Richard Hickox- colleague and friend

I am still at a loss for words to describe just how shocked I was to learn of the death of Richard Hickox yesterday. Richard was many things, but as much as anything, he was a force of nature. His ability to manage and thrive under a staggering workload while always seeming to project a torrent of personal energy in both musical and social situations gave him an aura of seeming invincibility. His tragically early death is the cruelest possible reminder that nobody is indestructible.



Richard was one of the first bona fide big wigs I met when I began to move a major part of my professional life to Britain. I had been introduced to David Murray, his administrative colleague at the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, through my work with Leonard Slatkin at the NSO. David asked me if I’d met Richard, and when I told him I’d been a bit reluctant to corner him as an unknown conductor new in town. My experience with “big cheese” conductors in America had been that unless someone introduces you, you’re only going to annoy them as a young conductor trying to strike up a conversation. David wisely counseled me that Richard would be surprisingly approachable.

With some trepidation, I waited for Richard one frosty November afternoon after a BBC NOW rehearsal. I caught him in the hallway as he left the rehearsal and quickly introduced myself and asked if he might have time for a chat.

“Of course. I’m not back until the New Years concert. I’ve got lunch with David Murray on the 29th, so let’s meet at 1 PM on the 30th.” He gave me a big handshake and a smile and was off. It wasn’t lost on me that he didn’t need to check his calendar, or make a note of my name or the date and time we’d just arranged. Over the years, I continued to marvel at his ability to manage one of the most complicated careers in the business, seemingly all in his head. He could always tell you what he was going to be rehearsing, with who and where a year on.

The day before I met him, I arranged to leave a CV, rep list and a short note for him, and when I saw him the next day, it quickly became clear he’d read and pretty well memorized it. At the end of his morning rehearsal, we met and made our way to the BBC canteen for lunch. “Your repertoire list is staggering,” were virtually his first words. I was glad the list was genuine, because he quickly began to quiz me in a playful way about piece after piece on the list. He asked about my studies, and about my work at the CSO and NSO- who I knew, who I’d seen recently and what I thought of them. Richard always wanted to know what was going on in the field- some conductors like to wear a mask of the great artist blissfully above the daily doings of something so base as the music industry, but Richard was a hard-headed and shrewd business man, who always understood that knowledge was power.

Over the next several months, we continued to meet up when he had time, and we gradually became friends. He took an interest in not only what I was conducting, but also who I was doing it with. When I would do a work like Beethoven 9, he’d want to know the soloists- if they weren’t names he knew, he’d want a very frank assessment of their voices and musicianship, and he never forgot a soloist’s name, especially if I said they were good. Richard himself had a sort of posse of singers and soloists he worked with that he trusted and liked- not all were huge names. He encouraged me to build my own such list, but also to get to know and work with big names whenever I could.

He liked to know not only what I was conducting, but how- “Are you taking the repeat of the first movement? German Latin? I should hope so! Much better…”  He even occasionally loaned me scores of pieces he specialized in like the Dvorak Stabat Mater: “Colin Davis used to do this for me, and it always helped, so do take it home and have a look,” he would say. Among other things, I learned how nerve wracking it is to know you have Richard Hickox’s Stabat Mater score in your house.

Finally, after a while, he gave me wonderful news after a BBC NOW concert in Swansea- he was naming me as the assistant conductor of the orchestra. Sadly, funding disagreements and shortages resulted in the position being scrapped before I could start, and Richard was quite blunt about what had gone wrong, which I appreciated- it’s hard to lose an opportunity, but worse if you don’t know why.

We did finally end up working on a few one-off projects, most notably when I covered for his performance of Mahler 8 here in Cardiff. Mahler was not necessarily Richard’s bag- something he confessed when telling me about the project, but he was always smart enough to surround himself with a strong team when he was stretching his own envelope. That week, BBC NOW’s wonderful chorus master Adrian Partington and I put in countless hours throughout the week, as Richard managed challenges musical, personal and logistical. He worked us both hard, but that’s by far the most fun way to work as an assistant- far preferable to the more common curse of sitting in the audience taking balance notes for countless hours, only for most of your efforts to be ignored. It was a week as stressful as it was monumental- soloist after soloist dropped out when confronted with Mahler’s superhuman demands (and don’t even get me started on a couple of the egos), while hundreds of choral singers ended up trapped on the motorway missing precious rehearsal time. Richard weathered it all without ever seeming to tire or show any doubt that it would be the triumph it had to be.

That project finally led to me getting engaged to conduct BBC NOW- American orchestras can be quite stingy about letting conductors “graduate” from covering to conducting, but not BBC NOW. Richard was quick to check how I’d done after the dates and to pass on “the good news of what they were saying after you left.” I’ll always be grateful to Richard for opening that door here.

