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June 7, 2023

Interview with Nicholas Routley, president of the Byron Music Society

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Nicholas Routley

A Classical Life

Nicholas Routley is a well-known mainstay of classical music life in the Northern Rivers. As the president of the Byron Music Society he is committed to creating rich and varied music programs for our classical music lovers. This Sunday he plays piano for soprano Gaynor Morgan and tenor Geoffrey Web when they alternate with Margaret Curtis’s shimmering harp playing. The Echo asked Nicholas about his brilliant career, and what brought him here!

What seeded your love of orchestra?

Going to orchestral concerts by the Scottish National Orchestra once a week when I was a schoolboy in Edinburgh. I sold programs (I got paid nine shillings per concert) and I could listen to the concerts free. But I was always too late for the overture, so although I got to know all the standard concertos and symphonies, I still don’t know some quite well-known overtures.

Moving from the UK to Australia: was it like coming to a musical wasteland compared to your home country, or did you see this vast opportunity? Do musicians in continents so far apart have a different feel for the way they approach music?

Well, yes and no. I came from Cambridge, where the students I taught were so blasé and knew it all … my students at the University of Sydney were all ears. And remarkably I discovered the music of Josquin here. In England, choral music starts at the Reformation, which Josquin preceded. But the previous professor at Sydney, Donald Pert, loved early music and had got the library to buy a heap of music by 15th-century composers, which I mined extensively for my newly formed Sydney Chamber Choir.

You have a love of the music of India. What is it about the structure or composition that intrigues and inspires you? Do you bring that back to your work?

Actually I think it is the fact that I don’t know much about the structure of Indian music that is part of its attraction for me. I know Western classical music, and I know how it works, and rejoice in that knowledge. But there is something refreshing about not knowing, too. The language of Indian music (ragas, talas, etc) has little in common with that of Western music, and seems like magic to me. I don’t bring much of that consciously into my work though, even though my big project is on an Indian subject.

What is the most challenging project you have set yourself? 

Definitely the composition of three operas on the Indian epic, Mahabharata. A friend once said to me, “This is as ambitious as the Ring [cycle by Wagner]. No, it’s actually more ambitious!” My project is indeed on the scale of the Ring Cycle.

So why did you move to the Northern Rivers? Has it changed your musical direction?

Basically to devote myself to composition, rather than conducting and playing the piano. But look what happens – I’m asked to found a chamber choir up here and it is Vox Caldera; I find myself playing chamber music with the brightest and best of the players and singers living in these parts.

Tell me about working with the Byron Music Society. What is their vision for the work they do?

It is quite an inclusive vision for a society run entirely by volunteers. It is to foster local music at as high a level as possible. We present a series of six concerts a year in Byron, and also in Lismore, Mullumbimby, and Ballina, in which we bring to the region Australian artists from far and near. We run a youth concert to promote our promising young local musicians. And once a year we put on a concert for which choirs from nearby regions, as far away as Bellingen and Coffs, come together for a weekend of rehearsal and performance, when we perform big choral works like Messiah and the Brahms Requiem. We have had Richard Gill, Emily Cox, and myself as conductors for these shows.

And, of course, tell me about Voice and Harp. What was the idea behind bringing Margaret Curtis, Geoffrey Webb, and Gaynor Morgan together?

Margaret is completely committed to excellence in classical music here; she plays the piano as well as the harp, and I think she’s planning to play two harps in the concert next Sunday. The beautiful soprano Gaynor Morgan is an opera singer who worked with major British companies before moving to Australia, and is bliss for me to play for. Geof Webb is one of her most exciting protegés, a glorious tenor. He’s a natural on the stage, besides being a bit of a comedian. And then of course there’s me, not composing but playing.

What should we expect from the upcoming concert?

Pleasure! What else should bring anyone to a concert, to paraphrase Algernon at the beginning of The Importance of Being Ernest. Glorious vocal sounds, varied by and interspersed with the magic of the harp. Music by Mozart, Schubert, Debussy, Roger Quilter, and others. A hall with excellent acoustics, where every note is clear and yet warm. A hall jam-packed (well, as far as COVID restrictions permit) with the most discerning audience in the region.

Voice and Harp, Mullumbimby Civic Memorial Hall, Sunday 21 March, 3pm.

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