Robert Quinney – profile

Just over a year ago Robert Quinney took up the plum job of directing Oxford’s internationally famous New College Choir. He succeeded Edward Higginbottom, who held the post for an epoch-making 38 years.

“Edward arrived at New College the year I was born, so I felt there was a certain completing of the circle,” Robert laughs. And indeed, he adds, people have long being suggesting: “You’d be just right for New College”.

“I used to be rather irritated when people put my name together with New College,” Robert admits. “This was happening a decade or more ago. I resisted the idea of an ‘arranged marriage’ – although it wasn’t like that when it eventually came down to it!”

Absolutely not, for Robert goes on to reveal that he was chosen from a final field of four candidates. He started his career as Organ Scholar at King’s College, Cambridge, before moving on to Westminster Cathedral. Then it was up the road to Westminster Abbey, where he was Sub-Organist – and played for the marriage of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to an estimated television audience of two billion worldwide. But how was his interest in the world of church music first aroused?

“My family lived in Dundee for a time when I was a child. I sang in the cathedral choir there for a short time, before we moved further south. I suppose my parents noticed that I liked music, and that seemed a way of developing my interest. And I did love it. Subsequently we moved to Sheffield, where my parents still live, and I joined a local church choir: the director of music was a very good organist, she had been an organ scholar at Cambridge. So I began organ lessons with her.

“Meanwhile I started listening to Choral Evensong on Wednesdays on the radio – to which I was absolutely hooked: you can tell I wasn’t a normal teenager! I loved the poetical nature of Evensong. I also had some experience, thorough RSCM [Royal School of Church Music] choirs of singing services in York Minster and Ripon Cathedral. I spent a week in each of those places at the age of 12 or 13, and I think my imagination was really captured by the historical sense of being in those buildings. That meant as much to me as the music, and it still does – I do find the buildings themselves to be a strong motivating force in what I do: I feel that I’m plugged into a tradition that has existed for centuries, and is still developing.”

So, I ask Robert, were magnificent religious buildings like York Minster and Ripon Cathedral the deciding factor when it came to deciding that he would make music his career?

“I think so – I read an interesting article by singer Iestyn Davies, the wonderful countertenor, saying perhaps people don’t realise that he gets the most incredible feeling when he is singing well. That really resonated with me because to have the experience, as we do, of preparing and performing music at quite a high rate is tremendously satisfying – we sing services every day except Wednesdays during University Term. To be making contact with the musicians, including dead musicians, whose works we’re singing, and to be doing it in inspiring spaces like New College Chapel is wonderful. Finding that this could be a career was a revelation for me.”

We’re talking in the Savile Road house that was for long home to the large Higginbottom family – Edward and his wife Caroline have seven children. Sadly, however, most of the house has now been converted into rather characterless offices - Robert and his family live near the Northern By-Pass.

“I can’t match Edward’s fruitfulness!” Robert laughs. “I have three children: my son is a probationer in New College Choir, and is very happy at New College School, while my older daughter is much enjoying Cherwell School, and we have a three-year-old as well.”

Since arriving at New College, Robert has continued parallel careers as both organist and choir director.

“As an organist,” he says, “It’s really an act of imagination: to get the music alive for an audience which could easily be alienated because they can’t see you playing, or the music seems to be coming from a long way away. One of the challenges that I relish as an organist is getting my performance across. The other thing about playing the organ is that sometimes it’s a bit of a release for me to be just by myself instead of working with a group of people the whole time.”

Robert has made a series of CDs featuring organ music by Bach, with Gramophone magazine, that guru of the classical recording world, writing: “Quinney’s Bach gets to the heart of the music with refreshing clarity and a communication born of genuine understanding”.

“It’s less of a high wire act than performing live,” Robert comments as we talk about his recording career, “But it is demanding in different ways, and it’s very, very tiring. It can be emotionally rather draining, subjecting one’s playing to the relentless attention of a producer.”

Currently Robert is working with the choir on Bach’s St John Passion, to be performed with the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra in the Sheldonian on Maundy Thursday (24 March). The Bach Passions are universally regarded as masterpieces, but, I ask Robert, how difficult is it for 21st century boy choristers to engage with centuries-old music like the Passions, and with the stories they tell?

“It’s not in the least bit difficult: in my experience, children, rather more than adults, are completely open to any new experience - as long as it engages them. And everything about this music is engaging. It’s incredibly enjoyable to sing, even though it is technically very demanding. But certainly my choristers at New College are a talented, sophisticated, intelligent bunch, and they know music of quality when they sing it – they can tell that this stuff is the real thing.”

Eighteen months in, Robert plainly reckons that the job of directing New College Choir is also the real thing.

“Of course,” he says, “It’s a daunting task to take over from someone who, over the course of 38 years, has inevitably made their mark on the musicians they work with. Our personalities, for better or worse, are written on the choirs we direct. But like Edward Higginbottom before me, I want performances that are interesting, and I need to make the most of the tremendous talents that are at my disposal.”

Giles Woodforde