English classical conductor, arranger, and organist Ralph Woodward is the Musical Director of the Fairhaven Singers, Full Score and Orchestral Score. His extremely wide repertoire originates through the enjoyment of research, putting programmes together and finding inspiration for future projects. Ralph Woodward has collaborated with such musicians as Vladimir Ashkenazy, Christopher Hogwood, Emma Kirkby, and Michael Chance, enlisting their help in his quest to get at the truth of the music. In this way on the stage, he brings out the nature of creativity: imagination and musician’s desire to communicate. In this interview, the internationally acclaimed conductor talks about his education as Organ Scholar at Queens’ College, Cambridge, exceptional concert performances, the identity of British choral music and, of course, sports.
You are conductor, arranger and organist. How do you identify yourself as a musician?
I suppose I think of myself as an “artist”, in broad terms, which includes those activities and other things like writing, teaching, broadcasting and just thinking…
How do you balance all of the activities in your everyday life?
Some of it is timetabled, such as teaching and rehearsals, so everything else, and all the associated admin, fits around that. I generally get on top of admin things very early, so I rarely have difficulty with deadlines.
What meaning does each occupation have for you?
Well, some of it is obviously an artistic outlet, while some of it is done more for financial reasons – but quite a lot of what I do comes into both categories… My core activity is really conducting, which includes a lot of time spent researching repertoire and putting programmes together.
How do they complement each other?
Variety is good, and there’s rarely a day that goes by when I only do one thing, so the entirety of it hopefully keeps me fresh and preserves my sanity.
How could you describe British choral music traditions?
There are many strands to it. I suppose when we think of the British choral tradition, people like me would initially focus on the music of our cathedrals and collegiate chapels, and the music written for that tradition by composers like Tallis, Byrd, Purcell, Parry, Stanford, and Howells, and nowadays by Bob Chilcott, Jonathan Dove, Sir James MacMillan, John Rutter, Howard Goodall, Paul Mealor, Will Todd, Judith Weir and Cecilia McDowall; but of course there are also youth choirs, choral societies, chamber choirs (such as my Fairhaven Singers), community choirs, jazz choirs, Gospel choirs, pop choirs and so on, singing an enormous range of repertoire, which is feeding back into the mainstream, so you have a work like Will Todd’s Mass in Blue which represents a collision of the classical tradition with Gospel and jazz.
Is there a British choral music identity? What forms it?
I think there’s a certain style of choral singing that produces an identifiably British sound, and that’s probably best exemplified in our cathedral music – that’s the thing that most sets us apart from the rest of the world, in my view, superb though the choral traditions in many other countries are (thinking particularly of parts of America and Africa, Germany, Russia, the Baltic nations, Scandinavia and Australasia).
You have recorded seven CDs. How do they show the growth of you as a musician and conductor?
That’s hard to answer, because I never listen to my own recordings once they’re released…. But my first recording was made over 25 years ago, and I know I’ve learnt a lot since then, both musically and as a human being, and I hope I’ll continue to learn for the next 25 years…
You have worked in over 25 countries. Did you notice any major differences in different cultures on how they organize concerts, rehearse?
Most of my foreign performances have been directed by me, so I haven’t been exposed to other rehearsal cultures very much. One thing I do know is that in Italy concerts rarely start on time and aren’t expected to, whereas in Cambridge if the poster says 7.30pm I aim to have given the downbeat by 7.31…
Was there a concert that had an exceptional meaning for you?
One or two performances stand out in my memory just because of their taking place in amazing buildings, such as the Duomo in Florence, San Marco in Venice, the British Ambassador’s residence in Tunis, or the Guggenheim Museums in Bilbao and New York.
You have worked with numerous inspiring musicians. What are usually the compromises?
I don’t really think of it as compromise, so much as having someone else helping me to get at the truth (or a version of it). For instance, I work closely with Bridget Hardy, a mezzo soprano, and we’ve done many recital programmes together – I can’t remember an instance where we’ve reached an interpretative decision that I wasn’t happy with (and I hope she’d say the same): we may sometimes come to the rehearsal with slightly different ideas, but we discuss it and find what works best for the team. I don’t think that’s the same as compromise.
I’ve read that your hobbies are cricket and badminton. Would you say that this affects your creative work and your occupation?
Taking part in sport is beneficial in many ways. There’s the obvious health benefit – so much of my working life is spent at a keyboard (piano or computer) or driving a car, that I need to exercise when I can. With badminton, it’s such a fast-moving game that you really can’t think about anything else while you’re doing it, so it unavoidably takes your mind off any work-related worries. Keeping one’s reflexes sharp is good, because one often needs to react very quickly when conducting or playing. I also think it’s good for musicians to have friends who aren’t musicians and don’t care about the music business.
You have been described as a “leading authority” on the music of Benjamin Britten. How would you describe the composer’s influence on your creative work?
His music has been very important to me for many years, and analysing and performing many of his scores has taught me a lot about how music is put together, and how the compositional tradition of Bach and Mozart can be refreshed in every age.
What is your guilty music pleasure?
I don’t think I have any, in that I don’t think guilt is an appropriate reaction to music-enjoyment. I like 1950s big band music, Broadway musicals, Ella Fitzgerald and Rufus Wainwright, but I don’t feel guilty about it!
How has being a conductor influenced you as a keyboard performer?
I think the two help each other. As a conductor, your job is to understand and assimilate the whole score, and I certainly try to do that when accompanying on the piano. And I sometimes play through scores when preparing to conduct them, because the instinctive reaction of my fingers can unlock aspects of the phrasing in my mind.
How would you describe your conducting style?
