Rugby Philharmonic Choir since 1867

Rugby Philharmonic Choir

Recent Events

July 2018 - Haydn’s ‘Nelson Mass’ and Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Trial by Jury’

Rugby Philharmonic Choir - Summer 2018Rugby Philharmonic Choir’s recent concerts have demonstrated the skill of their musical director, Mervyn Bethell, in providing blends of differing genres, traditions and musical eras, and yet holding the whole evenings together most enjoyably.   This exciting occasion followed that custom.  Haydn’s Mass for Troubled Times was written late in his career at the close of the eighteenth century, when he was at the height of his experience and powers (‘The Creation’ was written a few months earlier), but when his native Austria was under the most serious threat from Napoleon.  But trouble is furthest from one’s thoughts when listening to Haydn  -  he can’t stop joy shining through, and these performers responded beautifully to that greatness   -  and as it turned out the threat receded as Horatio Nelson was at the very time of composition distracting Napoleon in Egypt.  Hence the name often given to the work.   I have never heard this choir open a work with such impact and fullness of sound as in the ‘Kyrie’, and the opening drama was heightened by the spectacular soprano soloist Emma Griffiths.  All four soloists (Samantha Joy Taylor, Jack Dolan and John Fletcher were the alto, tenor and baritone) wove a lovely tone through and above the sustained sound of the hundred-strong choir which was really powerful.  But this was not only about the power of the chorus  -  the Sanctus had lovely restraint.

Eighty years after Haydn wrote this Mass, Gilbert and Sullivan collaborated in a short satirical piece often claimed to be the most successful one-act musical operetta of all time.  This time it’s an early work in a large output, setting a pattern for so many famous operettas to come.   The appearance of three of the first-half soloists in very different guises (as plaintiff, defendant and judge in a ludicrous breach-of-promise case) was at the same time a delightful continuity and a demonstration of their versatility, and they were joined by Stephen George, Phill Middleton and Jonathan Smith as prosecuting counsel, usher and foreman of the jury.  The most demanding section of the work is also the most satisfying – ‘A Nice Dilemma’ manages to parody a range of Italian operatic conventions, is much harder to perform than it sounds, for chorus as well as soloists, and was excellently done.  

The instrumental ensemble was also a blend  -  local players alongside members of the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire  -  and the particular combination of instruments for the Mass worked yet again for the G and S, with the underpinning throughout of the admirable Jo Foote and James Williams as repetiteur and organist respectively. 

Versatility, power and humour  -  a balance skilfully achieved by everyone under the Bethell baton.


‘Centenary Countdown’

In aid of the Bradby Club for Young People, 1919-2018 

It says a great deal for the spirit and togetherness of Rugby as a town that the Philharmonic Choir, in the year after its own much-acclaimed 150th anniversary, chose to offer the proceeds of one of its three subsequent concerts to a neighbouring charity, the Bradby Club in its centenary. Mervyn Bethell, the musical director, and the committee, and all the performers and hard-working supporters of the ‘Phil’, deserved the warmth and gratitude which were expressed on this evening of generosity.

They earned the eager applause for their music, too.   The programme drew on lyricists and composers whose song-writing careers covered all decades of the past 100 years: indeed, as a taster, the choir started much further back than that with ‘All through the Night’, and, putting Scotland alongside Wales, followed up with ‘The Road to the Isles’.   After that, to Liverpool in the sixties, with a tribute to the ballad-writing genius of Lennon and McCartney: the richness of tone of this large choir, and their beautiful restraint, expressed a depth so different from the original renditions, yet so complementary to them, that it was a lovely demonstration of just how good the Beatles were and are.   And after that, into the 70s, 80s and 90’s with Stephen Sondheim, described by many from Cameron Mackintosh to the New York Times as probably the greatest lyricist ever, and that’s before we consider his fiendishly innovative music.  Fiendish it may be, but there was no sense of strain in the choir:  as well as some fine big choral numbers,  the massed precision and flexibility of ‘Send in the Clowns’, a song we usually associate with a solo voice, was very moving.

The second half of the concert, like the first, opened with a couple of pleasing one-off songs  -  in this case, Bob Chilcott’s ‘Give Me Strength’, and Peter Hunt’s arrangement of Lowry’s once-neglected hymn ‘How Can I Keep from Singing’.    Then back in time to Cole Porter, who remarkably spanned the eras from the late 20s to the 50s:     yet another great innovator, with outstanding skills with words and composition, who like the Beatles and Sondheim achieved permanent changes in the tunes ‘which everyone knows’, and yet also intrigued and inspired professional musicians and musicologists with his invention.    ‘Just One of those Things’ and ‘You Do Something to Me’ brought out the best in the choir’s rhythm, tuning and harmonies.   Finally, another innovator:  we swayed as an audience to the familiar and powerfully-performed beats and emotions of Schonberg’s music for ‘Les Miserables’, the longest-running musical of modern times, and a ground-breaker which has inspired countless imitations, and millions of lifelong devotees.  

Whether they present a major oratorio or a series of medleys, the Rugby Philharmonic Choir have developed over the past few years under Mervyn Bethell a distinctive professionalism and sense of enjoyment which  shone through again in this concert. They were skilfully supported by Jo Foote, their regular repetiteur, whose accompaniments capture the subtleties and moods of diverse pieces;  and on this occasion by a varied accompaniment of brass, woodwind, guitars and percussion from Tony Godfrey, Will O’Rourke, Josephine Allen, Christophe Le Garrec, Callum Newlands, Max Markham and Robin Payne.   With the massed, disciplined, yet relaxed Philharmonic choir of over 100, they combined to give a big audience an evening to remember with great pleasure.


