60 years of Helensburgh Oratorio

Margaret Hastings, Treasurer for the Helensburgh Oratorio Choir, tells us how their group organised their Diamond Jubilee concert.

Susannah Wapshott, our Music Director (MD), wanted to do something big for our 60th anniversary concert – something with a large choir and an orchestra of around 60. Well, that was certainly ambitious – none of our regular venues, or nowhere else in the surrounding area for that matter would be able to take 120 singers and 60+ orchestra. If we wanted to make this happen, it would have to be 20 miles east in Glasgow. But would people travel? And what about the costs? So began 18 months of detailed planning and fundraising to put on a large event by a leisure-time choir.

By November 2023 we had settled on Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony, but we couldn’t book Glasgow City Halls in advance because the Scottish Symphony Orchestra had priority on date choice. We ended up with the school holiday weekend in February 2024. A quick calculation for venue costs, hiring a professional orchestra and soloist fees decreed that we would need a budget of £25,000. From our healthy reserves we allocated £10,000 towards our Jubilee Fund – then the fundraising work started.

'A Sea Symphony is a huge piece of music, and a really challenging work for the choir. We thought that in our 60th anniversary year we really need to push ourselves and take us out of our comfort zone and do something different.' - Alicia Tindal, Chair of Helensburgh Oratorio Choir

We had the usual art sale, quiz night and generous donations from members and friends. Luckily, we also had three experienced ‘grant-seekers’ who started applying for funding bids from various grant-awarding bodies, which made for a couple of very intense weeks of form-filling, followed by three months waiting on the results. We were awarded five of the seven grants we applied for receiving, receiving £10,575 (all but one went towards our Jubilee concert – and the other one went towards our December performance of Messiah in memory of Walter Blair, a previous MD).

In this era of social media and tailored PR, we focused on getting our message out - fortunately we have a member with experience in this area. We paid for an advertorial in The Herald ahead of the concert, which ensured two weeks of digital advertising to a vast readership. We also partnered with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) as they are celebrating their 200th anniversary year with a special campaign – quite thematically appropriate considering our song choice - and collected donations on their behalf on the day.

And so, on 18 February we marked our 60th birthday with a spectacular concert. We were joined by Dunblane-based choir the Rosenethe Singers, professional soloists Lee Bissett and David Stout, and an orchestra consisting of members from the Scottish Opera and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

music director and performers stand on stage after the concert

MD Susannah Wapshott, soloists David Stout and Lee Bisset, with joint choir and orchestra

Besides the main attraction of A Sea Symphony, Williams’ rarely-performed masterpiece dating from somewhere between 1903-1909, we also had the premieres of Aileen Sweeney’s Breathing Place arranged for orchestra (originally composed for us for the Adopt a Composer 2019/20 project - first performed in 2021 due to pandemic restrictions) and Derek Clark’s So Long at the Fair.

For our members, the experience of performing in a great music venue, singing with an additional choir, having to really watch our MD as you couldn’t rely on the usual acoustic of other parts and singing with a large orchestra will remain with us for many years. The feedback has been excellent, from audience, performers and funding bodies. Though we didn't get many of our usual audience, we did get a new one and an enhanced reputation.

Find out more about the Helensburgh Oratorio Choir on their website and follow them on X (Twitter) / Facebook.

Listen to Breathing Place on SoundCloud.