I’m not sure. I aim to be very aware of what’s going on and as clear as I can be – I don’t know how successful I am… I focus a lot on details in the earlier part of the rehearsal process, and hope to work towards the bigger picture: I think the audience needs to hear the music more than the performance, if that makes sense.
How could you describe your lifestyle as a musician?
Well, there’s always something I could be doing, whether it’s thinking about repertoire or writing programme notes, so I have to make the effort to turn off the computer sometimes. But I think I have a reasonable work/life balance these days and I still find plenty of time for a social life, travel and so on.
What did you learn from your teachers? Maybe they have shared some wisdom which is guiding you even today?
I’ve never been a very good pupil, and I haven’t tended to learn very well when told things. But I have learnt an awful lot just from spending time with people, observing them at close quarters, listening to them work, and hearing what they say about music, so there are three particular musicians from my youth (Nick Gleed, Ian Shaw and James Lancelot) who between them did a lot to shape who I am now, and I’m grateful. The single most musically formative experience in my life was spending a year turning pages for Ian Shaw in Durham Cathedral – he has a touch of the transcendent in the way he approaches, in particular, rhythm that I still think about.
What do you value the most in the journey?
As I get older, I appreciate more and more how little I know and how much there is still to learn, and I really like that – it would be awful to have all the answers, and, for what it’s worth, I’m sure that Bach would have experienced the same sensation.
What is the biggest lesson on creativity you had to learn? How did it shape you as a musician?
I do remember, at the age of nineteen, having to come to terms with what it means to be a professional: you have to do the work every day, now matter what you think of the music or your colleagues, or how you feel. Now, I’m very lucky in the colleagues I work with and I choose much of the repertoire that I perform, but I have occasionally had to grit my teeth and be a pro, and to keep going during difficult times in my life, so I’m glad I learnt that lesson early. And that the performance always has to be better than the rehearsal.
What does your daily practice look like? Do you have any rituals as a musician?
I must admit that I don’t practise very much. If I’m performing something new and difficult, I have to, of course, and I write in fingerings and play slowly like everyone does. But rarely for more than half an hour at a time, and certainly not every day, and with no rituals at all – there’s no time for that. I do spend a lot of time learning the scores that I conduct, but most of that time is spent just staring at the score.
How did you imagine your profession at the beginning of your career?
I’m not sure I did. I’ve only ever proceeded on the basis of what felt right at the time, and what music I wanted to perform. Perhaps I’d be more successful if I was more hard-headed and career-orientated, but I’d be a lot less likeable…
What do you value the most in the music performance?
In performance, I aim to make the composer’s vision shine through for the audience – which is not necessarily the same as a strict adherence to what a historian may believe about the composer’s intentions. If we had a recording of Bach playing the organ, we might learn a lot from it, but we wouldn’t be obliged just to copy it…
What would you name as musicians that inspired you; or pieces that introduced you to something new at the beginning of your career?
I was certainly inspired by the mentors I mentioned above, but I’m actually not very interested in other people’s performances: I’m interested in the music itself, and how best to perform it myself. Many pieces have been important to me along the way: in particular, Handel’s Coronation anthems, Bach’s Passions, Mozart’s operas, Beethoven’s symphonies, Schubert’s songs, Parry’s choral works, and lots of music by Mendelssohn, Brahms, Elgar, Britten, Finzi, Howells, Poulenc and many others.
How was your passion for music born?
I don’t know if it was innate, or stemmed from hearing my mother sing and play the piano when I was little; certainly my first exposure to the sound of Durham Cathedral choir when I was about eight has stuck with me, as has my first experience of singing in a choir, when I was fifteen…
What do you think is the future of choral music?
I think it’s exciting. More and more people want to sing in choirs and write music for them. If there is a danger, and this seems particularly true in Cambridge, it’s that more people want to do it than want to pay to hear it: in this town, there are sometimes superb choral performances heard by a mere handful of people.
What kind of impact do you want to have on the listener?
I want to thrill and excite them, and ideally let the music overwhelm them. I’m happy for listeners not to notice me if they think the music’s good, so the best post-concert compliment you can pay me is to say that you think you’ve just heard a great piece of music – I’m normally embarrassed when people praise me… My aim is to make the music and its atmosphere stand out in bright colours and stark relief, so that it’s capable of changing one’s mood, and even, sometimes, one’s life.
If you knew that you had only one last opportunity to express yourself creatively, what message would you want to convey to others?
That there is great value in beauty for its own sake – I know that sounds pretentious, but I believe it.
Define inspiration – does it exist? How does it manifest in your everyday life?
I’m sure it depends on the individual. I think people like Bach, Mozart and Schubert existed in a permanent state of readiness to be creative, so they might not subscribe to any theory of inspiration in the Hollywood sense. For myself, I know there are days when I feel more imaginative than on other days, but that’s probably the same for everyone. Very occasionally when I’m writing or arranging music something seems to take over and make the next stage obvious – but I wouldn’t claim that what that produces is necessarily any better as a result….
How do you listen to the music of others? What are you searching for? What affects you or resonates with you the most?
I need music to be communicative, technically fluent, melodic, sincere, balanced, graceful and concise – but I guess everyone would say that. If it’s all of those things and imbued with magic, the emotions should be engaged, and that’s the whole ballgame.
How do you define creativity?
Imagination and a desire to communicate. But I think you need a lot of self-criticism and a willingness to work hard if you want to get reliably good at it.
Are there any future projects that excite you the most?
I’m always most excited by the next-but-one project, because with that I can dream of the feeling of performing the music, without yet having to deal with all the vexing logistical issues that inevitably crop up. They’re fun to solve, of course, but really it’s the prospect of filtering great repertoire through my mind and soul that excites me, if that doesn’t sound too self-absorbed…
Thank you for the conversation!