John Currie, chorusmaster, conductor, and professor of music

Born: August 2, 1934;

Died: May 17, 2020.

JOHN Currie, who has died aged 85, was one of Scotland’s mighty handful of chorusmasters who developed their talents in the international tradition of Germany’s illustrious Wilhelm Pitz and, thereafter, the multi-talented, much-travelled Arthur Oldham.

In inspiring hundreds of British choristers in the course of his long and active career, he held many major appointments but was associated specially with the (Royal) Scottish National Orchestra Chorus, whose members he took twice to America as well as on musical adventures in Israel.

Later, as Oldham’s successor with the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, he trained the singers for a sensational performance of Schoenberg’s massive Gurrelieder given by Sir Alexander Gibson and the RSNO, with the great (though by then ageing) Hans Hotter among the soloists.

He was also one of Scottish Opera’s first chorusmasters and a frequent conductor of the company’s touring productions in its earlier years. He directed the Halle Choir during Kent Nagano’s spell with the Halle Orchestra in Manchester, when Vaughan Williams’s Sinfonia Antarctica, with its atmospheric choral voices, was successfully revived.

Not content with these achievements, he spent five busy years in Los Angeles running the famous Robert Shaw Chorale. Back home he was founder and conductor of his own John Currie Singers, a small specialist ensemble who stood in a single line-up from side to side of the platform for performances of a wide variety of modern Scottish works, many of them personally commissioned, and for seasons of other music ranging from Schoenberg choral pieces to chamber performances of Handel’s Messiah.

Sometimes, when the occasion demanded, he would found a choir simply for the sake of some special event, acting as his own “fixer” (or recruiter of choristers), though there was usually something impressively unfixed and exhilaratingly spontaneous about the resultant performances of anything from Handel’s Israel in Egypt to one of Bruckner’s Masses.

On the brink of his retirement - by which time he had settled in Blairgowrie and had been running Perth Festival Opera for some years with conspicuous flair - a bunch of his ex-choristers asked him to conduct a concert with them in the newly-built Perth Concert Hall. With Handel’s Zadok the Priest as its launching pad, the result was another Currie triumph. Not for nothing did his singers dub him Mr Chorusmaster, an acclamation that had been previously applied to his mentor Arthur Oldham.

Born in Ayrshire, John - as I always knew him - studied music in Glasgow and acted for a time as Glasgow music critic of the Scotsman, often reviewing the RSNO’s Glasgow performances in the wake of its Edinburgh ones. While almost invariably containing the same works, the concerts, given in very different acoustics, were in other respects far from identical and John pinpointed the differences. John’s services shed fascinating light on tiny changes of approach and on matters of the finest detail.

That was how, as a newly-appointed critic in Edinburgh, I first met him in the 1960s, though his journalism by then formed part of a bigger picture, because he was already a lecturer in music at Glasgow University under the distinguished Robin Orr and was establishing himself as a stylish conductor of vocal music. Among his early successes was a memorable staging of Britten’s church parable, Curlew River, presented in the University Chapel with Clifford Hughes as the poignant Mad Woman, soon after its Aldeburgh premiere under the composer’s direction.

Out of events such as this, John’s larger-scale activities soon sprang, and the tasks he accepted grew more and more demanding. Domestically, for the last night of the RSNO’s proms, he annually composed celebratory music for Sir Alexander Gibson to conduct at the Kelvin Hall. In an international context, he flew with the RSNO Chorus to Tel Aviv in the summer of 1972, a month after the terrorist massacre at Lod Airport, for performances of Brahms’s German Requiem and other works conducted by Daniel Barenboim, Zubin Mehta, and Gary Bertini at the Israel Festival.

Travelling with them from Prestwick in an El Al aircraft reputedly bristling with armed guards, I had been sternly reminded by my editor before departure that I was a journalist as well as a music critic. John, wholly immersed in Brahms, had comments of his own to make to his choristers. Barenboim, he told them, was prone to get over-excited during performances and likely to make unrehearsed changes which could sometimes throw even the best of choirs into confusion. The singers were, in the event, undeterred and Barenboim’s searingly Mahler-like handling of the Requiem has stuck in the memory.

Four years later, the chorus’s famous first American tour took them from Los Angeles to New York by way of St Louis, Philadelphia and Washington. Sir Alexander Gibson conducted choral works by Ives and Walton with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Hollywood Bowl, and Verdi’s Requiem and Haydn’s Creation with the St Louis Symphony Orchestra in the open air beside the Mississippi. Erich Leinsdorf, conducting Mahler’s vast Eighth Symphony, relied on John’s expertise as a trainer to make the results note-perfect.

After a further four years, the singers were again in America for an initially ill-fated tour when the Cleveland Orchestra, with which they were scheduled to appear, went on strike and the first few performances were abruptly cancelled.

To forewarn his choristers - and me, once again acting as travelling critic - as the aircraft rose from Prestwick, John walked to the front of the cabin and declared through a loudspeaker that he had “a disastrous” announcement to make. Fearing that the plane was about to collide with Goat Fell, the singers were relieved to discover that only their itinerary was in danger.

On the loose for a few troubled days - when this writer, as a journalist rather than a critic, found himself filing copy about attempted muggings and shootings - the 200-odd singers finally continued to California, where Ernest Fleischmann, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s resourceful manager, had arranged extra concerts for them before their planned performance of Verdi’s Four Sacred Pieces with Carlo Maria Giulini as conductor.

Impressed by John’s skill and unflappability, Fleischmann was soon advising him to become conductor of the local Robert Shaw Chorale, also known as The Los Angeles Master Chorale, whose director was about to retire - though the presence in California of America’s most formidable music critic, the fearsome Martin Bernheimer, did not make John’s five-year stint the most carefree period of his life.

Back in Britain, he had already been a versatile professor of music at Leicester University, running the campus’s youthful opera group (with Felicity Lott and Philip Langridge among its blossoming stars) on an exclusive diet of Mozart, paving the way for his subsequent Perth Festival Opera appointment, whereby he not only conducted all Perth’s operatic performances (still more Mozart, with Britten for contrast) but directed them in the tradition of Herbert von Karajan as well.

Though good use was made of local resources, not least in the construction of scenery, this proved an expensive and time-consuming process which increasingly alarmed the festival committee and ended with Perth and John parting company. This was not, however, before he had given audiences a substantial taste of what locally cultivated Glyndebourne-style opera could be like.

A plan to start an ambitious choral festival in Dundee failed to mature and the eventual collapse, for financial reasons, of the John Currie Singers was the saddest of musical adieux. But, having lost their Scottish Arts Council grant, John and his singers went out, all guns blazing, with a final concert full of new pieces specially written by almost every Scottish composer the group had championed over the years.

Ultimately felled by a serious stroke, John was forced to give up conducting entirely. He was married twice, first to Barbara, with whom he had three children – Abigail, Rachel and Justin, the latter being a founding member of Del Amitri. Anna, his second wife, who assisted him administratively on many of his trips, pre-deceased him.

CONRAD WILSON (1932-2017)