Brian Kay celebrates 20 years conducting Leith Hill Musical Festival and the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams
- Credit: Simon Ames
As the internationally-renowned conductor Brian Kayprepares for his final year at the helm of the Leith Hill Musical Festival, here he chats to us about his 20-year tenure, his views on the founder-conductor Ralph Vaughan Williams and how he has no plans to retire yet
With a musical career spanning more than six decades and including such feats as conducting at London’s Royal Albert Hall, singing at venues across the globe and presenting numerous BBC radio shows, one might wonder how Brian Kay finds the time to be involved in a local choral festival.
However, as the conductor of the Leith Hill Musical Festival, which has seen choirs from across the county coming together at the Dorking Halls for over a century, the outgoing and affable Brian has been instrumental in the Surrey music scene for over 20 years.
“The Leith Hill Musical Festival remains a shining example of what can be achieved when a very large number of people get together and sing great music,” says Brian. “These days, choirs can’t really afford to put on concerts with large orchestras, so the festival allows them to do this. It’s a wonderful feeling and a great social event; not just a musical one.”
As a former Surrey resident himself, he first got involved with the festival back in 1986 when he was invited to narrate one of the concerts. “I felt that special feeling when I went to narrate – and, ten years later, when my predecessor, Bill Llewellyn, announced that he was to retire, I bravely asked if I could take over,” laughs Brian. He got the gig and has been conductor of the festival (more of which later) ever since.
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Born in May 1944, Brian describes himself as “the proud son of a Yorkshire family”. As a young boy, though, he was sent across the Pennines to the Rydal Penrhos School in Colwyn Bay, North Wales, where it soon became evident that music would play an important part in his life. True to form, he went on to win a scholarship to Cambridge.
“It was on the advice of my music director at the school – who had been a choral scholar himself in the 1930s – that I applied for a music scholarship at Cambridge,” says Brian. “I went on to spend the next three years studying under the great Sir David Willcocks, thinking that I had died and gone to heaven. My time at Cambridge was life- enhancing but also a leap in the dark, as none of my family had previously graduated from university.”
It wasn’t long, of course, before Brian’s student days at King’s College Cambridge evolved into the musical career for which he is now so well known. As a founding member of The King’s Singers in the 1960s, he soon found himself catapulted onto the world’s stage.
“When I was at Cambridge, five of my King’s choir colleagues and I began to sing together for fun, both on rag days and at charity functions, and in the Footlights Club,” he explains. “Then, and just for fun, we began to arrange the music that we were studying as a sort of barbershop, as it were. When we eventually left university, we decided to try to stay together, doing concerts.
“Then, in 1968, a great friend of ours hired the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s Southbank and that ended up becoming the official debut concert of The King’s Singers!”
Over the course of 15 years, Brian sang in 2,000 concerts with the group, before going on to spread his wings with a wide range of other musical projects, ranging from choral and conducting and even to pop (he was the ‘lowest’ frog on the Paul McCartney single We All Stand Together), and at the BBC, presenting radio shows such as Friday Night is Music Night and the eponymously-named Brian Kay’s Light Programme.
“Gradually, bit by bit, one of us would leave The King’s Singers and we’d be replaced,” continues Brian. “But they always found really good replacements and the group lives on today – though we now know them as ‘the grandchildren’. In two years, the group will celebrate its half-century and there will certainly be some celebrating!”
King’s to Kingston
Funnily enough, it was as a result of his time with The King’s Singers that Brian also discovered his love for Surrey. In 1970, looking for a house with his then new wife, the soprano Gillian Fisher, he ended up buying the Kingston home of a fellow singer in the group.
“I thought it a good idea to buy a house I already knew from friends I trusted!” laughs Brian. “I also wanted to move out of central London and Kingston seemed an obvious place. The house was a two-up two-down, detached property and my friends had found it very convenient for so many things, so I thought it a good move. And so it turned out to be. One of the great joys was being able to walk in Richmond Park: it was such a wonderful facility to have so close at hand. My son was also born while we lived there, so we have very happy memories.”
From Kingston, Brian eventually moved to Ewell, partly, he explains, because he was “brought up in a Yorkshire village and village life has always appealed to me most. We bought a three-bedroom, detached, end-of-cul-de-sac house and Ewell turned out to be a very friendly place to live.
“When I came to sell, the estate agent described our home place as the perfect commuter house, but sold it to the drummer in the band, Hot Chocolate! My daughter was born while we lived in Ewell, so both the Kingston and Epsom hospitals played an important part in our family history.
