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50 years on: Auckland University Festival Choir

In April 1972 the Auckland University Festival Choir, a newly formed choir of students and recent graduates of the University of Auckland conducted by Peter Godfrey, set off to participate with choirs from fifteen other countries at the Third International University Choral Festival to be held at the Lincoln Center in New York. At that time only one other New Zealand choir had ever previously represented New Zealand overseas – the Christchurch Harmonic Choir which performed in a Commonwealth Arts Festival in Britain in 1965. NZCF Board member Warwick Harvey reminisces…

Prior to the festival, the choir performed at seven locations on the eastern seaboard from Long Island to North Carolina. During a concert in Newport News, a man walked on stage to ask the audience to leave as there was a fire elsewhere in the building. The choir assembled alongside the fire engine outside and was pictured in the local newspaper, singing Fire Fire by Thomas Morley.

The sixteen choirs then gathered for a concert in the newly-opened Kennedy Center in Washington before going to New York for a week of concerts in which four choirs sang each evening then came together as a massed choir conducted by Robert Shaw as the finale. The Festival Choir also sang in a service at the Cathedral of St John the Divine, the largest Anglican Cathedral in the world.

Choir member Christopher Lackner with Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten at The Maltings, 1972.

Next we flew to England, where we sang in Westminster Abbey, Kings College Cambridge, Hengrave Hall (which had been the home of John Wilbye), and at the Maltings in Snape where the Aldeburgh Festival is based. Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten were in the audience and hosted the choir for lunch.

The homeward leg included a concert in an impressive 900-year old church in Maastricht, as well as concerts in Dusseldorf and Singapore. The trip from Dusseldorf to Singapore was memorable for a stopover in Zurich where we reconnected with Willi Gohl, who had been the rehearsal conductor for the massed choir in New York and later came to NZ as the guest conductor for Sing Aotearoa in 1990. While in Zurich, Peter Godfrey wanted to buy a watch. Two choir members went with him and once he had chosen the watch they stepped in and paid for it as his 50th birthday present from the choir. The Bulova watch had a tuning fork as part of its mechanism and, thereafter, Peter would put his watch to his ear to help set the pitch for whatever choir he was conducting.

The concert programmes included works by NZ composers including Douglas Mews, John Ritchie, Ronald Tremain, Jack Body, David Farquhar, David Griffiths, Donald Byers and Gillian Whitehead.

Many of the 1972 Festival Choir singers have gone on to other musical endeavours, including singing and conducting choirs, teaching music, directing musicals, composing and arranging, piano tuning, and choral administration. And we’re pleased to say a number are also Personal members of NZCF!