As the years went on, we saw each other less as I became less able to get around to visit him, and his work life shifted towards Australia. Happily, I was working instead of waiting around Cardiff. Still, he always wanted to know what I was doing, and what my plan was for moving the career forward. We often saw each other just after concerts, and over the years, I met half the British musical establishment in the green rooms of Cardiff, Swansea and London with Richard. Richard understood the pecking order, and was unapologetic about leaving you in mid-sentence if there was someone more important for him to talk to, but on the other hand, he was always unfailingly generous in making sure to introduce me to agents, soloists, composers and other “players” in the business, always putting in a kind word for my work.

My fondest memory of Richard came far from British shores, closer to my Northwest  work territory in Seattle. I took my former conducting teacher, Gerhard Samuel, to see Richard conduct the Seattle Symphony. Richard was not really a conductor’s conductor- he wasn’t someone who was fastidious about technique, and, frankly, with his schedule, I don’t know when he could have even thought about his technique. I mention this only because Gerhard’s reaction to that concert so summed up the essential paradox of Richard’s career. After the first piece, Gerhard went on one of his patented rants about Richard’s technique- what he wasn’t showing, all the tics and habits. However, after the Mozart Requiem which ended the program, Gerhard was deeply moved. “I don’t know how he does it, but it was really wonderful. So moving,” said Gerhard. I feel guilty now to admit that I struggled with the same questions over the years. I think in some ways, this is the mystery of conducting- we can isolate all the things that make conducting work, but some conductors have that X-factor that lets them break all the rules and make magic happen anyway, by some mixture of inner musicianship, mojo and force of personality. I teach conductors from all over the world, and I’d like to think I understand the craft as well as most, but I never quite understood how Richard “did it.” Richard built a body of work that towered over that of many more natural technicians over the years, and that is what counts.

I took Gerhard back to meet Richard after that concert. Gerhard was already suffering from the early symptoms of Alzheimer’s- he was an aging genius who could then repeat himself quite easily and often, and was increasingly frail and vulnerable. I was more than a little nervous about how the two men would get on- Gerhard never had much of an edit button. When I introduced Gerhard to Richard, I saw the best of the man. Richard, the consummate power player, spoke to this retired and vulnerable older colleague as though Gerhard were the one who had just had the triumph in Benaroya Hall, as if Gerhard were his teacher, not mine. Gerhard was really touched, but not so much as I was.

Gerhard passed away as a very old man this past spring. How cruel that Richard, the tireless, indestructible Richard Hickox, would only survive him, or his friend and sometime mentor Vernon Handley, by a few months.

I wanted to focus on my friendship with Richard in this post, as it is the friend’s loss I’m most aware of today. However, it seems wrong to finish without some discussion of his musical legacy. Friendships between conductors always carry with them the challenge of surviving the strength of our own opinions- over the coming days, I’ll be feeling a fair bit of guilt over every tempo I ever complained to a friend about. I didn’t always see eye to eye with Richard about music, and in some repertoire he could drive me nutty. However, over the years, I saw him do an astonishing range of repertoire.

He’ll be most remembered as a champion of British music- he and I had nearly opposite instincts in Elgar, a composer we both adored, but I really liked his Vaughan Williams. I don’t particularly warm to the London Symphony, let alone the uncut version of it, but Richard was one hell of an advocate for it. I LOVED his way with Tippett, a composer I’d admired but never loved before. His performance of The Rose Lake with BBC NOW in Cardiff was one of the highlights of his time here (they made a marvelous recording that week for Chandos), and made a huge impression on me. The series of recordings of the music of Frank Bridge are wonderful, and important documents of neglected composer’s life’s work- one of many, many such composers.

His discography focused most often on lesser known composers- one very standard composer he loved was Dvorak, and I remember a very lively and exciting Dvorak 2 from early in my time here, but even more so a towering performances of the Stabat Mater and his epic opera Dmitrij at the Proms. Both are wonderful works full of traps and challenges for the performers. He made them sound like masterpieces. For someone who did an astonishing range of works, many of which he did once or twice in a long and busy career, it was inspiring to see what he could do with a piece he’d lived with and re-worked and re-studied over and over. That Mozart Requiem in Seattle, conducted from memory and in complete command of every detail showed him at his best. Most conductors don’t have the balls to go beyond their handful of party pieces- Richard had his party pieces, but it is a credit to his legacy that people won’t be remembering him as one of those guys who always do Tchaik 4 when they guest conduct. Instead, he’ll be remembered as a champion of the composers who still needed a bit help to get their music heard properly. Feeble as it sounds, my thoughts are with his wife Pamela and the rest of his family.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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3 comments on “Richard Hickox- colleague and friend”

  1. Jim Drummond

    Ken, this is a wonderful piece! You have caught the essence of what Richard was to all of us. Yes. he could be prickly at times, but always fair, genuinely very friendly and could be full of fun when appropriate. Thank you for sharing this. Jim

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