A Life in Music - interview with Adrian Partington

Catherine Lewen invites Adrian Partington to reflect on his career

CL: How do you think music has shaped your life?

AP: It has shaped my life, I suppose, because it’s my career. But life-shaping tends to happen very early in life, according to Freud, and I can certainly say that music has been the most important thing in my life from my first conscious moments. Both my parents were professional musicians; my father was an organist and pianist and my mother a violinist. My earliest memories are of listening to my parents playing great piano and violin works in our house whilst I played with my brother under the grand piano! I had a little alphabet train when I was about four, and the letters all had different colours. I quickly made an association between the colours of the little cardboard pieces and the sounds of the piano and so A to me is light green, B is grey, C is light blue, D is dark red, E is yellow and so on. Still now when I hear a piece I can tell what key it’s in because I see its colour.

What drew you into music when you were younger?

My father was a church organist, so my second set of memories are to do with church music. The local church which we attended in Nottingham where I grew up didn’t have much music; it had a fine organ but not really a choir. But my father was Director of Music of a big city church in the centre of the city, and I loved it when my mother occasionally took us into Nottingham on a Sunday morning to my Father’s church, because the choir sang lots of music; I was always rather aggravated when she took us to the local church because I was bored. I liked the music at my father’s church too much!

Did your parents support your love of music?

Yes. I had piano and violin lessons from the age of four. The violin I found a bit of a drudge, because you can’t get instant results with it, but with the piano I could make speedy progress; I thirsted for my piano lessons. Then my brother became a chorister at Worcester cathedral; I followed him two years later when I was seven.

Did that begin your love of cathedral music?

Yes, it did. I loved being a chorister; however, I loathed boarding at the Choir School. Most lessons I found boring when I was seven or eight, and the boarding was just awful: the petty bullying, the restrictions, and a very unkind matron; all these things meant that I just longed to get over to the cathedral. When I was in the cathedral I was happy, especially singing the long psalms. Most people think I’m mad, but I liked the historical psalms. They made a big impression on me. It’s all rather weird, but I determined about age nine that I would be a Director of Music at a cathedral one day. The path to that was surprisingly crooked and didn’t happen in the way I anticipated, but my life was made all the richer because I haven’t spend the whole of my life in cathedral music. I was out of that rather small world for eighteen years, and they were probably the most fruitful years of my life. I had a teaching job for a while which I adored. It didn’t last very long because I realised that if I stayed there any longer I would sink into middle-class comfort and not do anything particularly interesting, so I left, happy as I was, without anything to go to. I trusted in the saying ‘fortune favours the brave’ and, after a few uneasy weeks, the work started to pour in and I’ve been too busy ever since!

Have your children inherited your love of music?

Yes, all on different levels. They all love music, they like to go to The Proms and Three Choirs but only Jacob might become a professional musician. He’s a choral scholar at King’s College, Cambridge, (my old college) which makes me very proud. Joey sings the hymns more loudly than anyone else at the cathedral on a Sunday – it’s not very tuneful but he certainly gets into the spirit of it!

What new challenges are you looking forward to?

Gloucester 2019 presents a big challenge to me, because I have chosen repertoire to conduct which is not “safe”, and which I think is exciting and different. At the TCF, I have conducted things like Komarov’s Fall (Brett Dean), Rivers to the Sea (Joseph Phibbs), The Transmigration of Souls (John Adams), and Mahler 8 - which I think many cathedral organists would not want to tackle; I make myself do things which are challenging because it’s so easy just to want to conduct the Verdi Requiem or Elijah. You don’t grow as a musician or a person if you just conduct “safe” repertoire. Next year I’ve chosen La Damnation de Faust, which is one of the hardest things you’ll ever have to do as a singer or conductor or player, but it’s such a fantastic piece. Also in this season, I’m conducting my first commercial CD for the BBC in a few months’ time, an unperformed Stanford choral mass and some other Stanford music. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra have asked me to do a series of concerts for them next year, and I have concerts with the Philharmonia, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and the Orchestra of the Swan . I’m so grateful for these challenges because I haven’t trained as an orchestral conductor, I’ve learned things as I’ve gone along. I’ve had lots of help - I have one day a year when Sir Mark Elder welcomes me to his house. I take a score or two and he’s so generous with his advice, it’s fantastic! And I’ve been very lucky – Thierry Fisher, Mark Wigglesworth, Richard Hickox, Martyn Brabbins - lots of people have shared their experience with me, so in a way I’ve done better than going to music college to do conducting because I’ve had it really from the horse’s mouth.

