Baritone Stephen Varcoe talks to Christopher Morley ahead of his Worcester Cathedral performance.
Baritone Stephen Varcoe has a long history of performing and recording (more than 150 discs with some of the country’s greatest conductors), and on Saturday he brings his expertise as soloist to the Midland Festival Chorus, when Malcolm Goldring conducts the Bach Magnificat and Mozart C minor Mass in Worcester Cathedral.
The rehearsal schedule for these amateurs who come from far and wide is carefully planned, with cassettes of each vocal part sent out for the choristers to use for practice, and then a few days of intensive “live” ensemble work.
Stephen’s presence in Worcester is testimony to the incredible amount of performing he still undertakes, though he says, as he gets older, the onus is less on travelling and more on teaching.
“I don’t do as much (travelling) as I used to. I’m of an age now where in some ways I’m pleased to have the opportunity to teach, because there are lots of wonderful young singers coming up, and one of the joys about teaching is that sometimes one finds oneself on the same platform as one gave some coaching to in the past.
“It’s very gratifying, but you know, the green-eyed monster, you could get... but it’s lovely to see.
“I think there are people that look back on their careers, and get very cross about the young ones, and say ‘ah, it’s not like it was in my day’, and all that kind of thing. I don’t feel that at all.
“I think there are some really, really good singers nowadays, wonderful young singers, and it’s a pleasure to be involved with them, to offer them my experience and all that kind of thing.”
There is a cheap cliché that singers don’t have anything between the ears, but that’s in fact not true. So many of the singers I have interviewed over the years have brought bright, questing intellects to their work, and Stephen himself has gained a doctorate, exploring the whole idea of singing in performance.
He now teaches at London’s Royal College of Music, and at Clare College, Cambridge.
“I think one of the things about singers is that the voice develops later than an instrumental skill.
“So when you’re at music college, say at the age of 18 or 19, the instrumentalists will have been playing for 10 years or more, and the singers may have been singing for only three years, four years, fairly seriously.
“The voice takes a long time to mature. At that age they’re very young vocally, whereas your pianist is playing the same Steinway that his teacher plays. The singer is having to create his own instrument.
“It rather amuses me, people talk about musicians and singers as if they’re two different animals!”
Singing students seem to have a habit of staying on at college doing post-graduate course after post-graduate course, as the voice develops. But how much work is there for them after that?
“Let me ask you a sort of another related question: there are pianists at conservatoires who are being coached as soloists, to play their concertos and that kind of thing; how much work is there for concert pianists?
“I’m afraid that’s true of all music students, isn’t it. But I do agree that there has always been the interminable, endless vocal student, approaching 30...”
It’s good that they get the chance during those years of developing experience with amateur choral societies, I observe.
“Well, I must say one of the threads of my career has always been as a soloist with amateur choral societies, and orchestras – they might be the CBSO, or they might be a sort of pick-up band – and it’s amazing what fantastic results amateur choirs can get.”
We agree there are some fantastic music directors of amateur groups out there.
“Exactly. People who may be head of music at a school, organists at churches. I think it’s really terrific how much music is going on, driven, dare I say it, from below. People who just want to do it! The great thing about Malcolm’s project is that he’s touching on exactly that, people who are really keen to do it, and they can’t spend a lot of time, week after week, preparing, so they come to this great jamboree!
“And of course he’s such a live wire that people adore working with him.”
Before we sign off, Stephen asks when Malcolm first launched the Midland Festival Chorus “as I think I was in their first concert”.
My press release tells me it was 37 years ago. “Wow! I think I was in the first one, pretty well.”
They began in Loughborough, and the first piece was the Fauré Requiem, in which Stephen remembers singing.
“I’d be fascinated to get the truth on that one!”
I tell him I’ll get my spies on the case. Can anybody help?
* Stephen Varcoe sings in the Bach Magnificat and Mozart’s Mass in C minor with the Midland Festival Chorus and the period-instrument orchestra Rejouissance in Worcester Cathedral on Saturday October 8 (7.30pm). All details on 01905 611427.