A brief history of the Orpheus Choir

1947 – To present day: seven decades of entertaining audiences

Orpheus had its genesis in the founding of The Hutt Valley Music Society in 1947, and under the direction of Malcolm Rickard was officially named The Hutt Valley Orpheus Society in 1952.

The first concerts took place in the Hutt Valley High School Hall, with a mainly English repertoire. Performances of the Messiah became an annual event for the Orpheus. The Alex Lindsay String Orchestra accompanied the concerts in a relationship which was to last until the early 70s.

In 1958, concerts with the National Orchestra (now NZSO) under the baton of John Hopkins, became a regular part of the Choir’s schedule. 1959 saw Orpheus record the Berlioz Childhood of Christ, and perform Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. The Choir first performed Verdi’s Requiem in 1965, and Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in 1967.

The words ‘Lower Hutt’ were dropped from the Choir’s name in 1962 as more and more concerts were performed in the city. In 1985 the Choir became known as the Orpheus Choir of Wellington.

Peter Godfrey took over leadership of the Choir following Malcolm Rickard’s retirement in 1983. He continued to broaden the Choir’s repertoire. Major works introduced during his tenure included Elgar’s The Music Makers, Hymnus Paradisi by Howells, Handel’s Israel in Egypt, and the Berlioz Requiem.

Since 1992 the Choir has enjoyed six Music Directors, all who have taken the Choir to new horizons. The following list of Music Directors includes some of the highlights from time with the Orpheus:

Philip Walsh 1992 – 1999
Rachmaninov’s Vespers; Stravinsky’s Les Noces in conjunction with ballet; whole programme of Lullabies of Broadway with orchestra and jazz trio.

Andrew Cantrill 1999 – 2004

Duruflé Requiem; the Monteverdi Vespers; Finzi’s Intimations of Immortality. In 2002, to mark its 50th anniversary, the Choir commissioned a special work, Orpheus in Rarohenga composed by John Psathas to a libretto by Robert Sullivan.

Michael Fulcher 2004 – 2012
Gareth Farr Terra Incognita; Panufnik’s Westminster Mass;

Karl Jenkins’ Armed Man; Taverner’s Lament for Jerusalem. 

Mark Dorrell 2012 – 2014

Mark’s broad experience in music theatre contrasted with the church music background of his predecessors. Notable among his many performances was an exciting semi-staged version of Bernstein’s Candide and a moving performance of Mozart’s Mass in C minor. 

2014 marked a special year for Orpheus. The Choir commissioned Dave Dobbyn to compose and perform with his band and the Choir, a work – This Love – paying tribute to the miners who lost their lives in the 2010 Pike River mining disaster, their families and the community. TVNZ filmed the creative process for This Love, documenting Dave Dobbyn’s interviews with the families, his growing relationship with the Greymouth community, his rehearsals with the Choir and the premiere in Wellington’s Michael Fowler Centre on 10 May. The concert entitled Dreams Lie Deeper also included the works Seventeen Days by English composer James McCarthy which commemorates the Chilean mine rescue of 2010 and If Blood be the Price, composed by Ross Harris to remember the Waihi mine strike of 1912.

Brent Stewart 2014 – present

Brent’s first major concert as Music Director of the Choir will be a semi-staged performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah on 23 May.

While Orpheus has regularly staged several of its own concerts annually, it has also enjoyed engagements with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and Orchestra Wellington.

Brent Stewart
December 2014 – present
Mark Dorrell
February 2011 – August 2014
Michael Fulcher
October 2004 – May 2011
Andrew Cantrill
August 1999 – November 2003
Philip Walsh
January 1993 – July 1999
Stewart Douglas
January 1992 – December 1992 (Acting MD)
Peter Godfrey ONZ
January 1984 – December 1991
Malcolm Rickard
February 1952 – December 1983