It is possible that Magherafelt has had a ‘town’ choir for nearly a century. We learnt from old Mr. Tughan
(of the music firm Tughan Crane in Belfast) that back in the 1920s he used to come on the train to Magherafelt to
conduct the local choir. He thought one had existed well before he was involved.
The current Sperrin Choir is itself the offspring of at least two previous local
choirs functioning well within living memory. It is uncertain if a choir
continued without interruption, but the Lydian Singers, drawn from Magherafelt
and Randalstown were in existence in the 1950s, conducted by Douglas Armstrong,
a very well respected choral conductor, who also travelled from Belfast every
week to rehearse in either Magherafelt or Randalstown. In turn, he was replaced
by George Sutton in 1952 and then by Peter Hinkley in 1959 until he left for
Canada in 1962.
Reggie Patterson came to the Rainey Endowned School and, briefly, the Aeolian
Singers formed but there is no record of their performing in public. Reggie left
for Coleraine in 1967 and there seems to have been a hiatus in community choral
singing until the mid 70s.
In 1975 Margaret Regan joined the Rainey Endowed School and immediately formed
The Regan Singers with a strong nucleus of ex Lydians. Margaret Regan, back in
Scotland, had been a star pupil of Bryden Thompson who was conductor of the
Ulster Orchestra in the 1970s. He offered to put the Regan Singers into the
Ulster Orchestra’s schedule once Margaret thought we were good enough. In 1977
we were joined by the Ulster Orchestra in a concert including Faure’s Requiem
and Handel’s Zadok the Priest with the second concert in the University of Ulster at
Coleraine before an audience of more than 1,000.
Joining the Mainstream
The Ulster Orchestra in 1979 invited the Regan Singers to provide the chorus for Haydn’s Nelson Mass performed in Coleraine and the Ulster Hall.
Over the next decade or so other big works included Vivaldi’s and Rutter’s Gloria (shared with Antrim Choral Society),
Brahm’s German Requiem, Haydn’s Creation, Messiah, The Crucifixion and selections from Gilbert and Sullivan. Our, by now,
regular Christmas concerts in Magherafelt became well-supported local events as did the Spring Concerts based on various
themes and ever since have remained our staple output.
Two highlights stand out; one was joining the Ulster Orchestra, the Belfast Philharmonic Choir and Counterpoint and conducted by
Kenneth Montgomery to perform the massive Requiem of Verdi in the sold-out Ulster Hall in 1987. The other had been the Henry Davies
Memorial Concert in the University of Ulster in 1980. Henry Davies was a wealthy collector of rarla which he
donated to the University of Ulster. He was also a generous patron of Glyndebourne Opera and had endowed many scholarships for young
opera singers. His death was marked by a gala concert, arranged by Margaret for the University of Ulster involving 3 Glyndebourne
soloists who had received scholarships, Douglas Craig, distinguished singer and General Manager of Glyndebourne Opera who acted as
anchor man, the Ulster Orchestra and the Regan Singers, augmented by Roe Valley, Ballymoney and Portrush Choirs. The programme included
lots of the lovely bits of Tosca, Carmen, The Pearl Fishers, Cavaliera Rusticana and Nabucco with 1300 in the audience.
In 1988 Margaret gave up the choir through business pressures and our long time accompanist, George Johnston took over the conducting.
Modernising the Choir
Our regular 2 concerts a year continued with a move towards more popular music, such as Beatles and
Simon and Garfunkel songs and concert versions of such as Lloyd Webber, Rogers and Hammerstein and other
musicals. The enormously talented Gail Evans became the renamed Sperrin Choir’s accompanist and our music
was increasingly in demand for charities and worthy causes.
George, after so many years service retired in 2003 and we were fortunate in getting Sam Cuddy, at that time Head of Music in St Mary’s Grammar School, to lead us. The town really has been lucky to have such musical leadership so readily available. Sam has been a tremendous leader over a significant number of years now. And will continue to be so, we hope, for many years to come.
The ‘Sperrin’ name seems very appropriate because the choir has always had members from nearby towns,
especially Cookstown, but also from Draperstown, Dungiven and Coleraine. Recent innovations have seen regular
concerts given in the Burnavon, but over the years we have been to Limerick, Sligo, Roscommon, Brittany (as part
of the Town Twinning Scheme) and even Lansdowne Road with 6000 other singers, and of course many smaller villages
and churches around the province.
The choir had a shortage of male voices for a year or two but in the last year a good number of new male members have joined. We have also been blessed with several new altos so we have now got a strong group of singers in all four sections. The future of the Choir looks very bright.
With the amalgamation of Cookstown, Magherafelt and Dungannon Districts into Mid-Ulster Council area, the twinning programme with Plerin-Sur-Mer came to an end in 2015, but the two choirs continued in contact and Plerin Chorale returned to Mid-Ulster in May of 2016, with the kind support of Mid-Ulster Council. We are delighted that the new Council will maintain the link for now. Hopefully they will maintain it indefintely.
We are working at expanding our links with other choirs, and look forward to welcoming the Swift Singers from Essex, England, next May.
So the history you have read is not a bad record for a collection of amateurs keeping up the long local tradition,
and getting (and, let us hope, giving) much pleasure in the process.
Researched and compiled by Brian Wood
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