What is the Leith Hill Musical Festival?
Leith Hill Musical Festival is a competitive choral festival for amateur choirs in the Surrey area, founded in 1905 by Lady Evangeline Farrer and Margaret Vaughan Williams, whose famous brother, the composer Ralph, was Festival Conductor for nearly fifty years. Each year around two thousand singers take part over five days.
Where and when does it take place?
The main Festival takes place over three days in the middle of April, at Dorking Halls. The Halls were opened in 1931 to house the Festival and Ralph Vaughan Williams was an influential figure in raising funds for its construction.
There are currently four choirs in each of three ‘divisions’. Each division has one day which is self-contained: choirs compete in the morning, bury the hatchet at lunchtime, then rehearse together with the Festival Conductor in the afternoon ready for the evening’s concert. The term ‘division’ is historical and division numbers are not indicative of talent, nor do the divisions compete against each other.
In March, there is a performance of either Bach’s St John Passion, Bach’s St Matthew Passion or Handel’s Messiah. There are specific rehearsals for these performances and many independent singers (i.e. those who do not sing regularly with an LHMF choir) take part.
There is also a Youth Choirs’ Competition in March, open to school and youth choirs.
Who is the Festival Conductor and what does he do?
Jonathan Willcocks took over as Festival Conductor from Brian Kay at the beginning of May 2016. Jonathan is the son of composer and conductor Sir David Willcocks, and is both a composer and a conductor in his own right. In addition to his role as Festival Conductor, he is also Musical Director of the Guildford Choral Society, the Chichester Singers and professional chamber orchestra Southern Pro Musica, while freelance conducting and workshop engagements have taken him to many parts of the world.
The Festival Conductor chooses the music for the competition along with other members of our distinguished Music Committee and conducts both the Combined Rehearsals and the evening performances of the April Festival. He also conducts the March concert and several of the rehearsals for this. The other rehearsals for the March concert are taken by a Chorus Master.
What is a Combined Rehearsal?
There are three Combined Rehearsals for each division in advance of the April Festival. These are held on Saturdays, and last for two hours for each division. All choir members taking part in the Festival are expected to attend. This is Jonathan’s opportunity to prepare the choirs for the combined choirs’ performances on the evenings of the Festival. It is the only time that Festival organisers get the opportunity to speak directly to all the singers and is an important part of preparations for the Festival.