In a grand gesture of appreciation, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is to pay tribute to one of its long-serving conductors: Hilary Davan Wetton.
On 19th March 2014, Hilary Davan Wetton will take the stage at the Royal Albert Hall to conduct the RPO, along with several ensembles with which he has worked during his long career: the City of London Choir, Guildford Choral Society, Leicester Philharmonic Choir and choirs from St Paul’s Girl’s School. The work? The Dream of Gerontius, by the English composer Sir Edward Elgar. The occasion? Davan Wetton’s 70th birthday.
To the audience, it may feel like an episode of This is Your Life, but Davan Wetton’s thoughts are on the work he is to conduct. ‘The Dream of Gerontius’, says Davan Wetton, ‘is a curious choice of repertoire in that it is about an old man dying, which is slightly unfortunate as I reach my 70th birthday. I’m hoping that this concert won’t involve a rather alarming acting out of that process.’ In all other respects, the work is highly appropriate for the conductor. As a music student at Brasenose College, Oxford, he was well versed in the English choral tradition. And, as a postgraduate student at the Royal College of Music, he studied with Sir Adrian Boult, the legendary English conductor, acclaimed for his own interpretations of English music. ‘Boult was a man of enormous generosity,’ he reminisces, ‘He was also man of enormous temper. When he got angry he allegedly hit people in the BBC Symphony Orchestra.’ According to Davan Wetton, he never learnt as much from anyone as he did from Boult. ‘He would look at a score, and whatever it was, he would have something to say that you wouldn’t have thought of yourself’, says Davan Wetton.
He shares Boult’s passion for the music of his own country. A regular at the annual English Music Festival, Davan Wetton likes to seek out gems by little-known English composers, and his past credits include a series of first broadcasts, with the Ulster Orchestra, of 19th-century English symphonies by William Crotch, Sterndale Bennett, Samuel Wesley and Beethoven’s only pupil Ciprani Potter.
According to Davan Wetton, ‘the British have a tendency to talk down their own music and talk up music by any composer who ends in “-ov”. I’m not suggesting that Ciprani Potter is a Beethoven who has been overlooked. But his symphonies have all sorts of marvellous tunes and energy. And yet I think my recording of the Potter symphonies is the only one ever made’.
Another of Davan Wetton’s long-held passions is choral conducting. ‘The thing about amateur choirs is that you know that they’re there because they want to be there,’ he says. That same sense of enthusiasm is what draws him to youth orchestras: he is a regular with the National Children’s Orchestra. ‘Inevitably if you’re a professional player you can’t be thrilled every minute of forty hours a week. But youth orchestras are very likely to be playing masterpieces for the first time. It’s very exciting to watch young people being thrilled by the power of the music,’ he says. Like Gustav Holst before him, Davan Wetton was Director of Music at the highly academic St Paul’s Girls’ School in London. He believes that ‘it’s important not to tell children that something is good if they know it isn’t because they then don’t trust you at all. If you make them feel you expect them to deliver, they almost always will’.
Which seems a good point to mention that one of Davan Wetton’s former organ students happens to be the comedian Jo Brand, whom he taught for the TV programme Play it Again. ‘She had given up the piano to annoy her mother when she was fourteen, and despite that she made terrific progress on the organ,’ says Davan Wetton. And did she crack good jokes in lessons? ‘I’m afraid to say almost every possible double entendre to do with pipes, stops, knobs, and so on, flew past during the lessons,’ he says, ‘but most of them got cut out before the programme went out.’