The concerts were started in 1975 by Mrs Helen Ashworth and arose out of the carol singing she undertook with the Mother’s Union. She remembers that they sang in many local places and the men soon wanted to join in! A concert party evolved with concerts being held in the old school across from St John’s Church in Church Square. These were great fun!!! One incident recalled, involved the piano slowly sliding off its staging whilst Grace Whittam continued to play successfully even with the instrument at an odd angle!! Grace went on to live to over 100 years of age. So it was that on 6th December 1975, Helen took up the conductor’s baton and a choir of around 40 singers, presented the Christmas Cantata ‘Night of Miracles’ by J W Peterson. It was billed as a ‘recent composition which tells of the miraculous incidents surrounding the birth of Our Saviour’.
Over the years a cycle of Peterson cantatas has been performed. In 1975, soloists were Beryl Hargreaves (soprano), AlanBinns (tenor) and Richard Haken (bass/baritone)who at the time had the post office in Worsthorne. He also taught the recorder to young pupils at the day school. Accompanist was .Frank Butterworth and the Narrator, Reverend Tom Ellel. A special guest was Raymond Aspin (bass) who was well known at local music festivals as well as for having sung on BBC Radio. Programme tickets cost 50p (The photograph shows the choir in 1978).
Since 1978 the Concerts have continued in an unbroken sequence. Soloists in 1978 were Raymond Aspin (a regular until 1985), Miss Lesley Cookson, Ken Hollas (baritone) and Peter Maybury (tenor). Peter is also remembered for his monologues, delivered in dialect with him dressed in an old ‘mac.’ and leaning on a sweeping brush. Ken still makes a substantial contribution to the Concerts through his fine solo voice, as a member of our committee, an invaluable music researcher and great source of advice.
The background staff included Selby Chalk and the late David Ashworth. The rehearsals have always had an enjoyable social dimension with a cup of coffee at ‘half time’. In 1991 Helen awarded them the ‘BCCIB’ (Best Cup of Coffee In Burnley) award. Selby can still lay claim to it because he continues to support us, but with an enlarged list—coffee (white/black), tea (with and without), water (warm or cold)–. the choir seem to ensure that the numbers never add up!!
In 1985 the concerts were joined by the talented Diana and the late David Preston. Diana succeeded Jack Leeming on the organ and David put his bass voice to singing, acting as narrator, compère, and delivering wonderful stories and poems always in an appropriate dialect; on one occasion a ghost story with sound effects courtesy of the late Ronnie Greenwood. Together with Helen they developed a junior choir many of whom were in the church choir and who went on to perform some memorable Easter celebrations.
Helen Ashworth remembers that in 1991 some of the junior boys played the role of Roman soldiers. Len Ashworth showed them how to march, under the threat of ‘putting them on a charge’ if they did not get it right! One bright spark enquired if this meant that they would have to pay!! Under David and Diana’s direction a new organ was installed in 1986.
1986 saw a wonderful tenor, Clive Sutton, burst on our scene! Clive has thrilled many audiences both locally and nationally. He is now retired as our ‘Tenor Emeritus’ but we can persuade him to sing occasionally! He is a member of the concert committee.
In 1990 the Concert became a two night event. Helen handed the baton to Derek Bell in 1992 and Philip Mitchell joined the team as accompanist (organ and piano). Dianne Mitchell took over piano in 2005, Philip retired in 2006, and Andrew Mawdsley played the organ. For 2007 we welcome the talented Martin Waterson as our organist.
Other experienced local musicians have joined us in recent years, namely Natalie Cox (flute), Heather Spencer (cello) and Judith Doe (violin). In the past three years, Jim Hoyle (trumpet) has added another dimension to our concerts, not only with his individual pieces but in adding colour and texture to the accompaniment of our choral works. Jim was principal cornet player with the well known Bess O’ the Barns Brass Band. He is now Musical Director of Stacksteads Brass Band.
Paul Jennings has also contributed spoken pieces to the programme (as well percussion from time to time!) along with Mary Steel, who also contributes to the BBC Radio 2 programme ‘Pause for Thought’ on a regular basis. In recent years, regular Concert soloists have included Barrie Sharpley (tenor) formerly with the ‘Uptown Band’, Cathleen Foster (soprano), who regularly appears in musical shows in Burnley & Pendle, Brenda Pemberton (soprano) now retired, and Lauren Brindle (soprano), a graduate of the Basics Theatre Group in Burnley. From 1999-2005 a young Charlotte Rawcliffe (soprano); she retired aged 15 years!
In 2009, Derek Bell passed the baton to Martin Waterson, who continued with the J W Peterson tradition for a little while before introducing some new Cantatas from the composer Joseph Martin. During 2012, the Annual Christmas Concert took a years break to make room for a Jubilee Concert (albeit slightly after the actual Jubilee celebrations in June!). Heading towards the concerts in 2013, the choir bid Dianne Mitchell (accompanist) farewell as she moved to pastures new in the highlands. The choir was without an accompanist, it was a shame that Martin wasn’t able to accompany the choir and conduct the choir at the same time. Solving this problem, the choir purchased a new sound system, which allowed Martin to produce high quality backing tracks, whilst also being able to conduct the choir too!
The evenings are made into special occasions through the dress code for choir members and ushers, the beautifully decorated church and the refreshments which always await the audience at the interval. The Concert tickets are always ‘sold out’, and so there is always a special incentive for the performers. In all a wonderful shared experience between audience and performers.
The 1980’s saw the first professional recording of the concert on tape by the then new local business, AMS. Since 1999 concerts have been recorded and produced on CD by ‘techsonic’.
Fund raising has always been linked to the Concerts, especially the Christmas Appeal by St John’s church on behalf of a local charity. The Concert collections make a substantial contribution to this appeal.