The Boys’ Choir: A History of Excellence and Enjoyment
~ Arts Centre Origins: The Arts Centre Boys’ Choir was established in 1985. Highly respected singing teacher Clifton Cook was approached by Chris Doig and his first wife, Jane Doig to fill the space for a boys-only choir separate from school or church choirs.. The choir quickly made a huge impression on the Christchurch music scene with stand-alone concerts and performances with the CSO and Canterbury Opera. Clifton’s energy, enthusiasm, direction and passion for the treble boy’s voice were key factors in its initial success. “There is no sound like it on Earth: sweet yet haunting with a tonal edge that cuts through any musical texture and grabs at the human consciousness”, a report on the choir once said.
~ A New Era: In 1990, after Clifton became unwell, another of his former pupils and a conductor for the Christchurch Schools Music Festival – Charles Levings – was asked to become the new conductor. The approach was made by choir manager Margaret Davidson who was later credited for keeping the choir afloat during this transition period, when numbers were down to 14 and rehearsals were held in her lounge! During this period the choir became attached to the Christchurch School of Music (CSM), an arrangement that lasted for a number of years. Charles set in place many of the current traditions of the choir: achieving a balance between formality and friendliness, keeping the repertoire varied, establishing camps, workshops and tours as a way of bonding and achieving higher musical goals. Like Clifton Cook before him, Charles continued to choose boys on sheer voice quality and sought to nurture a passion for singing. He said boys who wanted to sing needed a “like-minded, supportive, peer environment where singing was valued and encouraged.”
~ Touring, Fundraising, Performing In 1992, Charles felt the boys were ready for the challenge of a tour. With a now-established choir committee they headed south to Queenstown’s Winter Festival. He recalls the boys singing Mozart’s ‘Alleluia’ at dusk in minus-five degrees with frozen mountains and Lake Wakatipu as a backdrop. “The boys froze and we could hear nothing but teeth chattering while waiting for their debut!” There have been many other camps and trips over the years - around New Zealand, to Australia and even Japan where the boys represented Christchurch at the 25th Sister City Anniversary celebrations in Kurashiki. The choir sung with many high-profile groups including the Vienna Boys Choir. These memorable events have been made possible through the combined efforts of the music teams, parents, friends and committee members. Over the years, this has included the likes of Sharyn Hay and Susan Frost who brought additional musical expertise into the mix. Uniforms have been created, books kept as well as tours and concerts funded and planned. A particularly impressive effort in 1994 saw $9,000 raised through the sale of a half container-load of soap!
~ More Musical Masters: When Charles stepped down in 1995, Harry Abbenhuis conducted the choir for a year before handing over to Andrew Withington – signaling the start of what was to be a new and memorable era. Andrew was at the helm for the 1998 Japan trip, CD recordings and the 1999 Trinity College Bronze Choral Assessment. Choir archives note that Andrew continued to grow the musical standard of the choir to international levels, conveying to the boys “a depth of technical expertise” and exceptional musicianship. (Not to mention more camps, workshops and eight or nine concerts a year!)
Other conductors have dedicated energy and enthusiasm to the choir since Andrew’s departure in 2004. Chris Bruerton (now with the King’s Singers in London) says: “Succeeding someone of Andrew’s calibre and reputation, witnessed first-hand, was no small task.” However after four successful years with the CBC, Chris recalls that seeing the boys continue to enjoy singing was extremely satisfying. “The idea that I, along with the many other musical influences in their lives, contributed to their love of singing is what I cherish the most.” Charles returned to assist the choir amid all the uncertainties of the “post-quake” era. It is also notable that three other conductors in the past decade have all been former choristers. Thomas Woodfield, Joshua McGirr and Will Frost have all taken up the baton, sharing their energy and passion for singing and musicianship.
~ Accompanist extraordinaire: Charles Levings once said accompanists are a rare breed. No history of the choir (however abbreviated) could go without mentioning the incredible dedication of 17-year CBC “accompanying veteran” Margot Hogwood. Margot was an exceptional accompanist but realised quickly the role also involved being a ‘mother figure’ for the boys- helping knot ties and orgnanise events. She attempted to retire many times but was called back on several occasions – finally handing over in 2011.
~ Strong traditions: The Boys’ Choir has welcomed close to 500 boys in its 30 years. They have grown up to do all sorts of things with their lives from musical careers to becoming an All-Black and contributing in all manner of professions. In 1996, Clifton Cook’s sister Nathalie Bothwick wrote to the boys to thank them for singing beautifully to him at the Nurse Maude Hospital. “Clifton believed there was a singer in everybody,” she said. “He always strove for perfection…. but he’s always said it is impossible for someone to sing well if they do not enjoy it.” The Christchurch Boys’ Choir is known for excellence and enjoyment. It’s provided an opportunity for talented boys to come together, and achieve magnificent things through a powerful mix of singing, fun and adventure.