Grosvenor Choir at 20

The 40-strong Belfast-based choir celebrates a landmark anniversary with two special performances

It’s a dark, wet Monday evening on the Castlereagh Road in east Belfast, and I’m sitting in a glacially cold vestry room with Edward Craig, director of the Grosvenor Choir. It so happens we are little more than a stone’s throw from where Craig founded the choir 20 years ago, when a pupil at Grosvenor Grammar School.

The story is simply told. Craig joined the school choir at Grosvenor as a whippersnapper, and loved it. The reason why was Ronnie Lee, the inspirational head of music. It has, Craig says, always been difficult to pinpoint why exactly Lee was such a remarkably effective choirmaster.

‘A word that some people would use is he beguiled or bewitched the choir. There was just something about the eyes, the way he could see everybody. Just his real passion for music, he raised his voice very rarely. A lot of detail, but I never remember note-bashing.’

Lee retired at the end of Craig’s fourth year at Grosvenor, leaving a huge void to fill. ‘We’d got such a buzz from the choir,’ explains Craig. ‘We’d experienced so much with concerts, tours and broadcasts. We were so used with having choir every lunchtime in the school that we tended to still congregate there...’

Lee sadly had a short retirement, passing away just 18 months after leaving Grosvenor. It was a time of shock and numbness for his former choristers. Craig recalls the funeral at St Anne’s Cathedral as a ‘very eerie’ experience, with the singers of Grosvenor School and Renaissance, the award-winning adult choir that Lee founded, both in attendance.

Craig – by now an A level music pupil – had been conducting a small chamber choir at Grosvenor, to take Lee’s legacy forward. Lee’s untimely death provided the catalyst for a more permanent tribute to a much loved choirmaster, mentor and educator.

With the blessing of Audrey Lee, Ronnie’s widow, and the support of then Grosvenor headmaster John Lockett, the Grosvenor Former Pupils Choir was born, and gave its first concert on December 30, 1993, to a packed audience in the school assembly hall.

Two decades later the link with Ronnie Lee remains palpable, not least through Edward Craig himself, who continues to conduct Grosvenor, the shortened name the choir is now known by. And although the group now draws most of its membership from beyond Grosvenor school’s ex-pupil community, there are still singers who have been in it from the very beginning.

One such is Peter Turner, whom Edward Craig remembers standing beside at his first school choir rehearsal. Turner was a founder member of Grosvenor, and feels the choir’s inclusive ethos has survived the passing of the years virtually unaltered.

‘Ronnie Lee was just so keen and dedicated,’ Turner remembers. ‘He took boys and girls that didn’t really have any musical training, and gave them a love of singing, just by how excited and involved he was in it.

'And that ethos has stayed the same. It’s to bring people together who love singing. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve a grade eight in music, or you have no grades at all. We make the best sound that we can together.’

Sarah Taylor came to Grosvenor through her mother, who sang in Lee’s choir Renaissance. Her 16 years in Grosvenor have 'flown by', Taylor says, and she is in no doubt what her personal highlights have been during that period.

‘Every single carol service. That’s always the pinnacle of the year for me, it’s so special.’ But there have been other, very different highlights for Grosvenor as the 20th anniversary of the choir’s first concert edges ever closer.

‘Recently my excitement knew no bounds,’ Taylor continues, ‘when we did a Christmas concert for BBC Radio Ulster with the Ulster Orchestra. It was fabulous. There was such a buzz off it, and the orchestra was very, very welcoming to us and very appreciative.’

2013 also brought memorable performances in the ornate surroundings of Parliament Buildings, Stormont, at Ravenhill rugby ground, for the last match at the old stadium before extensive renovations (‘very surreal’ is how Turner describes singing ‘Stand Up For The Ulstermen’), and at the opening ceremony of the World Police and Fire Games in August.

Nothing, however, has been as big an indicator of the sheer quality of singing Grosvenor is now capable of producing as the group’s success in the BBC Radio 3 Choir of the Year competition in 2008, where it was one of six choirs featured in the televised Grand Final at the Royal Festival Hall in London.

‘That was stunning,’ recalls Craig, although he is quick to add that as an experience it was not particularly nerve-wracking. ‘Most of the work is done in rehearsal,’ he clarifies. ‘If you’re really prepared you really enjoy the performance, the detail has been done.’

Getting that detail is the key to successful choral singing, and Craig is adamant that there are no short cuts on the path to excellence. ‘There’s a lot of dedication to it. The key thing in the choir is that it has to be in the top five priorities in their life. And if they’re willing to do that, as long as they can hold a tune in a bucket, we make them into a choir.’

As Grosvenor enters its third decade, Craig’s feeling is that the choir has never sounded better. That, according to Sarah Taylor, is directly attributable to Craig’s own scrupulous musicianship, and the high standards he encourages of his singers in rehearsals.

‘You just don’t want to disappoint Ed. You don’t want to let him down, or let your section down.’ There is ‘homework’ involved too. ‘With the improvement in technology over the years,’ she continues, ‘it’s easier. You can record things you’re practicing and run them over all week on your phone.'

While it’s obvious that the memory of Ronnie Lee is still an inspiration to Grosvenor, there is a sense also that, as the choir enters the second generation of its existence, its identity will continue to change and evolve with the inevitably shifting membership. ‘There’s members of the choir here now who weren’t born when it started,’ as Peter Turner puts it.

The song will, however, almost certainly remain the same. ‘I definitely can see it continuing,’ Taylor concludes. ‘But I really want Ed to get the recognition that it’s his choir now, that we do him proud and carry on doing it.’

Grosvenor Choir perform at the Christians Against Poverty Charity Concert, Willowfield Parish Church on March 14, and BBC Radio Four Morning Worship on March 16.