Why did you become a choral conductor rather than an organist?

It’s to do with needing to pay the mortgage! It’s very difficult to just be a concert organist. My first desire when I was assistant organist at Worcester was just to be an organist, but while I was there I got the job of Assistant Director of Music at Warwick University and I was given the Warwick University Chorus and the Warwick University Symphony Orchestra. I learned how to manage a chorus then and that was thirty-odd years ago. I’ve never been without a choir of a hundred plus since.

What differences are there between conducting a smaller choir and a larger chorus?

All I would say is that you need to know the music and you need to be yourself; everything else follows. I think I’m pretty much the same with whoever I’m standing in front of, whether it’s a children’s choir or the BBC Symphony Chorus. I just make sure that I know the music. You will see that I have all my scores here that I’ve got to learn – here’s Faust, I look at it every other day. I make time every day to learn music, no matter how busy I am, so that I know absolutely every inch of it. There’s the Verdi Requiem for the London workshop at the beginning of October, The Dream of Gerontius – I look at them all the time.

What is the difference between conducting a service and a concert?

The first thing is the context – you can’t be quite as relaxed and thinking only of the music in a service as you can in a concert. Normally for a service I’ve got eighteen little boys and for a concert I’ve got adults – you can’t even think about the music when you’re conducting the cathedral choir; if you don’t know the music completely, you’re stuffed! You must engage with the children, and that’s absolutely my top priority. I don’t think about anything else but keeping them focussed and energised. Other than that, evensong brings responsibilities and a special attitude and the context of a wonderful gothic building with a huge resonance to think about. Concerts are more relaxed in a way. There’s the old argument to be considered of whether there is actually a difference between sacred and secular. When Bach was working, when he was writing the 48 [Preludes and Fugues] or the Partitas, I think that he was focussed on the Almighty in just the same way as when he was writing a cantata. He wouldn’t recognise the difference between sacred and secular and, in a sense, I don’t either. I just try and make everything as good as I can in the context.

What’s it like preparing a chorus for someone else to conduct in concert?

I’m used to it because I’ve been chorus-mastering for thirty years, starting with the CBSO chorus. I didn’t mind it when I was starting off because I always knew that I was handing it over to some God-like figure, Simon Rattle or Mark Elder in those early days, and there’s something rather nice about only being responsible for one part of a performance. Seeing my chorus work with another conductor is actually very rewarding. The biggest problem I have is that frankly some conductors simply don’t know how to conduct a choir. They may be very good at the orchestra, but they don’t give the choir what they need. There are also some very experienced conductors who have not been told that their conducting style has got more wayward, so this can all make it not a very pleasant experience - I might enjoy the preparation, but come the concert, sometimes it’s not as good. But it stands to reason - it’s nothing to do with me - that a choir sings better for the person it knows; they know how to interpret the gestures.

Is there a difference between the pieces you enjoy listening to and conducting?

Yes. I did a concert a few weeks ago with MacMillan’s Seven Angels for the BBC. It’s spectacularly difficult and I adore listening to it, but conducting it was extraordinarily hard. One of the hardest things in conducting is when people are invited to improvise bars of indefinite length, so I would say I love that piece, but I did not enjoy conducting it. Komarov’s Fall in the 2013 Festival, which I don’t think I’d ever listen to, I got tremendous satisfaction out of conducting. It was hard; I spent eighteen months preparing it.

Have you found that performance practice has changed over the years?

