Organist  and  Master  of  the  Choristers  James  O’Donnell

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Artist Biography

by Robert Cummings

James O'Donnell is among the leading British organists of his generation. While some might further define him as a church organist and choir director -- roles he has fulfilled with the utmost commitment -- he has been active on the concert stage both as an organist and conductor. His choice of repertory has been broad, taking in the music of Renaissance-era icons like Palestrina and Josquin Desprez, as well as that of 20th century masters like Stravinsky and Poulenc. O'Donnell has made more than 40 recordings for the Hyperion label.

O'Donnell was born in Scotland on August 15, 1961. While in his teens, he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music. Later he was chosen organ scholar at Cambridge University (Jesus College), where he would go on to win several prizes and honors for organ performance. His teachers there were Nicholas Kynaston, Peter Hurford, and David Sanger. Shortly after his 1982 graduation, O'Donnell began his long relationship with Westminster Cathedral, serving there initially as Assistant Master of Music. His first recordings as organist (with the choir) soon appeared, as Hyperion issued Victoria's Missa Vidi Speciosam (1984) and a recording of works by Francisco Guerrero and other Spanish composers entitled Treasures of the Spanish Renaissance (1985).


In 1988, O'Donnell assumed the post of Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral, thus taking control of the renowned choir. He frequently led them in concerts and concert broadcasts over both television and radio. He also made numerous acclaimed recordings with the choir, including Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms (1990) and Duruflé's Requiem (1994). In 1997, O'Donnell accepted the appointment as professor of organ at the Royal Academy of Music and in 2000 accepted a post at Westminster Abbey as director of daily choral services and music at state occasions. The post also included leadership of the Abbey Choir in its concerts, recordings, and tours throughout Europe, Japan, Australia, and the United States. As a conductor, O'Donnell has often worked with period-instrument ensembles such as the Hanover Band and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. As a keyboard soloist or continuo player, he has frequently appeared with the Gabrieli Consort and the King's Consort. He served as president of the Royal College of Organists from 2011 through 2013.

Though O'Donnell has mostly recorded for the Hyperion label, he's also been heard on Chandos, Decca, and Signum Classics, among others. His recordings with the Westminster Abbey Choir include a 2006 Hyperion release of Elgar works, Great Is the Lord, an album of works by Christopher Tye in 2012, and in 2020, a recording of Hubert Parry's Songs of Farewell.

==  Biography from the website (with correction)  
==  The link in this box refers to my interview elsewhere on my website.  BD   

In October of 1998, O
Donnell was on tour with the choir, and graciously took time to speak with me.  Parts of the conversation were used on WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago, and now I am pleased to present the entire interview . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   I appreciate you taking the time from your busy tour schedule.

James O’Donnell:   Oh no, it’s a pleasure!

BD:   You are the music director of the Westminster Cathedral Choir?

O’Donnell:   Yes.  My official title is Master of Music, which often in a cathedral is called the ‘Organist and Master of the Choristers’.  There are different titles but, in effect, I’m the director of music.

BD:   Do you enjoy having that title and all that it entails?

:   Sometimes I enjoy all of it, and most of the time I enjoy most of it.  But there are aspects to that work
as there are in any kind of worthwhile workwhere you need to do things which you might not want to do.  These include administration, and lots of meetings, but it’s all a necessary evil.  But the essential work is extremely rewarding, and stimulating, and varied, and exciting.

BD:   You’re responsible not only for selecting the music, but then rehearsing it, and getting it performed?

:   Exactly.

BD:   Is there anyone else who helps you with all of this?

:   You could divide the work into two crude categories.  One is the daily round of predictable services, where we work to a pattern which is pretty well established.  There, I choose the music, and within those general guidelines I don’t really talk to anybody about that.  Then you have the special occasion things, where the daily round of services is interrupted.  This is additional to them, and includes things like Christmas and Easter, and other particular seasons of the year where there are particular special characteristics.  Those are always coordinated with other people.

BD:   The boys sing a Mass each day?

O’Donnell:   That’s right.

BD:   365 days a year?

O’Donnell:   No, they go on holidays.  They have school holidays, which are a normal length, and when they’re in term, they sing six days a week.  They have one complete day off each week.

BD:   Which day, or does it rotate?

