Chester Male Voice Choir: 80th Anniversary 1941 - 2021

The Festivals

The twice yearly Festival Concerts of Chester Male Voice Choir have been a major feature of the Chester musical scene since 1948. All the Festival Concerts are listed in chronological order in this section. Scroll down to see the full chronological list. Full details of the concerts are shown - i.e. day, date, title, venue and artistes taking part.

In 1948, seven years after the Choir was formed, a chance meeting in South Wales was to result in the future shaping of the character and stature of the Choir. Fred Warren was visiting a family in the Swansea area when he attended a male voice choir concert and was introduced to the guest soloist. Bruce Dargavel, a fine Welsh bass baritone, was the Bryn Terfel of his day and was not only principal singer with Sadlers Wells but also was extremely popular throughout the land through his regular B.B.C. broadcast each Sunday morning on the "Silver Chords" programme.

With an eye to furthering the standing of the Cestrian Male Voice Choir in the world of music Fred decided there and then to invite him to appear in Chester in concert with the Choir. Bruce Dargavel accepted the invitation and as Fred travelled back to Chester, several thoughts must having been running around his head - not least the thought that he had never organised a concert for such a notable celebrity before. However he had no doubts that the Choir would rise to the occasion. Central Hall, the Choir’s rehearsal home, was the obvious place to hold the concert and sure enough Fred’s enthusiasm rallied everyone to organise the event.

The First Festival

Bruce Dargavel

The First Festival

The date was set and on Wednesday 16th March 1949 The Cestrian Male Voice Choir presented their first Grand Concert! Over five hundred people, no doubt at that time, attracted by the celebrity of Bruce Dargavel packed the hall. As proclaimed in the Cheshire Observer published on 12th March that year - tickets were "3/6d each, obtainable from Rushworth and Draper Ltd., Foregate Street, Chester, and all Choir members."

Also appearing in that first concert was tenor Peter W. Davies, a National Eisteddfod winner and also a B.B.C. broadcaster, - and the Blue Coat Prize Band. Gwen Lupton the Choir’s accompanist at that time also accompanied the guest artistes - that night the Choir’s very first offering at a ‘festival’ concert was Myfanwy.

The concert was a great success and received glowing praise in the Cheshire Observer the following week. Of the Choir the reviewer said, "The Choir is now welded into a very competent body, thanks to the conscientious training of its conductor Mr. H.P.F. Warren, and is singing well."

Bruce Dargavel was delighted with the concert and suggested that they should stage another similar concert in the Autumn of that year, in fact he suggested that it should become a regular twice-yearly feature of the feature of the Chester music scene. He became a great friend and mentor of Fred in particular and the Choir in general. He did in fact appear in the second Grand Concert on October 19th that year but on this occasion he brought with him as his accompanist, the celebrated Maelor Richards who then became the accompanist for the guest artistes for the next 40 concerts, until the March concert of 1969!

In fact it was Bruce Dargavel who, later, suggested that the name ‘Festival’ concerts should be adopted. He appeared in no less than five festivals until his final appearance in Chester in October 1956. Even then his association with the Choir did not end because of his family’s connection with International Music Ltd., the agency who provided the famous artistes for the Festival concerts over the next 35 years or so.

Since that first Grand Concert in March 1949 the Choir has continued the tradition of two main concert presentations in the Spring and Autumn of each year to this very day. This series of concerts has come to be known as "The Festivals."

In October 1951, to satisfy demand, the concerts were extended to a two-night (Wednesday and Thursday) formula and this continued until early March 1955. Then in the early Autumn of that year, the Choir discovered, to its amazement, that tickets for the two-night Festival had sold out 6 weeks before actual October Festival and that there was a long waiting list for tickets. Consequently, following an emergency meeting it was decided to extend the October l955 Festival to three nights to accommodate the 1300 people who wished to attend. This new three night (Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday) formula was so popular that it continued unchanged for the next 25 years. Over this period of time the Central Hall was packed to its limits for every performance.

In these years the Cestrian Male Voice Choir Festival Concerts were the highlight of the musical scene in Chester. Audiences came from all over the Cheshire and North Wales area. In City Road on a Festival concert night it was normal to see several coaches arriving and later picking up their passengers. Tickets were sold out weeks before the concert. At each of these Festival concerts a local civic or other prominent dignitary would be in the audience as the guest of honour invited by the Choir.

The Festival Service

In March 1957 the ‘Festival Service’ was introduced. This church service held in the Central Hall on the Sunday preceding the concerts, soon became an integral part of the Festival concert week attracting large congregations and ministers of all denominations from all over the world.

During these years the Choir continued to bring artistes of tremendous standing to appear in the city. The great and famous names of the day from the world of Opera shared the concert platform with the Choir. A glance at the list of artistes is enough to recognize the names of many principal singers of the Royal Covent Garden, Glyndebourne, and Sadlers Wells Operas. Several came back for return visits. After Maelor Richard’s last Festival performance as the accompanist to the artistes this role was soon adopted by John Wilson who is still the guest accompanist to this day.

The Choir, at this time, continued to build up its singing numbers and of course its reputation. Their repertoire changed from festival to festival and the audience appreciated not only their singing but also the sense of fellowship that surrounded the Choir.

One feature of the concerts in these days was the Choir finale. The Rev. George Artingstall, the then Choir chaplain, was the architect of many of these extravaganzas and after he left the tradition was carried on by Fred Warren and his band of helpers. The finale was usually chosen to mark some special occasion and the Choir’s final item of the Concert was staged with lighting, sound and scenic effects. Memories are evoked of royal photographs and emblems, waterfalls, paddle steamers and many other theatrical effects.

Leaving Central Hall

In October 1981 the last Festival concert took place in Central Hall. Faced with structural problems and increasing repair costs the decision was taken to close the church and, sadly, shortly afterwards it was demolished. The Central Hall had been the home for 66 Festivals - a total of 179 separate concerts - between March 1949 and October 1981. Fred Warren had conducted the Choir in every one of these concerts as well as the associated Sunday Festival Services.

Finding a replacement for the Central Hall was not easy. Even to this day Chester lacks a purpose built concert hall. The choice of the Northgate Arena as a replacement venue was not, in the event, the right choice. This large austere sports hall did not lend itself to the atmosphere of the Festival Concerts. The audiences were not comfortable, the artistes were not relaxed and the Choir could not generate the warm sound that they were noted for. After five one-night Festivals the decision was made to transfer the Festival Concerts to the Town Hall where they have since mainly remained.

However the continuity of the three night festival had been lost and so, unfortunately, had many of the regular audience, and the festivals were reduced to two nights and then in 1995 reverted to a one night format. Only occasionally now do finances make a two night festival a viable option. Nevertheless the Festivals have continued successfully at the Town Hall and more recently Chester Cathedral and the Choir still continues to bring artistes of great reputation to the Chester concert platform.

Facts and figures

Over 200 different guest artistes have appeared on the Festival stage with the Choir, including Bruce Dargavel, Gwen Catley, Ian Wallace, Inia Te Wiata, Gwen Davies, Stuart Burrows, Rita Hunter, Sir Geraint Evans, Valerie Masterson, Vernon and Maryetta Midgley, Raimund Herincx and Bryn Terfel, Katherine Jenkins, Maria Friedman and Sir Willard White. Some of these appearing several times and others making their first and only appearance in Chester. In May 2011 as the Choir celebrated its 70th anniversary the 125th Festival Concert took place at Chester Town Hall highlighting the fact that the Choir’s twice yearly Festival Concerts have been a major significant feature of the Chester music scene for all those years.

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