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Choir looks to the future with plan for younger voices

Bradford Festival Choral Society. Pic supplied by the group.
Bradford Festival Choral Society. Pic supplied by the group.

Just two years after forming, Bradford Festival Choral Society was summoned to sing before Her Majesty.

Members boarded a special train headed for the capital, where they performed before Queen Victoria at a party at Buckingham Palace.

The rise from establishment in November 1856 to royal gig took less than 24 months - and fast forward 160 years, the society is still going strong.

But it hasn’t always been an easy ride, with dwindling membership and low audience numbers pushing the group into “crisis” a decade ago.

And, although now “thriving” according to trustee Rob Voakes, with a membership of 120, subs are being slashed in a move to attract younger singers and support and develop the choir into the future.

“We are very much aware of choirs nationally and locally who have been around for a long time who have very good reputations but who have really struggled in the last few years financially and have folded or have been close to folding,” Rob, 68, explains.

“Our musical director is very conscious of that risk and is very keen to try new things and push the choir into new areas.”

The choir has launched a 2020 Vision - by that time, trustees and members hope they can make choral music more accessible and increase the number of younger people both in the society and in its audiences.

For its 2018/19 season, tickets to all performances will be free for those aged 30 or under, whilst members in that age category will have cut-rate fees of £50 per year rather than £140. The reduced rate is also open to those on low incomes and state benefits.

“We have to have the immediate future and long term future in mind all the time”, explains musical director Thomas Leech, from Leeds.

Membership is “healthy” and “the choir is in a really good place” the 39-year-old says, but “we thought we would try and seize the moment and reach out with the choir to be attractive to younger singers”.

Tom, whose day job is director of the Diocese of Leeds’s Schools Singing Programme, a choral education scheme, has been musical director since 2008.

At the time he joined, its membership had dropped to around 60. In the past decade, a number of changes have been made to “future-proof” the choir, including amending and expanding its repertoire and partnering with the likes of arts organisation The Brick Box to perform at community events.

“The choir had a long period where they hadn’t really thought about the future,” Tom says, looking back ten years.

“And so all sorts of changes in society meant it had become harder and harder to get audiences and to get members. And really, they were in a bit of a crisis, with low membership.

“Financially, they weren’t able to put on the kind of concerts they had been used to putting on and their audience had disappeared. It was a matter of completely reinvigorating it and in the first instance, making sure it survived.”

It is the choir’s ability to change and adapt that has enabled it to continue over the past 16 decades, Rob, from Shipley, who joined seven years ago, says. “Providing the choir continues to develop and change it is going to thrive for the future.”

The first rehearsal for the new season takes place on Wednesday, September 6 at 7.30pm, at St Peter’s Church, Moorhead Lane in Saltaire.

“You will get a very warm welcome,” is chairwoman Maggie Eisner’s message to those thinking about attending.

“You won’t notice your age. You will feel like a singer among other singers,” the retried GP from Shipley, who joined the choir nine years ago, says.

“Come along and feel the music. I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.”