Mark Hartt-Palmer takes a sharp intake of breath, winces and pauses. He is searching for the right words.
‘Let’s just say it was not a happy time for me. It was tough, but I must have had the determination and strength of character to get me through it,’ he says.
We were touching on his schooldays in Portsmouth.
They started at Somers Road infants and juniors. He then moved to St Luke’s, Southsea, and finally City Boys at Hilsea. It was the latter which pained him so much.
He admits his passion for music was not the usual path chosen by the lads at City Boys.
He was unusual, but he persevered and has carved a niche in his adult life which proves that with enough grit and sheer stubbornness you can rise above anything.
When he left City Boys he went to Peter Symonds sixth form college, Winchester, to study a double music A-level and then, after gruelling auditions on both violin and piano, secured a coveted place at the Royal College of Music in London for four years.
Now Mark, 48, has just taken on one of the most challenging jobs in the Portsmouth area’s amateur music scene as musical director of the 82-year-old Portsmouth Chorus, once known as the Portsmouth Glee Club.
Tonight he will conduct the 70-strong choir for the first time in a public performance when the chorus performs its annual Christmas concert at the Anglican cathedral in Old Portsmouth.
He is also a violinist and is the leader of the highly-respected Chichester Symphony Orchestra. In the past he has directed the Hayling Island Operatic Society, Havant Light Opera and Petersfield Theatre Group.
Mark, who was born at St Mary’s Hospital, Milton, Portsmouth, and grew up in Albert Grove, Southsea, met his wife Claire when she joined the Chichester orchestra in 2002. He had become a member two years previously and she now leads the second violin section.
But she too has followed her husband to the Chorus. ‘She hadn’t sung for a long time, but she did have singing lessons.
‘Life is pretty hectic for us in the early part of every week. We have Chorus rehearsals every Monday and orchestra rehearsals every Tuesday.
‘But it’s something I really look forward to, especially if work has been a bit stressful. It’s a known fact that music, and singing in particular, are excellent for countering stress.’
Mark’s day job is in IT for a company at Hedge End, not too far from the couple’s home at Funtley, near Fareham. He once worked for London Transport building a database for the capital’s river boat services.
‘In the development office six of us were musicians. I suppose the logical side of computer programming does have similarities with music.
‘I’ve always been interested in computers and I’d started doing a bit of desktop publishing when I was asked to have a look at writing a programme for somebody. I taught myself this particular language and it mushroomed from there.’
So was he nervous about taking on one of the most venerable and venerated choirs in the region?
‘Of course. I was nervous and I think the choir was too. It’s only natural when a new boss takes over in any walk of life. You feel each other out for a while until they get used to you and I get used to them.’
Mark took the baton from Rod Starr in September. He had been the chorus’ musical director for the previous 20 years and Mark admits it is a hard act to follow.
‘He did a fantastic job, but every musical director is different. It’s the biggest choir I’ve ever taken on and there is a big range of members in terms of age and their differing characters and capabilities.
‘I just try to be myself. I think I’m friendly, but I also don’t let them get away with things they shouldn’t. I’m very particular on things like breathing and pronouncing the end of words – things which distinguish a fairly good choir from a very good one. Attention to detail is a must.’
He adds: ‘I want to introduce some new things to them. I want to integrate more classical music into our programmes as well as continue with some of the lighter numbers.
‘I’d like to bring in more younger singers too – especially men, which is a problem with all choirs. Membership of the junior choir is doing well and they are performing part of the concert with the adults tonight.’
So did TV ratings-topping The Choir: Military Wives series, which made a star of conductor Gareth Malone, help recruitment? ‘I think it has sparked a renaissance in choral singing.
‘It made people realise how much fun singing in a group can be, no matter what your ability.’
‘It’s a marvellous thing to do outside the workplace, something you can do to wash away the stresses of the day.’
Marking 82 years of entertaining thousands
They started life as the Portsmouth Glee Club with just 16 members. Today, as the Portsmouth Chorus, they have celebrated 82 years of singing their hearts out.
It was in November 1930 that a young man called Harold Hall founded the Glee Club. Their first concert was at the Royal Sailors’ Rest on March 11, 1931, and since then the choir has performed all over the area and appeared at the Royal Albert Hall, entertaining tens of thousands of people over the years.
Today there are about 70 members who perform regularly in the Portsmouth area and a junior choir launched to celebrate the 80th anniversary. Both groups rehearse every Monday evening at the Mountbatten Centre.
The Glee Club made its debut at the old Guildhall, Portsmouth, in 1937, when the choir performed Merrie England.
Performances continued throughout the Second World War when concerts were held to raise money for the Red Cross Prisoners of War fund. With the Guildhall destroyed by German bombs, they sang at London Road Baptist and Copnor Road Methodist churches, the Wesleyan Central Hall at Fratton and the Victory Theatre in the Royal Naval Barracks.
The choir’s rehearsal venues were bombed twice and it lost its entire library of music. But with true wartime grit members carried on singing.
The concerts became so popular they all sold out and at the club’s birthday dinner at Kimbell’s Ballroom, Southsea, in 1946, Mr Hall said: ‘We are entirely self-supporting and the question now is whether we should ration the tickets.’
It was not until 1959 that the choir moved into its new home, the rebuilt Guildhall, where members sang to sell-out audiences of 2,000. They were the first adult choir invited to sing in the rebuilt building.
In the 1960s and 70s they often shared the stage with the Welsh, Irish or Scots guards and the Royal Military School of Music Band.
· Tonight’s concert of Christmas music at the Anglican cathedral, Old Portsmouth, with Festival Brass and Portsmouth Junior Choir, starts at 7.30pm.