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Thursday, 17 April 2014

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The Whitehaven choir that's fit for a Queen

MARK WHITE talks to the Whitehaven Male Voice Choir, whose voices have resonated around the world.

T HE weather was horrendous – rain, thunder, lightning – so recalls Whitehaven Male Voice Choir’s Don Messenger of one memorable show at Cardiff Arms Park. “And the choir began to sing The Lord’s Prayer and, wonder of wonders, the rain stopped, the lightning ceased and peace descended over Cardiff Arms Park. My theory – God giving his blessing on Whitehaven Male Voice Choir.”

It’s been a memorable 36 years since the choir was formed. Sir Tom Jones and Dame Shirley Bassey have accompanied them at spectacular venues including The Royal Albert Hall; they’ve performed in front of the Queen, and raised thousands of pounds for charity.

Nationally, the male voice choir movement can be traced back to the 1800s but came to prominence when local miners formed a male voice choir to raise funds during the miners’ strike.

Officially founded in 1977, Whitehaven Male Voice Choir has established an enviable reputation among the musical world of male voices in Britain, and has made several television and radio appearances in that time.

Don, the concert secretary for 34 years, said: “I suppose male voice choir singing is in my blood as my great-great-grandfather was the secretary of the miners’ choir in 1923.

“My enthusiasm hasn’t waned one bit despite performing our first concert 36 years ago and I still get the same thrill performing in our concerts now as I did then.

“The type of experiences like the one at Cardiff Arms Park are just one of the reasons I love being part of one of the greatest institutions in the world.”

The choir has had a major impact on its members, and audiences alike.

Graeme Wishart, a member of the choir, said: “I’m always amazed at the emotional power our music has on people.

“We often have members of the audience in tears during our performances, maybe we are singing one of their favourite songs or maybe a song such as Bring Him Home from Les Miserables and it reminds them of someone dear who is no longer here.”

Graeme joined the choir 23 years ago, but his father Tom and uncle Bob were the founder members.

Graeme said: “I joined the choir in 1990 and I am extremely proud of the fact there has always been a member of the Wishart family in the Whitehaven Male Voice Choir.”

The choir’s musical director, Peter Argyle, points out there are several physical and physiological benefits to be had for the singers.

“Singing is like yoga as it involves good breathing technique and helps to alleviate conditions such as asthma and stress, whilst at the same time promoting a feeling of wellbeing.

“Learning in the field of music helps with the memory too and, aside from everything, I am very proud to be able to conduct these men who produce such a great sound.”

Charities are also beneficiaries from the choir with a large percentage of their proceeds going to aid local causes. This includes its annual Christmas celebration concert in Whitehaven churches.

Every June, the choir has held its prestigious annual concert in Whitehaven Civic Hall for which it performs alongside international renowned soloists and choirs. These sell-out concerts have become a highlight in the Cumbrian calendar. It is the only concert throughout the whole year in which the proceeds are solely for the choir’s own funds.

The choir’s reputation has soared throughout the years, and has led them into performing in some extremely notable arenas and with some very famous stars.

In 1992 and 1993, they were a part of the World Choir, a massed male voice choir of 8,000. In these concerts, they performed alongside such greats as Sir Tom Jones, Dame Shirley Bassey, Dennis O’Neill and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under the distinguished Welsh conductor Owain Arwel Hughes. These concerts, which were held at the Cardiff Arms Park, remain for many members the highlight of their choral career.

In addition to this, in 1997, the choir affiliated itself with Thornhill Male Voice Choir from Yorkshire, allowing members to participate in the Yorkshire Festival of Music.

These concerts are held in the Royal Albert Hall and the event raises hundreds of thousands of pounds for Cancer Research UK and feature male and female voice choirs. Whitehaven have since taken part in this festival every year since then except from one.

And to add to its impressive collection of memories throughout its history, the choir also boasts performing in front of royalty. In 2008, the choir was invited to perform in front of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh during their visit to Whitehaven.

The choir’s audience extends beyond the borders of the United Kingdom and, in 2002 to mark their Silver Jubilee, the choir produced a CD entitled 25 Years of Song which received national and international acclaim.

Some members of the choir have been there since the beginning, creating a tight-knit group with an impressive singing chemistry.

Chorister Ron Lithgow said: “Belonging to the male voice choir is like having an extended family and, after a few short months of practice sessions and journeying around various venues performing our concerts, we become almost like a family.

“We all have our different experiences to draw on and it all makes for a jolly and entertaining group of people, drawn together by a common love of singing.

“We want to spread this to as many others as we can and not forgetting that apart from the enjoyment we get from our efforts, we raise a lot of money for worthy charities.”

The choir is always happy to welcome new members to enable the male voice choir sound to continue in Whitehaven for years to come.

The choir says that its greatest delight is to “let its enthusiasm and love for singing well over for the enjoyment of others”.

The choir holds this year’s Christmas concert on Friday, December 13, 7.30pm, at St Begh’s Church, Coach Road, Whitehaven, with guests Sethera Brass. Tickets are £7 (or £6 concessions), available from Don Messenger on 01946 63452 or on the door.

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