Death of a masterful chorus master, 89

The Brighton Festival Chorus has announced the death of its founder Laszlo Heltay, a Hungarian who gave the British choral tradition a much-needed upgrade in the middle of the last century.

Arriving as a refugee in 1957, Heltay hovered around Britain for seven years before migrating to New Zealand to become director of the national opera and associate conductor of the NZ Symphony.

Returning to the UK, he founded the Brighton Festival Chorus in 1967, achieving instant national acclaim with a performance of William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, conducted by the composer. With Yehudi Menuhin as president, Heltay’s chorus went on to make multiple recordings for major labels with Previn, Ashkenazy and his fellow-Hungarian exiles Kertesz and Dorati. Every other UK chorus had to pull its socks up to match Heltay’s standards.

Heltay remained head of the Brighton ensemble for 27 years.

He moved to Spain in the 1990s to improve the Madrid radio choir and latterly to his hometown Budapest, where he died of cancer on December 17.

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  • That’s sad news. He also founded Schola Cantorum of Oxford in 1960, a choir that has included Emma Kirkby, Ian Bostridge and countless other singers and music professionals (including me) among its members, and is still going very strong today.

      • Alas I never met him. Schola tends to move on to new conductors every three or four years, though until recently it had a long stint with the excellent James Burton, now at the Boston Symphony.

        Heltay had come to Oxford to study with Kodaly, as I recall.

        I was a big fan of his work with the Brighton Festival chorus, whom I heard many times in my youth as I grew up nearby.
        And they still sound terrific.

        • I was in the BFC when he conducted. He was exacting, could be quite severe, but also charming. He inspired the choir to produce wonderful results.

      • I sang under Lazlo’s conductorship in both the Kodaly Choir, which was a choir he founded in Merton College where he was a fellow, and in the Collegium Musicum Oxoniensis, which was the choir he founded in 1960 which became the Schola Cantorum after he left Oxford to go to New Zealand. In the summer of 1964 CMO first did two concerts in Merton chapel for the 700th anniversary of the founding of the college with Yehudi Menuin and the Bath Festival Orchestra. Those concerts included a setting of ‘The Music Makers’ written for the occasion by Kodaly – Lazlo had studied with Kodaly before leaving Hungary in 1957 as a refugee. Then we sang in a concert for the Oxford Bach Festival, in which the final was Stravinsky’s ‘Symphony of Psalms’ – conducted by Stravinsky himself. I will always remember Lazlo as a conductor who worked us (and himself) hard but was never harsh and who always encouraged us to give our best. May he rest in peace.

  • Heltay for me was one of those ‘unsung’ (no pun intended) heroes, whose name one read, in his case as a chorus master, producing marvellous results, but not hogging limelight. I listened to many recordings in which he was involved and was never less than impressed by the performances – RIP

  • I went up to Oxford to read history at St Anne’s in 1963 and was lucky enough to sing in Laszlo’s Kodaly Choir based in Exeter college in 1963/64. Kodaly composed a piece for the choir – “we are the music makers…”. We also sang Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms” conducted by Stravinsky himself in Oxford and broadcast.

    Laszlo had previously founded and conducted the prestigious Collegium Musicum Oxeniensis – which ceased when he left Oxford in 1964. There was of course always a shortish life span for each grouping of singers because of the average 3 yr degree anyway.

    The Schola Cantorum was in effect the successor choir to the Collegium and was as I understand it founded by John Burt who conducted it when I sang in it in 1964/66. We were lucky enough to make two fantastic overseas trips in the long vac in 1965. First to Germany to take part in a European choir festival for young people, and then to the USA to represent the UK in a group of international choirs which all took part in the inaugural concert for the then new Lincoln Arts Centre in New York. That was followed by choir tours giving concerts and Yale and Harvard. How fortunate we all were…and how long ago it all was. Happy days.

    Lynette Brown (now Barling)

    • Hallo Lynette. I’ve only just seen Laszlo’s obituaries, and saw your comments. You and I shared accommodation at 11 Bradmore Road for two years. I of course share your memories of amazing choral experiences at Oxford and in London with Laszlo. He was a god to me at Oxford. Best wishes. Jenny Davidson (Mussell)

  • I am so sorry to hear of the passing of Laszlo Heltay. He conducted the choir and orchestra at the University of Sussex when I was studying for my BA in Music there from 1970-1973. I played flute in the orchestra and still remember performing Mahler 4, Beethoven’s Eroica, Wagner’s Tristan Prelude and rarities like Dvorak’s Spectre’s Bride and the Schumann Konzertstück for four horns and orchestra under his baton. He was a brilliant conductor: playing in the orchestra was one of the few redeeming features of my time at Sussex.

  • As an undergraduate at St Hildas, matriculating in 1957, I was delighted to join what was to become the Kodaly Choir in its very early days, having heard about the wonderful new Hungarian conductor who had just arrived at Merton. Inspiring rehearsals in Rose Lane, memorable concerts introducing us to the then unfamiliar works such as Kodaly’s Missa Brevis and his Budavari Te Deum; the unforgettable visit of Kodaly himself, an imposing figure in his Oxford academic robes; breaking the centuries old tradition by being one of the first women to dine in hall as a “minstrel” in the gallery at the Boars Head Dinner in Merton Hall. Laszlo endeared himself to all the women in the choir by presenting us all with little buttonholes ( I seem to remember lily of the valley) to wear for one summer concert! All these experiences set me up with a lifelong interest in choral music and in actually singing as long as my voice held out! Even in more recent years as we came to live in the West Country, I had the good fortune to meet up with Laszlo again at choral weekends at Dartington in Devon where he was guest conductor and in Cornwall when we sang the piece specially composed by Kodaly for the choir, “The Music Makers”

    I still think of those singing days with Laszlo as perhaps the most abiding memory of my three years at Oxford.

    Jane Wood.(Sugars). St Hilda’s. 1957-60.

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