In the middle of 1963, a notice appeared in the Talk of Trinidad column of the Trinidad Guardian, announcing the formation of a new choir and inviting singers to come for an audition. It was to be the first choir to be formed in a newly independent Trinidad & Tobago.
The response was tremendous. A few days later, outside a small house on Warner Street, a crowd of hopeful singers turned up to have their voices assessed. The small room with the big piano was soon crowded; latecomers stood outside on the sidewalk and, when their turn came, sang through the window.
As the new choir’s director was the music teacher at St Joseph’s Convent (Port of Spain), Jocelyn Pierre, many of the young singers were past pupils. For male choristers, Jocelyn turned to her counterpart at Fatima College, Father Tim Corcoran, and recruited graduates from his Dominic Savio choir and to keen young voices from elsewhere.
And so the Marionettes Chorale was born, led by Jocelyn and co-director, June Williams-Thorne. They presented several concerts in the early years, including the notable “September Song” in 1966. The collaboration Jocelyn spearheaded with Anthony Williams, the leader of Pan Am Jet North Stars, has been documented by the press and by steelband historians as the first time a choir and a steelband shared the stage, blending voices and steel at a live concert performance of that nature — both separately and together, in a way we now take for granted.
Jocelyn and June ran the choir together until 1968 when June left. Jocelyn departed in 1974 to go to Canada to further her education, just a few years after suffering a tragic stroke. After a brief crisis of “succession”, singing member Gretta Taylor was chosen to assume the role of conductor, with fellow member Susan Dore as assistant musical director, and founder member Joanne Mendes as secretary and production manager leading a management committee. The choir’s leadership team has grown over the years to include several others serving on various committees and with invaluable portfolios. Almost all are entirely volunteer.
The Chorale embarked on several Caribbean and international tours during the 1960s and 70s, and competed intermittently in the biennial festivals between 1964 and 1980, when it retired unbeaten from local competition.
After 1980, the choir was busy gaining respect on the international scene. Competing against the big names like Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, England, Ireland, Wales, Poland, Romania, the Philippines, Cuba, and the United States, the Marionettes won four major prizes from the three International Choral Festivals in which they participated: in Llangollen, Wales (1981); Cork, Ireland (1984); and Middlesbrough, England (1992). In the process, such distinguished musical figures as John Rutter, Philip Ledger, Andrew Carter and Gwyn Arch were high in their praises of the Chorale’s performances.
In addition to Britain, the Chorale has toured extensively in the West Indies (Curaçao, Grenada, St. Vincent, Barbados, Jamaica), and in North America and Central America (New York, Toronto, Montreal, Miami, Philadelphia, Washington DC, and Costa Rica). It has received standing ovations from capacity audiences at such prestigious venues as St Martin-in-the-Fields in London, the Assembly Rooms in York, and the Hall of the Americas in Washington. Over the years, it has performed for internationally acclaimed personalities such as Lord Browne and Colin Powell, and has entertained international delegates from the OAS and the Commonwealth, Caricom Heads of Government, and Commonwealth magistrates.
In Trinidad and Tobago the Marionettes present full-length annual concerts at Christmas time, which usher in the Christmas season for capacity audiences and cover a wide range of music. Faithful audiences were the first to coin the phrase “Christmas begins with the Marionettes”. These are complemented by full-length performances, guest appearances, and fund-raising performances throughout the year — including full productions of operas and musical theatre productions like Carmen and Les Misérables. They have performed all over Trinidad and Tobago, and regularly take part in charity and community performances.
In 1987, the 25th anniversary of Trinidad and Tobago’s independence, the Chorale was awarded the Humming Bird Medal (Gold) for its outstanding contribution to music. Its director, Gretta Taylor, was honoured with a similar award in 1990. The choir has received several other awards and prizes since.
In 1995, the Youth Chorale was formed, followed by the Children’s Choir in 2012 as a branch of the Youth Chorale. All the choir members, as well as virtually all artistic and production team members, volunteer their time — unpaid. Members come from every sector of Trinidad and Tobago society, devoting time throughout the year to rigorous rehearsals, plus extra work as production time approaches. Membership averages 120 across the adult and youth groups. New members are welcomed at the beginning of each session.