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Making the ‘light’ fantastic

19 February 2016

Ronald Corp, composer, conductor, and priest, is 65 this year. He talked to Roderic Dunnett

Julian Hanford

Towards the light: Ronald Corp at home

Towards the light: Ronald Corp at home

THERE was a time when “children’s concerts” meant nothing more than the regular Sunday-afternoon concerts supported by one of music’s great philanthropists, Sir Robert Mayer, or the Ernest Read concerts on Saturday mornings at the Royal Festival Hall.

In their day, they were highly influential in opening the eyes of young aspiring instrumentalists and musical novices alike to the glories of the classical repertoire.

By the 1980s and ’90s, however, far more was expected by way of participation. Since 1991, the New London Children’s Choir has reached out to thousands of young performers and inspired them to perform at a superlatively high standard, earning plaudits such as “the best big children’s choir in London”.

This year marks the choir’s 25th anniversary, and the 65th birthday of its founder, Ronald Corp, a man of many gifts and callings. Corp studied for three years at Sarum College before being ordained deacon in 1998 and priested the following year; he is now an NSM at the musically and acoustically famed church of St Alban the Martyr, Holborn, in central London.

He is founder of the accomplished and versatile New London Orchestra, and of not one but four children’s groups — the Training Choir (unauditioned, for sevens to 11s), an auditioned Senior Choir (11-18), and two 14-18 ensembles: the New London Youth Choir, and a well-honed barber-shop ensemble. All of the ensembles meet in Highgate, home to the venerable Highgate Choral Society and the slightly feistier London Chorus.

To hear these spirited younger performers, go to their website* and catch a sunlit burst of Britten’s Friday Afternoons. The music is as brilliant as their singing: “I mun [must] be married on Sunday,” taken from the play Ralph Roister Doister (possibly the first Elizabethan comedy, wittily alluded to by Flanders and Swann: “Roister Doister is my name, A lusty brute I am the same…”). Quite frankly, these children lift the roof.

 

I ASKED Corp if it was a surprise that music captured him. Might not the Church have won, after all?

“I grew up in Wells: I was born at No. 1, Cathedral Green. So, from the year dot, I remember hearing bells, and having the cathedral as my playground. There was the Bishop’s Palace, where you could go to feed the ducks.

“Then we moved into a council house near by. My parents — both still now living in Wells — were not churchgoers. But I discovered St Cuthbert’s [the big local parish church], and was asked to sing tenor, aged around 15; and I caught the church bug, partly through the music there.

“I never really had anyone to advise me about a musical career. But I was lucky to have a senior clergyman friend, Terry Stokes, who was Bishop’s Chaplain for Youth in the Bath and Wells diocese. He suggested I might consider going into the priesthood.”

The diocesan youth course went on holidays: “I remember he took us to the Ruhr, in Germany; to Yorkshire; on a barge round Holland. Whilst we were driving, and as I’d been one of his youth leaders, and also led the music, singing, etc., he floated the possibility that I might be suited to the priesthood.

“Well, my decision to go into music had already been made. Yet the memory of those conversations always left me asking ‘What if?’ I didn’t know then that the Church of England will pay to train you, if in return you offer your services free. Hence, in my mid-forties, the diaconate and priesthood.

“I certainly identify with the notion ‘Here I am, use me.’”

 

FATHER Ronald sees himself, he says, as an “extra”, serving a church famed for its sung solemn mass — music by Byrd, Palestrina, Lassus, and, later, Rubbra; living mainly in London, and only occasionally able to escape to the five-storey mill house which is his welcome hideaway in south Essex.

“My double life is, in a way, a dilemma, because, once ordained, one is always a priest — it isn’t a part-time calling. I do feel a bit schizophrenic. Someone said, ‘If it’s to be God, he will get you in the end,’ and my feeling is that God finally got me. Perhaps he has had me all the time. But I’m glad I’ve had this ‘other’ calling, outside the Church.

“Of course, sometimes — often, even — the two halves of my career meet and intertwine.”

 

THROUGH recordings with his New London team and many other orchestras, Corp has done much to repopularise “light” music. How did that come about?

“We had a radiogram at home — it was one of our first bits of furniture, and I loved watching the 78s and LPs going round. My mother had the BBC Light Programme on all the time, tuning in during the morning and switching off in the evening, with just a brief interval when we watched children’s television.

“We all listened to Family Favourites during the meal on Sunday. They played Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, and, as I wanted to hear that again, my father borrowed a disc from the Reader’s Digest boxed set of light music. I also remember hearing Suppé, and Weber’s Invitation to the Dance, Johann Strauss’s Tritsch-Tratsch Polka, and Grieg’s Norwegian Dance no. 2 with its haunting oboe melody.”

So the young Corp saved up 12 guineas for that Reader’s Digest boxed set.

“There was something about Tchaikovsky especially that made me, even then, want to be a composer: Capriccio Italien, Marche Slave, the ballet music. . . I just loved the sound he made.

“I didn’t start the piano till I was ten; so I always say I was writing music before I was playing it. That was aged eight or nine. Primary schools then always had teachers who could play the piano; so you had music in school — class singing, and hymn practice.

“I loved singing, and I remember doing solos in front of the class: we weren’t just singing folk and traditional songs, but Bizet’s Toreador aria, Grieg songs, and Schubert’s Seligkeit. Nowadays with guitars, or CD backing tracks, too many kids are denied all that we had.”

 

WITH no one to advise Corp about his intended career, he passed his 11-plus to The Blues School (now a comprehensive). “My first headmaster was a [musical] enthusiast. He conducted Messiah and Christmas Oratorio, although off-puttingly he pooh-poohed my composition attempts. I made a hash of my O levels, passing just four — including Geology, plus Music — mainly through the teenage angsts of growing up.

