Given your busy conducting schedule, why did you want to do this event in Oxford?
I’d done a Christmas concert about four years ago with the Oxford Philomusica and since then its director Marios Papadopoulos has been kind enough to ask me back but I’ve never been able to manage the dates. He came up with the idea of a Remembrance Day event and I thought that was rather special and lovely.
You’ll be conducting your Requiem in Oxford’s Christ Church Cathedral…
It’ll be the first time I’ll have conducted in Christ Church and the first time I’ll have conducted my Requiem on Remembrance Day. Christ Church is famously quite a difficult building because of its shape. But nonetheless I’ve always loved it. The choir that’s been assembled is quite new to me – although I expect I’ll know quite a few members of the orchestra. It’ll be a new experience for me and I’m very much looking forward to it. Luckily I’m in the right country at the right time!
How do you regard your Requiem now, almost 23 years after you composed it?
It’s hard to say. I never anticipated the impact it would have. It was written in memory of my Father. I didn’t have a premiere prepared for it really. I performed some it first at a church in Sacramento. Then there was a more complete premiere in Dallas. What surprised me was how people took it up across the world – Tokyo, Australia – England somewhat later than the others. It’s become something of a fixture particularly - as you’d expect - around Holy Week, All Souls and Remembrance Day.
It’s one of your most performed works.
I’ve conducted it many times, ranging from small choirs with a few instruments – which is the smaller version – to mighty choirs in New York’s Carnegie Hall with 300 singers. What I do feel about it is that audiences bring their own memories and experiences to bear on any Requiem. People tell me all kinds of bereavement stories – and consolation stories too. So in a sense I see it through the eyes of other people. It’s like it doesn’t really belong to me anymore.
Have you been involved in selecting the readings and other music for the Remembrance concert?
I have. It’ll be a tapestry of readings and music. As you might expect, quite a bit of First World War Poetry. And it does have a kind of trajectory. There’s a certain amount about the loss of Arcadia – something that was lost forever when the Great War came along. You might wonder what works like The Lark Ascending or the Butterworth’s Banks of Green Willow have got to do with Remembrance Day. But they’ve got everything to do with it. The composers were celebrating – or commemorating – an England which was not going to be there anymore. I think that’s just as appropriate as something that’s overtly commemorative.
Any other pieces you’re pleased to be conducting for this occasion?
We’ve got a wonderful piece by Giles Swayne, a setting of Siegfried Sassoon’s The Dug Out which involves trumpets playing the last post, which is actually quite teary when you hear it in context. It’s going to be an interesting concert. I’ve never done one which integrates readings and music, except of course at Christmas.
You’re a champion of choral singing – why have you been so attracted to it?
Oh, I grew up singing. I was in my school and college choirs. It seemed only a short step to writing music for choirs. And when I do, it feels like I’m coming home to where it all began. Choirs are family for me.
But with churches having more music groups than choirs and with communal singing declining, is there a future for choral compositions?
Oh heavens yes. There are plenty of young composers doing that – noted ones like Tarik O’Regan and Gabriel Jackson. It’s not easy to recruit singers to choirs and cathedrals, I’m an optimist and think the joy of singing will never disappear. Where I think we’ve gone wrong is allowing our state schools to neglect it. Time was when every school had a choir. That isn’t so now. But with the Sing Up! initiative launched, we may see it return. And that’ll give a lot more kids the opportunity to discover their own voices.
Is this why you hold so many singing workshops up and down the country?
Yes. I do Saturday singing workshops whenever I’m asked. If I’m free I’ll go – on condition that it’s open to all comers, ages 8 to 80, no auditions. The idea is just to enjoy a day singing. The reward for me is that ever so many people say ‘gosh this is the first time I’ve done anything like this, I had a great time, and we’re making a great sound between the lot of us’. That’ll hopefully encourage people to join or rejoin choirs. I get plenty of opportunity to work with professional standard choirs but this is a chance to do something different, a part of my life I’ve increasingly come to enjoy.
You’ve renowned for celebrating and composing Christmas music Don’t you sometimes long for a quiet Christmas, without all the concerts?
Well, Christmas Day is just a family occasion. I would miss it if the run-up to Christmas didn’t involve dashing about. For me it’s become part of my Christmas. Yes, it’s a busy time – but it’s a happy busy time.
You were awarded the CBE in the 2007 honours list. What did that mean to you?
Gosh, I’d forgotten about that. Yes, it was lovely. It was quite unexpected. I never thought I’d receive any form of recognition. The letter was a complete surprise. You have to tick the yes or the no box. I remember the words of my Latin master, ‘Decline all honours except the Order of Merit’. I though, oh dear I hope he won’t be too ashamed of me because I’m going to tick the yes box!
As a Cambridge man with roots in the Cambridge music tradition, what are you impressions of Oxford?
Well, my publishers always been in Oxford! Oxford and Cambridge are two parallel centres of excellence. I think it’s true to say that Cambridge has especially been a city of choirs. But Oxford is really joining-in in a big way. You’ve always had your cornerstone choirs – like Christ Church and Magdalen. But what’s interesting is that other colleges that haven’t had the same centuries of choral tradition are now thinking in terms of raising their game. Take the appointment of Peter Phillips (founder of the Tallis Scholars) as Director of Music at Merton. Having a wonderful choir in your college has been like American colleges wanting a good football team. It’s become almost a competitive thing - a matter of college pride. And quite right too as both Oxford and Cambridge are in the fortunate position of being able to be stewards of choral singing. I feel equally at home in either place.