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Ronald Frost

19 February 2016

Kenneth Shenton writes:

AS ORGANIST of the historic St Ann’s, Manchester, for 37 years, Ronald Frost, who died on 1 October 2015, aged 82, remained at the forefront of the city’s music-making throughout the second half of the 20th century. He was intimately associated also with the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM), where his input and experience helped mould the creative personalities of many of Britain’s most eminent practitioners. Likewise, as one of the defining choral conductors of his generation, he brought the Hallé Choir to a level of performance which had few, if any, equals.

A native of Bury, and educated at the local Boys’ Grammar School, Frost had prodigious musical talents, which won him a scholarship to the Royal Manchester College of Music, where he studied with Harold Dawber. As an organist, he rejoiced in British and French music of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as Bach. He was elected Associate of the Royal College of Organists in 1953 and Fellow in 1955, being awarded the Limpus prize for both.

An equally impressive accompanist, as his numerous recordings and regular appearances on the Radio 4 Daily Service so aptly demonstrated, he had sensitivity to nuance and colour, which allowed him to take great delight in the occasional grand gesture.

Moving effortlessly from talented student to respected teacher, Frost would enjoy 50 years’ unbroken association with what later became the RNCM. Appointed Tutor in Organ Studies in 1956, 12 years later, succeeding Dr John Wray, he took on the demanding position of Director of Studies. In 1973, as the new college got under way, he became Principal Lecturer in Organ, Keyboard Musicianship and Harmony. Extensive tours as an examiner for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music afforded him regular breaks from this exacting routine.

Frost’s 40-year association with the Hallé Concerts Society also began in 1956. Initially, he was Accompanist and Principal Organist; then, between 1972 and 1995, as Chorus Master of the Hallé Choir, he worked with many of the world’s leading conductors. Contributing to the month-long Tippett-Debussy celebrations that took place in February 1988, Frost helped prepare the first provincial performance of Sir Michael Tippett’s challenging oratorio The Mask of Time. For many it remains one of the great events in Manchester’s musical history.

After a spell assisting John Bertalot at Blackburn Cathedral, from 1978 onwards, Frost’s outlook found an equally happy and expressive outlet as Organist of St Ann’s. Built in 1712, right at the heart of the city, the church, thanks to his expertise, became a noted centre of musical excellence. In 1995, he was particularly delighted to have the opportunity tonally to refine and to enlarge the church’s then somewhat venerable but increasingly unreliable organ, originally built in 1730 by Glyn & Parker. Most fortunately, the instrument had been dismantled and removed just a few days before the devastating IRA bomb blast of June 1996.

Working in close conjunction with the builders George Sixsmith & Sons, Frost took the opportunity to totally redesign the instrument’s layout, expand the pedal department, add a fourth manual, and an almost entirely new positive organ, while, at the same time, bringing its pitch into line with modern requirements.

It provided a particularly colourful palette for its talented custodian, and its completion in November 1996 allowed him to resume his popular weekly lunchtime concerts. By the time of his retirement, these recitals alone drew audiences totalling 1100.

While his compositions, often written for special occasions, were rather a by-product of a busy professional life, typically he was always the last to emphasise their importance. There is, however, no doubt about their craftsmanship. Among some delightful and some more thoughtful pieces for choir, the Sonata for Flute, Clarinet, and Piano makes an immediate appeal by its melodic character, harmonic resource, and originality. Sadly neglected are the more cerebral Three Preludes and Fugues for Harpsichord.

Conceived on a larger and perhaps more expansive canvas are major works for organ. These include the early Passacaglia for the Birthday of St Ann’s, constructed on a distinctive note row, together with the Variations on Conditor Alme and Variations on St Peter. The French-inspired idiomatically intense Toccata for St Ann’s has the magisterial hymn tune emerging chorale-like towards the end, while Partita On A Dutch Hymn Tune brings together the many disparate elements in the composer’s technique, all handled with the skill of a master craftsman.

Appointed an Hon. Lay Canon of Manchester Cathedral in 2011, as the long-serving Area Chairman of the Royal School of Church Music (RSCM), he remained unstinting in his efforts to support fellow church musicians. He was elected Fellow of the RSCM and an Hon. Fellow of the Guild of Church Musicians.

Intimately associated with both Bury Choral Society and Bury Football Club, Frost rarely missed a home game at Gigg Lane. Fittingly, among the many gifts presented to him when taking his leave of St Ann’s last May, pride of place went to a club shirt with his name on it.

He married in 1959; his wife Barbara survives him.

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