Showstopping debut

"HAVE another sandwich," invites Simon Lindley as we chat over tea in a hotel lounge.

Having arrived from Leeds, he is on his way to a Monday night rehearsal of Mendelssohn's St Paul with the Sheffield Bach Choir at Sheffield Cathedral this Saturday.

"It's his bicentenary and everybody's doing Elijah," is his reason, ostensibly, for doing Mendelssohn's earlier oratorio to mark his first outing with the choir as its principal conductor.

"On every three or four pages of St Paul there's a showstopper, some brilliant pieces in their own right," he says, as it is becoming evident that he has reservations, musically, about Elijah, despite its "compelling, brilliant story."

"As you go along through St Paul you are aware constantly of the superior quality of the inventiveness of the music and particularly the way the voices are treated and the soloists sing."

No-one is better qualified to speak on church and choral music than Simon Lindley.

He remains primarily a highly distinguished organist, is a teacher and music educator of long standing and a occasional composer and has held or holds a long list of national positions with church music or organ trusts and associations. Almost as long is the list of awards and honours bestowed on him.

Organist and choirmaster at Leeds Parish Church since 1974, organist at Leeds Town Hall since 1976, music officer for Leeds City Council since 1988, half of his life has been based in Yorkshire, the earlier half around London.

"I was born just south of London when my father was a priest in the very north of Kent," he says, tucking into a sandwich.

His father provides a link with Sheffield. "My father's mother came from Sheffield and my father's dad came from Shipley near Huddersfield. My grandmother's brothers were accountants and she went to school in Sheffield, then went to some kind of finishing school, came back and married my grandad about 1915.

"He was a Methodist minister and ordained as an Anglican priest in Leeds Parish Church in 1930 on the very spot I conduct every day of the week."

His mother has an interesting background, too. Her grandmother was Marie Brema, the first English-born singer to appear at the Bayreuth Festival and the first Angel in Elgar's Dream of Gerontius.

"She wasn't the first choice for Gerontius but when the orchestral parts arrived Hans Richter (the conductor) persuaded the powers that be to engage her," reveals her great grandson, pouring a cup of tea.

"It was quite hard work for her but contemporary accounts say she did it with style.*

"Mother was ill regularly and father used to say to us, 'you must not be worried about your mother's health because it's not going to get any better,' but she's still alive, living in a convent in Oxford as happy as Larry, though she's been very immobile for years.

"It's uncanny, I've only ever worked full-time in two places – Leeds, where my father was brought up, and before I went there, St Albans, where my mother was brought up."

St Albans: he must know Peter Hurford?

"I was his first full-time assistant there in 1970!"

It is rapidly becoming evident that if there is anyone anywhere in the country involved in church music he doesn't know, they are not worth knowing. He seems to know every cathedral and church as well.

We talk at length about the complexities of cathedral choirs, how they have changed, 'feeder' schools once providing the boys' voices: "it used to be Birkdale at Sheffield Cathedral."

"One of my former pupils is the organist there, Neil Taylor. He's a good lad. He was the most fantastic cornet player as a boy – terrific player!"

"Do you want any more tea?" he asks before another long discourse on the pros and cons of girls in cathedral choirs.

Summed up, he is probably happier when they sing as separate choirs rather than together, saying that while "girls are very, very polished, very keen to get everything right, but psychologically they don't always fling themselves into something, whereas boys will have a heavy dose of the sod-it factor".

We talk about the people he has known and worked with, including Roger Bullivant – a mutual admiration society! – James Wild, David Clover – he laughs loudly just thinking about him – and Bryden Thompson.

On the scarcity of young people in choirs he says: "Students today are timetabled almost out of existence; they hardly have any free time.

"They've got assessments and assignments every second or third day.

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It’s not the way to educate kids; dreadful!

“Are you sure you wouldn’t like anything else?”

He talks about the Bach Choir, which he describes as having “a lot of character,” and his plans and aims.

“I think next year we’ll do Samson (Handel) or The Creation and we’re going to have a community singing day for local choirs built round a wonderful, wonderful piece by William Lloyd Webber called The Saviour which is just fantastic.

“It follows the same pattern as Stainer’s Crucifixion: organ, two men soloists, but it’s stunningly good.

“I would like to do a lot more cantatas (Bach) and, because the Bach Choir came out of Sheffield University, would like to strengthen the links between the choir and the university.

“I’ve not got long to do it, it’s only a three-year contact, although they might change their minds,” he says with the loud laugh he is prone to emitting.

It seems highly unlikely, although you never know.

“I don’t worry about that very much but I do think if people are going to turn out every bloomin’ Monday night in all weathers, they’ve got to enjoy what they’re doing.”

*The performance was a near disaster due to lack of preparation time, unlike two years later when, with Brema again as the Angel, Elgar himself conducted it at the Sheffield Festival in 1902.