On Wednesday, 2nd October 1963, seven sopranos, ten altos, five tenors and five basses filed into Park Church at 7.30 p.m. Hand-picked by the conductor, they could all sight-read, sing in tune and could be relied upon to watch (a state of affairs earnestly desired by any conductor). They had been rehearsing all summer for this first performance by the choir, as yet with no name, in order to sing Mendelssohn's Elijah. The conductor was Arthur Brocklebank who was then the organist and choirmaster at St Michael's Church and Assistant Head of Music at Hermitage Academy. Joining him at the organ was Andrew Kinloch, the organist and choirmaster at Park Church (and later Head of Music at the Academy). The concert was well received and the choir clearly had potential; but in the short term it needed a name and a future programme.
By 1964, the infant choir had both and the Helensburgh Oratorio Choir sang what was to be the first of many performances of Messiah. A choir of fifty, two of whom are still singing in the choir today, presented Brahms's Requiem a year later and the choir continued to grow. With good support from the local community, finances were on a sound footing in relation to the scope of the activities but even so they did not permit a wide expansion of the repertoire, still less the employment of a set of professional soloists and an orchestra. The music chosen for 1966, Haydn's Creation, began to raise in some minds thoughts on how these limitations could be overcome. Despite Andrew Kinloch's unequalled ability as a one-man orchestra, the Creation was full of orchestral effects that just could not be reproduced on the organ. The finances did permit, however, the engagement of the first professional soloist, David Johnston, who was to return twenty years later in the role of Gerontius. In a very short space of time, the young choir - formed in the first instance largely from the many church choirs in the town - had tackled some of the commanding heights of the choral repertoire. Arthur Brocklebank could feel proud of his achievements as he left Helensburgh to take up an important post in musical education in the Highland Region.
The record of performances is poor for 1967 but it is believed that performances of Messiah were given around the local district. What is known is that Andrew Kinloch took over as conductor, giving, in 1968, a performance of Bach's St John Passion and introducing a new musician at the organ: Walter Blair, again a church organist, of what is now St Andrew's Kirk, had commenced what was to be a long and fruitful association with the choir. In 1969, the choir again tackled Brahms' Requiem in what was Andrew's final concert as conductor.
The choir had started out as a summer choir giving one major performance a year. Over the years, it had commenced the change to the more usual practice of rehearsing between autumn and spring but the major changes were initiated in 1970 when Walter Blair was appointed its conductor. The first such change was to replace the organ by an orchestra. One of Scotland's finest musicians and a noted accompanist, Walter had the contacts to help him assemble an orchestra using students and local professionals at a cost the young choir could afford. Perhaps even more importantly for the choir, he stayed as the choir's conductor for the next twenty one years bringing much-needed stability of leadership at a critical time for the development of a choir. Indeed, later he could bring to bear his wider knowledge of choral singing, not least as an adjudicator for the Sainsbury's Choir of the Year and at Festivals throughout the UK. Under his direction, the choir blossomed and was heard more widely as the choir took part in radio and TV programmes.
As the choir developed still further, support from professional orchestras, assembled from the ranks of the many orchestras in the Glasgow area, and professional soloists became the norm. Exploiting the links with the RSAMD (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) meant that that the choir often engaged young soloists at the outset of their careers who would later go on to international success as the list of soloists associated with the choir reveals. The choir tackled the commanding heights of the choral repertoire - Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, Bach's B Minor Mass, the Verdi Requiem, Mozart's Mass in C minor - whilst ensuring that the overall repertoire was broad enough to appeal to all, choristers and audience alike: the well-loved requiem settings by Fauré, Mozart and the less-well-known but magnificent setting by Duruflé, were contrasts to Poulenc's Gloria, Rossini's Petite messe solennelle, and Britten's St Nicolas.
After 21 years, Walter decided it was time to move on and the choir appointed Peter Christie, another organist and choirmaster (but this time in Paisley) as its conductor. Pressures of work as a doctor working in public health and epidemiology meant he had to leave after only two years but not before he had significantly widened the scope of the music performed with notable performances of Rossini's Stabat Mater and Gounod's St Cecilia Mass, neither of which had been performed by the choir before.
For some time, however, there had been a major problem within the choir: a tenor with a voice that could charitably likened to that of a corn-crake on a bad day, that was invariably too loud and that cut through even the densest choral texture with complete indifference to the subtleties of expression and dynamics. There was only one way forward: in 1993 the choir appointed him its conductor solving the internal balance problem at a stroke. for 23 years, under the guidance of Martin Speller, the choir continued to explore the choral repertoire, with very few repetitions of major works - Messiah aside. It gave what was believed to be the only Scottish performance during the last 40 years or so of the Bruckner D minor Mass, and commissioned, and was presented with, new music from local composers.
The HOC's Remembrance Sunday 2009 concert featured the first Helensburgh performance of Vaughan Williams' cantata Dona nobis pacem. The concert received high praise: "a performance that was powerful, intense, dramatic and totally committed to the music. The HOC is to be congratulated on the success of this benchmark concert which introduced music little-known and of great difficulty".
In all but one of the seasons, music new to Helensburgh has been presented and the choir has widened its repertoire of languages: Latin and English have been joined by Danish, French, German and idiosyncratic Church Slavonic.
Martin retired in May 2016, closing 23 years of remarkable music making in Helensburgh with a memorable performance of the St Matthew Passion, one of many "Top Ten" works by Bach. In August 2016, the choir began a new chapter when it welcomed Jonathon Swinard as its new Music Director.
Now numbering about seventy, the choir has been supported for all this time by (what is now) Making Music, by a committed membership, by an enthusiastic committee, by a loyal audience and by a succession of very talented accompanists who, as every choir director knows, are the people who really matter.