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West Sussex Philharmonic Choir

West Sussex Philharmonic Choir

Published on 1st December 2021


The West Sussex Philharmonic Choir, Horsham’s leading choral society for more than 40 years, performed its first concert under new Musical Director Sean Bui in November.

Joining the 60-strong choir to sing Haydn’s ‘The Creation’ at St Mary’s Church was a trio of professional soloists, including soprano Elin Manahan Thomas, who performed at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Other soloists were bassist Robert Davis, whose has performed at La Scala and sang with the RPO at the world premiere of ‘Blitz Requiem’ at St Paul’s Cathedral, and tenor Mark Bradbury, who as well as performing at Glyndebourne and in European Voices under Sir Simon Rattle, is well-known locally for his involvement in choirs and singing groups, such as Little Notes.

For Suzanne Gates, Chair of WSPC, the concert was a welcome return to singing after the challenges of lockdown. “What I love about the choir is that it brings together people from all walks of life, creating the most fantastic sound. I joined when my children were little, as it felt good to be a part of something that was very different to the rest of my life. Singing has always been a thrill and even more so after what’s happened in the past year and a half.”

“We are fortunate to be guided by two fine professionals in Sean and David Moore, our talented pianist. The concerts also give us the opportunity to perform with professional soloists and orchestral musicians. As amateur singers, it’s exciting to work with people who you’ve heard on the radio or seen performing at prestigious venues.” 

New Direction

As the choir finds its feet again after a period of disruption (numbers have nearly recovered to pre-pandemic levels, with about 65 active members) it finds itself heading in a new direction under Sean Bui.Sean studied at Royal Holloway in London and was later Composer in Residence at the private chapel of Her Majesty the Queen, at All Saints Chapel in Windsor Great Park. He was appointed Assistant Music Director there the following year. He co-founded Quire Voices, who have featured on Classic FM alongside The Band of the Household Cavalry, and as a soloist has performed major works including Mozart’s ‘Requiem’ and sung at the Royal Albert Hall. 

As well as working with WSPC, Sean is Musical Director of several other choral societies and an Assistant Director of a church choir. He draws on his studies at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama to be an inspiring teacher, focusing on vocal techniques. Sean said: “Singing is a form of escapism, where you can leave everything else in your life behind you for a brief time and concentrate on music. In terms of its mental health benefits, there’s nothing like it, and that’s why coming to The Barn every Tuesday evening is important for members. They have fun and it feels good!”

“My job is to improve all elements of the choir, but it needs to be fun. It’s like being a football manager, in that you’re always looking at where improvements can be made, trying to get people to be the best they can be.”“When it comes to concerts, there is only about 12 weeks of rehearsals, which isn’t much. Ideally, people practise at home too, but that’s not always possible. So my job is to focus on those aspects of the performance that need more work, to bring the whole choir together, and I’m fortunate to have a brilliant accompanist in David, who helps make it happen.”

Although Sean only started working with the choir in September, his fresh approach is already making a difference, says Suzanne. “Sean is very encouraging, yet also has great knowledge of techniques. During lockdown, some of us have been able to meet and sing online, but that’s not the case for everyone and some members haven’t sung for 18 months. So Sean has been gently bringing out the best in us individually and encouraging us not to be too self-conscious. He’s been like a breath of fresh air.”

Sacred Music

Now in its 43rd season, the choir was founded by amateur singers Laurie Carcas and Dr John Dew, who is perhaps better known for his association with Horsham Cricket Club, where he was captain for a decade and President for 47 years. 

The Barn on the Causeway has long been used for rehearsals, while St Mary’s offers a beautiful space for concerts, with a Father Willis organ that complements sacred music. As well as singing some of the best known choral works in the classical repertoire (Bach’s ‘Mass’, Handel’s ‘Messiah’, Faure’s ‘Requiem’ etc) the choir is reaching a younger audience by featuring more contemporary works too.

Suzanne said: “At our last concert before lockdown, we sang works by Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo and contemporary American composer Morten Lauridsen. In 2022, we will sing Karl Jenkins’ ‘The Armed Man’ with a full orchestra to do it justice. We are hosting a full day choral workshop on ‘The Armed Man’ in February too. Local people can join in and sing something they may be familiar with and that could lead to some new members. Anyone with an interest in singing a wide ranging repertoire in good company is welcome to join in and I promise, it’s truly life enhancing!”

Feel the Bass

Like many mixed choirs, there is an imbalance in terms of male and female members. But what the tenors and basses lack in number, they make up for in voice, combining beautifully with the sopranos and altos to create a choir in harmony. This stands the WSPC in good stead for a busy 2022 programme. Hot on the heels of ‘The Creation’, the choir will sing Christmas carols at The Barn on Saturday 10 December (2.30pm). It will then begin rehearsing for a spring concert, to include ‘The Armed Man’ and another Haydn piece, ‘Mass in a Time of War’. 

For the first time in 20 years, the WSPC will perform a summer concert too, in celebration of Her Majesty the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. Music will have a Royal theme, with Handel’s ‘Coronation Anthem (Zadok the Priest)’ and Parry’s ‘I Was Glad’ in the programme. The 150th anniversary of the birth of Ralph Vaughan Williams will be recognised too, with the choir performing his ‘Five Mystical Works’. Then next autumn, St Mary’s will be the setting for Brahms’ ‘Requiem’.   

“As a committee, we openly discuss which works we will perform,” says Sean. “Because I’m involved in different choirs, I draw on my own experience, but others offer opinions too. ‘The Creation’ was a nice, manageable piece for us to perform this year as we become accustomed to singing together again. I’m sure there will be plenty of enthusiasm for ‘The Armed Man’ as it’s often played on Classic FM and is a beautiful piece of work.”

“Brahms’ ‘Requiem’ is a German mass in which the choir sings for the majority of the time. It would have been too bold to perform it after nearly two years away, but by next autumn, I’ve no doubt we will be ready. That will also be at St Mary’s, which has great acoustics. The music washes over the audience and it’s a privilege for us all to perform there.” 


Further information: www.westsussexphilharmonicchoir.org.uk