Interview: Composer, conductor and singer Bob Chilcott
- Credit: © Thousand Word Media
Bob Chilcott, described by the Observer as “a contemporary hero of British Choral Music”, has plenty to celebrate in his 60th birthday year – including a première at this month’s Three Choirs Festival. Katie Jarvis spoke to him at his West Oxfordshire home.
Look. We know the sorts of things that make people happy and healthy. Creativity. Singing (Gareth Malone made official something we discovered in the shower centuries ago). Joining with others in a common purpose.
Bob Chilcott – choral composer, conductor, and singer - (who looks as happy and healthy as anyone I’ve met) has them all down to a fine art. In fact, he’s off to conduct a choir rehearsal this very evening, “So many of the members who do a pressurised job might well think, ‘I don’t want to go to go out this evening! I’m worn out!’ Then, in the first five minutes of singing, they get their energy back. I’m going to America tomorrow and I’ve got to be up at 4am. But as soon as the rehearsal starts, I shall feel really good!”
So, let’s recap: Creativity; singing; joining with others in a common purpose. Oh, and exercise…
“I skip outside every morning,” Bob Chilcott adds.
Umm. As in, with a skipping rope?
He grins. “I’ve done that for some time and I love it… You do get the dustbin men coming by; and you get some strange looks from lorry drivers.”
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He’s got it pretty sussed, Bob Chilcott, in his pretty West Oxfordshire home where once the village postmistress doled out stamps and postal orders. His wife, Kate, is throwing out amusing comments as she cooks up a deliciously-scented chicken casserole.
Her dad, the much-missed late and great Sir Philip Ledger, was Bob’s director of music during his student days at King’s College, Cambridge. Bob and Kate married in 2005, after Sir Philip set them up on a date. “It took us 31 years to get together. My dad told Bob he was very slow off the mark!”
“We were married in King’s Chapel, which was amazing,” Bob chips in. He turns to Kate: “So you’ve put up with me for nine years. That’s pretty good!”
“I think an eternity ring, don’t you?”
It’s a good year for all sorts of reasons. In April, Bob celebrated his 60th birthday – and then it was a whirl of travel. Washington, where the lauded Choralis 100-voice chorus (for whom Bob is composer-in-residence) performed his beautiful Salisbury Vespers. June saw a première of a new composition in New Orleans. And this month, aside from being in Hungary for Europa Cantat - one of the biggest international choral festivals - Bob will see the première of his Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis at the Three Choirs Festival, celebrating its 300th anniversary, in Hereford.
Mind you, the past couple of years haven’t been bad, either. Particularly hearing the Westminster Abbey performance of The King shall rejoice, commissioned for Her Majesty’s 60th anniversary coronation service.
Wasn’t it terrifying – not just the scrutiny but the responsibility of melding age-old tradition with something fresh and new?
“Exactly,” he agrees, with feeling. “Because you walk into a world of expectations. But the director of music at the Abbey was terrific; and they gave me a good brief. Kate and I went to the service – which was breath-taking - and we were invited to drinks and lunch with the Queen. A wonderful day. I hand-wrote a score, had it bound, and presented it to Her Majesty.”
“It was the best people-watching ever,” Kate laughs. “All these guests were driving up in very smart cars, only to be told they’d have to get out and wait in line for security!”
Wasn’t the long wait nerve-wracking?
“We went to rehearsal the day before so we knew how it would sound.”
“You were worried, though.”
“I was quite worried!” He smiles. “Got away with it, though!”
(Or, as the critics alternatively praised it, ‘dancing rhythms and jubilant, ringing chords’.)
There’s rarely a moment when someone realises how the rest of their life will take shape. Very rarely. But not so with Bob Chilcott: he can pinpoint his particular moment with clarity. He was a 10-year-old chorister at King’s College, Cambridge, where he’d been boarding since the age of eight; and the choir was performing the Spring Symphony by Benjamin Britten. More than that, Britten himself was conducting.
“There’s a final section where the boys’ choir joins in with everybody - and I just couldn’t sing because I was crying. I was so overwhelmed with emotion. It was the first time I realised that I couldn’t live without music.”
Thus the future adult. The present child, however, had a more natural reaction. “The overwhelming thing I remember was feeling worried because Andrew Davis [now the conductor Sir Andrew], the elder brother of one of my friends back home, was standing nearby; I didn’t want him to tell my mum and dad I’d been crying!”
Not that they’d have minded. Neither was musical. Bob’s dad was a building inspector, who’d missed out on university because of the war; his mum was a housewife. But both recognised a gift in their son. Furthermore, the family was extremely religious: two Sunday services and Sunday school each week.
“Not at all. I joined the church choir, and the vicar suggested to my parents the idea of trying for King’s, Cambridge. It was a complete change of life for me when I got in.”
