I was born in a Maternity Hospital where the Registrar was a Cinema Organ enthusiast. The Odeon Cinema in Birmingham was closing down so he persuaded the National Health Service to buy the organ (the console of which rose up out of the ground) and had it installed in the hospital to play to expectant mothers. My mother remembered hearing him play the famous Toccata by Widor but when the pedal tune entered, instead of Widor’s grand tune, he played Hello Dolly…I didn’t stand a chance!
I started piano lessons at five and organ lessons at eight.
One day when I was about nine, as part of our PE lesson at school, we were told that a piece of music would be played and we could move around the hall as we felt inspired in response to the music. The music was ‘Morning’ from the Peer Gynt Suite by Grieg. I remember running around the hall and leaping in the air full of electricity like Billy Elliott. Having then plagued my parents to buy me a recording (vinyl 45rpm), I listened to it until it was worn out.
At the age of 12 (1976) I was appointed Organist of a church which had up to three weddings on a Saturday so, together with Sunday services I earned over £100 in a weekend (when my friends were earning £5 delivering newspapers). With that money I was able to buy a car and fund instruments so I had violin, viola, clarinet and bassoon lessons. It was bassoon that I enjoyed the most given the shortage of bassoonists, and so I was playing Beethoven in the City Youth Orchestra after about six months of lessons. I went on to be Organ Scholar of Coventry Cathedral and it was during that time that I heard so many great concerts, there and in Birmingham. My headmaster took me to hear City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra play Brahms Symphony No.2 with the newly-appointed Simon Rattle; I nearly jumped out of my seat in the final blazing trumpet fanfare.
After school, a year as Organ Scholar at Wells Cathedral followed playing for services every day and teaching in the Specialist Music School; a year studying Baroque Organ at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam, playing in Baroque style (no thumbs or heels) instruments that Bach and Handel had played (unchanged since their day), then a year at the Royal Academy of Music studying organ and bassoon. I also attended a Lieder Class with Ilse Wolff at the RAM and offered my services as a pianist. Seated at a beautiful Steinway with excellent singers and exquisite repertoire to accompany, there began my passion for accompanying and chamber music.
To Oxford University to read music I went the following year, where, as Organ Scholar I was responsible for all music in my college. Most memorable was a performance in the chapel of Britten’s War Requiem conducted by my predecessor (many years before), Meredith Davies, who had conducted the first performance when Britten lost confidence in the work. It was Meredith’s orchestra from Trinity College of Music (where he was Principal) and my choral society in this performance. The performance (with Soprano Heather Harper who had sung at the premiere) was earth shattering (not least because of the small size of the building) and it was so thrilling to work on the score with the man who had shared its creation with Britten. After Oxford, I returned to the RAM for two years to study conducting and piano.
For ten years from 1992 – 2002 I was on the music staff of Westminster Abbey where I was Director of Music at St Margaret’s, the Parliament Church. On one occasion, the wedding of a member of the Royal Family, I turned to conduct the congregation. The Queen, Duke, Princes and Princesses, the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition, Speaker and the Archbishop of Canterbury were all watching and singing under my direction. For that brief five minutes, I thought I was the most powerful man in England. It didn’t last! Whilst in Westminster I founded the Parliament Choir and met Michael Berman and Katharine Verney whose sons were choristers in the choir.
One of the great moments of my career was a lunch with Michael in 2000 when I explained my concerns for musicians on the point of leaving college and how I’d like to set up an orchestra for people at that stage in their careers. Michael agreed to help me and together with Katharine, we worked for a year gathering information and support to launch Southbank Sinfonia in 2001.
Now, 15 years on, as well as Southbank Sinfonia, I still conduct the Parliament Choir, I’m Principal Guest Conductor of the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra in New Zealand, I’m Director of the Anghiari Festival in Tuscany, do a lot of freelance work as conductor and pianist here and abroad and I am Director of Music at the RAF church on the Strand where I conduct a professional vocal group and oversee a regular recital and concert series.
Beyond music, I love the theatre (one of the greatest experiences of my career was conducting Southbank Sinfonia in 71 performances of Tom Stoppard and Andre Previn’s Every Good Boy Deserves Favour at the National Theatre a few years ago). I also love reading, walking, travelling and meeting people. As well as my wife, Kate, I have two wonderful stepchildren (Theo 12 & Emilia 5) and a six-month-old son (Isaac) so there is plenty of fun to be had.
What’s on your playlist right now?
Shostakovich Symphony No.5. However, Theo and I share the same Spotify account and pressing play on his iPad in the house yesterday, poor Dimitri (to whom I was listening in my man cave in the garden) was kicked aside by Taylor Swift!
What do you think concerts of the future should look like?
I should like more informality with drinks (like a cabaret) and a big basket by the door where people leave all technological devices to free themselves and their minds during the performance. For me Classical music is like a Steam Train; there are many advances technologically in train travel (I love the Bullet trains of Japan for example), but nothing can replace the elegance and nobility of steam, pistons and whistles, together with the sounds and aromas. I would like raw classical music to be tasted/heard in a relaxed environment. It’s for such a reason that I introduced informal Rush Hour concerts right at the start of Southbank Sinfonia.