Highgate Choral Society breaks 18 month silence with Verdi's Requiem

Ronald Corp conducting the Highgate Choral Society.

Ronald Corp conducting the Highgate Choral Society. - Credit: Archant

When Highgate Choral Society break their 18-month silence to sing Verdi’s Requiem at All Hallows Church, it will be a red-letter day for all concerned, not least for conductor Ronald Corp.

He’s a live wire on the podium, and also in rehearsal, where he keeps his singers on their toes with the timing of a benign but schoolmasterly comic.

He’s had a good pandemic: "It gave me time to really listen to music," he says. "I’ve got 8000 CDs and many more LPs, so every afternoon I listened to an opera – it drew me into listening to things I did not know." He also systematized what he did know, "starting with Beethoven, to whose whole oeuvre I listened, starting with opus 1. That was a fantastic journey. I then did the same with Brahms, then Schumann, then Messaien. Because my family knew nothing about music, I’ve always been on this journey of discovery. And I’ve always wanted to share what I discover."

Ronald Corp

Ronald Corp who conducts the Highgate Choral Society at All Hallows Church Gospel Oak on November 13. - Credit: Liz Artindale

That led to the Zoom rehearsals and weekly musical ‘musings’, complete with links for listening, which kept the choir together throughout the fallow period. The fact that he’s also an Anglican priest – saying Mass and delivering sermons at St Alban the Martyr in Holborn – might also have something to do with his ability to instil an esprit de corps.

Corp began his career as a tenor in the choir of Christ Church, Oxford, but he was a born leader from the start. While working at the BBC he founded a staff choir, conducted the BBC Singers, and started making recordings. In 1984 he took over the Highgate Choral Society, and a year later began running the elite London Chorus. He also founded the New London Children’s Choir, and in 1991 the New London Orchestra, whose CD series of ‘light classics’ ensures that Classic FM still plays one of his tracks almost every day.

And he’s been a composer from infancy. "I created my own manuscript paper with five pen-nibs glued together, and devised my own system of notation – all little squiggles and signs," he says. "From ten onwards I used to write a piece every day. And I’d feel a day was wasted if I hadn’t written something – I still feel like that today."

During the pandemic he realised he had the basic structure of a symphony, so he orchestrated it. "And then a third symphony came out, very quickly. I knew immediately how it was going to begin, and what its sound-world would be like. It just came. So I wrote two symphonies during lockdown! I’m now trying to get performances of them, as they haven’t been heard – and I want to hear them myself."

His compositional output includes chamber works and works for choir (often children’s voices), and he’s also a prolific composer of songs. His particular style is vivid and brightly melodious, as you can discover if you listen to the baritone Mark Stone accompanied on the piano by Simon Lepper in Ron’s settings of poems by Walt Whitman and AE Housman. All this, says Corp, will one day constitute his legacy.

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He’s spurred on by the fact that in his opinion most composers of choral works are aiming for elite chamber choirs, rather than community groups like HCS. "Where is the next War Requiem, or Child of Our Time – something gritty and significant - coming from?" he asks. The answer may turn out to be from him.

As a member of HCS I can vouch for the enthusiastic intensity with which he infuses every rehearsal.

"My approach is to keep everybody on the boil," he says. "Some people don’t like my rehearsal style, but I like to get through a lot each week. There’s no point in endlessly polishing a tiny fragment, because by the next week it will have been forgotten. But if you slightly polish it every week, you get there."

His aim at the end of each session, like any good psychotherapist, is to send people out on a high, feeling good.

"I know I’m lucky," he says. "In church and on the podium I do two things I really love. I sometimes think I should do something different after all these years, but I just love taking rehearsals. And though we’re working hard, we’re also having fun."

Highgate Choral Society performs Verdi's Requiem at All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, Saturday Nov 13, 7.00 pm.

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