Richard Hickox: Conductor who left a prodigious recorded legacy of British music

Tuesday 25 November 2008 01:00 GMT

The sudden death of the conductor Richard Hickox from a heart attack in a Cardiff hotel bedroom puts an abrupt end to a career that was reaping the high-profile rewards of long years of devotion to his craft – in a profession where he might reasonably have expected to enjoy another three decades of music-making.

Hickox's diary was full of prestigious engagements: he was scheduled to conduct the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington DC, the Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic, the Tonkünstler Orchestra in Vienna and the Konzerthausorchester in Berlin. He had recently appeared with the Bavarian Radio Symphony, Philadelphia, Leipzig Gewandhaus and New York Philharmonic orchestras and the Orchestre de Paris. At home he had just finished a cycle of the Vaughan Williams symphonies with the Philharmonia Orchestra – 20 concerts, toured nationally – and should have opened English National Opera's new production of Vaughan Williams' Riders to the Sea in the Coliseum this Thursday.

Richard Hickox held a baton in his hand for virtually all his professional life. After the Royal Grammar School in High Wycombe (1959–66) and a year studying organ, piano and composition at the Royal Academy of Music (1966–67), he progressed to Queen's College, Cambridge, where he was an organ scholar from 1967 to 1970. Queen's made him an Honorary Fellow in 1996, and Durham University awarded him a doctorate of music in 2003. His most prestigious distinction outside academia came when he was appointed CBE in the Queen's Jubilee Honours List in 2002.

Hickox made his professional début as a conductor in St John's, Smith Square, in 1971. But rather than wait for the bookings to come to him, Hickox founded his own ensembles, setting up the City of London Sinfonia in 1971 and remaining its Music Director ever since; the Richard Hickox Orchestra and Singers were founded in the same year. With the violinist Simon Standage he also founded the Baroque orchestra Collegium 90 in 1990 – a sign of the breadth of his musical tastes.

Initially, he established a reputation primarily as a choral conductor: he was Organist and Master of Music at St Margaret's, Westminster, from 1972 to 1982, and Chorus Master and Music Director of the London Symphony Chorus from 1976 to 1991 – a position which lead to an appointment as Associate Guest Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra in 1985. He was also Music Director of Bradford Festival Choral Society from 1978 to 1998.

He took on a number of festival directorships as his career advanced: Wooburn (1967–89), St Endellion (from 1974), Christ Church Spitalfields (1978–94), Truro (from 1981), the Chester Summer Festival (from 1989) and the City of London (1994).

A pattern of long-lasting collaborations could be observed in Hickox's orchestral appointments, too. He was Artistic Director of the Newcastle-based Northern Sinfonia from 1982 to 1990 (and was named Conductor Emeritus in 1996) and Principal Guest Conductor of the Dutch Radio Orchestra from 1980 to 1984. More briefly, he was Associate Conductor of the San Diego Symphony Orchestra (1983–84). His most recent domestic position was as Principal Conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales from 2000 to 2006, after which he was made Conductor Emeritus.

He worked regularly with the BBC and its orchestras, making his Proms début in 1973 and becoming a regular thereafter; he conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Concert Orchestra and Scottish and Welsh Symphonies as well as the BBC Singers. Other British ensembles with which he appeared included the Royal Philharmonic, Bournemouth Symphony, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and the Hallé. American orchestras he worked with include the San Francisco, Detroit and Houston Symphonies; in Europe he guested with the Oslo, Rotterdam and Stockholm Philharmonics, the Turku Philharmonia and Salzburg Mozarteum and the Orchestra de la Suisse Romande.

But even as his fame on the podium was growing, Hickox set himself another challenge: opera. He first worked at the English National Opera in 1979, at Opera North in 1982, Scottish Opera in 1985 and at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 1985, where he conducted productions of Britten's Paul Bunyan and Billy Budd, Mozart's Mitridate, Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman and Tippett's A Midsummer Marriage. He was named Music Director of Opera Australia in Sydney, and of the Victoria Arts Centre in Melbourne, in January 2005; despite some flack in the Australian press this past summer from a disgruntled singer, his contract had been extended until 2012.

