The Woodside Choir: 50 years on Arts on Sunday
by Alim A Hosein
Stabroek News
May 26, 2002

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The Woodside Choir turns 50 this year and celebrated its Golden Jubilee last Sunday, May 19, with a performance and service at St Andrews Church. For Guyana's foremost choral performing group, it was a rather modest celebration.

The choir, founded by Lynette Dolphin in 1952, started life as the Bishops' High School Old Girls Choir. Under its first conductor, Reggie McDavid, it immediately won first prize at the British Guiana Music Festival. In 1956 a number of men joined the group and it then adopted its present name, the Woodside Choir. Woodside was the original name of the Bishops' High School, which was a girls' school until the 1980's. There emerged three arms: the Ladies Choir, the Male Voice Choir and the Mixed Voice Choir, followed later by the Folk Song Group, developments which took place under the directorship of J.D. and W.J. Simmons.

After that first success in 1952, Woodside continued its winning ways throughout its history as the champion choir at successive music festivals even up to the 1990's when a few festivals were held. Among its accomplishments have also been successful overseas tours to Trinidad, Barbados and, most recently, Suriname in 1995.

A succession of eminent musicians has also contributed to the choir's development. These include conductors Sheila Bacchus Lampart, Ruby McGregor, Moses Telford and Aubrey Joseph. In addition, Joan McDavid Gilkes, Ceciline Baird, Clem Nichols, Jnr, Patricia Sam, June Bunyab Stephens, Wendy Pollard, Olivia Benjamin, Daphne Scott, Marguerite Marks Clayton, Patricia Smith, Deborah Smith and Joyceline Hunte have served as accompanists.

During that period, the Woodside grew to become the most distinguished, most accomplished and most celebrated choir in the country, perhaps, until deeper research discovers otherwise, the most prominent choral group of its kind in Guyana's history. The team seems to have settled over the past decade, developing further, diversifying and even undergoing a kind of rejuvenation, which, it is hoped, will be sustained. The present conductor is W.R.A. Bill Pilgrim, while accompanist and Woodside Chairman is Marilyn Dewar. They have both been a part of the recent programmes and development, which have included workshops, music festivals and attempts to train other choirs and singers.

Among the spin-off developments have been the formation of a satellite group, which evolved out of the Woodside folk singing. This is the formation of the fast rising Korokwa, a folk group made up entirely of Woodside members led by Deputy Conductor, guitarist and soloist, Deryck Bernard. Korokwa released a CD of their music last year, while, as a part of the Jubilee programme, Woodside produced its first CD featuring Christmas music.

The choir has performed extensively across Guyana and has produced many major concerts including some of its best at the Cultural Centre. For its sterling contribution to music in Guyana, the Woodside was awarded a joint Medal of Service in the National Honours list.

Sunday's performance was subsumed into a service at St Andrews during which many tributes were paid to the group and scriptures were read and alluded to about music and worship. Particularly relevant to this was the final selection performed, 'Psalm 150,' arranged by Bill Pilgrim, which has been a major item on the repertoire for a long time. It rejoices in praise of the Lord with trumpets, cymbals and voices; another Psalm which glorifies or refers to music. The Christian tone of the performance was obvious and understandable. The choir also sang 'The Lord is My Shepherd' by Schubert and 'Achieved is the glorious work' by Haydn. Some attempt seems to have been made to acknowledge history by having the Woodside Ladies Choir and the Woodside Mixed Voice Choir perform separate items.

On its fiftieth anniversary, the chorale might want to reflect, not only on its considerable achievements, but on its own future as well as that of choral music in Guyana. While Woodside has proven itself and will survive, the prospect for choral music as a whole is not, at this time, particularly bright.

Few choirs of any note exist and many have bloomed and faded. The once famed Police Male Voice Choir is long extinct; we hear occasionally of the Marigolds and the group led by Edith Pieters; the University Choir at Turkeyen (UG) once led by Patricia Persaud seems to have graduated and departed these shores.

Whatever choirs there might be in schools do not assume any prominence. There is hardly any visible inheritance from music festivals and Woodside workshops. Even the bright influx of young recruits into Woodside itself in the nineties has not been a solid guarantee of continuity. It is not clear how many have remained. Neither have there been any announcements of new choirs. And although they have made some effort, the task cannot be Woodside's to initiate the formation of other groups. In the meantime, that choir treads a lonely road.

It is because of the grand scale of this chorale's contribution and productivity as well as its place on the national landscape that the modesty of the celebration event last Sunday was such a disappointment.

Perhaps the wider audience deserves to share the moment by hearing a more public performance by a group they have seen on stage over the years and come to regard as the foremost choir in the land.

It is a pity that such an audience has been deprived in this way. Or is it still likely that before the year ends, the public golden jubilee concert will be staged?