Farewell to “Team Aplin”

It promises to be a memorable night at St Andrew's Hall, Norwich, when John Aplin steps down as the conductor of the much-loved Keswick Hall Choir

As Keswick Hall Choir sing the mighty choruses of Handel's Israel in Egypt at St Andrew's Hall, Norwich next Saturday night, John Aplin will be making his farewell as their conductor after a reign of 30 years.

It is a hugely dramatic work with 22 choruses. It tells the story of the Israelites' deliverance at the Red Sea and has depictions of hailstorms and plaques of locusts.

All it needs from the singers is a vivid sense of theatre, enormous virtuosity and sheer stamina!

The choir, though in fact amateur, comes to it with training, experience and the commendations of many professionals who have performed beside them.

Most of them, 48 at present, have studied singing at one time or other, many with John who was a private teacher of singing in the city from the 1970s until three years ago.

John, former Evening News music critic, says: 'It means I can mould their sound. I know their voices. We know each other's vocabulary.'

Most Read

Throughout his time as a conductor his wife Alison has accompanied the rehearsals and he says it is 'Team Aplin' that is retiring.

Like him, Alison graduated in music from the University of East Anglia which is where they met.

The piano is her main instrument but she never wanted a solo career.

'I have always been interested in accompanying people,' she said. 'One day John asked me to accompany a pupil and it went on from there.'

This was just one of several 'serendipitous moments' in John's life. 'Everything I have done has been by accident or chance,' he said.

'I didn't think I was going to have a career in music. I studied sciences and thought I would have a career in medicine. The headmaster [of Hampton Grammar School] asked me into his office one day and said 'You're doing sciences and the next thing is to apply to medical school.

'Aren't you kidding yourself when you spend all your time doing music?'

'He was right. But for that remark my career might have been very different.'

John studied music at O and A level with Paul Johnson, a composer who now lives in King's Lynn and whose compositions are often performed by Keswick Hall Choir.

After graduating from the UEA, where he obtained both BA and MMus degrees, in 1975 he spent a year singing as a lay clerk in Norwich Cathedral.

Another accidental development came when, as a post graduate student, he decided he might 'do a bit of teaching.'

He invited students for free lessons and it led to a career as a private teacher of singing.

John said: 'In those days when we left university it never crossed our minds that we would not get a job. I always thought there would be enough people wanting singing lessons to give me a living.'

He was right. He never advertised.

'In those days many students at the UEA liked Norwich and stayed. It won't happen now because there aren't jobs for them.'

In the early days the choir had generous financial support from official quarters but now there is none.

'When we do anything orchestral we have to pay for an orchestra, soloists and the hire of a hall.

'Today we could put on the Monteverdi Vespers and fill the place but the concert would still run at a loss. Now the main means of support is the choir's 200 club lottery.'

John began directing choirs in the late 1970s when he had his own small vocal group Wensum Ayres. He conducted the Blofield and District Choral Society and then became conductor of the Martineau Singers, which consisted of employees at County Hall.

He did a lot of listening too – as music critic for the Evening News.

Keswick Hall was a teachers' training college which merged into the UEA's School of Education. Its choir was founded by the late Geoffrey Laycock who wanted to give students the chance to sing repertoire not being undertaken by the UEA and Norwich Philharmonic Society choirs.

It was Geoffrey's inspiration to present the spectacular and demanding Monteverdi Vespers never formed in Norwich before.

The choir quickly went from obscurity to positive popularity and Geoffrey's wife, Audrey, a member of the choir for some years, says it was the most memorable of her husband's achievements.

John took over the choir in 1982, the time of the merging of the college with the UEA, though the singers kept their Keswick Hall title.

His taking over was another accidental happening.

After a concert a friend told him Geoffrey Laycock was retiring and asked if he would be interested in taking over. 'I didn't hesitate,' he said.

John was also Peter Aston's choice to take over the UEA Choir in 1997 and was chorus master and conductor of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival chorus for three years.

One reason for retiring now is that he feels he has done all he can with a choir of Keswick Hall's size

The necessity for being available for rehearsals and performances means that he and Alison have been substantially anchored in Norwich and prevented from doing the travelling they enjoy.

It is just possible that John might not be entirely lost to our concert stages.

If it came about that there was money for larger presentations than those possible with Keswick Hall Choir he might be tempted to conduct again.

Audiences and singers will profoundly hope that temptation comes his way.

With thanks to former Evening News arts editor Neville Miller.

Handel's Israel in Egypt is at St Andrew's Hall, Norwich, on Saturday April 28, at 7.30pm with Keswick Hall Choir, Nicki Kennedy and Rebecca Mundy (sopranos), Andrew Radley (counter tenor) Joshua Ellicott (tenor) and the Academy of St Thomas. Tickets, (costing �17, �14 and �8) are available from St George's Music Shop, St George's Street, Norwich (01603 626414) or Prelude Records, St Giles, (01603 628319).