Life has never been busier for Paul Spicer, who is celebrating 20 years conducting the Birmingham Bach Choir. Christopher Morley reports.
The demise of the BBC’s Pebble Mill Studios may have brought an hiatus in Paul Spicer’s career as a much-respected music producer for Radio 3, but he has plenty of other irons in the fire, including conducting the Birmingham Bach Choir, which he has been doing for already 20 years.
Last week his choristers threw a wonderful anniversary party for him, one which moved him greatly as he remembers how the whole relationship came about.
“It’s extraordinary that 20 years have passed so quickly,” he tells me at his gracious Georgian home in Lichfield’s Cathedral Close.
“I remember Richard Butt’s phone call when I was living in Herefordshire asking if I could think about a replacement for him as he was going to retire from the choir – or might I be interested myself? I was conducting the Leicester Bach Choir at that time and as good as they were Leicester is not Birmingham and there were huge challenges in taking over from Richard which were daunting as well as very appealing.
“In the intervening 20 years there have been amazing highs and some sobering lows! Of the things which will remain with me and which I will carry into my own retirement in due course the greatest privilege was seven years of St Matthew Passions with the English Chamber Orchestra and incredible soloists in Symphony Hall on Good Fridays.
“Other great moments have been conducting one of the weekly Motette services in St.Thomas’ church, Leipzig – Bach’s church – with orchestra, and being given a piece of the Berlin Wall after a concert in Dresden.”
Paul recently conducted his Birmingham Bach Choir in the B minor Mass at the Lichfield Festival, of which he himself had been director for many years, and he is aware of its significance for his forces.
“It acts as the leitmotif to our existence.,” he declares. “Richard Butt brought a bound full score of the work back from Leipzig as a present for me in March 1988 and worked through it with me showing me how to approach Bach in performance. It was like being given the keys to the kingdom.”
Richard Butt was not only Paul Spicer’s predecessor as conductor of the Birmingham Bach Choir, but also as senior music producer at the BBC in Birmingham.
“I always felt Richard’s shoes were too big for me,” Paul admits. “I felt like a schoolboy with a revered master. It genuinely seemed like an impertinence to even think of taking over from someone of such eminence. But he had a belief in me which somehow gave me the confidence to send in the application and go for the audition.”
How does Paul go about planning repertoire?
“I try to achieve a real variety of repertoire which I think will suit the choir’s strengths and also sometimes consciously address weaknesses or present particular challenges which I think are surmountable.
“Bach is at the heart of everything. We are not a Bach Choir only in name. His music is the core repertoire and every time we come back to JSB it feels like coming home. That is just how it should be. The choir is capable of remarkable virtuosity in Bach. I constantly marvel at their ability. Occasionally, when I ask an individual part to sing yet another long passage of fast semiquavers and they do it brilliantly the whole choir erupts into spontaneous applause. There is a wonderful sense of mutual support and shared effort in everything we do.”
Paul goes on to describe the characteristics of the Birmingham Bach Choir.
“This is a high-achieving amateur choir which is full of highly intelligent people, many of whom work in the universities, schools or professions and who bring a well-informed motivation to their membership of the choir. I am often excited by someone who brings forward a musical idea for a future programme which has grown out of their informed enthusiasm.