Chorus of approval

Not every church organist gets a specially written Christmas carol personally presented to him by Scotland’s most famous living composer, especially when he never asked for it in the first place.

So you can imagine the look on George McPhee’s face, during yesterday’s service to mark his monumental 40th year as director of music at Paisley Abbey, when the composer James MacMillan stepped forward to present McPhee with a manuscript of his latest oeuvre - Chosen - written to commemorate the occasion.

It’s easy to understand MacMillan’s willingness to undertake such a selfless tribute. In the 1970s, when he was an unknown Ayrshire schoolboy, MacMillan’s schoolteacher showed a teenage setting of the Sanctus to McPhee during a choral workshop weekend in Pitlochry. McPhee immediately spotted the signs of emerging talent and, with his Paisley Abbey Choir, subsequently gave what was probably the first-ever mainstream public performance of MacMillan’s music.

It was a gesture typical of the man who has quietly influenced and encouraged countless young musicians through his four decades of choral directorship at Paisley Abbey and former teaching activity at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama alone. And McPhee remembers it well. "Jimmy appeared at a lot of the choral weekends I did in Pitlochry," he says. "He was very keen on singing, and when we did Benjamin Britten’s difficult cantata Rejoice in the Lamb, Jimmy sang all of the big solos - bass, tenor and alto."

Another eminent name in the British music scene who owes much of his professional development to McPhee is leading international tenor Neil Mackie, now head of vocal studies at London’s prestigious Royal College of Music. "When I came to Glasgow in the 1960s as a first year student at the RSAMD, George encouraged me to get involved with the Abbey choir," says Mackie. "His rehearsals were a valuable experience for any musician - fun, but also intense, and the repertoire was always exciting. George later introduced me to Decca producer Ray Horrocks, which in turn led to my first professional recording."

Ask any of his former Academy students and they all confirm McPhee’s human approach to teaching. "He didn’t simply teach; he was extremely helpful professionally, in a way that went beyond the simple teaching of harmony and counterpoint," says Mackie, who also recalls McPhee’s penchant for home brewing at the time. "He would occasionally produce a bottle from a cupboard in his room to get the lesson off to a good start."

McPhee retired from the RSAMD several years ago, having served as senior lecturer and, at one point, acting director of the school of music. Mackie believes McPhee has never been properly recognised for his work there. "It’s ironic that George’s lifelong work at the Academy, and his ongoing influence on church music in Scotland, has never been properly acknowledged by the RSAMD. At the very least, he should have received a fellowship, especially as he is an alumni himself." Elsewhere, McPhee has not been ignored. The Royal School of Church Music made him a fellow in 1991, he received an MBE for his services to church music in 1995, and was awarded an honorary doctorate of Paisley University in 1997.

Indeed, it is through his tireless work in Paisley that McPhee is best known. He took up his Paisley Abbey post in 1963, at the age of 24, in the wake of two troublesome appointments. Both his predecessors - Pearce Hoskins (notorious for practising the organ at two o'clock in the morning and waking up half of Paisley) and J D McRae (who annoyed the Abbey minister by playing twice as long as was necessary during the offertory) - had left under a cloud. "Certain things had to be changed, not least a repertoire that was exclusively Victorian and Edwardian," McPhee recalls. "Nothing modern had been attempted, so I saw a need to establish a different repertoire."

He inherited a choir that was as big and unwieldy as a choral society. "There were 72 on the roll, and even today you can find 80 copies of many anthems in the choir library." That, too, had to change.

Gradually McPhee moulded a slimmer choir into one to be reckoned with alongside England’s full-time cathedral outfits. Within a few years the choir released a series of popular recordings with Paisley-born tenor Kenneth McKellar. "Whatever people thought of these, they were great for publicity," says McPhee.

By the 1970s, McPhee’s distinctive choir had broken the mould and, despite its Presbyterian credo, became a regular broadcaster on Radio 3’s Choral Evensong slot. I sang in the choir myself then, and recall one instance of McPhee’s subtle means of getting the sound he wanted.

Rather than openly embarrass an aging tenor who sang loudly and obtrusively, McPhee simply had a word with the BBC producer, who stuck a dummy microphone in front of the tenor, telling him to sing quietly as even the softest sound would be picked up and broadcast. Other protests were less gentle, such as the anthem McPhee chose for the celebratory service for an irritating outgoing member of the Abbey clergy - Vaughan Williams’s O Clap Your Hands. McPhee has survived 40 years in the Abbey as much through his quietly mischievous demeanour as his precocious talent as a church musician.

He’d never tell you that; he’s too modest. Talking to him about his career, he gives the distinct impression that things just fell into place. Self-congratulatory platitudes don’t come easily.

After commencing his own RSAMD studies on the violin, McPhee switched late in the day to the organ, an interest that had originally been sparked by his church organist father. Unimpressed by the options of national service or taking a teacher-training course at Jordanhill, McPhee instead took a music degree at Edinburgh University, which he combined with the post of assistant organist at St Giles Cathedral. His teacher, St Giles organist Herrick Bunney, suggested a period of study with the legendary Fernando Germani in Sienna would sort out his technique.

As a recitalist and recording artist - especially on the magnificent Paisley Abbey organ that he had spectacularly rebuilt in 1968 - McPhee has been a seminal force, exploring the progressive French repertoire of Messiaen, Alain and Durufl at a time when it was less fashionable. His broad musical talent encompasses composition - "mainly when the choir is short of a new setting of something" - and arrangements. His natural flair for the latter is well documented in the Scots Songbooks he has compiled with George McVicar. He arranged the choral test piece for this month’s National Mod.

Once a fervent opponent of girl choristers, McPhee finally succumbed to the inevitable two years ago. "It’s actually worked quite well," he admits, especially in a climate where youngsters are not being encouraged to sing in school. But it’s not just the youngsters that are hard to recruit. "We’ve had to introduce choral scholarships to ensure the adult choir remains strong. There was far greater commitment when I started 40 years ago. You could rely on regular attendances at rehearsals, and Sunday services were sacrosanct. That’s not the case now."

Despite that, McPhee has no intention of giving up: "I want to see the choir in a fit state to go on for the next 30 to 40 years," he insists. He’s already looking at tie-ups with local schools that will enable the Abbey to offer children broader musical teaching than just singing. "That’s difficult but not impossible," he says, "and I’d like to have a shot at it."

As he said yesterday, on receiving MacMillan’s tribute, "Just in case you’re wondering, I’m not going anywhere yet."