O’Donnell:   It’s usually Wednesdays.  Of course, on Wednesdays they spend all day in school, and they do their sport, and they do their instrumental lessons.  The only thing they don’t do is sing for the Cathedral Choir.

BD:   Do they have rehearsals on that day?

O’Donnell:   Yes, but not for me.  We give them a day free of Cathedral duties.  It’s important that they feel they’re not completely caught on a treadmill.

BD:   I just wondered, for instance, is it particularly happy or distressing to sing, for instance, on the morning of December 26th?

O’Donnell:   No, because they don’t.  They go home on the afternoon of December 25th.  So, they don’t have to do that.  If they did have to do that, they would be very distressed.  But at the moment they get a very good deal because they have a great Christmas.  It’s exciting at Christmas in the Cathedral.  It’s wonderful, and they get presents, and they get made a fuss of, and they have a wonderful lunch.  The whole choir gets a lovely family Christmas lunch in the Choir School, where they have excellent food.  Then after we have sung Vespers, which is the afternoon service on Christmas Day, they all go home and have loads more presents and loads more food with their families, and then three weeks of holidays.  So, they get a pretty good deal out of it, and they realize that.  Children aren’t slow to know a good deal when they get one.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Now what is the make-up of the choir?

O’Donnell:   We have at the moment nineteen boy choristers.  We differentiate between the choristers, who are the boys, and the lay clerks who are our men singers, and who are professional singers.

BD:   It’s nineteen trebles and altos?

O’Donnell:   Yes.  We’re unusual in English cathedral choirs in having boy altos.  Most cathedral choirs only have boy trebles, which are the same as boy sopranos.  They sing the top line, and then the alto, tenor and bass parts are all sung by the men.  In our case, we have both adult male altos and boys, and this is quite an unusual thing.
BD:   Does it change the sound to have some of the boys singing in their normal range, and the men singing falsetto alto?

O’Donnell:   It does, but surprisingly it works tremendously well.  You’re right in saying it changes the sound.  What it does is it changes the whole complexion of the balance of the choir, because it’s not always possible for an entirely falsetto male alto/counter tenor line
which is what you get in most cathedral choirs of our sortto blend through the range completely.  So, to have boy altos and counter tenors, we get the best of both worlds.  We get the boys with their solidity of sound in a lower register binding down to the tenors, and we have the counter tenors who are in fact very good.  We’re very lucky.  They can sing falsetto, and they can also sing the top line for men’s voices services, of which we have quite a few when the boys aren’t there. So, we really have the best of both worlds.  We have three full-time tenors, and three full-time basses, and two full-time counter tenors.

BD:   Are any of those boys that have been graduated downward?

O’Donnell:   Actually, yes.  One of them is, and last week we had auditions for a vacancy in our choir.  Of the six people I auditioned, two were former choristers, and that’s pretty exceptional.

BD:   I would think either they would want to get away, or they’d want to stay with it forever.

O’Donnell:   Yes, it is a bit of both at various times.  It wouldn’t be realistic to suppose that boy singers always develop good voices and become professional adult singers.  But it is realistic to think that maybe a larger proportion of them would do that, and this is what we’re seeing.

BD:   They do have the interest and the training.

O’Donnell:   That’s right.  They have the interest and the training, and something which is implanted in them at a very young age simply by virtue of going every day to this place, and taking part in a very specialized way.  One has to make oneself remember that these people are children, and they’re doing an exceptional thing.  When we go to France, people say, “How on Earth do you make these boys do this?”  It’s a question you never consider when you’re doing it every day, and it’s a question they don’t consider.  Of course, we do consider it all the time, but the philosophical question is what I mean, rather than the practical.  I sometimes wonder how on Earth I am going to make these boys sing this piece of music by the time they have to do it.  But you find ways of doing it, and they find ways of doing it, which is more to the point.

BD:   I assume none of them feel forced to sing each day?

O’Donnell:   No, although sometimes they get tired.  If they have to do examinations in school, or on their oboe, or if there’s some other thing which makes them feel perhaps less like singing, you do get phases of less enthusiasm.  But generally speaking, they’re incredibly enthusiastic and they like the grown-up nature of the work.  There aren’t very many children who can say that they’ve worked on a daily basis as equals with a team of professional adult musicians, which is exactly what these children do.

BD:   They understand that right away?

