Male Voice Choir now has 60 members, the bulk of whom are in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Its youngest singer is 21 and its oldest 88.

‘We really do span the generations,’ said Robert, 38. ‘And it brings an interesting energy to everything we do. A couple of members who’ve been with us for more than 40 years genuinely seem to be enjoying a whole new lease of life.’

The revitalised choir began its centenary celebrations with a concert for 700 people at Leeds Town Hall in September and is now the subject of a special exhibition of photographs and memories, which opens this month at Leeds City Museum.

Members are also looking forward to performing their Spirit of Christmas concert at Leeds Cathedral on December 10th and, in the new year, embarking on a tour of Belgium (their first tour in more than 30 years).

‘It’s going to be so exciting to hit the road and show people what we can do,’ said Robert. ‘We can feel as a group that we’re getting better all the time. We like to keep ourselves engaged and interested by constantly updating our repertoire. This year, for instance, all the music we’ve performed has been new to us. It’s challenging, but in a really good way.’

It’s also good for building camaraderie – an essential element for what is, in effect, a team effort.

‘It’s one of the few things blokes can get together to do that’s nothing to do with sport,’ said Robert. ‘There’s a real team spirit.

‘At the end of the day, it’s just great fun – and a great stress-buster too. I always feel infinitely more chilled after a rehearsal.’

So, as Leeds Male Voice Choir ends its first 100 years on a high, with more members, a younger demographic and an increasingly diverse audience, can we look forward to another century of song from future generations of Leeds lads?

‘I really don’t see why not,’ said Robert. ‘As long as the choir remains energetic and excited by the music, I think the audiences will keep coming and we’ll keep singing.’

A couple of musical notes

:: Another group was actually called Leeds Male Voice Choir in the Thirties. They performed several concerts before folding at the advent of the Second World War. Broom Excelsior Male Voice Choir took up the name after the war.

:: The choir celebrated its 50th anniversary with a concert at The People’s Hall in Albion Street on October 1st 1966. It was supported by Middleton Male Voice Choir and Rothwell Temperance Band (who faithfully played their part again this year).

:: Musical director John Wheeler, who joined in 1963 and wielded his baton for two decades, took the choir on a series of exchange visits to Leeds’ twin city Dortmund in Germany.

:: The choir members were TV regulars in the Seventies, appearing on Hughie Green’s Opportunity Knocks and Stars on Sunday.

:: During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the choir grew in size and scope under the direction of Nigel Wears, performing a busy concert schedule including two appearances at the Royal Albert Hall.

:: The choir hosted a charity project for Help for Heroes in 2013 – a turning point for the group as it attracted many new singers of all ages and backgrounds.

:: More success followed the appointment of Tim Knight as musical director and Matthew Lazenby as accompanist in 2014, when they launched Find Your Voice, a series of open workshops encouraging men across the city to sing up for themselves.

To find out more about Leeds Male Voice Choir, visit leedsmalevoicechoir.co.uk

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