About our Festival Director & Founder

"Anyone who knows him would call him charismatic, driven, visionary – even slightly bonkers"

Get to Know Cliff

Cliff van Tonder
Cliff van TonderFounder & MD

When the larger-than-life character swept into leafy Surrey from South Africa, the gentle people of Cobham didn’t know quite what had hit them: a whirlwind, a frenzy of passion, bubbling with excitement and a flash of white teeth, full of plans and ideas not only to provide an affordable, inclusive, non-audition community choir, but also to give something back to his community.

With so much energy it was no surprise that, when Cliff realised the start of his dream in 2005 with the formation of Elmbridge Choir, it was an overnight success. Cliff gave people the chance to enjoy singing together, regardless of background or musical experience, in a friendly and supportive environment. The choir proved so popular that four years later Elmbridge Ladies Choir was born, increasing Surrey Music’s membership – and Cliff’s fan base - by 90 adoring (and adorable) ladies!

In 2009 Cliff founded the Surrey Community Music Society which soon became established as perhaps the largest charitable community music society in the UK. Alongside Elmbridge Choir and Elmbridge Ladies Choir, Surrey Music has 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 activities and so far raised in excess of £210,000 for charity.

Back In 1981 Cliff conceptualized and presented the first ever Choir Festival in Durban South Africa with just on 2,000 people participating in a mass choir finale accompanied by an orchestra of over 100 musicians – one of his personal highlights. This choir festival idea spread out all over the country and until this day is still a favourite South African institution.

Another 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 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.

Now residing in Peacehaven, E Sussex, Cliff continues the weekly journey back to Surrey to take rehearsals with Elmbridge Choir, and to lead the two or three concerts performed each year. 

Underlying Cliff's huge sense of fun is a deep and sincere commitment to acceptance and inclusivity. He knows from personal experience that, sadly, ignorance and homophobia still exists in many places and aims to do whatever he can to support the LGBTQ+ community. Surrey Music was proud to be a sponsor of the first ever Pride in Surrey event taking place in August 2019 and Cliff was delighted to accept the invitation to be Patron of Pride in Surrey. In October 2019 he established Surrey's first-ever LGBTQ+ choir which now boasts almost 60 members and who presented their first performance at the Surrey Music Christmas Concert in December 2019.

Cliff’s mission is to improve the lives of people though music – as founder of the choir festival as we know it in South Africa, and having seen first hand how singing in a choir has changed the lives of people in his own choirs here in the UK, he has held a long-time dream to establish a festival in the UK dedicated to choral music and to bring people from all over the world to experience UK culture and join together in the joy of singing.

With the establishment of the Brighton International Festival of Choirs this dream becomes reality – supporting Mind, Brighton and Hove is a fitting manifestation of how music really can change people’s lives, and Cliff is very aware that not only will each person participating in the festival have an enjoyable and lasting experience, but in so doing they will help improve the lives and mental wellbeing of someone else they have never even met.

Awards & Recognition

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Volunteer Award
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