O’Donnell:   They do, and they have to.  Part of their training is to be able to rise to that level.  If I take a rehearsal with the men and the boys, as I do every day, I can’t use one kind of language for the boys, and address the men in another language.  I have to use the same language for the whole choir.

BD:   So, you bring the boys up rather than bringing the men down?

O’Donnell:   Yes, exactly.  Occasionally there might be something which I have to put in a different way for the boys, but generally speaking, I treat the whole choir as one unit, and I try to treat the boys as professionals.  That’s not to say I pretend that they are older and wiser and more mature than they are.  I just try to give them the expectations that I have, and I try to treat them in that way.

BD:   What ages are the boys?

O’Donnell:   The boys come to us at about eight, and they leave at thirteen.  So they spend five years with us.

BD:   Do they always start at eight, or might someone start at ten or eleven?
O’Donnell:   No, they never start that late, but some of them might start at nine.  When I talk about the choir that I direct at Westminster Cathedral, a lot of this applies to many choirs of the sort.  I’m just talking from my own personal standpoint, but what we do is not unusual.  The whole idea of training and making a choir of this work is based on the fact that the boys will acquire experience and maturity as they grow up in the choir.  So if they spend five full years in the choir, in Year One they’re in training, and they might not know very much.

BD:   But they still have to sing each day?

O’Donnell:   We actually immerse them gradually.  They will have their own separate practices, and will attend services and listen, and gradually begin singing.  They are trainees.  We never really include the first-year boys in the full number of the choir because they don’t sing in the concerts, and they don’t sing in the recordings.  They don’t sing every day in the Cathedral, although by the end of the year they are basically doing that.  But we do that gradually, and it’s tailor-made to each individual.  In Year Two they’re still finding their feet, and in Year Three they have found their feet in a number of respects, but not all.  In Year Four they are beginning to take a lead in the choir, and in Year Five they are formative and influential.  Even a boy who’s maybe not that gifted musically, and who spent four years doing this thing every day, has got so much experience under his belt, and so much confidence because of the experience, that he is a very, very useful competent chorister.

BD:   Do they all make it?

O’Donnell:   Most of them make it.  Occasionally, despite a very stringent auditioning and assessment procedure before they come to us, you make a mistake, or more often, something just doesn’t work out.  It’s not a mistake, it’s a family thing.  All the boys live in our Choir School.  They have to board.  Even if they live next door to us
and indeed, one of the boys doeshe has to board, because only in that way can we keep a routine of such demand and complication going.  I can’t run a choir like that if half the boys are going to be late because they’ve been battling through London traffic.

BD:   Even the one next door would be an outcast?

O’Donnell:   He’d be an outcast, and even so, he wouldn’t necessarily be on time either.  They live together, and that is in itself a bonding and a cohesive thing.  They live together, they work together, they play together, they become very, very close to each other, and they work as a close team.  You see the musical dividends of that.  Also, they have a great time.  I know that the concept of young children like that, living away from home, is less and less common now.  Even in England, where it used to be quite usual a few years ago, it’s becoming less and less common.  So we are against the tide in that way.  But there is a very, very good justification for that here.  Even the families who have started off thinking they’re not really sure about this, and don’t know if this is right for their son, come round to the idea, and see the benefits of it.

BD:   Now you’ve had the group, and they’ve rehearsed, and you’re preparing concerts.  Are there any substitutes, or any backup players for a time if you get influenza running through the place?

O’Donnell:   No, they just have a few boys singing.  If some of them are ill on this tour, the rest of them will sing.  We don’t have any reserves.  Unlike a football game, it’s not tied to an exact number of singers.  For example, I brought seventeen choristers with me on this trip, and if two of them are ill, just fifteen will sing.

BD:   You hope that it isn’t five or six that are ill?

O’Donnell:   If it is, that could have an effect, but depends on which five or six.  But the show must go on.

BD:   If it’s sprinkled through the voice parts okay, but if they’re all in one section, then you’re in trouble.

O’Donnell:   [Laughs]  Absolutely, but we don’t think about that.  I’d be surprised if that did happen.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Is all the music you do, sacred?

O’Donnell:   Very nearly.  In this visit to the States, we’ve been singing in one or two secular places, and we’ve been singing at receptions.

BD:   But the music you do all year is basically sacred music?

