- the story continues

By Jane Craxton, Marian Garnett, Carol Moss, Barbara Plummer, Nicola Wilson Smith

In December 1984 Norman Lane retired as our permanent conductor. (Sadly he died in March 1986.) Roger Moon, an ex-pupil of Norman’s, and a singer in the choir, took over temporarily until Andrew Green - a familiar voice to listeners of Radio 3 - was appointed in May 1985. The parlous financial state of the choir resulted in moving rehearsals from Newnham School, Eastcote to All Saints Church, Hillingdon, where we have been ever since.

December 1986 saw the choir travelling to Welwyn Garden City for a Christmas concert at St John’s Church, Digswell, Andrew’s home ground. This included choruses from Handel’s “Messiah” and a mass by Charpentier, with carols and lullabies. Andrew’s wife, Elizabeth Lane was the soloist for this and other concerts.

In April 1987 we sang Faure’s “Requiem”, the “Five Mystical Songs” by Vaughan Williams and Victoria’s “Tenebrae Responses” in All Saints Church; this was our final concert with Andrew, as he resigned in May. Once again Roger Moon stepped in, and conducted the summer concert. This was held at St. Mary’s Church, Perivale, the first and only time this venue has been used. Several prospective conductors were auditioned in July, but Roger was invited to take up the post permanently. He proposed a special concert for the 30th Anniversary of the choir, which took place in April 1988, covering a wide range of styles and receiving favourable comment. The programme included Palestrina’s mass “Aeterna Christi Munera”, madrigals by Weelkes and Morley, songs by Elgar and Bach, a song by Michael Rose, the choir’s first conductor, and one by Roger himself, in which the baritone solo was sung by Andrew Green. The Elthorne Chamber Orchestra, an ensemble formed specially for the occasion which included staff and former pupils of the Hillingdon Music Service, accompanied the choir.

Unaccompanied madrigals, glees and partsongs with the theme of spring and summer, including Britten’s “Five Flower Songs”, and ending with “The Long Day Closes” and “Sweet and Low”, were performed at a concert at St. Martin’s, West Drayton, in July 1990. In between were poetry readings. This was due to be held outside, but threatening rain drove everyone indoors.

The Christmas concert in 1990 took the theme of a Victorian Christmas, with music written during the life of Queen Victoria, from Schubert to Schönberg. It finished with some songs from “The Gondoliers”, first produced in 1889. The choir dressed in Victorian costumes, and the large and enthusiastic audience was double the usual size.

At this time the ladies’ usual concert dress was all black. Subsequently it was changed to single-coloured shirts with black skirts, which continued for a number of years until it reverted to all black, with a touch of red. The red was changed to gold for the 50th Anniversary year.

We joined with Hillingdon Choral Society as the semi-chorus for a performance of Elgar’s “Dream of Gerontius” in March 1992 at the Beck Theatre. Also in March we gave a programme entitled “Transatlantic Evening”, with music by Britten, Barber, Copland, Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein and Gershwin, which featured Roger Moon’s highly accomplished jazz piano playing.

In May 1992, a very successful Lute Song Master Class was given by Emma Kirkby (soprano) and Anthony Rooley (lute), who were friends of two choir members. It was hugely enjoyed by everybody, and they kindly agreed to become patrons of the choir.

It was decided to apply for charitable status for the choir, to help conserve limited funds. An Extraordinary General Meeting was held in early December 1992 in order to change the constitution so that it would be acceptable to the Charity Commissioners; the application was subsequently granted. Over many years the choir has been supported by and affiliated to the Hillingdon Arts Association, and the National Federation of Music Societies, now called Making Music.

At the request of one of our basses, Richard Wood, the choir was invited to take part in a Christmas Concert in Holy Trinity Church, Brompton, to support the charity ‘Homestart’. This was conducted by Richard himself and Roger Moon, and afterwards the choir was invited to the reception where they were presented to Prince and Princess Michael of Kent.

In the spring of 1993 the Hayes and Harlington Arts Council promoted a series of concerts. In May the choir performed Howells’ “Requiem”, a group of Byrd madrigals, and lute songs by Dowland and Morley, at the William Byrd School in Harlington, with Jessica Gordon as the lutenist. This formed part of the four hundredth centenary celebrations of the birth of William Byrd who lived in Harlington for a number of years.

