Bringing the big society together to celebrate the best in music

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In addition to a thriving rock and indie scene, there’s another musical revolution going on in our town. The Royal Tunbridge Wells Choral Society brings amateur and professional singers and musicians together in celebration of quality classical music. To find out more about our culture, we sat down with publicity manager Melissa Richards and chairman Alan Spencer…

Tell us about how you got involved with the society
Melissa: I’ve enjoyed singing with choirs since I was little, so when I moved to Tunbridge Wells just over two years ago, it was a good way to get involved in the local community and get to know people. I used to sing with choirs when I lived in London, as well as throughout university and school, it’s always been something I’ve really enjoyed. I joined at a time when the previous publicity officer had stepped down; I had a background in marketing and publicity, so got more heavily involved than I’d ever intended, but have very happily done so!

Alan: I joined in 1973 or 1974. I sang in London with the Alexandre Choir and sang in a choir at university and school. For some reason I got elected as chairman a few months ago – I’m not quite sure whether I did the right thing or not! There’s a lot of work involved because it’s quite a big society.

How many members do you have?
Melissa: About 100 – it varies but we’ve normally got anything from 80 to 100 people onstage at a concert, so it’s a big society. It could be a full-time job for all of us! All of us on the choir committee are volunteers, so it’s all our spare time, which some of us have more or less of than others!

Are you largely professional or amateur?
Melissa: It’s all amateur; you don’t have to audition to join. I’d like to think we have a good standard and we want to make it as accessible as possible to anybody who wants to give it a go.

Alan: We occasionally hire one or two semi-professional people if we feel we need it.

Melissa: Our music director Rebecca Miller is professional and we have a wonderful professional accompanist, so we’re very fortunate to have the core and professionals. We hire our own orchestra, most of whom are semi-professional musicians as well. We want to put on good quality concerts, which means we have to be good enough and there’s a cost that goes with it.

Which venues do you perform in?
Melissa: We tend to have three to four concerts a year, one or two at the Assembly Hall, then a Christmas concert, which, for the last two years, we’ve done at St Mary’s Church in Goudhurst. We’ve also done concerts in Holmewood House School – we tend to do one slightly smaller one, purely because of the cost of putting them on, otherwise it’s just too much.

Where do you get your funding?
Alan: We used to get grants and even had an Arts Council grant at one time, but that has all disappeared. We don’t get anything from Tunbridge Wells Borough Council.

Melissa: We get a community rate at the Assembly Hall, it’s slightly less to hire it and advertise with them, but we don’t get any grants direct from the borough council. We fund ourselves through membership fees, ticket sales and fundraising and have some very generous and well appreciated friends and patrons of the society. We’ve also been kindly remembered with legacies and recently have been fortunate enough to build a relationship with various sponsors, so we have advertising through our programmes as well.

Who are some of your sponsors?
Melissa: Our main one at the moment is Burfields House Wealth Management in Goudhurst, who we’re working closely with to evolve our partnership, see how we can work with them and see what we can do a bit differently. We’re looking to approach more local businesses and philanthropists, appreciating that people want to get more out of this kind of partnership. There are things we can do for them and they can do for us. It’s challenging, but we’re doing all right – we’re still here 100-plus years later!

What kind of challenges do you face?
Alan: In the past, we were incredibly traditional, playing all the big classical, choral works, but as we look forward, we’re looking at branching out and widening our repertoire. We try and attract listeners who aren’t necessarily classical, choral people, so one challenge is to try and widen the attractiveness of what we’re doing.

Melissa: We’re very lucky to have a very loyal audience, but it’s challenging trying to get people to try something new. We’ve been trying to branch out into social media and we’re broadening our repertoire, while still trying to remain true to who we are and what we do, without treading on anybody else’s toes. There are many other musical organisations in the area who we’re happy to work with to see how we can attract different audiences.

In what ways do you go about that?
Alan: Partnering with schools and colleges is very important. Personally, as chairman, I want to encourage that and do more with that if we can – attracting younger people to take part will broaden our attraction for the younger generations.

Is it a struggle to fill seats?
Alan: The biggest obstacle is maximising ticket sales. We try and get as many sold through the choir members themselves as we can. Tickets are sold by the Assembly Hall when we put a concert on there but they charge commission, so we don’t get the same return. That’s always a challenge – we set a target of four tickets per member. If we achieve that, we’ve automatically got 400 people in the audience. Not everyone’s able to do that unfortunately, but that’s the message.

Melissa: We know we can sell tickets, it’s just how many times a year you can ask people to do that. It’s a personal taste, so it’s a struggle trying to find the right repertoire to challenge members as well. We do liaise with the choral societies from neighbouring towns and villages and in this area there’s a nice support for that kind of thing, which is great.

