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Profile: David Russell, composer, singer and pianist

18/06/2020

Who have been the main influencers on your decision to spend so much time in musical activity?

I come from a musical family: both my parents played the piano (though my father learnt to play by ear in the “knees up Mother Brown” style!); I have a twin brother who played violin and a sister who played recorder and then clarinet – I chose the piano since it was in the one room which had heating. I was fortunate to be the only student studying music at A-level so obtained 1:1 tuition.

When I moved to Chichester, I quickly joined the Chichester Singers, where I met my wife Judith. We both are still proudly singing with the choir. She also persuaded me to join CAOS – the Chichester Amateur Operatic Society, where I enjoyed lead roles, initially in Gilbert & Sullivan operettas and then later in classic musicals, such as Oklahoma and Annie Get Your Gun.

I had started writing songs with my original landlord, Norman Barrett, who was a singer at the Selsey holiday camps in his spare time. We continued to spend many years composing songs, sometimes of a religious nature, sometimes pop ballads – and after he died, and I retired, I’ve concentrated on 4-part choral pieces, including entering Christmas Carols in the BBC Radio 3 annual competition.

About 14 years ago I was lucky enough to join Chichester Voices (CV), a 20 strong chamber choir. Their MD Andrew Naylor has been incredibly supportive in encouraging performances of my compositions, and I still sing bass with them. As my twin conducts a choir in Keyworth, Nottingham, I also have an outlet in the Midlands for my pieces!

What have been the greatest challenges of your musical career so far?

My biggest musical challenge was probably as MD of CAOS in the 1980s directing The Mikado in the Minerva Theatre. It came as bit of a shock trying to conduct an orchestra when the performer on stage decides to sing at their own tempo, or pauses suddenly in the middle of a patter song!

Many years later the Corpus Christi Amateur Dramatic Society (CCADS) put on the first production of Aspects of Love outside London at the New Theatre Royal in Portsmouth, and I was MD. Although this was to great acclaim, it was jolly hard work to accommodate one of the quite edgy 7/4-time Lloyd Webber choruses, and then play one of the 2-piano parts for the week of the show.

What for you are the particular pleasures and challenges of collaborating with other musicians?

Collaboration for me started at an early age, where I’d play piano and violin sonatas with my brother Colin. It gives great pleasure to appreciate the nuances of accompanying or playing a duet, and piano duets with friends remain a great delight. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate more and more the supporting role of the accompanist, whether for a singer or instrumentalist, and particularly treasure the time in rehearsal preparing for a recital. It’s great to share the innate musicality of performing with musicians of high calibre.

I’ve enjoyed singing with Cavatina, an a cappella 4-part group, based in Barnham. We singers are wonderfully exposed, but there’s a spine-tingling impact when it all comes together.

I’ve partnered up with David Bathurst to tell the story of Flanders and Swan, impersonating Donald Swann at the piano, which has engendered so many laughs, and some vivid memories for audience members who saw them live! At the other end of the spectrum, performing a piece like Verdi’s Requiem with a large choir and orchestra is all-encompassing and emotionally rewarding.

How would you describe your musical language?

I describe them as melody-driven ballads, many of which have had orchestral arrangements added by Tony Pegler, a close friend and superb musician. My religious music compositions are in a modern style, not too far removed from John Rutter.

How do you work?

I sit at the piano with a laptop nearby with composing software on it. I’ve just completed a setting of The Silver Swan (originally by Orlando Gibbons) and an Ubi Caritas in 4-part SATB for CV.

Which works/performances are you most proud of?

I wrote a 4-part anthem for my daughter Lizzie’s wedding entitled My True Love Hath my Heart which was a joy and privilege.

I’ve arranged songs such as Céline Dion’s All By Myself and Jerome Kern’s The Way You Look Tonight for my a cappella group.

With CAOS I’ve most enjoyed acting as Eisenstein, in Die Fledermaus, and as Jud Fry in Oklahoma, both in the Minerva Theatre.

