In conversation with: Ben Parry

David Hill
Wednesday, February 7, 2024

David Hill talks to the director of London Voices, Ben Parry

Ben Parry Conducting
Ben Parry Conducting

John Winzenburg

David Hill: When did your first musical experiences begin?

Ben Parry: My dad was a teacher, organist and director of music in Ipswich, which is where we currently live. I always cite him as one of my biggest influences. I was the fourth of four children and the musical geek! All my siblings sang in the church choir at St Margaret’s in Ipswich. When I was too young to sing in the choir I sat on the organ stool, watching my dad play and the choir singing. My earliest recollection was when the choir sang Stanford in C – that amazing G13 chord in the second bar – and I exclaimed to my dad, ‘Daddy, what lovely music!’ I was in heaven from such an early age. I also owned the Anthems from King’s LP record with a picture of Sir David Willcocks on the front, which I played until it wore out.

DH: Me too! It was his last disc there.

BP: I knew all the music by heart, though I’d never seen the scores. It made a huge impression on me as a young kid and started my love of King’s, Cambridge. I should add that my parents were always hosting musical events. We were immersed in music at home, though I’m the only one of the Parry children who has taken it up professionally.

DH: Other mentors?

BP: I’d like to mention Geoff Lavery, who was the music master at my school in Ipswich. He was an amazing conductor and motivator. He ran an organisation called Music for Youth and would bring all sorts of musicians in to play. I remember James Blades arriving with all his percussion instruments, as well as many others. He would fill the school hall on a Saturday morning with kids totally engaged in what was being presented. He was a brilliant animateur. I remember singing Amahl in Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, often wondering what Menotti must be like as a person; years later in Scotland, I met him! He directed my own production of the opera with my group, Dunedin Consort. He lived in a huge stately home, just south of Edinburgh.

DH: Any location which is particularly close to your heart?

BP: Absolutely: Snape Maltings for so many reasons. I’m a Suffolk boy and used to visit a lot with my parents. I actually met Benjamin Britten one time when we went to hear The Little Sweep – I think it was 1972. It was a pivotal moment in my life. I was completely blown away by the production and the audience taking part too. I was only seven but I knew this was going to be my life, such was the profound effect it had on me.

Credit: Susan Porter Thomas

DH: So what happened after you’d completed school?

BP: I went to St Catharine’s College, Cambridge to study music with the wonderful P.G. Le Huray. I got involved in all manner of other musical activities rather than studying! A lot of cabaret, musicals and shows, which used to drive P.G. mad. One day someone knocked on my door saying King’s Choir was short of singers through illness. Next thing I knew, I was singing the Monteverdi Vespers with Stephen Cleobury in that incredible chapel. I then joined the choir full-time in the middle of my second year – another profound experience – becoming a great friend, eventually, of Stephen Cleobury as well as colleague; I was his assistant director of music from 2013 and helped him out, particularly in his last two years at King’s when he became so ill.

DH: Those experiences of cabaret and musicals were clearly important?

BP: Yes. I started arranging and composing and it’s how my early career got going. We took a cabaret group ‘on the road’ after graduating, for instance. We made no money whatsoever but it did lead to an opening with The Swingle Singers, which I then joined. This was the late 80s/early 90s and my career had become very focused on a cappella singing, writing and arranging, touring. I did five years with The Swingles, during which I married my wife, Kathryn. I hated, hated being away from home but had no choice as we were touring abroad up to nine months of the year.

DH: What did you do next?

BP: We started a family and I had two years freelancing in London. I even did a West End show called City of Angels – a superb musical by Cy Coleman which features a vocal quartet. It ran for ten months. Then Kathryn secured a job in Scotland with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and we moved. As a result, I became the chorus master of the orchestra’s chorus and then met up with Susan Hamilton, a local singer, and we formed a new group, Dunedin Consort, which has gone on to become hugely well known and successful.

DH: That’s quite an achievement and accolade.

BP: I live vicariously in its glory!

DH: How long were you in Scotland?

BP: Eight years; and directing Dunedin Consort gave me the opportunity to develop my skills as a conductor and interpreter. Then we headed south and I became director of music at St Paul’s School in London for five years, followed by five years as director of the Junior Academy Department at the Royal Academy of Music (RAM); and then the role of director for the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain [NYC] came up.

