2019 marked the sad passing of our founding Music Director, László Heltay. The following obituary was written by Bass 1, Richard Pulham who still sings with BFC today
Members of Brighton Festival Chorus were deeply saddened to hear of the death on 17 December of László Heltay, our Founder and Music Director for 27 years. László formed BFC in 1968 at the invitation of the Brighton Festival and there is absolutely no doubt that without his charismatic leadership and guidance BFC would never have become established as one of the country’s leading symphony choruses and gone on to achieve so much. He was an inspiration to all those of us who had the privilege of singing with him. He worked us hard, with great attention to musical detail and to the quality and freshness of the sound we produced. ‘There is no point in us singing at all if we can’t make a beautiful sound’ he used to say – and he insisted on ‘no vibrato!’ Rehearsals were frequently punctuated with requests for us to ‘hold up your copies for God’s sake!’ If he felt we were not up to the high standards which he set he would certainly tell us so but at the same time, if he sensed that we needed encouragement, he would always find the right words to raise our spirits, often with a humorous remark. Indeed, his sense of humour became almost legendary, he seemed able to see the funny side of any situation. This meant that rehearsals were great fun as well as being hard work! But I think the best way of summing up his rehearsal technique is to use his own words, as he explained in a message to the gathering of Founder Members in February 2018 on the 50th anniversary of our first ever rehearsal; he said, ‘I tried to achieve my aim that the singers leave the rehearsals less tired than when they arrived.’ He certainly succeeded.
Concerts with László were always special too. I particularly remember a performance for Belgian Radio and Television of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem in Diksmuide in Flanders on Armistice Day 1988, a hugely special and emotional occasion for all concerned, performers and audience alike, made all the more so by László’s sensitive and heartfelt conducting. Recordings of music by Kodály, with whom László had studied in Budapest, were memorable too, with the added impact of László’s deep understanding and love of the work of his teacher.
I know from my own experience as Chairman of the Chorus in the 1980s that László was held in the highest regard by all our visiting conductors. To quote just one example, André Previn wrote after his initial concerts with us when he became Principal Conductor of the RPO in 1985, ‘A very heartfelt personal note of thanks to you for the immaculate way you prepared both the Ravel and the Brahms.’
It’s not surprising that László’s reputation as one of the finest choral conductors led to increasing conducting engagements elsewhere. In 1975 he was invited to form a chorus for the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and he later became conductor of the Royal Choral Society. He also had regular conducting engagements with the Radio Choirs in Hamburg and Stuttgart and later in Madrid. However, he always made it clear that he was pleased to come back to BFC. ‘I always love coming back to you after a few weeks with other choirs. I forget how wonderful you sound,’ he used to say. But I think the best way of summing up his affection for BFC would be to quote again from his message to the founder members get-together in 2018 when he told us ‘I have conducted many choirs and orchestras in many countries before and after 22nd February 1968 (the date of the first ever rehearsal) but I have never felt happier than when we have worked together.’