Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Richard Hickox: The Service of Thanksgiving

Posted by Bruce Phillips, editor-at-large for the Boydell Press:

Orchestral conductors typically live to a ripe old age (think Stokowski dead at 95, Boult at 94, Toscanini at 90, Monteux at 89, Klemperer at 88) and conductors in their 80s today are, like judges, ten a penny (Mackerras, Boulez, Colin Davis, Maazel). It was therefore a particularly cruel blow of fate that deprived us of two of our foremost conductors within the space of a year: Vernon Handley in September 2008, two months short of his 78th birthday, and Richard Hickox, struck down in his 60th year by a heart attack in Swansea in the course of recording Holst’s Choral Symphony for the record label that has become inextricably associated with him, Chandos.

Handley’s memorial event is not till the 1st of May in Worcester Cathedral. The Service of Thanksgiving for the Life and Work of Richard Sidney Hickox was held in St Paul’s Cathedral on 12th March and is probably the most elaborate memorial ever to have been dedicated to a conductor, reflecting the love and esteem in which he was held by an astonishingly wide spectrum of British musical life—singers, orchestral musicians, other conductors, recording executives, festival directors and so on.

A virtually full cathedral, including Hickox’s family, heard works by English composers played by an amalgam of the orchestras and choruses with which Hickox held long term positions: City of London Sinfonia, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, London Symphony Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra, the LSO Chorus and the St Endellion Festival Chorus marking the festival in Betjeman’s favourite village in Cornwall with which Hickox was closely associated in recent years.

The congregation was treated to Delius (Walk to the Paradise Garden) and Vaughan Williams (the Tallis Fantasia) conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras; the Passacaglia from Britten’s Peter Grimes and Malcolm Arnold’s third Cornish Dance conducted by Edward Gardner (who had stood in for Hickox for the recent English National Opera production of Vaughan Williams’ one-act opera Riders to the Sea); the Kyrie from Beethoven’s Mass in C conducted by Sir Colin Davis; and an extract from Mendelssohn’s Elijah conducted by Paul Daniel and featuring Bryn Terfel; and the Largo from Bach’s Double Violin Concerto played by Simon Standage and Andrew Watkinson. The St Paul’s choir sang anthems by Vaughan Williams, Finzi and Tavener, there were readings by Dame Janet Baker (‘O may I join the choir invisible’ by George Eliot), the actor Robert Hardy (‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun’), Hickox’s doctor Christopher Hewetson (the passage from Revelation set by Vaughan Williams in Sancta Civitas). The address was given by the tenor Philip Langridge and covered the whole of Hickox’s career, not excluding his passion for Manchester United. As the service ended to the strains of the St Paul’s organist Simon Johnson playing the allegro maestoso from Elgar’s Organ Sonata we were left to reflect on the huge gap left by this energetic, hard working champion of British music (there will be more of this in Worcester in May). No one is indispensable, but…

My own most recent memory is of the truly overwhelming, masterly performance of Vaughan Willams’ Pilgrim’s Progress in the semi-staged production at Sadler’s Wells last year, but I treasure many of Hickox’s 300 or so recordings, not least the three CDs of John Ireland’s choral and orchestral works he made for Chandos (featuring the then young and not yet famous Bryn Terfel) back in the early 1980s.

Boydell authors and advisers were well represented at St Paul’s. I sat next to Lewis Foreman (Bax) who had nobly saved me a place at the front of the long queue to get into the cathedral) and we spotted Diana McVeagh (Elgar and Finzi) sitting in the front row with the Elgar Society committee. The conductor David Lloyd-Jones, who was the original link with John Lucas and the Beecham biography, was there, as was Sir Nicholas Kenyon, now the director of the Barbican Centre, who had also pointed us towards Lucas when he was extricating himself from the publishers who had inherited the contract from John Murray. I’ll report on the Vernon Handley service in due course.

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