You’re not kidding. Easter. Christmas Day. Almost a full-time job.
“It was quite tough. It WAS quite tough. But it didn’t take long to really get into the whole understanding of what it was to do things with other people, and the commitment. You grow with the experience, and we had a wonderful conductor: he gave us great confidence.”
Not just the commitment, though. It must also have meant being whizzed away into an utterly different universe from that of home? A metamorphosis.
“It was. It was a very schizophrenic thing for me because I came from a very ordinary background: I lived on an estate. But a lot of the boys came from church choirs, so the social mix at choir school was actually quite diverse. Social mobility was much better in those days.”
Could that happen nowadays?
“The fact is that we’re now so focused in this country on things that are to do with work, and that’s really dull. I have older kids [from his first marriage] - my eldest daughter read archaeology; my son read philosophy. And I was thrilled about that. They did something because they were interested. That element has gone because we’re under so much pressure to ‘be’ something. It devalues the whole aspect of what we think about the humanities - and music comes into that.”
He tells an anecdote about a youngster in the States – where he frequently works with children’s choirs. She told Bob, “Hey, we just did this really cool piece by a guy called Vivaldi! Do you know him?”
“I loved that because she had no perception of the context. She just liked the piece. I gave my daughter (six-year-old Becky) a bath yesterday and she started talking about a guy called Henri Matisse. About how he’d stuck bits of paper on [to walls] because he was in a wheelchair. Do you know, I could have wept with excitement because she was so inspired.”
So back to the story in question. After school, he won a place at King’s College proper, as a choral scholar and to read music; fellow students included Judith Weir, now Master of the Queen’s Music: “All these brilliant people. You thought, either I’m going to be intimidated or I’m going to get all the energy that I can from it. I wasn’t intimidated: I just felt – I’m never going to be good enough but I’m going to do my damnedest.”
And after Cambridge, he spent two years, postgrad, studying singing and composition at the Royal College of Music, funding himself by working as a professional jobbing singer in some of the great city choirs. Composing, however, was less fruitful – “At that time, the contemporary music scene was quite hard-edged, and my music had no place in it” – though he did plenty of arranging for Radio 2, commercial television and even pop songs.
Bob’s real break, however, came in 1985, at the age of 30, when he was invited to join the King’s Singers – that well-loved a cappella vocal ensemble.
“It was fantastic. I’d always loved them. I can remember in my final year at Cambridge – 1976 – when the King’s Singers came - and they were megastars even then. I was walking through King’s and I met Brian [Kay, now a fellow West-Oxfordshire resident; and a King’s Singer from 68-82]. I’d known him since the age of eight because he was a choral scholar when I was a chorister. There he was, in these little round glasses with purple lenses! I told him I couldn’t get tickets for his concert because they were sold out. He said, ‘I’ll leave your name on the door!’ So I went along; and these guys came on in frilly shirts and sideboards. It was marvellous – absolutely fantastic.”
For Bob, this job was the Holy Grail – a group of intelligent, bright people who retained their integrity but attained popularity; “There’s nothing wrong with singing in a choir and doing arrangements of Elton John songs, but it’s nice to sing some Bach, too.”
And they were popular – even appearing multiple times on the Johnny Carson Show, where they managed to smuggle performances of 16th century madrigals without anyone batting an eyelid.
The experience encouraged Bob in other musical areas. During his time with the Singers, his arrangements were used in performances accompanied by greats such as the Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Toronto and Detroit Symphony Orchestras.
But let’s not get too elevated. Because those heady years also introduced him to the pleasure of amateur choirs – many of their audiences would be local choir members, and the King’s Singers took great pleasure in mentoring them.
“I realised there was a whole raft of people out there with this desire to be part of this communicative world of doing something together.”
Since Bob left the Singers, in 1997, his career has taken off in other directions. He’s written with huge enjoyment and success for leading children’s choirs, such as the Toronto Children’s Chorus – he loves working with young people. And he’s continued to mentor amateur choirs, including three months earlier this year leading the Burford Singers, while Brian Kay – their current conductor – was off working in New Zealand.
Bob laughs. After jetting the world over, it’s very pleasant to commute just down the road: “Maybe I should have been doing that before. It’s so great to be connected with people who live in your local area.”
And then, of course, there’s the Three Choirs and the première of the Three Choirs Service - a Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis – which will be broadcast live on Radio 3. “This is the oldest music festival in the world, so to be able to write a piece like that for it – going back to everything I know – is a tremendous challenge. I’m really looking forward to it.”
He’s never been to Hereford Cathedral before, so that’s a treat in itself; “But more than anything, I just feel honoured to be part of it.” Three hundred years of classical music for the masses? “The Three Choirs Festival thrives,” he says, with satisfaction, “and that’s got to be a good message.”
For more about the Three Choirs service at Three Choirs Festival on July 29, visit www.3choirs.org