Handel's MessiahHandel’s “Messiah”  Saturday 15th December 2017

Rousing choruses, splendid soloists, talented musicians and a standing ovation...that's how to celebrate a 150th anniversary!

This 150th anniversary performance of Handel’s Messiah by the Rugby Philharmonic Choir in the Temple Speech Room brought a near capacity audience to its feet – and  not just for the Hallelujah Chorus! In Handel’s idiom, the choir was in its element with wonderfully clear diction, rhythmic vitality and a sense of collective purpose which was entirely convincing.

The soloists, too, impressed from the outset with tenor Jack Dolan’s arresting and incisive opening Recitative and Aria reminding us of the operatic provenance of the Handelian oratorio; Samantha Joy Taylor’s alto providing many of the most affecting moments with her sweet and plangent tone; the soprano, Emma Griffiths, soaring effortlessly and with pellucid clarity in her big Arias, and bass, John Fletcher, achieving a hieratic power in the unfolding of the great mystery, and, with Nick Long’s powerful trumpet obligato, a compelling confidence in the world to come in the great Aria, The Trumpet shall Sound.

Conductor Mervyn Bethell succeeded in channelling the choir’s enthusiasm into a convincing expression of faith which was powerfully communicated to the audience throughout, never more so than in the sonorous and resplendent final Amen – and if some audience members could be heard quietly singing along, this only served to convey more strongly the sense of musical unity and community achieved in this milestone evening of music-making by and for the good people of Rugby.

In recognition of that milestone and of the close relationship between the Philharmonic Choir and Rugby School, a cheque for £1867.00 was presented to the Headmaster in aid of a charity which the Phil has supported for some years. The Arnold Foundation aims to transform the lives of boys and girls from some of the country’s most disadvantaged communities by providing them with a boarding education at the School. It will be noted that the sum involved was not a random figure!

Perhaps we should allow the final word to go to one of our distinguished soloists who no doubt expressed the sentiments of many who were present on this occasion: “As always it has been an unalloyed pleasure to work with the choir and to see so many people on the stage. This augurs well for the next 150 years! And what a lovely performance: well sung, well played and well conducted.”

 Joan Hamilton


Songs Of Praise, All Saints, NorthamptonChoristers full of praise for TV recording - Songs of Praise    August 2017.

Rugby Philharmonic Choir was invited to join BBC Songs of Praise to lend their voices to record a commemorative episode in Northampton.

More than 800 singers filled All Saints’ Church to the rafters to film a tribute marking the 20th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. The mass choir recorded 10 hymns which included the patriotic I Vow to Thee My Country, Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer and Make Me a Channel of Your Peace.


  Banquet of Song marks One Hundred and Fifty years

Rugby Philharmonic Choir Summer 2017 Concert

When you are celebrating, you can do anything.  What, even offer Faure’s Requiem and the Pirates of Penzance in the same Concert?  Yes, and other items too, but only if you are the Rugby Philharmonic Choir and have worked your socks off to do something challenging and memorable for a 150th anniversary.
You might have thought that a hot evening on 8th July and a plethora of Concerts in the Festival Season would thin audience numbers.  When the choir filed onto the stage of the Temple Speech Room, a Gala occasion greeted them: full house.  After being congratulated by Dr Jonathan Smith, the opening number, ‘How lovely are thy dwellings fair’, came from the heart.    Brahms was composing this at the moment Director of Music , Mr Edwin Edwards,  lifted his baton, in
1867. And Director of Music, 2017, Mervyn Bethell, lifted his baton to a full stage, the Phil Choir, ninety members strong, fronted by a delightfully willing orchestra, led by Andrea Brogarde.  James Williams was at the organ and Jo Foote at the piano.  Mervyn himself played a lyric by Grieg, Wedding Day at Troldhaugen, also written in 1867.
Faure’s Requiem, with its sublime melodies and subtle nuances, summoned memories of those departed who had played a big part in the life of the Phil, especially Doreen Long, to whom the Concert was dedicated.  Serving the Phil was Doreen’s life and, at young ninety-three, she retired as secretary, having sung herself as soloist and choir member.
How friends of the Choir would have appreciated the sublime music, the exhilarating rhythms of Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor, and the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves by Verdi.   It was a sumptuous banquet, topped by Gilbert and Sullivan soufflé to follow.  G & S fans might point out that the plot twists and theatricality of Pirates is more a diet of dark chocolate, here made palatable by the eloquent wit of narrator, Rex Pogson.
Soloists, Howard Walker, Mike Hansford, Jack Dolan, Phil Middleton, Emma Griffiths and Yvonne Rollins enjoyed themselves in lively interaction with each other and the choir.  The lower voices in the choir had removed their jackets and sang with the lightness and freedom attained earlier by upper voices.  It was happy and festive and all done with admirable control despite the heat.
How were they in 1867? we wondered, as we applauded one hundred and fifty years of quality singing.  It was a thrill to salute the dedicated work of gifted musicians and to recognise the talent in young performers.  We shall now want to discover the history of the Choir in Rugby Art Gallery and Museum’s current exhibition.  And the future?  We look forward to the next concert on Saturday 16th December.

Rugby Philharmonic Choir.  Contact Mervyn Bethell at musicaldirector@rugbyphilharmonic.org.uk

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Updated January 2019