Remembering Richard Hickox

John Knight | March 2009

    I was shocked and saddened to learn of conductor Richard Hickox’s unexpected death on November 23, 2008. He died in his Cardiff hotel room after a recording session of Holst’s Choral Symphony with the BBC National Chorus of Wales. Only 60 years old, which is still young for a conductor, Maestro Hickox was an extraordinarily gifted musician who worked tirelessly to champion instrumental and choral works of 20th-Century British composers. As one of Britain’s busiest and foremost conductors, he was renowned for his lyrical and insightful interpretations of Vaughan Williams and Elgar. His interpretations of Percy Grainger were also inspirational.
     I was fortunate to meet Hickox in 2003 on a mild and sunny day in London. Our interview that day was later published in the October 2003 issue of The Instrumentalist. Before the interview I watched Hickox rehearse with the Philharmonia Orchestra on Elgar’s 1st Symphony and Vaughn Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. His music-making with this great orchestra lasted three hours and was a thrilling memory I will always cherish.
     The rehearsal moved quickly as Maestro Hickox was consistently engaged with the orchestra. His enthusiasm and knowledge of the music were evident in every measure with sweeping movements of the baton that conveyed the musical line. Mostly he was interested in helping musicans understand the long singing line and therefore, his conducting technique was based on the rise and fall of the phrase and not the measures. This emphasis on phrases set the music free, making it spontaneous and lyrical.
     After the rehearsal Hickox was exhausted but had to go directly to another rehearsal with the London Symphony Orchestra on the other side of the city. He invited me to ride with him in his chauffered limousine for the interview. The colorful and busy streets of London made a kaleidoscopic background for the informative ride while he shared his ideas on conducting and interpretation.
     He emphasized that the key to understanding British music is to follow the rise and fall of the spoken English language. English music is also directly linked to the local countryside: the hillsides of Worcester in Elgar’s music, Cheltenham with Holst, and Gloucester with Vaughan Williams. Conducting technique will come if the musical ideas are there. It is very important for a conductor to convey clear musical ideas. The technique comes from the music instead of imposing technique on the music.
     Maestro Hickox acknowledged that an excellent interpretation is difficult to define but obvious when it is there. He encouraged young conductors to sing all parts, play as many instruments as possible, and be prepared to conduct anything at any time. He believed that a conductor will be successful if he is able to breathe with the ensemble.
     First and foremost for a good performance, a conductor must love and believe in the music. If the love of music is lost, even if the conducting and performance are technically perfect, the musical result is undermined and fails. As our conversation ended I noticed the exhaustion creeping back into his voice.
     He concluded, “Conducting is a bloody lonely profession. You have to sacrifice a lot for your art. I don’t like being away from my family for so long a time, and there are always the critical reviews to read. One critic will love a concert, and another will hate the same performance. What makes it all worthwhile is when it comes together and you capture the spirit of the composer. However good your geometry as a conductor, unless you have the spirit of the music inside you, it’s worth nothing.”
     Reproducing the spirit of the composer and giving it to the orchestra and to the audience are the marks of a great conductor. Throughout history, conductors come and go, the memories of some fading faster than an early morning fog. Time passes and death is inescapable. At best a conductor’s fame is transitory, but the interpretations by the great ones ennoble the spirit of mankind and leave an indelible mark in our hearts.
     In the history of British music-making I consider Richard Hickox, along with Barbirolli, Beecham, and Boult, to be among the great ones. With over 300 recordings on the Chandos label, Hickox’s fame and reputation are secure and will continue to inspire us. I find his recordings of Vaughan Williams, Britten, Elgar, Holst, and Delius to be especially evocative, lyrical, and hauntingly beautiful – a lasting tribute to his legacy and humanity.
     I will always remember his smiling boyish charm and good humor. Most of all, I will remember a London day bathed in sunlight when Maestro Hickox took time from his hectic schedule to share his passion for the conductor’s art. He will be deeply missed.