John McCarthy: Charismatic choral conductor and arranger

Sunday 23 October 2011 05:44

During the second half of the 20th century, John McCarthy was perhaps the most charismatic choral conductor of his generation. Highly adept at operating on all sides of the musical divide, amid a career of great length, distinction and influence, he became one of the most powerful and potent figures in British musical life.

Born in London, Eugene Patrick John McCarthy was educated at St.

Edmund’s College and the Oratory School, before studying at the Royal College of Music. Following National Service and a brief spell in commerce, as the 1950s got underway, a familiar routine quickly evolved. Not only did he sing tenor in the Choir of Brompton Oratory, he acted on the London stage, worked the oratorio circuit and, as a member of the Rita Williams Singers, became a regular on the variety extravaganza that was The Billy Cotton Band Show. Initially starting out on the Light Programme in 1949, such was the show’s popularity that, from 1956 until Cotton’s death in 1969, it successfully transferred to a prime-time Saturday evening slot on BBC Television.

In 1951, in partnership with musicologist Dennis Stevens, then a BBC Producer, McCarthy co-founded a small professional choral group called the Ambrosian Singers. Initially created to provide authentic performances of medieval and renaissance polyphony for the landmark series, The History of Music, later, with McCarthy in sole charge, the scope of their activities rapidly expanded. As and when required they would become the Ambrosian Consort, the Ambrosian Light Opera Chorus or the Ambrosian Choir, each ensemble retaining its distinctive character. From 1961-66, when he was Chorus Master of the London Symphony Orchestra, the Ambrosian Singers became the London Symphony Orchestra Chorus.

McCarthy’s ever expanding Ambrosian umbrella provided not only a valuable source of regular employment for performers but also developed into an important training ground for generations of aspiring young singers. Among those with good reason to be grateful were Dame Janet Baker, Heather Harper, Meriel Dickinson, Robert Tear, Ian Partridge and John Shirley-Quirk. Other vocal ensembles bearing his distinctive hallmark included The John McCarthy Singers, long-time stalwarts of Radio 2’s highly popular light music programme, Friday Night Is Music Night, the Amor Artis Chorale and the St.

Anthony Singers, perhaps best known for their cultured support of Janet Baker in the 1962 recording of Henry Purcell’s opera, Dido and Aeneas.

As a choral technician, McCarthy was meticulous, exacting and demanding, never more so than during his distinguished tenure as Director of Music at the Carmelite Priory, Kensington. Appointed in 1958, over the course of the next 40 years, revelling amid the rich ecclesiastical ambience of his surroundings, he maintained a consistent, committed and loyal ensemble. This was particularly evident during the early 1960s, when much of their music making was so vividly captured on disc. Here, their exploration of the masses and motets of Palestrina, Morales, Victoria and Dufay, delivered with authority, did much to hasten the overdue revival of interest in medieval and renaissance sacred choral music. Likewise, while initially proving a moving introduction to the rarified atmosphere of monastic chant, the series, Plainsong to Polyphony, also helped lay the solid foundations of performance practice we now accept as commonplace. Regularly reissued, they remain an important contribution to one man’s remarkably diverse discography.

Having served an extensive apprenticeship in the concert hall as Chorus Master to Sir Thomas Beecham, Sir Malcolm Sargent, Sir Adrian Boult, and Sir John Barbirolli, by the mid- ’60s McCarthy had moved on to embrace opera. Inhabiting a much more international landscape, he worked with many of the world’s leading artistes, including Joan Sutherland, Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti. For three years, from 1981, he was Chorus Master at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, where, among many notable productions, he helped supervise the revival of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes.

McCarthy, an equally prolific scholar, composer and arranger, bestrode the often narrow confines of his art with ease. Yet while his supreme gifts gave his music such an unforgettable quality, above all, it was perhaps his natural goodness that shone through to bring such added distinction to such a rich and fulfilling life.

Kenneth Shenton

Eugene Patrick John McCarthy, choral conductor, scholar, composer and arranger: born London 20 November 1919; OBE, 1989; died London 8 April 2009

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