John Rutter conducts at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire


by Christopher Morley

One of the world's best-loved choral composers and conductors comes to Royal Birmingham Conservatoire on April 13, conducting a Lent-themed programme as Easter approaches.

RBC singers and instrumentalists will be performing works by Tallis, Purcell, Monteverdi, Lassus, Casals, Bruckner and John Rutter, whose Requiem, moving from darkness to light, provides the climax of the afternoon, and it is Rutter himself who will be conducting the concert.

Many years ago I was present at a day's workshop in Bromsgrove promoted by Making Music when Rutter coached a willing assembly of amateurs in his Requiem, and how they loved the experience! Now he is coming to Birmingham to do the same thing with students. What is it about working with amateurs and aspiring professionals that he loves so much, I ask him?
"The sense of discovery," he answers. "It's lovely to be able to bring new ideas and new repertoire to a roomful of musicians and hear how it transforms them. I love working with professionals equally, but they have already been transformed!
" In the case of the young students in Birmingham, they have been selected from among the most gifted of their generation, and the sky's the limit once you've got them on board.".

How does John balance the demands of rehearsing and conducting with composing?
"By careful diary planning! A year has only 365 days, and I hope to spend enough of those days composing that I don't feel bad about myself as a composer, but enough days conducting that I don't feel cut off from music-making. It's a balancing act.
"Many composers like to conduct, I think for that same reason: composition is a solitary and sometimes lonely pursuit, and conducting is social and collegial. I would find it hard to give up either of them in favour of the other."
John Rutter has composed both vocal and instrumental works in several genres, but he has several unfulfilled, as yet, ambitions.
"I'd love to write a big juicy film score, like John Williams . . . an opera or two, maybe . . . and a successful musical."

For many years I was an A-level examiner for OCR, and if I'd been paid a pound for every time I heard an aspiring flautist play the Prelude from John Rutter's Suite Antique I'd be a rich man. How does he feel about his music being used as exam-fodder?

"Oh dear, when I remember the butterflies in my stomach waiting outside the exam room to play my allotted crop of Associated Board Grade pieces, it's a wonder it didn't put me off them for life.

" Actually my muscle memory probably still remembers the Bach prelude and fugue I played for Grade 8 organ, and I still like it. So I hope all those flautists don't shudder at the thought of my Suite Antique. Quite a few of them have asked me to sign their well-thumbed copies over the years, so they haven't all burned the music the day after the exam. But, to those of them that never want to hear it again, I can only apologise. I never thought it would get set for an exam."
We move on to a thornier question. Despite John's music being contemporary, why do contemporary music groups never perform it (nor Britten, Tippett, or Birmingham's own John Joubert)?

"I welcome music in all sorts of different styles, and it's inevitable that some of those styles are fashionable and others aren't," comes John's tactful reply.

"No, you wouldn't find a contemporary music group playing my music, but you can't expect to get invited to everyone's party. Some composers are called to be explorers, others are more like magpies, picking all sorts of sounds from the air and using them for their own purposes - I'm more like that. And really I'm a split personality, half composer, half songwriter. That may mean I've never been in fashion in contemporary music circles, but if you're never in fashion, you can't go out of fashion. I seem to find plenty of work!"

And we end with John telling me more about his composing/conducting schedule.

"It's quite rare for me to conduct in the UK: the way I divide up my time is that I mostly conduct abroad, and mostly compose at home. I have conducted my Requiem many times - but not so often in Britain, and never (as far as I can remember) in Birmingham.

" I'm looking forward to the April 13th concert immensely, and Paul Spicer and I have put together a lovely programme of classic choral music for Holy Week to complement the Requiem."

*John Rutter conducts at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire on April 13 (2pm). Details on 0121 331-5909.

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