The July concert saw us back in All Saints Church performing an animal themed concert with music by Copland, Britten and Seiber. That summer the choir made its first visit to the Craxton Studios in Hampstead, thanks to Jane Craxton, one of our sopranos. Since then, many such visits have been made, sometimes in the summer and also around Christmas, all of which have been very successful with excellent food, music and entertainment! The choir is very grateful to Jane for arranging these events at what is a delightful and interesting venue.

In November that year at our concert in All Saints Church, the power failed, and we were left in darkness. As a result, the programme had to be re-arranged, and the unaccompanied items originally scheduled for the second half had to be performed in the small parish hall with the audience seated there as well! Luckily the power was restored and the remainder of the programme - Dvorak’s "Mass in D" – was able to take place in the church.

In July 1994 we were joined for the first time by the Hillingdon Girl Singers - a choir run by the Hillingdon Music Service - with their conductor, Jo McNally. The programme included Vaughan Williams' “Three Shakespeare Songs” and excerpts from Purcell's “The Fairy Queen”, with soloists from Sine Nomine.

Recruitment is always a problem in a small choir, trying to keep the right balance of voices with a regular turnover of singers. In autumn 1994 the dwindling number of tenors and basses reached crisis point, when the last tenor left. Roger was not willing to carry on with only three parts, but agreed to conduct a Gala Concert in November with an orchestra, soloists and women’s voices only. This was his last concert.

The post of conductor was advertised in Classical Music, and after auditioning eight applicants over three evenings in January 1995, it was offered to John Thwaites, Head of Piano at Christ’s Hospital School, Horsham. Fortunately some new singers had been recruited, notably tenors, so the choir was able to look forward to the new season with more confidence. Our first concert with John was a celebration of English Choral Music from Purcell to Tippett, in recognition of the Purcell Tercentenary and Sir Michael Tippett’s 90th birthday. In December we were again joined by the Hillingdon Girl Singers and a harpist, who performed a selection from Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols”.

In May 1996 John Thwaites arranged for us to take part in a weekend event to celebrate the life and works of Sir Arnold Bax, held at Christ’s Hospital School. We provided the choir for a candlelit evensong in the chapel.

By the summer, we knew that John would be moving on, and he conducted his final concert with us in December. The Hillingdon Young Singers joined us, with the Hillingdon Brass - both from the Music Service. The programme included Part 1 of Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” and Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on Christmas Carols”.

John Thackray, another of the conductors who had auditioned the previous year, and who had been a close-run second for the post, was asked if he would be willing to guest-conduct the choir for a term, concluding with a concert. After only a few weeks, we all decided that we would like him to be our permanent conductor, and were very happy when he accepted. At John’s suggestion, the November concert in All Saints Church was an Italian Evening, a very popular event with pieces by a number of Italian composers. The first half was church music, and the second half, music of romance and recreation, including excerpts from Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Gondoliers”. During the interval there were Italian refreshments for all provided by the choir.

In December, a Carol Concert was also held in All Saints, with The Hillingdon Young Singers, to raise money for our local hospice, Michael Sobell House.

1998 was our 40th Anniversary year. The spring concert in March – “A Treasury of English Church Music”, held in St. Martin’s Church, Ruislip – saw the first performance by the Sine Nomine Recorder Consort, composed of three members of the choir and two friends. They played four short pieces during this programme, and made occasional appearances for a few years after that, when the programme could include an instrumental interlude.

We held the first of our summer supper concerts in St. Martin’s Church Hall: “The Butterfly’s Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast”, with the theme of animals. Choir members provided a buffet supper for the audience during the interval. This proved to be very popular, and has continued ever since, although now we find it preferable to sing first and eat when all the music is finished.

That summer we had a memorable day out for choir members and their families - the first of regular social occasions hosted by one of our tenors, Peter Calvert-Smith, at his family’s Sussex home, where we were able to swim, play tennis and croquet, picnic and barbeque, and even sing a little!

The 40th Anniversary Concert was a performance in November of a shortened version (the original version lasts over three hours!) of “King Arthur” by Purcell, held in St. Lawrence Church, Eastcote. Although we wore concert dress, appropriate hats and scarves were donned at suitable moments, and we employed some props. Sadly, it was at this time that John Thackray became ill. Helen Vickery and Jo McNally stepped in to help with rehearsals, and Michael Emery conducted us for the concert. Helen then also stood in for John at our carol concert with Coteford School in December.

