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David Hill Celebrates 20 years as Director of Music for the Bach Choir

David Hill

This year 2018 marks two decades that David Hill has been the Bach Choir’s Director of Music.

Back in the 1980s, as Director of Music at Westminster Cathedral, David Hill would walk from the Apse of Westminster Cathedral back to his office after a service. He remembers looking through the window into the Hall, watching Sir David Willcocks on the rostrum, with his close friend, the late John Scott, accompanying, and listening to the energy from The Bach Choir. ‘

‘I often wondered who would succeed Sir David when he retired, never for one moment thinking it would be me!,’ Hill said.’

Mark Bridges, the Choir’s then treasurer, sat on the appointment panel convened by Leopold de Rothschild to find Sir David Willcocks’ successor.

‘‘At the outset, we were very concerned that we might not be able to find someone of the highest quality, who would be prepared to rehearse the Choir every Monday as well as conduct the concerts,” Bridges said. “I suggested David Hill, as I had friends with children who were choristers at Winchester Cathedral, where David was then Director of Music, and knew of the great things he was doing there.”

There have been some notable names in the Choir’s history: Ralph Vaughan Williams, Charles Villiers Stanford, and Adrian Boult – to name just three. David Willcocks stands out for his length of service – 38 years – and David Hill was acutely aware of the responsibility to build on, and maintain, the Choir’s fine legacy. His first rehearsal was Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius.

‘‘I was struck by the immediacy of the sound, the Choir’s precision, excellent intonation, rhythm, and the speed at which it could work. I have always adopted the view that when something is already very good, then continue to build on those firm foundations,” Hill said.

There was no sudden change of style or approach and, as one singing member remarked, ‘‘I remember the take-over from one David to the next being very smooth – no hiatus or hiccup, just a really efficient passing of the reins from one to the other, which gave us all confidence for the future.’’

Hill says that among the highlights of his time with the Choir have been: “The Royal Gala at Covent Garden, the opening of the Frauenkirche in Dresden with ‘Messiah’ and return visits. Performing Brahms ‘Requiem’ in China to an audience who had probably never heard the piece was quite a moment! Singing carols for the Queen and Royal Family in the Ballroom at Buckingham Palace in 2000 which was the year she stepped down as Patron and was replaced by Prince Charles.”

Hill’s focus has been on text, choral colour and blend, and he has spent considerable time ‘voicing’ singers. Everyone is assigned a ‘colour’ – red, yellow, or white – depending on the particular characteristics of their voice, and seating the Choir with the red voices in the centre of each section, surrounded by the yellows, with the whites on the outside, allows singers to develop their own sound amongst others with similar qualities, and has a profound effect on the immediacy of the sound.

Both recording and commissioning were projects high on Hill’s agenda when he took over – and remain so today – and a series of discs of English music soon followed, with works – some undeservedly neglected – by Vaughan Williams, Howells, Delius, Stanford and Dyson, with more Howells planned for 2019.

A new work was commissioned from John Tavener and performed at the BBC Proms in 2001, and others have followed at the rate of one or two every couple of years – from Carl Rütti, Naji Hakim, Bob Chilcott, Jonathan Dove, Will Todd and James MacMillan.

Since Hill took over in 1998, the Choir has toured widely, with performances in Germany and The Netherlands, as well as further afield – Lebanon, Australia, China and Hong Kong. Singing together over an extended period of time really allows the Choir to finesse its sound as a group, and flying the British flag abroad is central to Hill’s ambitions for the Choir.

The first venture into Europe under Hill’s direction was a tour to Germany in 2001. Travelling between Frankfurt and Leipzig, we had the opportunity to stop off in Eisenach and to visit the house where Bach was born (now a museum), and the church he attended.

Paul Collins, now an Associate member, remembers the Choir informally singing a couple of chorales from the St Matthew Passion in the church.

‘‘After that, David sat down at the organ, took his shoes off – exposing a natty pair of blue socks – and played Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor from memory (pictured, right). Simply mesmerising!,’’ Collins said.

In 2005 the Choir returned to Germany, this time to sing at the re- opening concert of the Frauenkirche in Dresden, restored following Allied bombing in the Second World War.

Hill recalls that ‘‘a remarkable lady, who had lost her mother in the bombing of the city, joined us – as a member of the Choir – for an emotionally charged performance of Messiah.’’

As the Choir left the stage at the end, many members of the audience were visibly moved by the significance of the occasion.

In 2001 The Bach Choir marked its 125th anniversary with a Royal Gala at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, attended by HRH The Prince of Wales.

Hill recalls ‘‘an incredibly special occasion, when Belshazzar’s Feast with Thomas Allen was particularly memorable. And I particularly remember the same work in the Royal Festival Hall some years later, when I lost my baton into the audience during the last minute!’’