History: Richard Stangroom 1961-71


It would be premature at this stage to sum up Richard Stangroom’s conductorship, since we all hope that it has many more years to run. But he has already transformed the role of the Society: his perceptive musicianship, outstanding ability as a conductor and incredible energy have fashioned it into a concert-giving body which is generally recognised as the leading choir in the district.

When he joined us we were a happy but relatively inconspicuous local society; now we sing on equal terms with the Surrey Philharmonic Orchestra and have been in demand for the annual festivals of the London Borough of Sutton. Our concerts are on a scale, both in size and in expenditure, of which we would not have dreamed twelve years ago. It is true that the pace he has set has at times left the older members gasping for breath. But it is equally true that the relations between conductor and choir have grown steadily more cordial as the years have brought deeper mutual understanding, that Richard is very much one of us, and that the younger members whom he has attracted to the choir in large numbers find the tempo most exhilarating.

February 2, 1961, saw the death of our old friend and President, George Gardner. He joined the Society at its foundation in 1922. and was a Committee member from the outset. In those early days the President, or failing him the Vice-President. chaired all meetings, but the records are confused, and George Gardner’s signature appears at the end of the minutes more often than any other. He was elected Vice-President in 1941; on the death of Mr. T. B. Lawrence in 1953 he became President, and presided at all meetings until his final illness. Not until 1961 were the rules altered to provide for an executive chairman as well as a President.

Mr. Gardner’s own individual blend of geniality and shrewd good sense made him immensely popular, and it was difficult to imagine the Society without him. His successor as President, elected by unanimous vote of the members, was Mrs. Eileen Lawrence, who fulfils her office with dignity and charm.

The major work for the Festival was Verdi’s Requiem, and we were invited as we had been in 1936, to give a performance of this work in St. Mary’s Church, Burgh Heath. For this, our second Verdi Requiem, we had four soloists and an orchestra of fifty—startling figures when we remember how little we had in hand from the 1959-60 season. But it was characteristic of our new conductor that he could recruit both soloists and orchestra mainly from his own Trinity College friends, and that they should be willing to come and perform this major work on payment of expenses only. Among the soloists was the young and as yet unknown Miss Margaret Price, who sang the exacting mezzo-soprano line and received from us the princely sum of thirty shillings. We are glad to know that she has received somewhat higher fees since in the world’s leading opera houses and concert halls.

Those who heard the performance were impressed by it. It marked, though we did not realise it, a new stage in our development, the beginning of a series of concerts of ever-increasing range, ambition, and, of course, expenditure. Our costs were indeed to rise into the hundreds over the next decade. That we were able to meet them as we did was due to the man whom we had elected as our treasurer in 1960. We had always been well served in this office, notably by Mr. A. E. Feaver, who had held it for ten years; but the new situation, with its constantly increasing demands on finance, required ability and foresight of a quite unusual order, and this we had in the person of Reginald Habbijam. Not only did he keep meticulous control of our accounts, but he negotiated grants for us from the National Federation of Music Societies, the Sutton Arts Council and the Banstead Urban District Council. His calculations of probable costs and receipts had always to be made in advance; they were shrewdly estimated and in the circumstances astonishingly accurate. What is not generally known is the immense expenditure of time, thought and cogent argument which Mr. Habbijam gave to his work on our behalf. Without his advice the Society could never have mounted the ambitious programmes upon which it was to embark. We are saddened to think that he did not live to celebrate with us our fiftieth anniversary; he died on September 9, 1971, and the Society honours his memory with deepest gratitude and affection.

The success of the Verdi performance, and the enthusiasm of our conductor, led us immediately to consider an annual autumn concert, but the difficulty of the Leith Hill music for the next season, and the need to organise thoroughly what was bound to be something of an unknown venture, meant that we had to postpone the date. Meanwhile we went on with our regular work, and added to our commitments a shortened performance of the "Messiah" in the chapel of Banstead Hospital. This has become an annual event, and we are assured that it is greatly appreciated by the quite considerable number of patients and officials who attend it.

