In a break with a tradition that dates back for a century or more, Barnet Parish Church of St John the Baptist is to set up a mixed-voice choir alongside its long-standing choir of men and boys.
Girls and women are being invited for the first time to join the choral singing for which the parish church has always been held in high regard.
Creating a mixed voice choir -- and reaching out in the locality to a new generation of young singers and musicians -- is the challenge that faces Gary Cheung (above, far left), an internationally recognised conductor, organist, and choir director, who has been appointed to a new post at the parish church of director of music and musical mission.
Mr Cheung’s appointment represents a significant step in what the team vicar, Father Sam Rossiter-Peters hopes will be a “wonderful expansion” of musical tradition at the parish church with girls and women singing at the high level which the church has always aspired to.
“The new mixed voice choir will sing alongside our men and boys who have served us so beautifully for so many years.
“Our musical tradition will not change but grow and we will take another step towards being a church at the heart of music in Barnet, which is our vision and goal.”
Links are to be established with schools in and around Barnet to encourage interest in choral singing and to invite pupils with musical ambitions to sing or play at Sunday morning services.
Terence Atkins, organist and choirmaster emeritus, who took up his job at the parish church 47 years ago, will be working alongside Mr Cheung, primarily leading the continuing tradition of Sunday evensong at 6.30pm.
Mr Cheung said the move in the Anglican church towards girls and women joining the choir began in the late 1990s.
“Barnet parish church has had an all-male choir for at least 150 years, and this will probably be the first time in its history that girls and women will sing alongside the choir in the Sunday morning service and at evensong.
“We want to keep to the tradition of men and boys singing together but we can now strengthen our choral singing with perhaps men and women singing together, as well as boys and girls, or any combination we think is appropriate.”
Mr Cheung acknowledged that there was an ongoing debate about this. Some conductors and musicians think that boys and girls have a different timbre and quality when signing but others think it is hard to tell the difference, as they all sounded like trebles.
But the reality was that Barnet like other parish churches needed a larger pool of singers and this could be achieved by creating a mixed choir.
“Unlike many parish churches which now have a choir singing at evensong perhaps only once a month, Barnet has the choir every Sunday morning and evensong. This is a tremendous strength which want to preserve and enhance.”
Mr Cheung, who has been in post only a matter of weeks, is now inviting girls and women to enrol in the choir ready for what he hopes will be the first performance of the new mixed voice choir on Sunday 12 November.
If all goes to plan the choir will sing Faure’s Requiem at a special evening service to commemorate Remembrance Sunday.
His first potential recruit is Laurel (11), seen here with her mother Tabitha. Laurel has always liked singing and would like to join a choir.
Mr Cheung hopes his mission to reach out to local schools will enable the church to provide budding young singers and musicians with an opportunity to perform in a magnificent setting like the parish church.
One possibility is that youngsters could give short performances perhaps at the end of Sunday morning service.
“Instead of a prelude or interlude, they would be a postlude – an opportunity for boys or girls to perform at the end of the service, in front of a congregation.
“Musical performance is at the heart of Anglican church music and singing. Such an appearance would be of great benefit to them.
“We hope that if we can attract young people whose families are perhaps not church goers this will introduce them to church service and choral singing.
“Singing in a choir does require skill, eye and ear co-ordination, and experience in a choir will help any youngster hoping to embark on a musical career.”
An Australian born Chinese conductor and organist, Mr Cheung, who now lives in Highgate, lived in Hong Kong in his early years and came to the UK to start school in Bath at the age of 13, when he began piano lessons.
He then started playing the pipe organ at 15 and received a bursary award at school for organ lessons before commencing a degree at the Royal Northern College of Music as an organist, where he also studied the piano, harpsichord and orchestral conducting. He was awarded distinction for his postgraduate professional performance diploma.
As a conductor, he initially studied at the Northern College and participated in various masterclasses in the UK and Europe. In more recent years, he has conducted with state opera Zagora, Bulgaria, orchestral concerts in Poland and Moldova, and as choral conductor at Cadagon Hall and as far away as Japan.
As an organist and choir director, Gary has worked in and conducted choirs in a variety of churches in London.
He has nearly 20 years of experience in teaching piano and taking students through practical and theory exams on various levels.