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Profile: Jonathan Willcocks, composer and conductor

16/08/2020

Who and/or what have been the most important influences on your musical career?

Music was in my family from the beginning and I used to watch my father, David, conducting rehearsals. At an early age I was fascinated as he used his baton to bring in various parts – I originally thought that this was entirely to show me which instruments or singers I should watch!

My early musical training as a chorister at King’s College, Cambridge from the age of 8 to 13 has been the most important influence on my musical life and career as a composer and conductor. Life as a chorister involves full immersion for at least 4 hours a day preparing for around 8 services a week. Quite apart from the obvious superb musical foundations, other spinoffs include self-discipline and the building of self-confidence.

I’ve had the fortune of conducting some wonderful choirs and ensembles over the years. I moved to the Portsmouth area in 1975 to take up the post of Director of Music at Portsmouth Grammar School. This led to my also being appointed as conductor of the Portsmouth Choral Union and then in 1979 the Chichester Singers, I agreed to stand in at short notice to conduct a concert when Anne Lawrence, its founder, had to retire suddenly as the result of illness. Over forty years later I am still enjoying making music with them!

Again, some fortune led me into composing: I started writing music not out of any burning urge to compose but because friends at school and university asked me to. One of my earliest large-scale works was “Voices of Time” commissioned by Portsmouth Choral Union in 1980 on the occasion of its centenary, and published by OUP. This led to further commissions. You can visit my website to see a list of all the works that I have composed.

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

Every rehearsal is a challenge! Concerts work well if rehearsals do. Rehearsals lay the foundations for excellent achievement but they can be hard work, and you have to be both organised but also imaginatively flexible.

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

A musical performance is very much a team effort – everyone has something potentially to offer. I get a lot of pleasure in enabling others to perform uplifting music, sometimes to a standard quite beyond what the individual may think they are capable of. That’s one reason why I particularly like working with amateur musicians.

How would you describe your musical language?

My background is in classical music written for an ecclesiastical setting. I try hard to make the piece technically match the ability of the ensemble that commissioned it and to make whatever I write challenging but accessible.

How do you work?

I sit at my desk with a pencil and manuscript, and work in shorthand. I can hear the music more clearly in my head if I don’t use the piano. I then transfer this initial draft to my computer using Sibelius software; this is very much part of the creative process, and it enables me to revisit and revise my work to develop it nearer to its completed form.

Time management skills are useful here, it has never worked for me to wait for inspiration to strike. When working on a composition I force myself to work in a disciplined way and I’ve never missed a commission deadline.

With choral compositions, I’ll start with the text. The mood and message of the words need to be mirrored in the music. With instrumental pieces there are different constraints but the music must still suit the occasion and ensemble for which it is being written.

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

My interest in counterpoint means that I have a strong affinity with the music of J.S. Bach (for example his B Minor Mass), Mozart (for example his Requiem or the final movement of his Jupiter Symphony) and Elgar, who skilfully knits together various different voice parts using one rhythm. With composers like Wagner, for whom harmony is more dominant, I feel that the listener is missing a vital dimension of the subtle interrelation of voices and instruments.

Which works or performances are you most proud of?

Performing what in my opinion are the truly great masterpieces, for instance by Bach (as above), Brahms (for example his Requiem) and Britten (for example his War Requiem).

What are your most memorable concert experiences?

Conducting Dame Janet Baker in The Dream of Gerontius, and (on several occasions) Sir Willard White in Elijah and other works count among my most memorable concert experiences. Also there have been a number of instances where I have been asked to be guest conductor for what seemed like an unpromising group of players or singers, which brought unexpected joy and satisfaction in the end.

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

As a former director of the Junior Academy, Royal Academy of Music in London I was always candid with students: while encouraging them to strive to fulfil their potential I would also counsel them to consider making a career out of doing something other than music, and keeping their exceptional abilities as players or singers as a lifelong amateur love, rather than trying to earn a living at it. Music is an extremely tough and competitive career, and you have to be exceptionally good at what you do but also have a lot of luck. You also need to have other attributes, you need to develop associated business skills, such as in how to market yourself effectively, and be entirely reliable. The music profession is very unforgiving of sloppy time-keeping or unreliability. For many, it may be a better idea to extract pleasure from music as a serious hobby rather than endure the uncertainty and stress of trying to earn a living from it.

How would you define success as a musician?

Feeling fulfilled and enabling others to feel fulfilled. Leading a rehearsal or a concert in which amateur musicians have achieved more than they thought that they possibly could continues to give me great satisfaction.

What are your observations about the current pandemic situation?

It’s pretty dire. There’s little or no work for professional singers and instrumentalists, many of whom are not eligible for Government support, yet they need to keep practising. Cathedral and church choirs are faced with a huge break in the continuity of choristership: they need day-in, day-out practice, and for skills to be passed on from older to younger singers. Some amateur choirs are faced with the danger of “evaporation” if they are unable to meet and rehearse in the near future. A Government may be able to stop and start the economy, but you can’t do this with music for which continuity is so vital.

About Jonathan

Jonathan Willcocks’ published music includes major choral works, music for children’s choir, many shorter pieces (including anthems and secular choral music), orchestral and instrumental works. Jonathan’s has many recordings, and his music is frequently performed and broadcast in many parts of the world.

Jonathan is currently Musical Director of the Guildford Choral Society, the Chichester Singers, the Leith Hill Musical Festival and the professional chamber orchestra Southern Pro Musica.

For a full biography of Jonathan, please visit http://www.jonathanwillcocks.com.

Author: Simon O'Hea with Jonathan Willcocks

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