In the early months of 1962 we began to think about our autumn concert, and in April we appointed a concert subcommittee to organise it in detail. With its present very considerable experience of concert-giving, the Society may perhaps have some difficulty in realising the care and forethought which went to these early ventures, and it seems appropriate to acknowledge it now. Finally the concert was held on November 10, 1962, at Trinity Church, Sutton. The programme consisted of Mozart’s Requiem and Vaughan Williams’ "Dona Nobis Pacem"; there were four professional soloists and an orchestra led by Ralph Nicholson. In view of later developments it seems strange that anxiety had been expressed at the Annual General Meeting about the probable cost of such a venture, but we were new to this kind of thing, and a prudent treasurer thought it wise to obtain a number of guarantors to guard against a possible deficit. But he did not need to call upon them. Members were asked to sell six programmes (price 3s. 6d.); some of them vastly exceeded their quota, and we had a full church. The local press was loud in its praises of "one of the most stimulating concerts in Sutton for some time"; moreover, the B.B.C. used excerpts from a recording of the concert in its "Time Off" programme, and invited Mr. Stangroom to speak of his work with the choir.

Meanwhile we went on with our Festival work, and in 1963 we began our second period of unbroken success, which lasted until 1970. The wider experience which we were gaining through concert-giving made us more capable of covering the Festival works in a short period—and it was sometimes very short indeed. The growing strength of the choir (over 80 in number) gave us a powerful advantage in the Full Chorus singing, so that since 1964 we have won this class every year, except 1967. Even more remarkable is the record of the Women’s Voices. Since 1954 our ladies have won this class no fewer than fourteen times, including an unbroken run from 1963 until 1970, and only once have they fallen below second place. In particular they achieve, on festival days, a magical quality of pianissimo singing which is all too rare in choral music.

Our 1963 concert, consisting of Faure’s Requiem and Bach’s Magnificat, was as complete a success as its predecessor. We had anticipated little difficulty with this season’s Festival music, but we ran into trouble with the part song, Kodaly’s "Annie Miller", so that it was with mixed feelings that we received an invitation to sing it again at the Maida Vale studios for a B.B.C. programme in the Amateur Choirs series. However, it brought us the pleasure of renewed contact with our former conductor, Louis Halsey, who used the song as material for a talk on the difficulties of rehearsal in a small choir.

1964 saw an important change in choir policy. It was decided that we should once more become a Surrey County Council evening class; this would mean rehearsals in more comfortable conditions at Nork Park Secondary School, and would allow of regular fees to conductor and accompanist.

We pass quickly over the next few years, except to record the annual concerts. The 1964 programme consisted chiefly of Haydn’s Imperial Mass and Britten’s "Rejoice in the Lamb"; in 1965 we sang Bach’s "Jesu, Priceless Treasure" and Britten’s "Saint Nicolas", in which we remember particularly the sensitive singing of Wilfred Brown; and in 1966 we sang Schubert’s Mass in A flat and Kodaly’s "Jesus and the Traders" and began our association with the Erato Chamber Orchestra.

At the end of 1965 Frank Cook resigned his position as accompanist and deputy conductor of the choir, which he had held since 1930. No-one has excelled his record of service to the Society. His innate modesty makes it easy to underestimate his gifts as an accompanist, but we had often cause to marvel at the music he managed somehow to extract from decrepit ironmongery which had once called itself a piano. Whenever we were in difficulties he was there to help; he would take the lead if he had to, but was content to step back as soon as the need was over. It was typical of him that after he had resigned he was willing to come to the rescue for a year when we were in need of help.

As our new accompanist we chose Barry Wordsworth, who, though still at college, was already making a name for himself locally as a conductor. His studies, at home and abroad, have prevented him from working continuously with us, but he has given us valuable service both in rehearsal and at concerts.

At this point we notice two diverging tendencies in the development of our Society. The first is the growth of our ambitions, for it was now that the discussion of a possible performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass began to occupy our minds. On the other hand, the state of our funds was such as to require caution. Concert costs rose steadily, but receipts, in spite of a rise in programme prices, did not keep pace with them. It was clear that the B Minor Mass would need experienced professional soloists and orchestra, prolonged rehearsal and a well-filled treasury. We began to discuss ways and means; coffee mornings and a jumble sale were organised, and the possibility of further grants was discussed. But it was obvious that we could not attempt the Mass yet; we were not ready either musically or financially. We added to our concert programme a performance of the "Messiah" on Good Friday; it received high praise from local critics, but it incurred a further loss.

Two pleasing events of 1967 may be recorded here. At the Annual General Meeting we celebrated Mrs. Reid’s twentieth year as our secretary by presenting her with a gold watch— a small token of much gratitude. And towards the end of the year our younger members began the series of informal social and musical evenings which have added so much to the enjoyment of the Society’s year.