I’ve been the bass soloist in Fauré’s Requiem with the Chichester Singers at a singing day, and performed the role of the Captain of the Pinafore in a staged concert of HMS Pinafore in Chichester Cathedral, under the legendary Kenneth Alwyn.

Are there any composers with whom you feel a particular affinity?

I have a particular love for (late) Romantic composers such as Brahms, Mahler and Elgar (particularly his The Dream of Gerontius), but also love contemporary choral music by composers such as Whitacre and Lauridsen.

Which works do you think you perform best?

The comic songs with David Bathurst telling the story of Flanders and Swan: I seem to excel when good comic timing is needed, and I can just about manage the tongue-twisters of Tom Lehrer, such as Poisoning Pigeons in the Park.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Singing A Great and Glorious Victory by Jonathan Willcocks in a Martin Luther King Jr. Day concert with a selection of singers from the Chichester Singers and in Carnegie Hall, New York in 2013. It was amazing to stand on the same stage where the Beatles performed and where Tchaikovsky had conducted the inaugural concert.

Singing The Dream of Gerontius with the Chichester Singers and Dame Janet Baker in Chichester Cathedral.

Watching La Traviata in Sydney Opera House during a trip to New Zealand and Australia.

What advice would you give to those who are considering a career in music?

It’s not a career that is well rewarded financially, unless you are extremely talented (or lucky), but it is one that’s well rewarded emotionally. And music engenders close friendships: you drop your guard, wear your heart on your sleeve, and openly acknowledge to the others in your group what the whole experience is doing to you. If you choose a separate, enjoyable career, then non-professional music-making can be nearly as fulfilling, in my experience, and probably less stressful!

How would you define success as a musician/composer?

It’s important for there to be mutual respect among peers. It’s also vital to be able to communicate with the audience – happiness is contagious. Finally, live events cannot be replicated by virtual performances, so do support the former when it becomes possible again.

How are you keeping yourself usefully occupied and sane during lockdown?

I’ve been busier than ever: I’ve written 4 pieces since the middle of March. But I am missing the special pleasure of group choral singing….

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Still writing, playing and singing. In Chichester!

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Sharing the music that I love, either as a performer or listener. It gives me great personal pleasure to know that, for example, my brother might be performing a Verdi Requiem in Nottingham on the same evening as my sister in York and myself in Chichester! Similarly, I have a happy memory of seeing my daughter and her husband performing Elijah in the Barbican – 30 years after my wife Judith and I performed it as a young married couple. Family music-making, as family itself, is so important to me.

What is your most treasured possession?

My refurbished Rogers upright piano from 1929 which was a wedding present to Judith and myself from Judith’s mother.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Composing and singing, playing golf and croquet, spending time with our grandchildren, and enjoying wine – including on monthly Monday afternoons with the U3A Wine Appreciation Group, now I’ve stepped into the unseen world of retirement!

What is your present state of mind?

Happy, and in a good position to remind myself how lucky I am. I feel that I’m still able to make the most of the opportunities I am presented with and I’m looking forward to again enjoying the camaraderie of choral singing – and hugging the grandchildren.

Things I would like to recommend

Concerts for the Singers and Voices are in abeyance at present but please check out recent lockdown performances on YouTube, such as by The Chichester Singers.

Theatre companies have been dreadfully affected by the current crisis, so I would urge you to help support local groups, if possible, again by checking websites of CCADS and the Chichester Festival Theatre, amongst others. These groups have released videos of popular productions for free to air viewing.

David Russell lives in Fishbourne and is a retired Chartered Surveyor who has spent as much of his spare time as possible in non-professional music-making. He is a composer and pianist and is a Life Member of CAOS Musical Productions; he has sung with Chichester Singers for over 40 years and with Chichester Voices for nearly 15; is a member of Cavatina, and is currently Musical Director of Just Us – a concert party performing treasured memories from shows and musical comedy for Care Homes and Charities.

Author: Simon O'Hea with David Russell

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