Conducting another birthday is icing on the cake for Ronald Corp

PUBLISHED: 14:37 01 July 2011

Ronald Corp

Ronald Corp

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Highgate Choral Society’s musical priest gears up for round two of his 60th

»It isn’t just the Queen who manages to have real and official birthdays in the same year. Conductors do it too, on reaching ages of significance. And 60 is significant enough for Ronald Corp – conductor of Highgate Choral Society, the New London Orchestra et al – to have had his birthday back in January but be having it again, officially, at the Royal Festival Hall next month.

The event will gather everyone at whom he waves batons for performances of Carmina Burana and two of his own compositions: one a new work and the other a cantata All The Trumpets Sounded which he wrote for the HCS in 1989.

“That was the first of my big pieces for choir and orchestra,” says Corp, who has since emerged as a significant figure in English choral music, “and HCS have done it several times over the years, so it’s familiar territory.

“The other piece, though, is a premiere and it’s for 16 solo voices and orchestra, written along the lines of Vaughan Williams’s Serenade To Music but actually a tribute to Mahler in his centenary year. The texts are taken partly from the Wayfarer poems which he set himself – hence the title The Wayfarer – but the music is mine, albeit with some Mahler quotes.”

Corp’s route into the choral world was roundabout. He grew up in the shadow of a great cathedral, Wells, but didn’t sing there. As an Oxford undergraduate, he spent a year in Christ Church choir without formally becoming a choral scholar.

Fortuitous

After Oxford he planned to do academic research but didn’t get the grant to go with the project.

At a loss, he then followed the route of so many others in his position towards the BBC, walking in off the street. Literally.

“It was easier in those days. You could stroll into Broadcasting House and get yourself an interview. The first time I tried they said there was nothing going. But then I went back and asked again and they put me in the BBC music library – which turned out to be fortuitous.”

Working in the library, he set up something called the BBC Club Choir – which began casually but then acquired enough prestige to make its own broadcasts and appear at the Proms.

From there, the next step was Highgate Choral Society which he took on more than two decades ago and has steered doggedly towards higher standards, even though it remains a local community choir. In recent years, it’s geared up to Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis at the Southbank, a Berlioz Requiem at St Paul’s Cathedral and Elgar’s Apostles at the Barbican, alongside tours to Brussels, Paris, Prague and Budapest.

Secret weapon

But the HCS has a not so secret weapon: a close relationship with the highly professional New London Orchestra, which in fact owes its existence to Highgate Choral, having started as a pick-up band for one of the society’s concerts not long after Corp arrived.

Turning into a more regular ensemble, it then got a recording contract with Hyperion and developed the commercially astute speciality of English light music for which it is now famous – issuing successful CDs of works by Eric Coates and Lionel Monckton which may not thrill demanding listeners but please a general audience.

Another secret weapon, possibly, is God. Apart from being a conductor and composer, Corp can be found on Sunday mornings robed and in the sanctuary of St Alban’s, Holborn, where he functions as a priest.

It’s an unusual career divide but one that seems to work, provided he doesn’t throw himself too vigorously into post-concert parties on a Saturday night. Now he’s 60, there shouldn’t be too much of that anyway although, as he insists: “Sixty doesn’t seem so old these days. I’m regarding it as the beginning of the next part of my life.

“There’s never been a plan – I simply let things happen.” But a territory he might explore is one that, strangely, hasn’t been a major feature of his work to date: music for liturgy.

Corp’s choral pieces tend to be large scale, for concert halls. There’s no Magnificat or Nunc Dimittis and, apart from a Litany done for his own ordination, very little for use in church.

“It’s probably,” he says, “because the familiar texts have been set so well by other people, I haven’t wanted to compete. But who knows, maybe it’s time.”

The next part of his life awaits.

n Ronald Corp’s 60th birthday concert with Highgate Choral Society is at the Royal Festival Hall on Saturday July 9 at 7.30pm. Details at www.southbankcentre.co.uk.

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