The autumn saw a new venue for our concert. Early in the year Zoltan Kodaly died, and our programme included two of his works—the Psalmus Hungaricus and "Jesus and the Traders"—as well as Bach’s Cantata No. 50, Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, and movements from Pergolesi’s "Stabat Mater", to be sung by the choir of the Trinity School, Croydon. Such an ambitious programme required an orchestra of a size which Trinity Church could not accommodate. By the kindness of the Session, we were permitted to hold the concert in St. Andrew’s Church, Cheam, which suited our requirements admirably. The concert itself won high praise, as did the singing of David Lennox in the solos, but the audience was much below our average, and we incurred a heavy loss. For our second concert of the year—Bach’s St. John Passion—we returned to Trinity Church and had a larger audience. This was for many of the choir a first acquaintance with what some musicians regard as the finer of the two great Passions, and we found it immensely rewarding. As a result, we found our preparation time for the Leith Hill Festival restricted, to say the least, but we managed it, and had one of our most successful years in the competitions.

With the 1968-9 season we came to one of our most eventful years. At the A.G.M. on May 9 it had been agreed that we should sing the Brahms Requiem and Britten’s "St. Cecilia" - the main works for the 1968-9 Festival - in the autumn, and Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in March. Not long after the A.G.M., however, we received an invitation from the organisers of the proposed Borough of Sutton 1969 Festival of the Arts to conclude their programme with a concert at the end of May. We had no doubt that we should accept this invitation, and our conductor’s suggestion of the Verdi Requiem as a suitable choice met with our whole-hearted approval. The question was, however, whether we could cope with three public concerts in addition to our Leith Hill commitments; and on this the committee, and subsequently the members as a whole, were deeply divided. The debate was keen and strenuous, and was finally decided only by a casting vote. It is a tribute to the spirit of the Society, and in particular to those who found themselves in such a narrow minority, that once the matter had been settled the choir went on with its work as amicably as before. Plans had, however, to be altered in more than one way. At the end of November, in St. Andrew’s Church, we sang not Brahms but Haydn’s "Creation". Our Festival music we again took in our stride (a stride somewhat hastened towards the end) and again we were successful. But the rehearsal and planning of the Verdi Requiem made greater demands than we had foreseen.

One question which had exercised our minds was the choice of place for this concert. If we were to sing with the Surrey Philharmonic Orchestra, as had been arranged, we should need an augmented choir and much more space both for choir and for orchestra. Sutton Baptist Church was suggested as the best possible place; we went to see, and were convinced. Very kindly, the deacons of the church agreed to our request. We had a few hair-raising moments because a wedding had inadvertently been arranged for the time of our final afternoon rehearsal, but the wedding party was willing to a move across the road to Trinity Church, and all was well. This seems a suitable time to acknowledge the debt of gratitude which we owe to the various churches where we have held our concerts: to the trustees of Trinity Church, to the Session of St. Andrew’s Church, and to the diaconate of Sutton Baptist Church. Without their ready and generous help we could never have arranged our concerts successfully. We have also to thank the three church officers concerned for their unfailing co-operation. And while we talk of thanks we would say how grateful we are to those friends of the choir who have acted so often as stewards at our concerts.

The Verdi concert duly took place on May 31, 1969, with a choir of a hundred voices, and was a triumph for all concerned. Richard rose splendidly to the occasion; we had an audience of 440, and subsequent comment was enthusiastic— a fitting climax to the Sutton Festival, and a historic day for the Society. Some of us with long memories looked back to the first occasion on which the Society had sung the Requiem, and realised to the full the transformation which had taken place. We had come a very long way.

The Annual General Meeting of 1969 was of unusual importance. It saw the retirement from office of Elizabeth Reid and Reginald Habbijam, and the election of a new secretary and treasurer in Barbara Holyman and David Leach. If we say that already they have proved themselves worthy successors, they would ask for no greater compliment.

For some time it had been felt that the rules of the Society needed revision; a sub-committee had been appointed to draft the necessary changes, and these were approved at the Annual General Meetings of 1969 and 1970. Their main effects were to qualify the Society as a charitable organisation, to streamline a committee which had grown so much as to be unwieldy, and to give the committee full executive powers.

Having already rehearsed the Brahms Requiem for the 1969 Leith Hill Festival, we were able to make it the main work for the autumn concert of that year, with the addition of Bach’s Cantata No. 140 (Sleepers Wake), and again we had the co-operation of the Surrey Philharmonic Orchestra. It had been agreed at the A.G.M. that we should sing the St. John Passion once more in March. Then, at the end of the year, when arrangements for the two concerts were already far advanced, came an invitation to give another concert in the 1970 Sutton Festival in May. This occasioned much debate, but it was finally agreed that the Leith Hill works for 1970— Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Bruckner’s Mass in E minor—could form the basis of such a concert, and this was done.