We had hoped that John would be able to return to conduct us for the spring term, but this was not possible, so Jo McNally agreed to take us on for a concert in which we joined forces with her adult beginners’choir, Voices Anon, who were based in Maidenhead. We performed items as individual choirs, and joined together for Schubert's "Mass in G". This concert, given at All Saints, Hillingdon in March, was performed again in Maidenhead in April.

John managed to return to conduct us at the beginning of the summer term but sadly died only a few weeks later. Helen Vickery took up the baton for our summer supper concert “Seasons of the Year”, which was given in his memory. On September 26th 1999 there was a moving memorial concert for John, arranged by his widow Sue and given in the Natural History Museum, where he had been the Archivist. The performers were taken from the various choirs and orchestras with whom John had been associated, including members of Sine Nomine. We performed Brahms’ “Requiem” with the singers ranged on the grand staircase and the orchestra at the foot, in the main hall of the museum, with the audience sitting underneath the dinosaur skeleton! Our soloists were Michael George and Julie Kennard, who were personal friends of John & Sue Thackray.

Once again, we had to hold auditions for a new conductor, and were fortunate to find the right person to succeed John in Rebecca Miller, who joined us in autumn 1999. Born in California, she had studied conducting and piano in Chicago and Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, and was teaching at the Royal Academy of Music Junior Department.

In Rebecca’s first season, our spring concert took place on April 1st, and was aptly named “Familiar Favourites, Funny Fugues and Foolish Frolics”. We were attempting to widen our range of venues, and had booked Holy Trinity Church, Northwood. With 'silliness' as the theme for this concert, it rapidly descended into farce as we attempted, and later narrowly succeeded, in transferring the concert from the church to the church hall owing to the church’s acoustics, which Rebecca considered unsatisfactory for our choir. Problems arose when we discovered that we were not licensed to perform in the hall, and it being a Saturday we had great difficulty contacting someone who could grant the licence. Eventually things were sorted out and the concert took place in the church hall.

That summer of 2000, the choir gave a concert entitled “Around the World in 80 Minutes” which was notable for the fact that we sang in eight different languages, including Hebrew. At this time, the “Friends of Sine Nomine Singers” scheme was set up, as a way of encouraging audience members to support the choir, and rewarding their support with a small discount on ticket prices and advance information about concerts and other social events.

In October 2000 we performed “An Evening with Wolfgang” – a concert of works by Mozart, at the United Reformed Church in Ickenham. There was an excellent turnout, although it was suggested that this might have been due to the fact that the new vicar was being welcomed in the hall behind and was his name perhaps Wolfgang? It was a really good evening including excellent instrumental offerings that thrilled audience and choir alike, in particular a violin sonata played by Kahae Han - a winner of the BBC Radio 2 Young Musician of the Year Award, and a piano sonata played by Danny Driver - Rebecca’s husband. At the time Danny was a Junior Fellow at the Royal College of Music and would go on to take first prize in the Radio 2 Young Musician of the Year competition in 2001. He also generously performed, accompanied the choir and sang with us when needed throughout Rebecca’s time as conductor.

Our main concert of the season was an epic performance of Bach’s “B Minor Mass” in St Martin’s Church, Ruislip, in April 2001 – a huge undertaking for the choir, in which our numbers were supplemented by hunting down willing recruits from other local choirs. The Amici Singers in Harrow provided the largest contingent, and we couldn’t have done it without them. The work was performed with members of Rebecca’s orchestra: The New Professionals, and some excellent young soloists. We obtained sponsorship from several local businesses that helped to offset the considerable costs of an event of that size and complexity, and thanks to massive efforts by members of the choir to publicise the concert, and the popularity of the work, we had an enormous audience.

We needed to move with the times, and early in 2001 the partner of one of our members offered to set up and host a web site for the choir, which was gratefully accepted. In November that year, to commemorate the victims of 9/11, we performed Duruflé’s “Requiem” at the United Reformed Church in Ickenham, where the mezzo-soprano solo was sung by our conductor, Rebecca, also an accomplished singer.

The most memorable concert of 2002 was a performance of Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” in December, at St. Lawrence Church, Eastcote, sung in German, with soloists from the Royal Academy and Royal College of Music, and The New Professionals. The tenor originally booked let us down, but his last-minute replacement, Norbert Meyn, sang the ‘narrator’ rôle superbly in his native language. This brought in a good audience, and the atmosphere in the concert was further enhanced by a wonderful selection of Christmas cakes and biscuits, not to mention the heady fumes of about 10 gallons of mulled wine!

