David Hill © John Wood
David Hill
© John Wood

Conductor David Hill is a happy man. With a hectic working life that would defeat most people, he dashes back and forth across the Atlantic between high-profile commitments, directing some of music’s most prestigious ensembles. As he put it: “It’s a mind-boggling schedule, but it’s lucky old me, frankly. I work hard, but I’m having fun, and I always say that if you are not having fun, don’t do it.” 

Shortly, that fun will extend to bringing his two worlds together, combining the venerable London-based Bach Choir, which he has directed for 21 years, with the elite forces of Yale Schola Cantorum and the Yale Philharmonia, in a five-city concert tour of the East Coast, marking Yale School of Music’s 125th anniversary and celebrating the deep connections between the US institution and English music. 

This Anglo-American project, entitled English Musical Splendor, is just one facet in Hill’s busy musical life which also sees him fill the posts of associate guest conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, director of the Leeds Philharmonic Society and artistic director of the Cambridge Summer Music Festival.

He attributes his ability to keep all these plates spinning to his earlier experience as, successively, master of the music at Westminster Cathedral and Winchester Cathedral and director of music at St. John's College, Cambridge. “Performing polished music at services every day is quite a feat and it really sets you up for this sort of life,” he said down the phone from Yale, where he was making preparations for the US tour. That choral experience led to his appointment successively as principal conductor of Yale Schola Cantorum, music director of The Bach Choir, London, and for 10 years until 2017, chief conductor of the BBC Singers.

Yale Schola Cantorum © Robert Lisak
Yale Schola Cantorum
© Robert Lisak

Hill is excited at the prospect of combining his 28 Yale singers with 116 members of his beloved Bach Choir, London in Walton’s spectacular oratorio Belshazzar’s Feast – a piece not often performed in the US. Written in 1929, Hill says it “breaks all the rules”. Walton was asked to provide a short cantata for the BBC to include a few instruments, but instead he produced a fully-fledged oratorio, scored for huge forces, including organ and baritone soloist. The BBC took fright and withdrew but then conductor Sir Thomas Beecham became involved.

Beecham suggested to Walton he should add two brass bands “as you’ll never hear the thing again” – a prediction that proved hopelessly wrong. Herbert von Karajan conducted it in post-war Vienna and said Walton’s depiction of the fall of Babylon and the death of Belshazzar was “the best choral music that’s been written in the last 50 years”. 

David Pershall © Catherine Pisaroni
David Pershall
© Catherine Pisaroni

Hill says Beecham hadn’t realised that Walton’s style was the way that music was going. “It has great marches and an Edwardian swagger but is also has a sharp, rhythmic drive and jazz-infused writing that makes it a roller-coaster for all those performing and listening.” While Hill won’t have those two extra brass bands, he will have the full Yale Philharmonia – “a spectacular orchestra” – with brass parts integrated. The baritone soloist will be Yale School of Music alumnus David Pershall. 

All Walton’s original scores (with the exception of Belshazzar’s Feast, which has been lost) are lodged in Yale’s Beinecke rare book and manuscript library, as are the works of the poet Walt Whitman, whose words provided the text for Charles Villiers Stanford’s Song to the Soul, which he wrote for Yale, but which – until now – Yale has never heard.

Stanford should have received an honorary doctorate from the university, and wrote the piece for the occasion, but the torpedoing of the Lusitania in 1915 – which presaged America’s entry into World War 1 – made an Atlantic crossing impossible, so the event was abandoned. The piece was rediscovered by musicologist Jeremy Dibble and recorded by The Bach Choir, London almost 100 years to the day after it was written – appropriately as Stanford was musical director of the choir from 1885 to 1902. 

“We owe a huge debt to Jeremy’s research projects in his re-discovery and renewal of interest in English music from the late 19th century and beyond,” said Hill.

Robert Blocker © Yale School of Music
Robert Blocker
© Yale School of Music

Song to the Soul will be included in the forthcoming five-city tour alongside a piece by another great admirer of Walt Whitman, Ralph Vaughan Williams, who set a number of his poems. RVW was a singing member and then musical director of The Bach Choir, London from 1921. His Fantasia on the Old 104th Psalm Tune, written in 1949, “has similar relationships between the piano soloist, orchestra and voices to Beethoven’s Choral Fantasia,” says Hill. “Vaughan Williams develops the material to great effect, with the pianist taking centre stage.” Soloist for the tour will be Yale School of Music dean and faculty pianist Robert Blocker. 

Yale Schola Cantorum will have a special place in the spotlight during the concert series, performing Arnold Bax’s motet Mater ora filium, which Hill describes as incredibly virtuosic music for two choirs, dividing into as many as 16 parts. “It’s a wonderful showcase for these very fine young singers”, he said. “It is a setting of ancient word’s ‘Mother, pray thy son’ in an extended, rhapsodic form. It’s ideal for demonstrating Schola’s choral skills with its rich harmonic language and intricate part-writing.” 

The chamber choir was founded in 2003 by former King’s Singer, Simon Carrington and is open through audition to students from all departments and professional schools across Yale. In recent years, the choir has sung under such internationally renowned conductors as Matthew Halls, Simon Halsey, Paul Hillier, Stephen Layton, Neville Marriner, Nicholas McGegan, James O’Donnell, Stefan Parkman, Krzysztof Penderecki, Helmuth Rilling, and Dale Warland. Masaaki Suzuki is the ensemble’s principal guest conductor. 

The Bach Choir, London © Sim Canetty Clarke
The Bach Choir, London
© Sim Canetty Clarke

Hill is proud of the fact that he is only the ninth musical director of The Bach Choir, London, established in 1876 to give the first British performance of Bach’s B minor Mass. “I have many distinguished forebears – Stanford, Vaughan Williams, Walford Davies, Adrian Boult. Sir David Willcocks was my immediate predecessor and he built the choir into what it is today with some 230 members. It’s like a huge family, and I have the deepest respect for them. They are an auditioned, fast-reading choir, and despite their large numbers [as many as 200 will sing at large concerts], they have this extraordinary ability to sing together. There is an internal energy to everything they do.”

The choir has an international touring schedule, and an outreach programme taking music to London’s inner-city schools. To date, it has performed more than 400 works in more than 120 venues internationally. It last toured the US in 1996, so this will be a rare opportunity for American audiences to hear an ensemble that the London Evening Standard described as “probably the finest independent choir in the world”.

And there’s a plus. The first concert, given at Woolsey Hall, Yale on 8 March, will be live-streamed on the Yale School of Music website.

This article was sponsored by Hemsing Associates.

Update 9/3/2020: Unfortunately we have just heard that the English Musical Splendor tour has been cancelled due to COVID-19 concerns.