Richard Pearce, organist and conductor – a profile

Richard will be presenting a varied programme of pieces from much-loved Bach fugues to works by lesser-known modern French composers such as Alain and Langlais, alongside a sonata by Elgar and a chorale by César Franck at 7.30pm on Wednesday 20 March at St Peter’s Church.

What are you looking most forward to when performing at the Petersfield Musical Festival this year?

It’s nice to perform close to home, as most of my work as an organist and a conductor is in London, in a building where my Mum comes to church every week, and where I can expect some friends and family in the audience. St Peter’s is a beautiful church, especially since its renovation, which has greatly improved its acoustic.

I’m book-ending the programme with pieces from JS Bach, for me the greatest composer of all time, and I’ve chosen two substantial pieces. His Prelude and fugue in C minor is a very dramatic work, a statuesque piece which unfolds over ten minutes. It shows how he is able to pace music over a long time frame. At the end of the concert I am playing his “St Anne” Fugue in Eb. It starts in an old fashioned way, progressing through to a jig and then combining the ideas of the first two sections through to a wonderful conclusion. It also shows the depth of his religious feeling – it’s full of religious symbolism.

In the middle of the concert I will be playing various pieces by three French composers.

The organs in France are very colourful. The organ in Petersfield was built in Scotland in the Continental style, so it will show up these pieces well. A lot of French organ music is very atmospheric: you can imagine it being played in a big cathedral, filled with incense.

I start with three pieces by Jean Alain, Le jardin suspendu, Aria and Litanies. Alain wrote about Litanies that if you’re not exhausted having played it, you weren’t doing it right! César Franck’s Chorale no. 3 in A minor is statuesque, and uses lots of French sounds.

Next, I will be playing Elgar’s Sonata in G in four movements, a substantial piece that reflects the Elgar March that I play at the Last Night of the Proms each year.

I’m playing three pieces by Langlais – Chant de paix, Chant héroïque, and Mon âme cherche une fin paisible. All of these pieces are music which might be improvised at various points of a service, in the tradition of French organist/composers.

Who and/or what have been the most important influences on your musical career?

Both my parents are singing teachers. At the age of 8 I went to Westminster Abey Choir School. I received specialist tuition in piano and then in organ. Geoffrey Morgan, the sub-organist, played a major part in developing my skills. I used to have music tuition for up to three hours a day over the five years I was there. At my next school I had plenty of experience in accompanying pupils, and in my gap year I sang and played at Wells Cathedral School. I then went on to attend Trinity College, Cambridge as an organ scholar, playing one of the finest organs anywhere.

I now have the privilege of regularly playing the organ in the Royal Albert Hall. I regularly play overnight sessions there.

What have been the greatest challenges of your musical career so far?

I have come to recognise that the sound that an organ is very much a function of both the instrument and the building that it’s in. You have to respect the instrument, and cannot “fight” it.

It can be hazardous to play the organ: it can contain several thousand parts, and it is possible that one part doesn’t work. You might set up the organ and then find the stop isn’t working or putting the instrument out of tune, and you have to be able to improvise.

In the Albert Hall just before Christmas one year with a full orchestra playing and with an audience of 5,000 singing, unfortunately one of the keys got stuck, but fortunately it was fixed after one verse. The curator took six hours to work out what had gone wrong. After that I was given a tour of the instrument. Some of the components have not been removed since 1881, and we’re unsure what would happen if they were removed. Each instrument is unique. This demonstrates the whole engineering challenge of keeping an organ working.

What advice would you give to those who are considering a career in music?

If you are considering this, don’t look at music as the only option. We’re coming to recognise the benefits that music gives you, including an ability to work with other people (often in quite an intimate way that requires a close understanding), the appreciation of beauty and recognising that there’s more to life than money. It’s a tough career but can be greatly rewarding, so follow it as far as you can. If your career takes you off in a different direction, you might be able to come back to it later in life.

What would you like to be doing in 5 years’ time?

I’d like to have a bit more time for practising the organ more, and learning new music. You can so easily download music these days.

About Richard

Richard was organ scholar at Trinity College, Cambridge, then studied piano accompaniment for two years at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London.  He is now a professor at the GSMD, coaching singers and instrumentalists for careers in opera and the concert platform, and is a trustee of the Josephine Baker Trust, which supports young soloists at the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music in London.

Richard is busy as a conductor, pianist and organist with professional and amateur choirs.  He records and broadcasts regularly with the BBC Singers, and particularly enjoys the challenge of preparing an extremely wide variety of repertoire, including much contemporary and new music.  He has conducted works by James MacMillan, Judith Bingham, Britten and Roxanna Panufnik for broadcast on BBC Radio 3.  As organist and pianist he has performed with many of the UK’s best-known choral conductors, including David Hill, Stephen Cleobury, Paul Spicer, Bob Chilcott and Sofi Jeannin.

Richard has been musical director of the Waverley Singers, based in Farnham, Surrey, since 2009.  During this time, he has led the choir in some 40 performances.  Particular highlights have been concerts in Guildford Cathedral of Monteverdi Vespers, Verdi Requiem, Beethoven Mass in C, Brahms Schicksalslied, Mozart Requiem and Bach Magnificat in D.  Alongside these major works he has introduced new and varied repertoire to the choir, including commissions and many newly-written compositions.  He has recently taken up a new post as Director of Music of the Romsey Choral Choral Society.  In coming seasons he will be directing performances with them including Handel’s Messiah, Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.

Richard is regular organist with the Philharmonia and BBC Symphony Orchestras in London; with them he has performed with many inspirational conductors including established maestri Lorin Maazel, Pierre Boulez, Oliver Knussen, Andrew Davis, Sakari Oramo, Marin Alsop and Ed Gardner, as well as up-and-coming stars such as Santtu-Matias Rouvali and Valentina Peleggi.  Recent performances have included the solo organ part in the European première of Unsuk Chin’s Le Chant des Enfants des Étoiles with Esa-Pekka Salonen in London’s Royal Festival Hall, a tour of China performing Saint-Säens organ symphony with Vladimir Ashkenazy, and the solo organ part in the Glanert Requiem für Hieronymus Bosch with the BBC Symphony under Semyon Bychkov.   He also performs regularly in Promenade concerts and recordings, including at the Last Night of the Proms to a worldwide television audience.

Richard makes twice-yearly trips to Sweden to work with groups in the Stockholm and Malmö areas, and frequently conducts and plays for services at St. Margaret’s Church, Westminster and at the Houses of Parliament.