“But I sorted myself out for A levels, and a new head, an Oxford man, took a handful of us to Oxford; my reaction was, ‘Yippee, I want to go there.’ I added French and Latin O [level], got three As at A level, plus a place at Oxford. My tutor, who arrived at the same time, was Simon Preston.”

 

AT THAT stage, Corp was not expected to become a composer or conductor; life as an academic seemed more likely. He got a place to do research (“Victorian Oratorio” was his planned subject), but didn’t get a postgraduate grant. So he went to London “knowing I needed to tell my parents ‘I’ve got a job.’”

Getting into the BBC was “sheer luck. You could go to Langham Place, pick up the telephone, and ask if there were any jobs. Someone answered that there were none available. So I walked round the block, went back, and spoke to another person, who said there was a possibility in the BBC Music Library.”

A staff of about 30 sorted out printed scores to be sent up to Radio and also to TV. Corp did 14 years there, interrupted by occasional secondments to BBC producers, before moving on to the BBC Singers’ Music Library.

“By now I was starting to conduct all over the place. There was also an Operatic Society — part of the BBC Club. But it occurred to me that more people probably wanted to sing rather than to perform on stage. So we started a BBC Staff Choral Society. We did numerous dates (even at the Proms): Berlioz’s Requiem; Bax choral works recorded in Maida Vale Studios, etc. Being its Music Director really launched my career.”

 

LONG before he left the BBC (in 1989), “people were asking me to take rehearsals for them. The Highgate Choral Society I’ve conducted for 35 years now; it was 200 strong then, whereas often concerts involve more like 300 now.”

Then followed the London Choral Society, now the London Chorus.

“At Highgate, we see ourselves as a community choir, doing five concerts a year. We’ve just done Verdi’s Requiem, and did the St Matthew Passion last Easter.”

They also get asked by Raymond Gubbay to join his promotions at the Albert Hall — especially the London Chorus, which more actively seeks outside engagements.

Another recent performance was A Prayer, by Frank Bridge. The special part that Corp plays in British music (and, more widely, with recordings) is to uncover repertoire that has sunk almost without trace.

“I’ve loved Sullivan since a school production of HMS Pinafore, but it’s not just G and S. There’s loads else — his symphony, for example; I just wish there was a second. His oratorio The Golden Legend — massively popular for a time — is a huge undertaking, like Berlioz; and there’s the earlier Prodigal Son [Corp has recorded both for Hyperion].

“I’d like to try out others: Benedict’s St Peter; Costa’s Eli and Naaman; Stainer’s The Daughter of Jairus and St Mary Magdalen; Mackenzie’s The Rose of Sharon; plus Stanford and Parry, whose Judith and Job were both influential. And Rawsthorne’s choral pieces, such as A Canticle of Man, are not known. I’d love to be the one to do Peter Racine Fricker’s oratorio The Vision of Judgement.

“Some long-ignored operas are now finding their way on to disc: Sullivan’s Ivanhoe (now on Chandos) is one. Balfe’s Falstaff proved a masterpiece.”

 

CORP’s fascination with neglected repertoire extends to foreign works too. “I’ve always loved the process of discovery; even today, when I discover something I think is exciting, I want to share it with an audience.”

He discovered the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959) “through listening to Anthony Hopkins’s radio series Talking About Music. Hopkins explored Martinu’s Double Concerto, and I was fascinated. I decided the NLO should concentrate on music that needed rediscovering.

“For the first two years, we did a Martinu work in every concert (I love all Czech composers, including Janácek). Another we promoted was the great Polish composer Grazyna Bacewicz (1909-69); nowadays she’s far better known.

“I’d love to dig into American repertoire. Naxos have done a good deal already — I know Howard Hanson’s Lament for Beowulf, but there are the symphonies. Who has yet recorded Horatio Parker’s Hora Novissima? [Parker was a colleague of Dvorák in New York.]

 

“AS PART of my 65th-birthday celebrations this year, Highgate have very sweetly cast around for a big choral piece with selling power. We’re doing Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony at the Festival Hall with two wonderful soloists, alongside Britten’s Four Sea Interludes.

“I needed to compose a ‘sea’ piece to fit into this concert, and I thought ‘What shall I call it?’ Every ‘sea’ title seemed taken — Sea Drift, Songs of the Sea, and so on.

“It was easier to fix on the poems. I wanted to set Tennyson’s ‘Crossing the Bar’, and ‘Sea Fever’ by Masefield. Then there was Psalm 107, ‘They that go down to the sea in ships’. And I wanted sea shanties to figure; so I fixed on ‘Haul away Joe’, just for chorus at the beginning, revived at the end.

“Plus I wanted something for the children to sing, and I found a Longfellow text used in The Golden Legend. Lastly, I needed a scherzo for the middle: Emily Dickinson’s Wild Nights provided it: ‘Rowing in Eden — Ah — the Sea! Might I but moor — tonight — In thee!’”

 

CORP’s corpus of compositions, which has expanded to include a symphony (with another to come), a piano concerto and cello concerto, a new opera based on Strindberg, many song cycles and choral works, and three string quartets, is rapidly blossoming. “On reflection, I think it’s the composing that I would most want to be remembered for.”

Let’s hope the new anniversary offering, finally titled (after Vaughan Williams) Behold The Sea, comes up to the standards of all that has preceded it. If so, it will make a very great impact indeed.

Ronald Corp’s 65th Birthday Concert is at the Royal Festival Hall on Monday 7 March at 7.30 p.m. www.southbankcentre.co.uk

*www.newlondonchildrenschoir.org.uk

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