An Interview with Jeremy Backhouse

Backhouse, Jeremy Feb 10 (c) Sim Cannetty-Clarke Hannah Nepil interviews conductor Jeremy Backhouse ahead of Verdi’s Requiem with the Vivace Chorus at the Royal Albert Hall.

For the choral conductor Jeremy Backhouse, one vivid memory is watching the first ever Sainsbury’s Choir of the Year competition on television in 1984. ‘I said to my parents “I’m going to win that one day”,’ he recalls. ‘Then in 1988, we did win it.’ Then there was the time that he conducted Parry’s I was Glad in Westminster Abbey for the Queen’s 80th birthday celebrations. And that performance in Liverpool Cathedral, on the evening of Pope John Paul II’s death in 2005: ‘We were doing Górecki’s Totus Tuus, which was actually written for Pope John Paul II. It’s a piece that dies down to nothing, and it was around that moment that the Pope breathed his last.’

Next month, the list of memories gets a little longer: Backhouse conducts the Vivace Chorus, London Philharmonic Choir, Wimbledon Choral Society, Twickenham Choral Society and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance of Verdi’s Requiem at the Royal Albert Hall. But after many years of conducting amateur choirs, Backhouse will happily admit: ‘I never set out to be a conductor. I’ve never had a conducting lesson in my life.’

In his youth, Backhouse was head chorister of the Canterbury Cathedral Choir. After studying Music at university, he moved to London and joined various chamber choirs. ‘I sat in the back row of the basses thinking ‘that’s not the way to do it, this is how you should do it’ and moaned with the other guys in the pub afterwards.’ Around the same time, he joined an ensemble of eight people called the Vasari Singers and became its conductor, gradually moulding it into the well-respected choir it is today. A full-time career in conducting only came later, however, by which time Backhouse had worked as literary editor at EMI and had held a position at the Royal National Institute for the Blind, transcribing music into Braille: ‘In those days of pre-computerised Braille, I would dictate music in a given style and a blind person would bash it into a Perkins Brailler, which was like a Braille typewriter.’

He calls himself a man of hidden ambition: ‘Ostensibly I’m not hugely ambitious. But I always have plans. I always have ideas. I like to think that I bring people with me rather than steam-roller them.’ That also goes for his rehearsal technique. ‘People have said to me in the past, “why don’t you shout at us more?” But it’s not my way and I can’t put it on.’ So what is his way? ‘To encourage and enthuse. In my view that gets far superior results,’ he says. ‘I can’t be Mr Jolly all the time, but once you get into the music you can get beyond the notes and inspire your performers through your own passion or feeling.’

And luckily, with a piece like Verdi’s Requiem, that shouldn’t be too difficult, as Backhouse says: ‘If the Dies irae doesn’t fire you up, then not much will.’

Jeremy Backhouse conducts Verdi’s Requiem on the evening of Sunday 18th May at the Royal Albert Hall.

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About Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Acknowledged as one of the UK’s most prestigious orchestras, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) enjoys an international reputation for bringing audiences worldwide first-class performances and the highest possible standards of music-making across a diverse range of musical repertoire. This was the vision of the Orchestra’s flamboyant founder Sir Thomas Beecham, whose legacy is maintained today as the Orchestra thrives under the exceptional direction of its new Artistic Director and Principal Conductor, Maestro Charles Dutoit.
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