O’Donnell:   It is always sacred music, because our raison d’être, our function is to sing sacred music in Westminster Cathedral for the liturgy there.  That’s what we do.  Our concerts and recordings and broadcasts and everything else are off-shoots of that work.  They’re very important off-shoots, and indeed they nourish that work.  They’re very valuable to the choir musically, and they’re valuable to the Cathedral in terms of its reputation and its profile.
BD:   From the vast literature of sacred music that’s been written over the last three or four hundred years, how do you decide which pieces you’re going use this year, and which you’ll put off until another year?

O’Donnell:   It’s very difficult.  You’re always trying to balance keeping our repertoire alive and going.  This means that we have to keep music which is sung maybe only once or twice a year, but it has to appear so that it stays in the consciousness, and doesn’t become a new piece.  But then you’re always trying to expand that repertoire, and look at new areas, and commission new music, and learn the music that you want to learn which isn’t yet in the repertoire.  Like all things, it’s a balance of various items, and sometimes, if the pressure is off us, and there’s enough rehearsal time, I might put down a huge amount of new music
like five or six pieces a week that they don’t knowand just learn them.  Actually, it is quite hard to find such a thing as a brand-new piece of music.  For example, if we do a new Palestrina motet, it’s going to be very similar to the other Palestrina motets that we do.  So, there is going to be a basic familiarity with the style and the idiom and the performance practice, and a basic feeling of this being known among the boys, which will mean that they will be very quick.  They can all read music well, so the learning curve is very, very quick, and pieces of music which fall into a familiar style are not a problem.  One is always allowing for unusual pieces, but what is heartening is the way the choir laps up brand-new music, especially music which is commissioned, and where we’re giving a first performance.

BD:   With those, you come to the other end of the spectrum, and it’s a piece no one has ever heard.

O’Donnell:   Yes, and there may be a certain amount of circumspection at first, but there’s this tremendous feeling of excitement.  This is new and nobody’s ever done it!  It’s like unwrapping something which has never been looked at before.  They really leap at that chance, as any musician does.

BD:   Do you know ahead of time about how long it will take to rehearse a new piece, and get it ready so that you can perform it?

O’Donnell:   I can look at the score, and knowing the singers I can make a good guess at it... which is not to say I’m going to be absolutely right.  The art is to make sure there’s enough flexibility in our schedule, and that we can compensate for unforeseen difficulties.  There’s never any problem if it takes less time to learn.  There’s always other stuff to do...

BD:   Or give them an hour off?

O’Donnell:   Or give them an hour off, but that’s unlikely.

BD:   When you’re rehearsing, do you try to get it so that it’s just perfect, and then every time is a duplicate, or do you leave something for each performance?

O’Donnell:   I don’t try to do that because I don’t like that approach.  That kills spontaneity in musical performance.  But again, it’s a question of balance.  Sometimes you’ll go one way deliberately, or accidentally, and sometimes you go another.  The balance is to get proper preparation, where everybody knows what they’re doing, everybody is feeling familiar, and everybody is feeling happy that they are able to sing confidently and know what they’re doing.  They also have a reasonably good idea of the way I want it to go in a particular respect, and that also allows leeway for something on top.  I would be very disappointed if we merely reproduced our rehearsals.  When I play the organ, or conduct the Choir, or any kind of performance, I will always go into the concert with a feeling of getting that extra thing, whatever it is.  Sometimes you don’t know until you’re doing it.  I might suddenly decide I want to go slower, or I might suddenly want something louder or softer.  There’s got to be that flexibility, and the Choir responds to that flexibility because they know they have to be on their metal, and they have to be alert.  There’s a feeling of music-making, and they know that I trust them to do it.  So, there’s an onus on them to respond to that trust. That’s the theory anyway, and most of the time it works.

BD:   I’ve not seen you work, but can I assume that your movements and gestures in concerts are minimal?

O’Donnell:   I don’t know!  I’ve never seen myself, but I don’t regard myself as a hugely flamboyant figure.  I don’t try to give more information than is necessary, and if you give over-large gestures for no reason, how do you make the effects?  It’s all about eye-contact and communication.  Waving your arms is one aspect of it, but it’s not the total thing.  It’s a very personal thing.  I’ve been director of music at Westminster Cathedral now for ten years, and the boys are pretty used to me.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Are they sick of you?