“From Surrey, I decided to move to the Cotswolds, which, I’m sorry to say, is a place even more beautiful than Ewell,” Brian quips. “We now live in Oxfordshire, in a small village called Fulbrook, and it is quite a hike to the home of the Leith Hill Musical Festival, Surrey’s Dorking Halls, but I can do it legally in about an hour and a half!”
Now regarded as one of the country’s leading choral events, the Leith Hill Musical Festival was originally founded in 1905 by Lady Evangeline Farrer and Margaret Vaughan Williams, whose famous brother, the composer Ralph, was festival conductor for nearly 50 years. Held each spring, it sees some of the county’s best-known choirs come together to compete against one another but also to join together for daily concerts. Today, as always, the primary purpose is to make music for the whole community to enjoy.
“The original vision of Vaughan Williams has survived for 110 years and it would seem likely that it will go on forever, enriching the lives of so many Surrey people,” says Brian. “I believe that Vaughan Williams would be so proud that his incredible vision continues to bear fruit today.”
While the festival starts in March, with a performance of Bach’s St John Passion, St Matthew Passion or Handel’s Messiah, the main focal point of this annual extravaganza is in April, when some 700 singers get together over the course of the three days (this year from Thursday April 14 to Saturday April 16). Recognising the huge amount of time that goes into organising the event, Brian credits its continued success to all those who help behind the scenes.
“It simply could not exist without the unbelievable work of the administrative team, who are all volunteers,” he says. “If the festival had to pay for the work of these people, hour by hour, then it would have run out of money years ago. It is impossible to underestimate the work and devotion of those who keep it going.
“The festival is a truly wonderful event; it’s exhausting, but very exciting, and I always need a good drink and a good meal when I get home,” he laughs. “I’m very fortunate that my wife looks after me.”
Tiring though the festival may be, it is clearly a labour of love, and one which Brian has dedicated a great deal of time to over the years. “Nobody will ever equal Vaughan Williams’ 50 years – after all, he conducted in the year he died – but 20 years is a pretty good stint,” he adds modestly.
Last year, to celebrate his 20-year tenure, the festival commissioned a piece of music in his honour, Dances of Time, by British composer, singer and conductor, Bob Chilcott. “Bob is a dear old friend and I could not be more thrilled,” says Brian. “The piece will now be used all over the world and, at the top of each score, it will say that it is dedicated to the Leith Hill Musical Festival. The choirs loved learning it and singing it, and audiences loved listening to it.”
The show goes on
Now, however, after 21 years, Brian feels that the time has come to hand over his Leith Hill reins to a new conductor – and it is hard to think of a more worthy successor than Jonathan Willcocks, son of the late Sir David. “Conducting the festival gives me a great thrill and it’s hard to imagine what life will be like without it,” admits Brian. That said, he certainly won’t be twiddling his thumbs, as he has a whole plethora of other conducting commitments to keep him busy.
“I shall go on conducting, yes; the rest of my working life goes on,” he says. “For instance, I also work with the Really Big Chorus and conduct two or three concerts each year, at the Royal Albert Hall. It’s rather like the Leith Hill Musical Festival but on a grander scale. I will be 72 in May, but I’ve no intention of retiring yet.”
The Leith Hill Musical Festival takes place every April at the Dorking Halls, Reigate Road, Dorking RH4 1SG. For more information or to purchase tickets for the evening concerts, call 01403 240093 or visit the website at lhmf.org.uk
My Favourite Surrey
Favourite venue: Croydon’s Fairfield Halls – there is no other hall as acoustically brilliant as that. It’s a wonderful venue; I’ve conducted there many times and also performed there with The King’s Singers. I also enjoyed conducting at Guildford Cathedral.
Favourite place for a pre-concert snack: I don’t eat out a huge amount when I’m in Surrey because I’m always so busy and very well looked after. However, if I’m in Dorking, I head for Café Rouge because I know what I’m going to get and I’ve always felt well looked after there.
Favourite thing about the county: Apart from its spectacular rolling hills and beautiful countryside, my favourite thing about Surrey has to be its abundance of churches and cathedrals. This is especially so, as these tend to be the buildings where I’m most likely to be involved in a concert performance.
Favourite pub: I have some friends who live in Forest Green and, whenever we’re over that way, we head for The Parrot Inn, a country pub in the Surrey Hills.