Alan: On one or two occasions, we actually filled the whole Assembly Hall. It’s an incredible feeling when it’s absolutely packed, but to try and get 800 or 900 people for every concert is a real challenge.

How do you find managing unpaid volunteers?
Melissa: We’re incredibly lucky that we have a very dedicated committee. Even those that aren’t on it care a lot about the choir and we have some people who do a lot of work behind the scenes anyway. We’ve got people who are willing to put those hours in, but it’s a challenge and it’s not easy finding people willing to give up their time and energy.

Alan: In the past, we had people who had grown old in their jobs. We didn’t get much of a turnover of people on the committee, which I don’t think is a particularly good thing, as it can get a bit distant from the rest of the membership. What I love at the moment is the fact a lot of young people are involved and there’s a great connection between the committee and the rest of the choir.

What are your thoughts on Tunbridge Wells culture in general?
Alan: I would say we’re flourishing. I think there’s far more going on in Tunbridge Wells on the culture side and a bigger variety of things than there has been. Culturally, it’s pretty alive.

Melissa: One of the reasons I wanted to move here was the fact that there’s lots going on. It’s a great place for music, art and theatre.

Has the recession had an impact on the society at all?
Alan: Something we have to be very mindful of when we set the ticket prices is to make sure we don’t price people out. Prices have had to go up over the years, but you’re always mindful that you mustn’t set them too high or you’ll frighten people off when they haven’t got the money.

Melissa: We were as sensitive as we could be with ticket pricing, we did freeze them for several years. It’s only been in the last year or two we’ve put them up a tiny bit. At the end of the day, costs do increase and you do have to tread that fine line to see where it is. We always want to try and get people in to experience live music because it’s completely different to listening to a recording. It’s just trying to encourage people to come along and try it.

Alan: Tunbridge Wells clearly hasn’t been hit by the recession as badly as some other places. It’s a horrendously prosperous town, so unless you’re charging outrageous ticket prices, the people who are really interested will come. But you’ve got to be realistic; even if we sold 900 tickets, the cost is so high and the Assembly Hall is a very expensive place to put things on, so it’s always a challenge to actually meet those costs. That’s why we need the other bits of funding, so the bottom line is that you end up OK.

Where do you see it all going in the future?
Melissa: It’s very important that we remain true to who we are, but we do want to make sure we are attracting those new audiences and new members. One of the things we’re very proud of is being part of Tunbridge Wells; that’s something very important to us and it’s at our core. We just want to make sure that getting involved and really being a part of the community, lifeblood and cultural richness that is Tunbridge Wells is part of our DNA.

Alan: I would very much like to see the age profile of the membership continue to go down and to get more and more young people in to sing with us in the choir. I definitely want to strengthen our links with schools and we must always strive for the best standard that we can produce – being disciplined in the way we rehearse and present ourselves onstage. We must always strive to be as good as we possibly can be and produce a quality product at the end of the day.

RTWCS’ musical director Rebecca Miller talks about the upcoming performance of St Matthew Passion

Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the great works of art of all time. Bach’s music in general is timeless, continually reminding us of the fragility of the human existence and the incredible achievements possible through hard work and perseverance. I have waited many years for an opportunity to do the piece, and am relishing being a part of recreating this incredible piece of music.

You are performing with the London Handel Orchestra, which uses period instruments – why?
My job as a conductor is to try to get inside the head of the composer to attempt to convey his/her intentions with my gestures, through the musicians and to the audience. Music doesn’t exist until we recreate it, and we are continually attempting to reproduce the art in its purest form. Realising that the piece of music will inevitably be unique each time because the circumstances of any one performance can never be completely replicated, I feel it is our duty to get as close to the composer’s intentions as possible. We now have the knowledge, access to instruments, and incredibly skilled players to perform the piece on original instruments, so why not try?

What can the audience expect from this concert?
To get ‘up close’ to Bach and the St Matthew Passion. In a groundbreaking change to our concert format, we will dispense with the stage, and the choir and orchestra will be in close proximity to each other and the audience. It is my aim for people to experience this emotionally-charged and highly human piece of music not at a distance, behind glass, but up close – so the impact can be felt by everyone in the room.

What else do you do when you aren’t with the RTWCS?
Well, I wish I could say I sit and stare at the wall…. A few days a week you’ll find me at work at Royal Holloway University as director of orchestral activities, on Saturdays I teach and conduct at the Royal Academy of Music’s junior department, other times I guest conduct orchestras around the UK, or work with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. If I’m not at any of those places, I’m generally at home, hard at work with my favourite, most difficult, but most important job of all – playing with and raising my two young children!


SPONSORSHIP Burfields House Wealth

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