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11 January 2013


"Extraordinary music-making": Sir Philip Ledger

"Extraordinary music-making": Sir Philip Ledger

Roderic Dunnett writes:

SIR PHILIP LEDGER, who died on 18 November last year, aged 74, was not just an outstanding all-round creative musician, but a remarkable initiator and transformer.

Apart his best-known period as Organist, Tutor and Director of Music at King's College, Cambridge, 1974-82, and of the Cambridge University Music Society - both in succession to Sir David Willcocks - it was arguably elsewhere that his most important work, as musician and administrator, was done.

His pioneering spirit and exacting standards were already evident during his brief tenure as organist of Chelmsford Cathedral. In 1961, he succeeded Derrick Cantrell, becoming, by 24, the youngest cathedral organist in England. Ledger was an enabler, raising standards, and directing memorable performances from the Chelmsford Singers, producing remarkable performances of Bach's B-minor Mass and the Duruflé Requiem (engaging Janet Baker as soloist), as well as from his cathedral choir.

The young Ledger had arrived with the highest honours - not just from King's, where he was organ scholar, secured a First in the BA examinations and gained a Mus.B., but before that Bexhill Grammar School, soon afterwards achieving an ARCO, and three years later an FRCO, and winning both the Limpus and Read Prizes. Ledger later became a leading light of the Royal College of Organists, serving as its President from 1992 to 1994. He was President of the Incorporated Society of Musicians from 1994 to 1995.

Chelmsford kept him barely three years. His next challenge was as Director of Music at the University of East Anglia (UEA), launched just two years earlier, in 1963. Promoted to Dean of the School of Fine Arts and Music, Ledger was a crucial force in establishing the award-winning Music Centre. Stephen Cleobury, his successor at King's, summed it up admirably by praising "Philip's vision for the future. Once he had decided on a course of action, he would pursue it with unswerving energy." (It is a bitter irony that at the time of his death the University had announced its plans to close the School of Music in 2014.)

During this period, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, impressed not least by Ledger's superlative keyboard skills (he had studied with Harold Craxton) and his sensitivity to Baroque accompaniment, invited him to be a co-director of the Aldeburgh Festival. This intensified his friendship with the tenor Robert Tear (they were at college together); and their understanding partnership produced one of the finest recordings of Schubert's Die Winterreise, and much else.

Ledger's appearances with the Melos Ensemble were praised to the skies; he worked with Paul Tortelier and Pinchas Zukerman. Ledger conducted the first concert in the new Snape Maltings concert hall, and in 1976 played at Britten's funeral, performing the composer's only organ solo piece, the Prelude and Fugue on a theme of Vittoria.

Ledger's passion for early and Baroque music resurfaced during his return to King's, when, in a short period, the choir recorded LPs of Palestrina, Pergolesi, Vivaldi, Bach, and Handel, as well as Duruflé and a superlative set of Psalms. He retained David Willcocks's priorities and standards, and provided a crucial transition. He looked for a collective, consistent sound rather than solo-quality voices, and with it brought a new "transcendental, spine-tingling" intensity to darkened evensongs, as the tenor Christopher Gillett recalls: "There was nothing mechanical, or fiddly, about the way that Philip conducted. . . It was simply the most extraordinary music-making I have yet experienced. I count myself extremely blessed to have known him as a musician; he is without doubt the finest accompanist I've ever sung with."

Ledger could be a hard taskmaster. But he made unstinting demands of his charges, because he wanted the young to surprise themselves by what they could achieve.

Between tours abroad (Ledger conducted King's College Choir in Hiroshima Cathedral), he served up memorable arrangements for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols; and composed a congregational setting, The Dominican Mass, for a Roman Catholic church in the United States.

More recently, Ledger composed more substantial choral works, mostly tonal and approachable, though tinged with a more testing chromaticism. These include his Requiem: A Thanksgiving for Life (2012); This Holy Child, a Christmas cantata with freshly composed carols; and the Easter cantata The Risen Christ.

The crowning glory of Sir Philip Ledger's career - he was knighted in 1999, having been appointed CBE in 1985 - was his almost 20-year stint (1982-2001) as Principal of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, in succession to Sir David Lumsden. It was on Ledger's watch that the ground-breaking, £16-million new home, designed by Sir Leslie Martin, for the RSAMD, now renamed the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, was carried through, and opened by the Queen Mother, in 1988.

Ledger also oversaw the opening of the Sir Alexander Gibson Opera School, which, as his successor as Principal, the trumpet virtuoso John Wallace, said, "became the first small specialist institution to be granted degree-awarding powers following new legislation in 1994".

Ledger collected honorary doctorates and professorships from across Scotland and beyond. Peter Nardone, a later successor at Chelmsford and now the Organist and Director of Music at Worcester Cathedral, is one of several who have paid testimony to Ledger's kindly supportiveness, as well as his sense of humour. Ledger's parting shot at King's, others recalled, was to win a £5 bet with the bursar (later donated to the Chapel Restoration Fund) that he could slip Tom Lehrer's scurrilous satire "The Vatican Rag" into his extemporised organ voluntary at evensong. He showed similar flamboyance in Glasgow, where he conducted carol concerts dressed as Bonnie Prince Charlie.

Ledger married, in 1963, Mary Erryl Wells, a principal soprano at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, whom he had met while conducting one of his most notable early initiatives, the European première of Aaron Copland's opera The Tender Land, in Cambridge. Latterly, they lived in the Cotswolds, where he became a Patron of Bampton Classical Opera.

His widow survives him, as do their son, Tim, and daughter, Kate, and a granddaughter.

A memorial evensong for Sir Philip Ledger will be sung in King's College Chapel, Cambridge, on 2 March at 5.30 p.m.; and the annual Foundation Concert on 16 March at 5.30 p.m. will be dedicated to his memory. On Friday 22 March, at 7.30 p.m., there will be a special concert in the Glasgow University Memorial Chapel. Tickets are free on the door; or phone 0141 332 5057; or visit www.rcs.ac.uk/boxoffice.


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