As the Royal Choral Society prepares to sing Handel’s Messiah on Good Friday, one of London’s great Easter traditions, I spoke to conductor Richard Cooke about his influences and inspirations, and how one keeps a work like Messiah fresh and exciting after conducting it for over 25 years.
Who or what inspired you to take up conducting and pursue a career in music?
I was a chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral from the age of 8 to 13. Some pieces we sang as anthems really inspired me, especially Recordare from Mozart’s Requiem, (which we sang in English to a truly terrible translation – *see below). This became my favourite piece of music from the age of 8, and it still is one of them. Also movements from Brahms’ Requiem, which I used to ‘conduct’ whilst listening to my mother’s record player. Seemed like fun.
Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life?
Those five years at St. Paul’s were massively formative, though the choir was really not good! I could sight-sing music from the age of 11. I then had 4 years in Cambridge singing in King’s under David Willcocks, and after that I was teaching at Tiffin School for seven years. My colleague David Nield who was Director of Music (I was Director of Choral Music) made a huge and transformative impact on my life.
What, for you, is the most challenging part of being a conductor? And the most fulfilling?
My musical life has been choral conducting. The great challenge is to be an orchestral conductor when choirs sing concerts with orchestras. I try to conduct choirs ‘orchestrally’ so that they think that way when it all comes together. The most fulfilling thing is to come away from conducting a great work and feel good. Rare! There is usually something I would wish to have done better – it can be only a moment, but it’s there.
As a conductor, how do you communicate your ideas about a work to the orchestra?
Talk as little as possible. Show them what you want and be faithful to what one considers were the composer’s intentions.
Tell us more about the experience of conducting Handel’s Messiah…..
How do you keep such a well-known, well-loved work fresh for both performers and audience, especially in a large venue like the Royal Albert Hall?
This is the same for any professional. I saw an actor being interviewed about how he felt performing Hamlet 25 times and that was the same. You have to make each performance as unique as it is for the audience. This is easy. I have been fortunate to conduct this concert every year for about 27 years and I tell myself and the choir that it has to reach the audience as if it were brand new each time. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is wonderful in this respect too. I feel it has become bigger for me with the passing years.
What for you are the particular pleasures and challenges of conducting Messiah?
One has different soloists to engage with which is (nearly) always a pleasure, and the work slowly rises to its climactic end – particularly so in the Royal Albert Hall. That final 30 minutes is an inspirational and uplifting experience every time.
The main challenge is the choral writing in Part 1 where the choir is exposed to fast semiquaver ‘runs’ without orchestral support. From the beginning of Part 2 to the very end of Part 3, the strings play these demanding passages with the choir, and the support they provide is always reassuring. Mozart ‘solved’ this problem in his re-harmonised version of Messiah by giving all the fast-running sections in Part 1 to the soloists, with the choir joining only at the very end of each chorus. The only real challenge after that is never to coast along on ‘automatic pilot’.
Is there one work which you would love to conduct?
There are several I would like to return to, all of which are hugely expensive, including Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts and Damnation of Faust. A work which I wished I had been able to do is Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher (Joan of Arc at the Stake), but promoters just smile when they see how much it would cost!
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?
I love conducting in the Royal Albert Hall and Canterbury Cathedral, though each has its challenges with the acoustic. I have other favourites – Birmingham, Bridgewater Hall, Liverpool, Gothenburg. A very beautiful venue for concerts is Lund Domkyrkan (Cathedral) in Sweden. I conduct a concert there each summer.
What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?
The direct reply to that has to be preparing the music and how one is going to interpret it, assuming you are not looking for an answer like ‘take a cold shower’ or ‘walk up a Scottish Munro’.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences?
A massive and prolonged revolution in schools. I work with children and it is the most inspirational thing to see how they engage when challenged. Schools are very under-nourished in music, and children are underestimated. Music provision has been declining for decades and there is a misconception that classical music is elitist. Becoming an elite performer does not make it ‘elitist’. There are elite sportspeople. I don’t think Joe Root or Marcus Rashford are elitist but they are elite.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Um…..I’m enjoying still being able to do what I do and have done for my whole life. My hobby is my career and whether I am successful or not is for others to judge.
What advice would you give to young or aspiring conductors/musicians?
I don’t presume to advise other than to say that you have always to prepare and work as much as is needed to master in detail whatever you aspire to.
What’s the one thing we’re not talking about in the music industry which you feel we should be?
The inadequacy of classical music provision in state schools and the value and enhancement it brings to children’s lives and well-being.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Where I am now. Maybe optimistic!
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Not sure but I’m perfectly happy
What is your most treasured possession?
Apart from family and friends I don’t really have one, but it feels special when I dig out a great score like Beethoven Missa Solemnis to prepare for another performance.
What is your present state of mind?
*Final stanza of Recordare from Mozart’s Requiem, early Novello edition:
“In thy favor’d sheep’s position
Keep me from the goat’s condition,
On thy right complete fruition”.
(I’m quite sure that if I had sung these words as an adult, the last word by many around me would have been change to ‘coition’.)
Richard Cooke conducts the Royal Choral Society in Handel’s Messiah on Good Friday, 7th April, at the Royal Albert Hall. The choir, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary, has performed Messiah every Good Friday since 1876. Only the 1940 Blitz and the 2020 Covid pandemic have prevented the performance of one of the UK’s favourite choral works.
Richard Cooke was appointed Conductor of the Royal Choral Society in 1995, becoming Music Director in 1998, and has appeared with us in many concerts in the Royal Festival and Royal Albert Halls. Most notable of these have been their annual Good Friday performances of Handel’s Messiah, and spectacular Christmas Carol concerts. He has directed concerts with the RCS in the cathedrals of Peterborough, Winchester, Salisbury and Southwark. He has also recorded Orff’s Carmina Burana with the RCS together with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
Image credit: Kevin Day