Yes, definitely. I was interviewed about ten years ago by Aled Jones. He played Elgar’s Ave Verum; it was beautifully sung but had very clipped, old-fashioned vowels, like BBC news readers from the nineteen-twenties. Afterwards he asked whether I knew who was singing. I thought it was the Temple Church Choir, the famous choir between the wars, but he said it was me singing, in the Worcester Cathedral Choir 1969. There is an enormous difference between how the choristers sang when I was there and how they sing today. Accents and tone, the whole atmosphere is different. You couldn’t recreate it now. Secondly, the great research and discoveries of the so-called ‘early music movement’, and continuing research about how music was performed in earlier centuries, has slowly but surely filtered through into our music making. People now wouldn’t dream of performing the Messiah as they did when I was a child – Messiah was always performed with fortissimo organ and slow speeds. We now know that in Handel’s time the forces were much smaller, and music tended to dance along a little bit more, so there has been a big change. Even in older recordings of Gerontius the singing and orchestral playing are different, the solo singers with their over-pronounced consonants and long vowels – they all sound like they have plums in their mouths. Another symbol of this is editions of music. Fifty years ago an editor would interpret on the page, so in Handel an editor would put in crescendos and diminuendos and fortes and that sort of thing which Handel just wouldn’t bother with. Nowadays, editors say ‘this is what the composer left us, this is perhaps an idea of how it should go, but it’s up to you to do your research and make your own choices’.

Musically, what more would you like to do?

I most want to conduct Elgar’s two symphonies, particularly the second one. With choral-orchestral repertoire I’ve basically done everything that I want to do. I’ve got no interest in operas. Actually, I’ve never conducted Monteverdi Vespers, and – it happens like buses – I’ve got two to do next year, which I’m really excited about. I’m quite content with the opportunities I’ve had and continue to have; I can’t aspire to any more. The Verdi Requiem on Saturday will be my tenth – not everybody gets that sort of opportunity.

When you conduct a piece more than once, do you try to interpret it differently or are you striving for one particular interpretation?

No, I re-think everything and I hope that my interpretations are better informed now than they were before – for example, I have been told occasionally that I do things too quickly, so I might take things slower now than ten years ago. That’s the sort of thing. I try and find different things each time.

How do you plan a festival programme?

I get the big pillars in place first, and everything else comes afterwards. I’ve tried to make Gloucester the home of ‘big pieces’ at Three Choirs. I think about what’s good to open and close with. I have a glance at anniversaries to see if there’s anything to be exhumed. Then I think of visiting conductors who I’d like, and what my colleagues at Hereford and Worcester can do, because it’s horses for courses – what I like to do, they don’t necessarily like to do. We don’t want to repeat anything too soon after it’s been done.

What role does the festival has in supporting new musicians and composers?

We’ve got a very good, strong history of commissions for younger composers for evensong music. For younger performers we do what we can; I founded the festival’s Youth Choir because I was astonished when I returned to Three Choirs Land, that nothing had been done for youngsters. We’ve got increasing numbers of children’s events; at Gloucester next year we’ve got The Last Train about the Kindertransport in the 1930s. It’s so important to engage with young people, so that the festival can survive. Who is our audience going to be in the future if we don’t engage with youngsters now? The Three Choirs must cater for young people as much as it can.

What have been your most challenging and exhilarating moments during a festival?

Easily the most exhilarating moment was conducting Elgar’s Falstaff five years ago. I worked jolly hard at that, and it was just thrilling. But I think it’s so un-Elgar-like that people don’t get it. It hardly gets any performances. My most hair-raising moment was in the 2010 broadcast evensong where I entrusted a lay clerk to take his own note for responses and he chose a pitch that was a third too high, so the boys were singing top B flats in the Lord’s Prayer live on the BBC! They managed, and it sounded thrilling, but I then had to hum the right note - that was honestly my worst moment. He’s still very embarrassed about it, poor chap.

What most excites you in the 2019 Festival?

Faust. People won’t know it but it’s so thrilling, it’s beyond words. The end, the ride to Hell, what Berlioz quaintly calls the “pandemonium”, the ascent to heaven of Marguerite’s soul, the Rákóczi March, the end of the scene where Faust is discovered in Marguerite’s house – it’s just so exciting. I can’t wait.

What are you listening to at the moment?

I don’t listen to music for leisure – what I am interested in at the moment though is English music from the World War I era: Frederick Kelly and Ernest Farrar. I have developed a great deal of sympathetic interest in the music of those killed or seriously marked by the first world war, like Ivor Gurney or Patrick Hadley.