The Millennium began, appropriately, with Beethoven’s Choral Symphony in January, and in March there was a performance of a Chorus commission – Dominic Muldowney’s oratorio The Fall of Jerusalem in the Town Hall. “The choral tone,” said Donald Webster in the Yorkshire Post, “had a much-needed cutting edge”. In July, Ampleforth Abbey in North Yorkshire was the setting for Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, which was received, very respectfully, in silence.
Expert tuition in the pronunciation of the Polish language, provided by Chorus bass Ryszard Biedka, was very much on hand in 2002 for Karol Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater.
In 2003 the Chorus went down into the orchestra pit of the Leeds Grand Theatre, where a ballet by Birgit Scherzer – Requiem!! – was staged. The music was a kind of scissors-and-paste Mozart, beginning with Lachrymosa. There was a gala concert in Leeds Town Hall, later repeated at the Bridgewater Hall, for the 350th anniversary of Chetham’s School of Music, in October 2003. Yan-Pascal Tortelier conducted Leeds Festival Chorus with Chetham’s Chorus, the Chester Bach Singers, Chetham’s Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Philharmonic in Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture, Poulenc’s Gloria and Respighi’s The Pines of Rome.
In July 2004 the world premiere of Markus Stockhausen’s Christus was in Ripon Cathedral. Peter Maxwell-Davies’s new work, Canticum Canticorum, followed in 2005, at Leeds Town Hall. In December of that year (and in 2006) the Chorus performed with The Hallé in the immense Manchester Evening News Arena for a Classical Spectacular presented by the Raymond Gubbay organization. At one stage, for the 1812 Overture, ear plugs were distributed because the Muskets and Cannons of the Moscow Militia (many of them from Preston, it seems) were worryingly close, almost as close as the fireworks. It was great fun. Also in 2006, the second ‘reconstructed’ performance of Fogg’s The Seasons took place. The Chorus and the BBC Philharmonic were conducted by Simon Wright, and the concert was broadcast on BBC Radio 3.
By now, a new arrangement had been reached with the Leeds International Concert Season for concerts at the Town Hall. LICS is run by Leeds City Council, and is the largest local authority music programme in Britain. It runs from October one year to May the next. Ever since its inception in 1980, it has provided valuable support. It was decided that two concerts each year, in partnership with Leeds Philharmonic Society, should be organized under its wing, and that one concert should be organized independently.
The first of the independent concerts for the Chorus was Haydn’s Creation in January 2007, for which Chorus members did everything, from ticket sales to publicity. It was a tremendous, sold-out success. The review by Geoffrey Mogridge in the Ilkley Gazette was typical:
This performance can be ranked among the very finest, not only because it was superb technically, but – even more importantly – was possessed of that elusive atmosphere of mystery. Wright achieved almost perfect balance in the airy acoustic of Leeds Town Hall.
In December, 2007, Handel’s Messiah was the second independent concert, worth waiting for after a long interval. It was sold out, with queues for returned tickets.
The most recent commission is Shakespeare Requiem by Judith Bingham, performed on 29 November 2008 at Leeds Town Hall in a concert to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the first formation of Leeds Festival Chorus. The new work combines the Latin text of the Requiem with lesser-known lines from Shakespeare woven together to create a developing drama between two characters. The concert was part of the Leeds International Concert Season. During a visit to speak to the Chorus in rehearsal, the composer said: “I was brought up in Yorkshire and have a great love for the choral tradition in the North. I’m honoured to be part of Leeds Festival Chorus’s anniversary celebrations.”
Looking to the future, Simon Wright said:
It has been a great privilege to be a small part of the history of the Leeds Festival Chorus, and I hope that it goes from strength to strength during the next one hundred and fifty years.