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head and shoulders picture of Roderick Williams (credit Theo Williams) My Shrewsbury's editor and Shropshire Music Trust (SMT) Trustee Katy Rink interviewed Roderick Williams, OBE, one of the world’s leading baritones ahead of his appearance in St Chad’s Church, Shrewsbury on April 14th.
[image credit Theo Williams]

Roderick Williams is performing with pianist Susie Allan at St Chad's Church, Shrewsbury, at 7.30pm on Friday, 14th April. Find out more on the concert page.

Roderick Williams is an ideal pin-up for classical music. One of the world’s leading baritones, he is supremely talented and versatile, with a body of work to rival the most prolific of singers. He’s also a dad of three – warm, friendly, down to earth, super articulate and with a heritage spanning continents. He is exactly what this tragically undervalued art form needs right now.

Roddy appreciates his current cachet. It’s why he’s willing to break his own rules and Tweet support for the BBC Singers, of which he is a recently appointed composer in association  – criticising the BBC’s decision to axe the choir and slim down its orchestras: “It’s as though the people making the big decisions at the top of the organisation have decided that classical music is something that is worthy of slow disbandment and dismemberment,” he says. 

His platform is about to get even bigger now that he’s set to play a starring role in the coronation of Charles III – Roddy is one of 12 composers commissioned to write new music for the occasion. He’ll also perform during the Westminster Abbey service as one of three soloists who will sing, together with Welsh bass-baritone Sir Bryn Terfel and South African soprano Pretty Yende. 

“It’ll be a warm-up in the sense that it gives me a chance to use my voice,” Roddy says. He won’t unveil his new composition until the big day itself (‘imagine if it fell into the wrong hands!’). 

Roddy’s phone call came just before Christmas, from Andrew Nethsingha, Organist and Master of the Choristers, Westminster Abbey, who is overseeing all musical arrangements and directing the music during the service. 

“I was on tour in Spain …when he began with ‘His Majesty would like to invite you to…’ I’m too seasoned a pro to let out a scream. I should have said ‘of course, I will check my diary’. I hope I was cool about it,” he chuckles. It’s been hard keeping the news to himself – especially from his chorister nephews about whom he talks fondly. Abel Phelan Williams, 12 and Clevan Phelan Williams, 10, both sang at the Queen’s funeral (‘they were standing on the end of a row, two inches from Royalty and all the former PMs’). 

Will Roddy admit to a few nerves as he prepares to sing in front of 2,000 assembled guests, not to mention a global audience of millions? The Queen’s funeral was watched by 29m people on television in the UK alone. “If I’m not nervous on the day, something’s wrong,” he says. “Pretending nerves are good is the sort of thing you tell students to help them cope. I don’t find nerves especially helpful. Nerves can cause you to do slightly odd things, but they can also help you take risks that result in brilliant moments too. They are the random wildcard. When I don’t feel nerves, however, I’m not paying attention. I’m not fully in the present. Of course, I hope I will do everything in my power to be in control of the variables.” 

He recalls the Last Night of the Proms in 2014, when he sang ‘Rule Britannia’ live from the Royal Albert Hall: “I made the mistake of turning on BBC One and seeing the nationwide live feed. I realised this is much bigger than the room of 6,000 people. My brain went into a flat spin and I thought ‘I’m going to screw this up’. Then I stepped out and I knew I was going to be fine. This is what I do. I told myself ‘I’m good at this bit’. 

Writing for the coronation is obviously a very great honour. Roddy has previously had works premiered at the Wigmore and Barbican halls, the Purcell Room and live on national radio; his major work World Without End was commissioned for the RIAS Kammerchor in Berlin and BBC Singers to celebrate the centenary of Armistice. His coronation piece will join a canon of musical contributions which includes Handel’s ‘Zadok the Priest’ (written for the coronation of George II) and works by Sir William Walton, Sir Edward Elgar, Sir Hubert Parry and Ralph Vaughan Williams. 

Two new works were heard during the Queen’s funeral – by The Master of the Queen’s Musick Judith Weir and leading Scottish Composer James MacMillan. Owing to the King’s great love of music, on May 6, we can expect six orchestral commissions, five choral commissions, an organ commission by Iain Farrington and a new coronation anthem written by Andrew Lloyd Webber. The service will also feature a gospel choir and Greek Orthodox music in memory of Prince Philip. King Charles is believed to have personally commissioned and selected all the music himself: “His Majesty has basically curated a live streaming playlist,” Roddy adds. “The pressure is made easier knowing I’m part of a large team.” 

Not that the composers are allowed to share notes, such is the secrecy surrounding the coronation. Roddy recently met up with Roxanna Panufnik, a British composer of Polish heritage who is also on the list: “We weren’t even sure between us what we could say,” he laughs. 

Roddy can at least reveal that his composition is finished, ‘unlike the old days’, when composers might have been writing right up to the last minute: “Rest assured that I do know what it is. What I have been asked to do is actually quite specific.”

Just in case readers are feeling panicky on Roddy’s behalf, he’s keen to reassure us that even in the face of a live protest, in Westminster Abbey in 2007 during a service to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, he managed to forge forwards with the anthem based on ‘Amazing Grace’: “I could see Tony Blair looking at me beseechingly, ‘oh please make this right’!” And of course Roddy did. 

He insists such ‘variables’ will be unlikely at the coronation: “The Queen’s funeral was a masterpiece of pageantry and planning. There wasn’t a single thing left to chance. The coronation will go the same way.

“I don’t know if I’m going to be in close proximity to His Majesty but I will be aware that I’m doing it for him and all the people in the abbey. The rest of people watching  - whether it’s 5-50 million, I can’t conceive of that. It’s to the people in front of me in the abbey that I will sing.” 

