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By Gill Perkins
Renowned musician Jonathan Willcocks talks to Dragon reporter Gill Perkins about his new position with the Guildford Choral Society.
I’ve had my bottom pinched onstage by bass Sir Willard White (it was part of the show), nearly died with excitement when Sir Simon Rattle signed my prom ticket, and now, Jonathan Willcocks, choral and orchestral conductor and composer has bought me a cup of tea.
As musical experiences go, talking to an enthusiastic, experienced and forward looking conductor is one of the best there is. Music should be infectious, inspiring and magical and every time a choir, orchestra, ensemble or soloists steps onto the stage, they have a unique opportunity to move every single member of the audience. It’s that sort of passion that spurred Jonathan Willcocks into making his first job application in 35 years – for the position of musical director of the Guildford Choral Society.
“This is very exciting for me,” he says, as we find a spare table at the Refectory at Guildford Cathedral, where Guildford Choral Society performs on a regular basis. “Starting to work with a new choir is like a marriage. We’ve had our first date, where I took the choir for a rehearsal as part of the interview process, and now we get to see how the chemistry works, where the buzz is and how we can commit to each other for future success.”
Tall, confident and with bags of choral experience, Willcocks has lots of energy and a real understanding of choral music that started in his childhood. Son of Sir David Willcocks, himself a renowned musician, choral conductor and famed for his choral arrangements of Christmas carols sung by choirs around the world, Jonathan was a boy chorister at Kings College Cambridge and had begun a degree in engineering before realising that music was his first love, and committing to it full-time.
So what can Guildford expect? “This is a choir with a reputation for making good music, and I want to help them move to the next stage in their development,” says Jonathan. “That means great programmes with a blend of the works everyone loves with perhaps some new and contemporary works; it means working with a range of orchestras and soloists and it means getting our name known beyond Guildford as well as within it. We’re starting with a performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah in G Live, a fantastic new venue which we hope is going to be as helpful and supportive as possible of local music societies like ours.”
As a composer, he is keen to involve as many people as possible in high quality music making. His collection “Good for you!” was commissioned by the Music Mind Spirit Trust and is six short songs, all with a healthy living theme designed especially for children. “I would love to find opportunities to involve local schools and choirs with Guildford Choral,” he confirms. “It’s exhilarating to work with young singers and because teaching is as much of a passion for me as music itself, it’s wonderful to have the chance to spread the message as widely as possible.”
And that’s something he’ll be doing on May 12 in the Royal Albert Hall, when he conducts a scratch performance of Mozart’s Requiem, with around 3,500 singers. “Ah,” he says, “that’s powerful. There may be people there who haven’t sung for years, and who’ll discover all the benefits that amateur singing can bring. I’d say, if you’ve sung in your childhood, come along to a rehearsal at Guildford Choral and get your feet wet. You’ll become more confident over time and you can improve and take part more quickly with singing than with any other instrument – that’s the miracle of amateur choral singing.”
And what about complete choral novices? What would Jonathan recommend they listen to in order to find out why choral music is so exciting? “Well, of course there are thousands of works that qualify here,” he muses. “But I’d start with Verdi’s Requiem for sheer drama and some Byrd and Palestrina for pure, beautiful choral tones. We’re lucky now that with Spotify, iTunes and the rest, it’s never been easier to dip into choral music, so just get out there and explore!”
We part in the pouring rain – Jonathan off to an interview with BBC Radio Surrey and then to the airport en route to a conducting engagement, and me to home, where I stick on the Dies Irae from Verdi’s Requiem – spine-tingling, dramatic and perfect for the climate.