Interview with Philip Honnor

Philip Honnor [Photo: Richard Hallas]

Philip Esmond Honnor, 2nd July 1943 – 14th September 2015

Philip Honnor is sadly no longer with us. However, as the choir’s longest-serving conductor (23 years, from Spring 1990 to Winter 2012), his contribution to the group was inestimable, not least because of his vast knowledge of the choral repertoire and his uncanny ability to devise innovative and imaginative concert programmes that challenged the choir yet remained within the singers’ grasp to perform well. His commitment to the choir was unparalleled, his musical planning was of the highest quality – keeping both singers and audiences interested – and his technical direction of the choir was also of an exceedingly high calibre. It was Philip’s considerable expertise and high standards that shaped The Huddersfield Singers into the flexible and adventurous ensemble that it became in its slimmed-down post-Glee & Madrigal Society form (a recent change that he inherited rather than one that he had sought), and his expert guidance over nearly a quarter of a century deserves to be acknowledged with gratitude.

This page will remain online as a small tribute to Philip’s memory; in any case, the content of the following interview is still perfectly relevant today, because the ethos of the choir, and the nature of its repertoire as established by Philip, remain unchanged.

The following text is an edited transcription of a live radio interview with conductor Philip Honnor, broadcast by Huddersfield FM on 7th September 1998 (four days before the choir’s summer concert). The interviewer was Phil Marshal.

Joining me is Philip Honnor, conductor of the Huddersfield Singers. Perhaps you can tell me a bit about yourself. What’s your musical background; your musical heritage?

Well, I started singing as a treble in church choirs; I was also very interested in playing the piano (in the jazz field, in fact), and I think it was probably my ability to improvise that got me into the Guildhall School of Music. So I then did a teacher year and went on to the University of York and did a degree in composition, and came to Huddersfield as Head of Music at Huddersfield New College. This is way back now… 1971! And I’ve continued teaching; I’ve been working at the School of Music in the Technical College since 1982. I’ve also been doing fairly frequent jazz gigs.

You have your own little jazz group, I understand.

Well, mostly freelance. I phone people up, and with any luck they phone me up, so that’s how the gigs come!

So people will have seen you around the area in relation to jazz, but of course in particular in relation to The Huddersfield Singers. When did you get involved with The Huddersfield Singers?

The first concert I conducted was Easter 1990. I took over from a chap called Paul Shepherd, who’d been conductor for about five years before that.

Tell us a bit about the history, because it used to be called the Huddersfield Glee & Madrigal Society, didn’t it, dating back to the late 1870s?

Yes, there was a local stonemason called Ben Stocks who started this group in 1875. They were then 25-strong; the idea was to enter a choral competition in Manchester. The group was named the Huddersfield Glee & Madrigal Society, and it duly won that competition, and got a prize of £70, which in today’s money must be really rather a lot! And it’s been going ever since then.

At what point did the name-change come, to The Huddersfield Singers?

Actually, just before I started; some time during Paul Shepherd’s tenure.

Was that to modernise the image of the choir?

I think so. It had been the “Glee & Mad” for so long (or the “Me & Glad” to some people, I gather!) and it was felt that this was a slightly dated name, so the change occurred at some time in the late ’80s. I think he had the idea of reforming as a chamber choir; I think its strength before that was about 60-odd, and in order to do different repertoire he slimmed it down to 30-odd.

Now I understand that it is a charity, and committe-run. What sort of people are involved, then, in the organising of the choir? Are they local people from all walks of life?

Yes, I think that’s fair. The choir has accountants, university lecturers, teachers, housewives, electronics engineers…

And are these people who love the music, or love singing, or a bit of both?

Basically, yes. Yes, that’s it.

Tell us about the type of music that the choir actually performs. For people who haven’t perhaps seen them, or heard them, what sort of music are we talking about?

Well, we’re talking about music obviously that involves choirs, but as for the actual range of stuff we do… we’ve done everything from plainsong to pop-song; we’ve done madrigal to oratorio. We aim to have a programme which on average will feature unusual material, and not anything that other local groups will be doing.

Now each year you have these three concerts (the winter, spring and summer concerts, loosely speaking) at St Paul’s. Who is responsible for choosing programme items? Is that something that the committee does? Is that something where you have a particular say, as conductor?

Well, I usually choose the programmes myself. That’s basically what happens, although obviously I’m open to suggestions as to what we could do, and indeed one of the pieces that we’re doing on Saturday (the Five Flower Songs of Benjamin Britten) was suggested by one or two choir members. It wasn’t, in fact, a piece which I knew until I started rehearsing for this concert.

Now the concert you mentioned that’s coming up on Saturday, at St Paul’s, has the title Fa-la-la! What was the thinking behind that?

Well, we had a concert at this time last year, where we used a Moravian folk-dance group as our guests, and that seemed to be very successful; hence we’ve got Greensleeves this year. The “fa-la-la” connection is that Italian dance-songs called Balletti became popular in England at the end of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, at the end of the 1600s, and they all feature refrains, which come at the end of each verse, which merely have the nonsense words “fa-la-la”; and that’s the direct connection.

Now you mentioned as music the Flower Songs; there’s Brahms as well, isn’t there? A performance of a particular work by Brahms?

Yes, we’re doing the first set of the Liebeslieder-Waltzer, or love-song waltzes, which are for piano duet and choir.

You’ve obviously got pianists involved and, as well as your regular accompanist, John Bailey, you’ve got a guest as well.

That’s right, we have Elizabeth Wood, who’s been a colleague of mine at the School of Music at the Technical College for many years; a really wonderful pianist (as indeed is John) and they make a wonderful duet, and it really lifts the whole thing. We’ve recently started to rehearse with both pianists (we just had John for the majority of the rehearsals) so we can now hear the whole thing in its full glory, and it really is wonderful; and it gives the choir a tremendous lift.

Now speaking of guests, of course, you have, as you mentioned earlier, got the Greensleeves dance group. What was the thinking behind that? Is it to create something visual to complement the music?

Yes, I think that’s a good summation of the reasons. I mentioned before that we did this, also, last year; that seemed to be very effective, and we hope to repeat the success!

In terms of the accessibility of this concert, how do you feel that goes in terms of people coming to see it? Is it something that will be accessible to a wide range of people?

I think there’s a wide range of music here. It is, I suppose, at the light-ish end of our repertoire.

Thank you very much to Philip Honnor for joining us this evening.