Roddy’s background may be privileged (independent schools followed by Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was a choral scholar) but there’s not a tinge of elitism about him. He grew up in North London – his Jamaican mother would cook Sunday lunch as she sang along to her favourite recordings of Puccini operas – and came late to performing, switching from a teaching career to study at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, aged 28. 

Perhaps it is this maturity and life experience that has allowed him to ‘sell’ his sound so expertly to audiences across a range of genres, whether it be playing title roles in major operas, delivering concert repertoire with the world’s great orchestras, or giving intimate festival performances of German lieder. Audience-less performances during lockdown were missing that soul connection, Roddy says. 

“People often ask me if I can see them when I’m on stage. Of course I can! I see their faces, their reactions, the light in their eyes, their emotions. That’s what feeds me in the moment and makes me want to do better with the next breath. People observe me grinning like a Cheshire cat – it’s when I can see people enjoying themselves, I really appreciate what a great job I have.

“The one thing I am unable to do is hear what I sound like from the outside. I can only hear that on a recording, which is an odd thing. I’m trapped in my body where the sound is coming from, but there are harmonics and other bits of the experience missing.” 

So how does he know if he’s getting it right? 

“Firstly, I’d say I am trying to capture a feeling and then a sound – I know when it feels comfortable, and easy, when I’m not straining – when my whole body is responding within the flow of the music. When it’s all going right, it’s a bodily experience and the spiritual experience that comes with that; a transcendent experience of being able to share something warm and fuzzy with the audience! I get that frequently. Then I know that it’s all fallen into place.

“Obviously, people on the outside might receive it differently. I’ve had times when I’ve been below par and I’ve come off stage and thought ‘phew, I just about got away with that’ and someone might tell me it’s the most amazing performance they’ve ever heard. Then other times, when I think I have been singing brilliantly and people walk past and just say ‘bye’!”

Whether Roddy is singing in front of the King or in St Chad’s Church in Shrewsbury, it’s all about the there and then: “It’s the live experience that makes music so much fun. Making music in smaller spaces can sometimes be extraordinarily exciting.”

Susie Allan and Roderick Williams standing outside a church. Credit Martin Smith

[Susie Williams (pianist) and Roderick Williams. Cr. Martin Smith]

He refers to a recent performance of Bach’s monumental Mass in B Minor with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, directed by harpsichordist Václav Luks at the Royal Festival Hall: “Luks had a wonderful way of working with us, a wonderful set of values that he took pains to install in all of us. Come the day he lit a fuse and it just seemed to explode and the audience felt it too. They knew they’d just witnessed something very special. We all felt privileged and overjoyed to be there. It’s a live experience that exists in memory only.”

It’s moments like these that fire Roddy up and it’s why he’s so saddened by the announcement to axe the BBC Singers: “I don’t usually get political. I hadn’t even started (as composer in association) and was yet to write a note for the Singers but I was looking forward to contributing a piece to celebrate their centenary – we had lovely plans. They are my friends, I have sung with them before. When Jonathan Manners (acting co-director of the BBC Singers) rang to tell me they were about to be disbanded before the Proms, it was a hell of a shock.” 

Roddy reveals that Jonathan is the only BBC official to make contact about the loss of his post: “I’m not concerned about the loss of my composing position, I’m only concerned about the livelihood of my friends and the message that cutting 20% of the three English orchestras gives to this country and the world at large. I’m terribly concerned about the overall trajectory of the past few months.

“It’s as though the whole sector (of classical music) is being picked away at and considered unimportant. Forces in control have dismantled musical education. This kind of thinking is pervading decision making at the top level. Even with the Last Night of the Proms, which used to be fully televised, now they won’t show ‘all that dull stuff’ only the ‘fun bits’ like Land of Hope and Glory. Other countries look on in disbelief.

“They’re taking something brilliant and excellent and dismantling it for some vague educational purpose that hasn’t been unveiled yet. When those children ask us how should they be doing it? What should they be aspiring to? We’ll have nothing to show them.”

Roddy thinks the media have played a role in disenfranchising ordinary people from enjoyment of classical music – the term ‘classical music’ itself is problematic, connoting black tie concerts and a mortal hush: “In my utopian world, I’d make classical music as much a part of daily life as anything else. I would make the access to and experience of classical music so accessible that people would just nod and go ‘oh, there’s an overture on’, so that it becomes part of everyday conversation – rather than media commentators sitting round tensely, trying to find the correct terminology to talk about it. 

“Orchestras can offer no end of free tickets and I can spend any amount of time in schools dressed in my jeans and telling kids that singing is a job, just like any other – ‘Cor Blimey Britain’ will still see it as something for ‘toffs’. When I rule the world, music will be music, whether it’s garage, grime, folk, world, classical, hip hop or Taylor Swift. The only questions you’ll need to ask is ‘Is it good? Does it make you feel something? Does it move you or make you want to dance?”

His current favourite track is ‘Flintstones’ by Jacob Collier: “The man’s an absolute genius. It puts a smile on my face without fail,” he says. “And when you see him, don’t forget that he’s also been on stage in the opera as a boy (Roddy has shared the stage with Jacob at the English National Opera). That classical training is very much a part of him.”

Listening to him talk, it’s no surprise to read that Roddy is known as one of the most generous and passionate musicians in the business, whether he’s supporting young professionals affected by the pandemic, championing female composers, taking Schubert songs into schools, or standing up for his fellow singers at the BBC. 

I thank Roddy for his time and log off, revelling momentarily in the warmth and richness of his voice, his great gift. This will be a very special solo for the king. 

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