Cliff van Tonder BCAa - Musical Director of Elmbridge Choir and Founder of Surrey Music
Cliff was born in Cape Town, South Africa, and spent 25 years directing and conducting congregational and regional choirs all over Southern Africa. It was his involvement in the Nkosi Johnson AIDS foundation and his desire to increase awareness of the devastation caused by AIDS that sparked the idea of forming his first choir in South Africa, Sandton Choir, which helped to raise thousands of life-saving pounds for children’s charities in and around Johannesburg.
Despite his passion for music and his vast experience of leading choirs, Cliff had no formal musical training. His earliest and perhaps fondest musical memories are of teaching himself to play the organ in his local church in Durban and bravely offering his services to lead the church choir!
In 1981 Cliff conceptualized and presented the first ever Choir Festival in South Africa which spread out all over the country. His personal musical highlight in South Africa was directing a mass choir of over 1,800 members in Durban City Hall in September 1986.
With such drive and motivation it is hardly surprising that a year after arriving in the UK in 2004, Cliff formed Elmbridge Choir, with the mission to create a way for people from all walks of life, regardless of their musical ability, to share their passion for singing whilst giving something back to their community.
Elmbridge Choir was the founding choir of Surrey Community Music Society. With Cliff as its CEO, the society soon became established as perhaps the largest charitable community music society in the UK. Alongside Elmbridge Choir, Surrey Music has established Elmbridge Ladies Choir, launched a hugely successful big band, supported a youth band, enabled a group of adults with learning disabilities to enjoy weekly music sessions, awarded £14,000 worth of grants for music related activites and raised in excess of £175,000 for charity.
Cliff also spent a couple of years presenting a weekly local radio show devoted to choral and big band music.
One of his personal musical highlights was the realisation of a project to record and promote a charity single celebrating the 2012 Paralympic Games, raising funds for two charities. ‘Light the Flame’ was recorded at Sky Studios by Elmbridge Choir and subsequently achieved UK and worldwide sales from the iTunes and Amazon download chart.
Cliff’s energy, determination and vision are widely recognised in his local community and further afield. His musical leadership and society management is delivered on an entirely voluntary basis, which he successfully manages alongside his career. For his community and charity work he has received an Elmbridge Volunteer Long Service Award, has been shortlisted for the BBC Surrey ‘Community Hero of the Year’ Award, and was nominated to carry the Olympic Torch in London 2012 Olympic Games.
In January 2019 Cliff was nominated for recognition for the positive impact he has made on our community, and was awarded the British Citizen Award for services to the Arts at a formal presentation in the Palace of Westminster. A well-deserved accolade of which Cliff is immensely proud.