Londonderry Music Society 50th Anniversary

The voluntary organisation encourage young and old to get involved

It’s nearing the end of rehearsals, and the Londonderry Musical Society’s latest new recruit, musical director Ben McGonigle, is getting to grips with the final pieces in the programme for their upcoming Showstoppers concerts. 'I’ve never tried directing a musical theatre choir before,' says McGonigle, 'but it’s really exciting – and I’m looking forward to the concerts.'

McGonigle embodies a trend common in one of the Maiden City’s best known voluntary musical groups – that for every newly discovered, talented artist that moves on, there’s always another one waiting in the wings.

Among the numerous talents that the LMS can claim to have unearthed are Margaret Keys, one of Derry~Londonderry’s most successful singing exports; Kieran Griffiths, who has gone on to tour America; and Helen O’Hare, who continues to perform opera professionally throughout Northern Ireland.

Limavady-based Joanna Higgins, now in her sixth year with the society, has recently produced her own album, Happy Ever After. Her experience performing with the LMS has given her the confidence to go on to do other things.

'I had sung in many different choirs before joining the society,' Higgins says, 'but when I watched the Showstoppers concerts for the first time, I couldn’t wait to get involved myself. For anyone who’s considering joining, it’s a great opportunity to meet new people, perform in front of hundreds across the province, and learn new music.'

Newcomer Shonagh Lyons, who will entertain audiences this year with songs from My Fair Lady and Riverdance as part of the LMS's 50th anniversary concerts, concurs. 'When you’re with the LMS, you’re part of a group of talented people who share your love of singing. And performing in Showstoppers has allowed me to sing musical theatre again, as well as the classical and sacred tunes that I perform in the University Of Ulster choir.'

The LMS annual productions have attracted audiences to theatres in the north west for years, and initial ticket sales for the 50th anniversary show, The King And I, point towards the choir's continuing popularity. The group sought to perform an 'older show' for their anniversary celebrations, according to LMS chair Judith O'Hare, and the Rodgers & Hammerstein’s classic fit the bill.

The King And I is the kind of stylized and dignified work that provides plenty of opportunities, for both adults and children,' adds O'Hare. 'We started bringing children’s choruses into our shows two years ago to get the younger generation involved more. When it comes to encouraging new talent and new audiences for the society, young people are very important.'

As are the Showstoppers performances. On Thursday, November 17, nearly 60 singers, both amateur and professional, will take to the stage in Strabane’s Alley Theatre for the first of four charity concerts. Conceived in 1989, with the aim of providing a stage for young singers in aid of local charities, the Showstoppers concerts have become a mainstay in the LMS’s annual calendar with their combination of West End tunes and popular music.

In recent years, pop songs by Billy Joel, Sting, Elton John and Lionel Richie have been given the LMS treatment, in addition to a series of medleys from musicals. Previous standouts have included numbers from the musicals Chess and Blood Brothers. A version of 'Can’t Help Falling In Love' went down so well with the audience in Limavady High School that the choir were asked to perform it again.

This year’s programme features songs by artists as diverse as Rodgers & Hammerstein, Gilbert & Sullivan, George Gershwin and Bill Haley. Over the years, the concerts have attractive a faithful audience and have raised over £200,000 for various charities.

Nevertheless, the LMS continue to broaden their audience, particularly in this difficult financial climate, and in recent years have staged concerts as far out as Cookstown and Enniskillen. The numbers of singers and actors who want to be involved continues to grow.

'I think there really is no end of wonderful singing and performing in the heart of Derry City, following in the tradition of the Feis,' says O'Hare. 'When we auditioned for The King And I, over 100 children wanted to take part. That illustrates the massive commitment to the arts in the local community.'

The full details of the society’s 50th anniversary celebrations remain a closely guarded secret, although they are hopeful that a high profile West End star will join them for the 25th Showstoppers concert, which coincides with the City Of Culture 2013 year.

For more information on the upcoming concerts and The King & I and forthcoming LMS concerts, visit the LMS website.