For the soprano Claire Rutter, he was "such a perfectionist: you knew that every concert you did with him would require lots of rehearsal but you'd get a first-class result at the end of it. But he was always easy-going and willing to listen to your ideas – and keen to find out where you would breathe, so that the orchestra could breathe with you. In that sense he was a real singer's conductor (his cathedral-music background might have played a role here), and it is one of the reasons singers loved working with him: he really understood the voice."

His five years as director of the Spoleto Festival in Italy included productions of Janácek's Cunning Little Vixen, Menotti's The Consul and Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier. He was also a regular guest in opera houses around the world, among them Vienna, Cologne, Los Angeles and Washington.

And yet that hectic calendar was dwarfed by Hickox's activity in the studio, where he clocked up more than 280 recordings for Chandos. Their joint efforts were rewarded with prize after prize, among them the Gramophone Record of the Year and Best Orchestral Disc in 2001 for the first recording, with the London Symphony Orchestra, of the original version of Vaughan Williams' London Symphony.

Indeed, it is in his prodigious legacy of British music on Chandos that Hickox's name will live on: complete cycles of the symphonies of Alwyn (as well as music by Alwyn's second wife, Doreen Carwithen), Elgar, Rubbra, Tippett, Vaughan Williams, most of Malcolm Arnold; Britten, Vaughan Williams and Walton operas; orchestral and choral works of Britten, Bridge, Delius, Dyson, Elgar, Finzi, Grainger, Howells, Ireland, Moeran, Parry, Sullivan, Tavener, Walton and many of those of father and son Lennox and Michael Berkeley. But his enthusiasms did not stop there, and were not circumscribed by period: Dvorák, Handel, Prokofiev and Vivaldi operas, Haydn, Hummel and Schubert masses, a Beethoven symphonic cycle, Telemann odes, the Verdi Requiem – all grist to his mill, and all preserved on Chandos CDs.

Brian Couzens, founder and chairman of Chandos, made his first recording with Hickox in Watford Town Hall in 1988 and, with Couzens' son Ralph, they averaged around eight recordings a year. Hickox's death, as Brian Couzens reports, came with the partnership still in the saddle: "Richard was working with me on a new Holst recording in Swansea. He came in to hear the first movement of Holst's Choral Symphony at 3.15 and was taken ill, and died later that evening".

David Whelton, Managing Director of the Philharmonia, remembers Hickox as "a terrific musician, with a wonderfully warm and delightful personality. He enjoyed enormous respect and affection from his players and singers and we shall miss him terribly. He was a true friend in good times and bad."

Martin Anderson

Richard Sidney Hickox, conductor: born Stokenchurch, Buckinghamshire 5 March 1948; Artistic Director, Wooburn Festival 1967-89; Music Director, City of London Sinfonia 1971-2008; Music Director, City of London Sinfonia Singers (formerly Richard Hickox Singers) 1971-2008; Organist and Master of the Music, St Margaret's, Westminster 1972-82; Artistic Director, St Endellion Festival 1974-2008; Music Director, London Symphony Chorus 1976-2008; Artistic Director, Christ Church Spitalfields Festival 1978-94; Music Director, Bradford Festival Choral Society 1978-98; Principal Guest Conductor, Dutch Radio Orchestra 1980-84; Artistic Director, Truro Festival 1981-2008; Artistic Director, Northern Sinfonia 1982-90 (Conductor Emeritus 1996); Associate Conductor, San Diego Symphony Orchestra 1983-84; Artistic Director, Chester Summer Festival 1989-2008; Artistic Director, City of London Festival 1994; Associate Conductor, London Symphony Orchestra 1985-2008; Principal Conductor, BBC National Orchestra of Wales 2000-06 (Conductor Emeritus); CBE 2002; Music Director, Opera Australia 2005-08; married 1976 Frances Sheldon-Williams (one son; marriage dissolved), 1995 Pamela Helen Stephen (one son, one daughter); died Cardiff 23 November 2008.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in