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October 26, 2007

Conducting a lifelong effort to teach the world to sing

Boston Globe (MA):

If you've ever sung in a chorus or listened to much choral music, you probably know the name of Sir David Willcocks. Willcocks is a choral conductor who has spent much of his career leading two of Britain's seminal vocal groups: the Choir of King's College, Cambridge, and the Bach Choir of London. With them he made a large number of recordings, works that reach from Purcell and Bach to Britten and Vaughan Williams, both of whom he worked with. His arrangements of Christmas carols have become orthodoxy for choirs everywhere.

More than a conductor, he is an institution in the art of choral singing. Since 1998, Willcocks has been retired from his various positions, which also included a stint as director of the Royal College of Music. He now spends much of his time working with choirs throughout the world. His latest stop is Trinity Church, where he has been rehearsing Brahms's "A German Requiem" with its choir in preparation for a concert on Sunday.

These mini-workshops would seem to be the antithesis of the long-term work of ensemble refinement Willcocks undertook with his two eminent groups. Speaking by phone a day after arriving in Boston, Willcocks reflects on what he can impart during only two or three days of work. "In most cases they love the music they're singing - otherwise they wouldn't be doing it," he says. His voice is somewhat raspy but its vitality is undimmed. "I try to deepen their love of it, point out why the composer did certain things."

Of course, he adds, basic details like intonation have to be attended to as time allows. But he sees his mission as a broader one: "If you make everyone live the part, you're doing your job."

Willcocks was director of the King's College choir from 1957 to 1974, and of the Bach Choir from 1960 to 1998. The two groups represented opposing poles of the British choral tradition. The King's choir, established by King Henry VI, consists of 16 boys and 14 young men, an iconic example of a small, all-male chorus. Willcocks's tenure coincided with the LP-era boom in the recording of classical music, and he recorded large swaths of the choral repertoire, ranging far outside what the choir usually sang during its liturgical duties at the college's chapel.

Willcocks says he feels lucky to have had the chance to record so much, though at the beginning things like microphone placement were less than scientific. "When I started, the boys used to stand on chairs to get extra height," he says. "All sorts of ugly things happened."

By contrast, the Bach Choir is a large group of men and women, numbering between 250 and 300. Their rise to prominence was in large part due to their involvement with Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem," which had been composed for the rededication of Coventry Cathedral in 1962. It was intended as an act of healing for Europe after the Second World War, during which Willcocks served in the British army.

The chorus sang the London premiere of the piece and recorded it under the composer's baton. "He was so thrilled when he heard them, he not only had them do the recording but also said, 'I want them to go and sing it around the world.' " So the choir toured with the piece, and Willcocks reels off the itinerary as if it happened last year: Perugia, Milan, Venice, Madrid, Lisbon, Hong Kong, Amsterdam. "We felt like we were spreading the gospel."

Equally undimmed is his memory of working with both Britten and Vaughan Williams, who together gave Britain most of its finest choral music of the century. Britten, Willcocks says, was meticulous in his scores, which contained a wealth of detail about phrasing, dynamics, and other matters. " 'People have only got to do what's there and I shall be happy,' " he remembers the composer telling him. " 'If anybody does anything different, I don't want to hear the music again.' "

By contrast, when Willcocks asked Vaughan Williams for guidance while recording his music, the composer replied, "If you do it as you feel it, I shall be happy. I've never heard you do any of my works when I wasn't absolutely happy with it."

One further index of Willcocks's stature is the number of former students, choristers, and assistants who have gone on to have important musical careers. They include Simon Preston and the conductor Andrew Davis. Willcocks's 1963 recording of the Allegri "Miserere" featured some striking solos by a 12-year-old treble named Roy Goodman, who has become an acclaimed violinist and conductor.

And don't forget Prince Charles, whom the conductor knew as an undergraduate at Cambridge, and who was a member of the Bach Choir.

"He said, 'Could I join your choir?' And I said, 'Only if you rehearse and have an audition,' " Willcocks recalls with a laugh. He also selected and conducted the music for Charles's marriage to then-Lady Diana Spencer.

"Lovely person, and we're so lucky to have him next in line to the throne," he says.

He is equally matter-of-fact when asked how he would like to be remembered, once he is no longer conducting: "As a chap who loved music and loved making music with others. I'd love for people to think of me as someone who really enjoyed music and only did the music he really liked."

Posted by acapnews at October 26, 2007 9:33 PM



Posted by: HARLOW at January 10, 2008 12:33 AM

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