The earliest days – late 1890s to the Second World War
In 1897 Wilfred A. Taylor, then organist at St. John’s Church, formed a group of singers and instrumental players, known as The St. John’s Choral Society. A detailed review of their first concert appeared in The Kentish Advertiser in February 1898 the transcript of which appears below.
The Society continued to thrive until 1922 when Wilfred Taylor, now organist at St. Luke’s Church, died tragically in a motor cycle accident. Details of the period following his death are hard to come by but we must assume continuation of the group until the war years when there appears to have been a separation of the singers and instrumental players. The singing continued throughout the war, run by TOC H and, in November 1944, the Sevenoaks and District Orchestral Society was formed. Their inaugural concert, conducted by Mr. John McMenemy and led by Miss May Weth, took place on 12th May 1945.
In the following decade, Albert Whitnall, former Director of The Board of Trade Choir, became Music Director of the Sevenoaks Choral Society. Under his leadership the choir enjoyed the challenge of performing works composed by their conductor, including his oratorio, Easter Story, performed at one of his last concerts with the Society in April 1963. The soprano, Heather Harper was amongst the soloists and the singer and guitarist, Cy Grant, made a special appearance to read the poem from which the libretto was taken, “The Crucifixion” from “Trombones of God” by James Weldon Johnson.
[In 2015, a set of scores of Easter Story, recently rediscovered, were presented to the Choir who performed it on 24 March 2018 at St Nicholas Church]
Post-Second World War years
In the 1950s, the Sevenoaks Choral Society was dissolved, fairly dramatic changes being needed to maintain what had been achieved, put the organisation on a firmer footing financially and aim for even higher standards in the future. In 1956, the newly formed Sevenoaks Philharmonic Society, under the chairmanship of David King and assisted by other local businessmen and former Sevenoaks Choral Society members, set the foundation for the future strength of the organisation. The combined skills, enthusiasm and efforts of these members marked a real turning point in the fortunes of the Society.
In 1964, following the departure of Albert Whitnall, Raymond Fischer was appointed Music Director on the recommendation of Sir Adrian Boult. Only the third known Music Director of the Society in its 100 year history, he completed 34 years with the choir. Under his leadership there were notable performances of little known masterpieces by the great composers in addition to a wide variety of works from the choral repertoire with full orchestral accompaniment provided by young professional players contributing to concerts of an increasingly high standard.
Later twentieth century
In 1987 the Society became a registered Charity governed by a new Constitution and a subsequent review and some amendment a few years later resulted in a beneficial tightening of the administration.
The Society joined in the delight of many other Sevenoaks organisations at the opening of the Stag Theatre and our performance of Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem there in February 1984 provided the Society’s first ‘sell-out’!
Following Raymond Fischer’s departure in 1998, the Society embarked on a period of invited guest conductors which proved extremely stimulating and gave real insight into the conducting style and personality which would take the choir forward into 2000 and beyond.
For many years, there has been regular collaboration with the Sevenoaks Symphony Orchestra, joint concerts currently taking place every other year. Recent performances have included Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, Vaughan Williams’s Sea Symphony and Orff’s Carmina Burana together with the global premiere of Darrell Davison’s Symphony of Souls. This concert marked the approach of Darrell’s 25th season as conductor of the Sevenoaks Symphony Orchestra and was a very special and unique occasion.
The link between the choir and orchestra has always been important and much satisfaction is derived on these occasions from the display of the considerable choral and orchestral talent in Sevenoaks.
Into the twenty first century
The current Music Director since 2002, Robyn Sevastos, has proved to be a highly intuitive choral conductor who has brought variety and vitality to the choir’s performances. Occasional concert performances of Gilbert and Sullivan and other operetta, with first class soloists, have been an extremely successful introduction to the repertoire during Robyn’s time with the choir. She brings also a lighter style to some of the major works, provider deeper insight to their meaning alongside a more modern interpretation.
The impact of Coronavirus and the recommencement of “normality”
Along with the rest of the country, and, indeed, the rest of the world, Sevenoaks Philharmonic endured a period of suspension of normal activities between March 2020 and July 2021 arising from the government’s response to the Covid 19 global pandemic. In total five concerts were lost along with a Singing Development Day.
But the indomitable spirit of the Society kept activities going throughout that very challenging period when all group in-person singing was proscribed. A total of 51 on-line rehearsals were led by Robyn and ably supported by our Accompanist, Tracey Renwick using “Zoom” technology. Whilst this was not to everyone’s liking, it did achieve continuity of activity for the Society and a very welcome sense of continued engagement for the members who mastered the technology. A silver lining has been that the choir has sung a wide range of pieces which might otherwise have been outside it’s normal repertoire.
Though this was a dark period for all, the Society has come through relatively unscathed and most fortunately did not lose a single member or loved one to this dreadful disease.
In July 2021, the government repealed the previous restrictions in the light of the success of the UK’s vaccination programme.
Post-Covid Revival – 2022 and beyond
Following the removal of Covid Restrictions the Choir, with some trepidation and a careful raft of additional controls, resumed normal activities. To enable people to sing with greater distance from each other, rehearsals were moved from our former long-term “home” of St Luke’s Church Hall in Eardley Road to the School Hall at the new Sevenoaks Annex of Weald of Kent Grammar School at Seal Hollow Road. After some administrative difficulties we relocated for the spring term to the hall at Walthamstow Hall Junior School in Bradbourne Park Road. With its superior piano and acoustics this is suiting us very well.
Resumption of in-person singing was not without its difficulties as around a third of our membership either took the opportunity to “retire” from singing or felt that the risks of contracting Covid (either for themselves or carrying the virus home to vulnerable loved-ones) were too great. However, an enormous effort was put into recruitment of new singers and around 25 new members emerged progressively over the first year of resumed activities. A number of these came from choirs which had not been able to resume or had people who had moved to Sevenoaks and were now “working from home”.
Robyn led us through three sparkling concerts which were deliberately graded to help everyone safely recover their voices after two years enforced lay-off. The new singers have invigorated our sound and the season climaxed with a stunning performance of Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man – A Mass For Peace at Stag Theatre. We dedicated this concert to the people of Ukraine as a prayer for a peaceful end to the war promoted by Russia. The programme was rounded out with a spirited rendition of the Ukrainian National Anthem along with John Rutter’s newly written Ukrainian Prayer – both performed in Ukrainian to the tearful delight of some Ukrainian refugees in the audience.
We now look forward to what we hope will be a more stable future. We hope that singing numbers will continue to rise. We hope too that audience numbers will continue to recover so that we may cover our costs in future years and sustain high quality choral singing in Sevenoaks well into the future.