For the past four years, Kent Chorus has been wowing audiences and critics alike with its concerts in and around Tunbridge Wells. Musical director Richard Jenkinson tells Fred Latty how the group has grown and the importance of getting a new generation singing for the future
Tell us about the background of Kent Chorus
We set up in 2011 and split away from the old Tunbridge Wells Choral Society. The idea was to set up something that was new and perhaps a bit different, because there are lots of very good choirs around, including the Tunbridge Wells Choral Society, which has a very good reputation. Our aim was to set up something a bit more accessible and we’ve had fantastic success.
And your role in the choir?
I’m musical director and artistic manager, so on a day to day basis, I’m doing a lot of programme planning, planning for the rehearsals and for the concerts. It’s my job to conduct the rehearsal on Monday evenings, plus we’re constantly planning ahead, like concerts in the following season, as well as dates and venues, so I’ll be looking at musical repertoire and visiting venues to see what’s going to work, feel right and suit the choir. As we approach a concert, I’ll be liaising with the team to work out the stage plan and booking all the soloists and players.
What’s the most rewarding part of it all?
The journey from the first rehearsal to concert day. What does it for me is that sense of progress and actually being able to achieve from quite a gentle start.
How many members do you have?
At most concerts, we normally sing with about 90 to 100. We’re attracting a younger average age range than the established choral societies; we regularly have people of school age singing with us and we’ve got people in their 20s. I would say the average age might be 40 to 50, whereas in most established choirs, the age range is up and going up. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s an absolute mission that if we don’t get younger people singing, there won’t be this great choral tradition 20 years down the road.
Does this younger age group have an impact on the concerts?
When we book orchestras and soloists, a lot of the time we’re booking young people who are either still at music college, or just beginning their careers, as soloists and players. That gives things a real buzz because, come concert day, there’s this youthful enthusiasm and energy, which gives the choir a huge lift. It really spreads through the performance and out into the audience.
Can you talk more about the significance of attracting younger members?
We see it as very important that we relate to young people. Partnering with schools and bringing our music into the school environment is a very important thing we plan to do. It might even be that, at some point, we’ll set up Young Kent Chorus as a way of helping younger people meet the sort of music we do. We’re very lucky in Tunbridge Wells because there are schools that give their students a chance to sing really good quality music. If we can encourage more and more young people to join, that’s another part of the vision and the mission.
In what ways do you promote the choir?
When we set up, 20 or 30 people came with me from the old choral society and we had people joining from other choirs and had really good publicity. We’ve got a database of about 150 singers, who we’re in touch with all the time. We get a strong flow of new people coming in, which keeps the choir alive.
Is everyone involved a volunteer?
I’m a professional musician, as is my assistant director of music Christopher Harris, so we’re employed, but everybody else is a volunteer. Most of the time, it works really well; the people are enthusiastic and really believe in the choir, as it’s what they can give back. People always say, ‘If you want something done, ask a busy person’ – some of our people have got more time on their hands, but some of the people working the hardest are those with really busy careers.
What’s your venue of choice?
We go to places with good natural acoustics; I believe that’s why we’re getting such good concert reviews, because the choir sounds wonderful. We go to Trinity Theatre when we want to be right in Tunbridge Wells town centre, or Salomons Theatre in Southborough, which is where we gave our first concert. When we set up, we deliberately weren’t ‘the other Tunbridge Wells choir’; we’re Kent Chorus, which gives us a wider vision, so a venue that we’ve been to twice now is Sevenoaks School, which has been very good for us as well.
Whereabouts do your singers come from?
Our members are drawn from quite a wide area, which is a bit different. We get a lot of people coming in from around Kent and East Sussex, such as Maidstone and Eastbourne, which is good for Tunbridge Wells, because you’re bringing these people into the town and building up its artistic side in that way.
From where do you receive your funding?
It’s self-funded to a large extent. Members pay an annual subscription and when we put on a concert, we obviously sell tickets. We’re also working on getting more and more funding by getting people to sponsor us or advertise in our programme. It’s always a challenge, but we’ve had some quite generous donors in our short life. Plus, we’re in the process of becoming a charity. At the moment, we don’t have charitable status, but once we get it, that will be great because it’s easier to apply for grants from various bodies. We’ve done quite well at attracting money from outside.
Explain some of the financial challenges you face
If you want to do a good concert, ticket sales will never cover the costs. Even if you fill the venue, by the time you allow for bringing in a good quality orchestra and soloists, there’s going to be a shortfall. That’s a constant challenge, whereas the members’ subscriptions more than cover the weekly running costs. You’ve got to be finding finance in the form of sponsorship, advertising or grants. The financial challenges are always there, and the aim at the moment is, little by little, to build up something of a reserve. We’re planning to set up a Friends of Kent Chorus scheme to support us financially.
Any musical challenges to overcome?
We see musical challenges as an advantage. This choir attracts people who love to sing, but perhaps haven’t got the same experience. Lack of experience could be a barrier, but in a funny sort of way, it’s an opportunity, because they haven’t got preconceived ideas.
What’s your view on the town’s culture in general?
My experience is that Tunbridge Wells is very much thriving, as there’s a greater diversity in singing. If you wound the clock back ten or 20 years and you wanted to sing, you joined the choral society, full stop. With more exposure to singing on television, there are more groups where people with less musical ambition or skill can still sing. That’s a brilliant thing because it gets people singing who otherwise would find it too difficult. Because there are more and more opportunities, it gives people the chance to promote and challenge themselves.
Would you say choral societies can appeal to anyone?
One of the things that I’m very insistent on with Kent Chorus is that we’re for everybody. Our policy is to make music of the highest possible standards, while being absolutely accessible, friendly and approachable to all. If people have experience and can read music, that’s clearly an advantage, but not having that isn’t a barrier.
Do you find being so close to London is an issue?
London has real competition from towns like Tunbridge Wells or Brighton, because people can get something of equal quality without the disadvantage of travelling, so I don’t think it’s too much of a problem. If people really want to hear a concert and if it’s made attractive to them, they’ll go to London or they’ll support it in Tunbridge Wells.
Where would you like the choir to go in future?
At the moment, we’re still feeling shiny, new and rather proud of ourselves. I want the choir to continue in the same direction and for our database of singers to grow, because there’s a real excitement about a large number of singers; I want the choir to continue to grow and the standard to continue to rise, as the only way is to keep striving to improve; and I want the choir’s international profile to grow and for us to broaden our repertoire, which will help make it attractive and is certainly part of the future.