Roderick Williams interview: 'Finding a composer to write songs can be like choosing horses'

Roderick Williams PIC:  Benjamin EalovegaRoderick Williams PIC:  Benjamin Ealovega
Roderick Williams PIC: Benjamin Ealovega
At this year’s Music at Paxton festival, veteran baritone Roderick Williams will be premiering new work by Sarah Cattley. Her songs are “absolute winners”, he tells Ken Walton

During the summer of 2020, English baritone Roderick Williams received a call from his friend, Canadian singer and conductor Barbara Hannigan. Her message was one of concern. “With the first lockdown easing, she was aware, as I was, that those most likely to get concert bookings were established artists like ourselves,” Williams recalls. “What about those less experienced performers who really needed the work?”

Williams shared Hannigan’s anxiety. “I certainly wasn’t in financial crisis. I had a solid career behind me and had paid off my mortgage. Compare that to someone fresh to the business who’d just left college, maybe with a young family. They’d had their diary wiped; perhaps their debut at an international opera house was just about to happen and had got cancelled. They wouldn’t be the first people the Wigmore Hall or the Royal Festival Hall would turn to for the first flush of concert bookings.”

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Sure enough, Williams’ own phone was already “ringing tentatively”. “Barbara’s idea was simple but brilliant,” he says. “Rather than just saying ‘yes’, I should say, ‘okay I’ll take the recital, but can I bring another artist who is going to sing along with me? They mustn’t be just a warm-up act; they must be absolutely part of the recital.’”

Thus Momentum was born, a scheme supporting young professionals affected by the Covid pandemic. Which is why Williams’ opening recital – a smorgasbord of English song with pianist Susie Allen – for this year’s Music at Paxton also features the young baritone Jerome Knox, a recent graduate of Edinburgh University and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

“Every now and again Jerome will pop up and sing one or two songs from Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad, Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel, or one of Ivor Gurney’s songs. I will sing more than him, but in terms of status, it’s not that people should feel this is one of my students, but that he’s a professional who’s just been robbed of two years’ recital work. People who go to Paxton should hear him and go ‘wow, where will I hear him next?’”

Such a charitable gesture is typical of Williams, one of the most generous musicians – both artistically speaking and personally – in the business. And that extends to his championing of female composers in this same programme.

Besides including such obvious English songwriting names as Ireland, Finzi and Warlock, Williams will also sing settings by Ruth Gipps, Rebecca Clarke, Elizabeth Maconchy, and a brand new work by Sarah Cattley, commissioned jointly by Music at Paxton and Thaxted Festival with support – during this Vaughan Williams 150th Anniversary year – from the RVW Trust.

Why do this? During lockdown Williams found himself enjoying extra time at home with his family, where heated conversations, abetted by his two strong-minded daughters, explored many contentious subjects including female representation in music. “It made me realise how much work I had to do in that area, especially as the composers I originally submitted to [Paxton’s artistic director] Angus Smith were exclusively male,” he explains. Research led to substantial revision of the programme. “It’s a start, but I’ve much more research in this area still to do.”

Commissioning Cattley “is a wonderful way ahead”, he believes. Her song cycle, A Square and Candle-lighted Boat, which he premieres in Thaxted on 2 July, is conceived as a companion piece to Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel. “Finding a composer to write songs can be like choosing horses: you hope you’ve got a winner, but you don’t really know until you see them run the field. Sarah’s songs [settings of Fredegond Shove, Charlotte Mew and Frances Cornford] are absolute winners; they are truly beautiful.”

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His recital, and a public masterclass the following day, will be Williams’ debut at this Borders festival, and mark the start of ten days of great chamber music in and around the Palladian magnificence of Paxton House. Other artists include the brilliant young accordionist Ryan Corbett, mezzo-soprano Dame Sarah Connolly, the Maxwell and Echéa Quartets and pianists Pavel Kolesnikov and Angela Hewitt.

Music at Paxton is at Paxton House, near Berwick-upon-Tweed, from 22-31 July,