The Bridge Interviews
Since singing is so good a thing, I wish all men would learn to sing” said 16th century composer William Byrd. This is a favourite saying of Brian Kay and he has spent much of his career encouraging men and women to do just that in choirs both here and abroad. Brian and his wife Gilly are long-term Fulbrook residents and Brian is best-known locally for conducting the Burford Singers for the last 14 years but this is only one aspect of a remarkable and varied career. Most people are satisfied if they have one successful career in their life but Brian has had three, all with great distinction.
Yorkshire-born and bred, Brian studied music at Cambridge where he was a choral scholar at King’s College. This involved singing in the college choir every day, including taking part in the famous annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. He studied under the legendary David Willcocks and sang in various ensembles – he says he tried to persuade his tutors that while he was singing he was studying. There was so much music going on that he found Cambridge a wonderful place to start a lifetime’s journey as a musician.
After Cambridge Brian studied for a Dip Ed at Oxford, thinking of a career as a music teacher, but soon found himself in London working as a Westminster Abbey Lay Vicar and freelance session singer. His credits include being the lowest frog on a Paul McCartney single, one of the six wives of Harry Secombe’s Henry VIII and a member of the backing group for Pink Floyd. Several of Brian’s Cambridge contemporaries were engaged in similar work and eventually six of them decided to get together as an unaccompanied singing group. Brian as bass provided the bottom line. The King’s Singers made their debut at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 1 May 1968. They quickly became a big hit and this took over most of Brian’s life for the next 14 years. He points out that this was the era of Light Entertainment when the King’s Singers could easily be slotted into TV shows with a range of different entertainers.
Brian performed over 2000 concerts with the King’s Singers worldwide, sometimes doing three or four in a week. Highlights included appearing at the Royal Albert Hall, the Carnegie Hall in New York and the Sydney Opera House as well as recording several albums with the legendary, and now, sadly, the late George Martin who is best-known for his work with the Beatles – as Brian says: “a wonderful man, a musical genius and an inspirational producer who will be much missed by all of us lucky enough to have enjoyed the privilege of working with him”. Brian did, however, have time for some other work and on one occasion he was engaged for a concert at the Purcell Room in London. He turned up for the rehearsal an hour in advance, as was his custom, and the only other people there were another singer and the conductor. The conductor introduced Brian to the soprano, Gillian Fisher. They were married a few months later.
In 1977 the King’s Singers were performing at the Oxford Playhouse. On a whim Brian walked into an estate agents next door and asked “Do you have a five bedroom house in the Cotswolds with an acre of land for £30,000?” The agents had one such house, in Fulbrook and in no time, Brian and family had moved in.
By 1982 Brian decided he had had enough of his life as a King’s Singer. He explains that that sort of life is for the young and, despite the glamour, he was tired of constant travelling and living out of a suitcase. He did, however, have one more notable achievement before the end of his singing career. The film Amadeus about the life of Mozart was being made. Simon Callow was cast as Emanuel Schikaneder, the man who wrote the libretto for The Magic Flute and sang one of the leading roles, Papageno. The film showed part of a performance of the opera but Simon Callow, although a man of many talents, is not really a singer. Brian therefore supplied the singing voice that can be heard on the soundtrack. The man in charge of the music, Neville Marriner, also invited Gilly to sing the role of Papagena. The film went on to win the Best Picture Oscar in 1984. Brian says he asked why some more illustrious singer had not been given his part. The answer was that “We wanted it to sound like an actor who was trying to sing” – charming!
Brian had always been interested in the craft of broadcasting music and his next career was as a broadcaster. This occupied much of the next 25 years. He wrote and presented a whole range of programmes for Radios 2, 3 and 4 and the World Service including Brian Kay’s Sunday Morning, Brian Kay’s Light Programme, Choirworks, Melodies for You, Comparing Notes and Friday Night is Music Night. There was a great deal of preparation involved in selecting the music and writing the script, and Brian would often be working all day on this in the shed in his garden. Eventually he was able to do his Sunday request show, 3 for All, down the line from his dining room table but this could not be done live because of the Fulbrook church bells ringing in the background.
Brian also worked on television, presenting Cardiff Singer of the World and Choir of the Year. For 15 years he presented the New Year’s Day concert from Vienna. He won two Sony Awards for being Music Presenter of the Year, one of them the coveted gold award.
As if this was not enough, Brian was simultaneously developing his third career as a choral conductor. He has conducted a huge number of choirs, too many to list here in full, but notable appointments include being chorus master of the Huddersfield Choral Society for ten years and conductor of the Cheltenham Bach Choir and the Bradford Festival Choral Society.
His main work in recent times has revolved around three activities. He has been conductor and music director of the Leith Hill Musical Festival, founded by Ralph Vaughan Williams, which takes place every year near Dorking in Surrey. This involves some 700 singers divided into three groups and Brian has had the mammoth task of conducting three concerts, as well as rehearsing all three groups, two hours at a time, on the same day, several times a year. He has done this for 21 years and is giving up after this year’s festival. He is principal conductor of the Really Big Chorus, which has 12,000 members and it this country’s biggest choral society. It regularly sings in huge numbers in the Royal Albert Hall, including an annual performance of Messiah with 4000 voices. Later this year Brian will be conducting members of this choir in Faure’s Requiem in New York on the 15th anniversary of 9/11.
The third but no less important to Brian is the Burford Singers. There are many things Brian enjoys about the Burford Singers: the dedicated members of the chorus, the loyal audience, the opportunity to perform in Burford Parish Church which is always full, and the fact that he can walk to rehearsals. He tries to vary the programmes and is determined to include music by living composers. This spring’s concert includes a beautiful setting of the Requiem by Paul Carr. He is looking forward in the next season to conducting Messiah and Mendelssohn’s Elijah. Particular highlights for him have been the great peaks of the classical repertoire, such as Messiah, Bach’s Passions and Monteverdi’s Vespers. He has been astute in talent spotting young soloists and a number of those who have sung in Burford, such as Sally Matthews, Mary Bevan and Roderick Williams, have gone on to become big names in the world of classical music. Many of them beg to come back again (“We feed them well”, explains Brian.)
Brian and Gilly love living in Fulbrook. He was brought up in a quiet village in Yorkshire and enjoys the village atmosphere. He admits the traffic is heavy but he is used to this. (One elderly resident told him that as a boy “We used to play cricket in the road, but we had to stop once a day to let the car through”.) They have entered into local life, in particular through Brian playing the organ in the church and Gilly by serving for some years as chairman of the parish council.
The Burford Singers in particular and the area in general owe a great debt of gratitude to Brian Kay. Let us hope that he continues teaching men and women to sing for many more years.