As ever, we were trying to think of new ways to boost the choir’s funds, so in early January 2003 we were booked for a day at Legoland in Windsor to sing carols in the bandstand, while our younger family members enjoyed the attractions and the snow.

The season ended in June with the summer supper concert: “A Mouthful of Madrigals”, again with Danny Driver on the piano and a talented young violinist, Clara Biss. This was our last concert with Rebecca, who had resigned, due happily to an increasing number of professional conducting engagements. She subsequently became the American Conducting Fellow of the Houston Symphony Orchestra, and Resident Conductor of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra.

After auditioning several candidates, we were very pleased to welcome Helen Vickery as our new conductor, having worked with her on a number of occasions in the past. Although continuing to rehearse at All Saints Church in the small parish hall, we had not given a concert in the church for some time, despite it having the best acoustics in the district, because we found it difficult to attract a local audience. The newly inducted vicar was keen for us to perform there, so we decided to sing Handel's ever popular “Messiah”. The performance four weeks before Christmas 2003 was very exciting, lit partly by candlelight, and supported with excellent soloists and an orchestra brought together by Helen. The church was was full, and the audience enjoyed it very much, helped along by mince pies and mulled wine. That year we also joined with the All Saints Church choir for their service of Nine Lessons and Carols, and have done so on several occasions since.

The dates for the season’s concerts had been planned well in advance when Helen took over as conductor. We did, however, feel obliged to move the date of our spring 2004 concert so as not to clash with her wedding! Concerts the following season included Bach’s”Magnificat” and Rutter’s “Requiem”. In the latter we were fortunate to have our soprano Elaine Bennington’s talented family performing with us: Sarah (flute), Katie (oboe) and Jack (percussion).

For the summer supper concert in June 2005 we gave a rousing and semi-costumed finale of a medley from “Oklahoma”, accompanied by the brilliant young pianist Jessica Chan, who had earlier performed two solo pieces. This went down so well with audience and choir, that the format has been repeated ever since, and Jessica has returned every year to great acclaim. The Oklahoma medley was then repeated as part of a “Voices for Hospices” concert given at the Beck Theatre in Hayes in October.

Early in December we gave a concert with The Hillingdon Girl Singers again, who provided the gallery choir and the ‘boy’ soloists for “St. Nicolas”, a cantata by Benjamin Britten. This was very well received by the audience, a large part of which was made up of families of the girls, which as usual boosted the numbers.

In April 2006 we performed Elgar’s “The Music Makers” with mezzo soprano Deborah Davison, a member of the English National Opera chorus and occasional soloist with ENO.

In a quest to try performing in new venues, or ones that we hadn’t sung in for many years, the concert in November was held in Pinner Parish Church. 2006 was the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth, and our contribution to the worldwide celebrations was a Mozart evening with the “Requiem” as the main work. We had an excellent small orchestra and soloists. This proved to be a good place to perform: it was a sympathetic acoustic to sing and play in, and we attracted some local support as well as our loyal regular audience.

One of Helen’s many contacts is the young composer Bernard Hughes, and the following March we performed a programme including his recent work “Missa Sancti Michaelis”, with an organ reduction of the orchestral score. Bernard Hughes was in the audience, and was very complimentary about our rendition.

Our longest-singing member, bass David Collier, who was one of the founding members of the choir in 1958, was nominated by the choir for his outstanding contribution to local music-making, and was presented with an award by Hillingdon Arts Association at the Civic Centre in June 2007.

At the end of the summer, the choir was invited by the villagers of Sigy-en-Bray in France to stay for a weekend, to take part in the village festival. This was arranged by one of our altos, Sue Thackray, who has a cottage there. We sang a large selection of French, English and Latin items to a packed and very appreciative audience in the village church, who responded with magnificent hospitality.

In December 2007, our new (and current) website went online, reflecting the improvements in software for web design since the site was set up.

2008 was the Golden Jubilee year of Sine Nomine Singers, and we marked the occasion with a 50th Anniversary Concert in October, once again in All Saints Church as the first concert had been held there and it coincided with the 75th anniversary of the foundation of the church. Many people with a past association with the choir were invited, and some former members joined us for a memorable performance of Haydn’s “Creation”, with excellent soloists and orchestra. The occasion was marked by an exhibition in the parish hall recalling 50 years of the choir with many interesting programmes and photographs from the archives plus the customary refreshments and a wonderful cake.  We look forward to our next 25 years.