DH: And so you were appointed.

BP: Yes, in August 2012. It felt like a good fit given my singing background, whereas the RAM post was more managerial. Actually, my first experience in the new role was with you at the BBC Proms when the NYC were involved in Bob Chilcott’s The Angry Planet alongside a piece I had written, Flame.

DH: I remember it well.

BP: And as a full circle, Flame was the last thing NYC sang in Snape Maltings at my last concert with them this summer.

DH: How did you see yourself in this new role with NYC?

BP: As you know, it was a great choir, but in terms of organisation and direction, it didn’t have a firm focus in reflecting the national cultural landscape. Is it inclusive? Is it accessible? Does it champion choral excellence? Is it really a social project or can it embrace all these things? So a lot of these questions were asked and I hope many of them have been answered during the past ten years. Possibly the biggest challenge has been making it accessible to the widest number of young people. And extending the accessibility has been a huge challenge in recent years given the global pandemic, George Floyd, representation and diversity in all its forms, such as demographic, schooling, socio-economic, disability and so on. So I think it’s come a very long way.

DH: Given the precarious state of music education in our country, how has that been affecting you in terms of accepting young voices?

BP: We want to take passionate and aspirational young people and give them the opportunity through NYC to change their lives in achieving the highest quality of singing. Our partners and collaborators, such as Paul McCreesh’s Gabrieli ROAR project or the Rodolfus Choral Foundation, are also doing amazing work in bringing choral music to young people and we now find ourselves standing shoulder to shoulder in support of our different but complementary work. The dearth of music education we know is so serious, with music departments closing, some top universities no longer offering music degrees, and no A-level music available in so many of our schools. We have to make new pathways in any way we can, given the state of education, and I think we enriched the membership of NYC in recent times with a much broader range of people, all of whom have to pass an audition.

DH: Entwined in all this is diversity. Some thoughts on that and the work you’ve been doing to implement change?

BP: Well, it’s something we conductors have always been talking about, and particularly during the pandemic when we had time as a forum of conductors from all over the UK to debate, regularly gathering on Zoom. And it’s quite easy to talk about it, but not to implement change actively – that was the existential problem. I have a Black cousin who lives in New York and we were in touch after the murder of George Floyd. She put out a statement ‘Enough is enough’ which had me in tears.

During the pandemic, the London recording studios reopened and my professional choir, London Voices, could still operate. I had a brilliant choir of singers, but with little or no ethnic representation. I started to think ‘How can I change this?’ I started consulting people as to why Black and Asian singers were not involved in our part of the industry. A lot of the conversations I had were very challenging and quite often uncomfortable. But they needed to be for me to begin to understand what the problem was. By having those conversations, reaching out and making connections, I realised there was a large group of Black and Asian singers who self-selected themselves out of our industry, as they looked at it and thought they couldn’t possibly belong there. ‘If you can’t see it, you can’t be it’, or as Marian Wright Edelman said, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see’ – the adage which says it all.

It was Joe McHardy, director of music at the Chapel Royal, who really turned my head when he said he was the only Black kid in his school in Dundee, the only Black music student at Edinburgh University, the only Black Master’s student at the Royal Academy; and then he was asked to play harpsichord in one of the first Chineke! rehearsals. When he entered the rehearsal room he was surrounded by loads of fellow Black musicians and that was the first time he realised he belonged there, whereas you and I have never had that thought.

I’m thrilled to have found an amazing roster of really talented singers for London Voices who work for me regularly. I then thought, how could this be transferred to younger people? I thought that might be easier as you’re getting them young at the point of entry, then you can nurture and enrich them. It’s very much the direction of travel that NYC has taken. It’s all about the visibility of any group and taking affirmative action to engage change alongside dialogue, even when it’s challenging.

DH: Absolutely fascinating and hugely important. Ben, it’s been a pleasure to hear your thoughts on the issues of our time and congratulations on all you’re achieving. 

David Hill is musical director of the Bach Choir and Leeds Philharmonic Society, principal conductor of Yale Schola Cantorum, and associate guest conductor of Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

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