All of these concerts were run at a deficit, and we owe it to our treasurers that with the aid of the grants we received we had still a credit balance to take us forward into the 1970-71 season. But if we were to give a performance of the B minor Mass—and this was the season to undertake it, since we were to sing it also at the Leith Hill Festival—we had to build up our funds. To help in this we held a very popular Concert of Carols in December, 1970, and a performance of "Messiah" on Good Friday, 1971; there were also various fund-raising activities of a more secular kind.

On May 15, 1971, came the day to which all our other plans had been subordinated: the B minor Mass, again with the co-operation of the Surrey Philharmonic Orchestra led by Jurgen Hess, and with an augmented choir. The soloists were Hazel Holt, Margaret Hallworth, Wynford Evans and John Huw ‘Davies. If we judge from what was said subsequently, everyone concerned felt a sense of triumph in measuring ourselves d against this mighty work—conductor, singers, orchestra, audience; and the chairman of the Sutton Festival said that he had been thrilled by the power and quality of the music.

How, after this, were we to choose for our Jubilee year in 1972 any work which would not be an anticlimax? There seemed to be one obvious choice: the St. Matthew Passion, the most profound of Bach’s great works as the B minor Mass is the most magnificent. We began with one advantage in that many of us had absorbed this music so that it was part of us, without ever losing either the sense of its greatness or the capacity to find new wonders in it. This, then, must be the climax of our fifty years’ journey, and the committee spared no pains to make it worthy. Ian Partridge, one of the best Evangelists we have heard for years, was engaged; for the Christus we had John Huw Davies, so well known to our Society for his sensitive musicianship, and the other soloists were Hazel Holt (soprano), Paul Esswood (counter-tenor), Wynford Evans (tenor) and Franklin Whiteley (bass). A highly professional orchestra led by Nona Liddell included as soloists Harold Clark and Wilfred Smith (flutes), Celia Nicklin (oboe), John Pullen (cor anglais) and Gordon Pearce (double bass); Howard Gough provided the cello continuo, Barry Wordsworth the harpsichord, and Peter Chase, our present accompanist, was at the organ. The Ripieno was sung by girls from Rosebery Grammar School and Sutton High School. Publicity was on a scale exceeding that of any previous concert. It was well for us that a well-attended Carol Concert on December 9, 1971, it had contributed substantially to the Society’s resources.

The result, on Easter Saturday, April 1, 1972, was the Society’s greatest triumph. For the first time there was a capacity audience in the Baptist Church; indeed, more people wished to attend than could find places. Conductor, soloists, choir, orchestra - all combined to realise the greatness of the music, and a local critic wrote of "a wonderful experience, spiritually and musically, which made a deep and lasting impression

Then, in the middle of the same month (April 15) came the Leith Hill Festival. The amount of time we had left to prepare the music was minimal; we had spent some time on the main work, Vaughan Williams’ "Five Tudor Portraits", but we felt ourselves to be somewhat sketchily acquainted with the smaller works. As it was, good fortune came to our aid: the test pieces in the Full Chorus favoured us, and we secured in this class a score of 90 which enabled us to make good our deficiencies elsewhere and head the competition by a single point from Leatherhead. To win in V.W.’s anniversary year, as well as our own Jubilee, was a matter of special satisfaction to us, though we felt much sympathy for our good friends of the Epsom choir, who after a flying start found themselves two points behind us in the aggregate.

The musical season was rounded off by a concert in Guild-ford Cathedral on Saturday, May 27, 1972. This was a fortieth anniversary concert for the Surrey Philharmonic Orchestra, whose main contributions to the programme were the Tallis Fantasia by Vaughan Williams and the Brahms E minor symphony. Our own contribution was a performance, with the orchestra, of John Ireland’s "These Things Shall Be".

Here, then, we end our fifty-year story. It is a story which has seen changes matching those which have occurred in Banstead itself. The quiet country village has become a busy Urban District of more than forty thousand inhabitants; the village Society has grown in prestige until it can command audiences of over five hundred. Of the present strength of the choir there is no doubt, though the advent of younger voices in the tenor and bass parts is much to be desired. Its finances are sound; the St. Matthew Passion in April involved an expenditure of well over £550, but the treasurer seems to be in excellent health. Our conductor shows no diminution in energy or in his zeal to perform the best music in the best possible way. The present officers are clear-sighted as well as efficient, and they have no difficulty in finding able helpers to undertake any duties which may be required. Finally, we retain our strong link with Leith Hill, and it is gratifying to think that we can still give something to the Festival in return for all that it has done for us. In short, the future of the Banstead Musical Society is bright.

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