The Leith Hill Music Festival (LHMF) is one of England's leading choral events. The Festival was established, as the Leith Hill Musical Festival, in 1905 by Margaret Vaughan Williams, sister of Ralph, and her friend Lady Evangeline Farrer, one-time student of Hubert Parry, and its aim now as then is to promote and facilitate choral singing in the villages and towns of Surrey. Music-making for the amateur was very much a passion for Ralph Vaughan Williams, and he was the first conductor of the festival, retiring in 1953. The Festival is held annually in the Dorking Halls, which were built to accommodate the Festival, opening its doors for the first time in 1931.
Oxshott Choral Society was one of the first choirs to become part of the Festival, and the Competition Day is the focus of Oxshott's choral season. As well as the Competition, ususally held in April, there is a Singing Day for Youth Choirs, and in the Spring a performance of a major choral work, traditionally one of the Bach Passions but recently also Handel's Messiah and in 2023 Verdi's Requiem - this is open to all singers.
The main works for the competition are chosen by the LHMF Music Committee. In addition, each choir must give a recital, not exceeding 20 minutes in length, of pieces of their own choosing, with certain conditions. Each division of four choirs has a different set of prescribed music, and sings on a different day. The competition element of the Festival takes place in the morning. In the afternoon, the friendly rivalry of the competition is put aside for a combined rehearsal, with orchestra, and in the evening a grand concert, when trophies are awarded for the morning's winners. The current Festival conductor is Jonathan Willcocks, who took over from Brian Kay in 2017. 2024 will be Jonathan's last season, the Festival conductor elect being Neil Ferris.
Designed by architect Percy W. Meredith, the striking Art Deco venue was designed to host a range of community events, and comprised three Halls: the Masonic, the Martineau and the impressive Grand; all of which remain today.
The Halls remained the property of the Leith Hill Musical Festival until the Second Word War, when the building was commandeered by the Meat Marketing Board and the Army. Once the war was over, the Halls were left in poor condition and would have cost too much to restore, so the venue was sold to the Dorking Urban District Council, for the knock-down price of £15,000. They didn't in the end knock them down, but continued to promote activities there, and developed the venue into one of the foremost performing arts centres in the area. You can find out more about the Halls and their connection with the Festivalhere.