O’Donnell:   I hope not.  [Both laugh]  Sometimes they might be sick of me, and sometimes I might be sick of them, but generally speaking, it’s a pretty happy place.  It’s my business to make sure that’s the case, because you don’t get good music-making, and you don’t get good teamwork, and nobody has an interesting time if people are at each other’s throats.


BD:   You’re responsible for the music, and a bit of the education and enlightenment of these boys.  Isn’t this very similar to what Bach was doing 300 years ago?

O’Donnell:   It is quite similar.  Bach was officially the headmaster of the choir school in St. Thomas’s in Leipzig.  Luckily I don’t have that duty.  The Choir School, where all our choristers are educated as boarders, is literally next to the Cathedral in the grounds, and is run by a separate management.  There is a headmaster, and he is answerable to the board of governors of the Choir School.  I’m not part of the Choir School.  I am answerable to the Cathedral authorities, and I’m employed by them.  Obviously, the headmaster and I work very, very closely, but he’s not my boss, and I’m not his.  We’ve always had an extremely mutually supportive and positive relationship.  He is responsible for making sure that the boys of the Choir can do what I require them to do as the director of music in the Cathedral.

BD:   He keeps them in shape so they can sing?

O’Donnell:   Yes, and he is responsible for their overall education.  So, he has quite a difficult balancing act between the demands of the Cathedral and me, and the demands of their instrumental teachers, and the demands of their academic life... and also, of course, chiefly their pastoral life, as well as keeping the families happy, and making sure that all of this is coordinated.  He does an extremely good job, and we’re very lucky to have him, and it’s crucial because things could go terribly wrong if that wasn’t the case.

BD:   What advice do you have for others who want to conduct this kind of choir, or any kind of choir?

O’Donnell:   I don’t know whether I’ve got any advice.  It’s difficult because the career structures in America and in Britain are so different.  Even in Britain, the number of jobs like mine is very small.  We’re the only Catholic cathedral in Britain with a fully-fledged professional choral set-up, but there aren’t even very many Anglican cathedrals who have our kind of set-up.  There are the other two London cathedrals, including Westminster Abbey which is not technically a cathedral, but it’s included in that broad umbrella for the purposes for this conversation.  Then there
s St. Paul’s Cathedral which also has a professional choir, and we’re all very, very similar.  But there are relatively few other cathedrals in the country where there are seven days a week services, and a full set of professional men singers.  We’re very fortunate to have that.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   You’re also an organist.  Do you give solo concerts?

O’Donnell:   I do, and it
s one of the great ironies of my position.  It’s like being a headteacher in a school because the last thing you ever do is teach when you become a headteacher.  When you become the organist of a cathedral, one of the last things you ever do is play the organ, because you’re so occupied with directing the choir, and administrating the music, and writing back to people who ask what that piece was you did a week ago last Thursday.  [Laughs]  It’s very important to answer these people, because there is an expression of interest there, and courtesy and prudence dictate that you encourage such things.  But they can divert you from the practice of the organ.  I do take my organ playing very seriously and it’s very important to me.  I have to say my organ playing is more outside the Cathedral than in.  I’m fortunate to be invited to give a few recitals, and I relish it.  We were talking earlier about balance, and that is the key to this.  In my career, balance between my choral work at Westminster Cathedral, and my work outside Westminster Cathedralwhich gives me a wider perspective as a musicianis crucial.  I’ll give you an example.  A few weeks ago, I took part as an organist in a recording of some Haydn Masses with Richard Hickox [shown at left].  We were doing the Nelson Mass, which has an obligato organ part, which I played, and it was very interesting for me because there were certain things that Hickox did, or that the choir did, which I saw from another perspective.  I was inside it playing, and was not responsible for the overall co-ordination, so there were many things which inspired me to think about things in a different way, which I’m sure have improved me or altered me.  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Barbara Bonney, Anne Howells, and Anthony Rolfe Johnson.]

BD:   You’ll remember them next time you do a Haydn motet?

O’Donnell:   Yes, but not just that.  There’s no limit to how applicable the lessons are that you can learn.  They could be directly responsible for anything
even a way of just dealing with people, or a way of phrasing something, or the way the choir worked, or seeing something which wasn’t clear before.  It wasn’t the case in this occasion, but you can see something which isn’t right, or which has a bad effect, and you think, “That doesn’t really work, and I can see why that doesn’t work, and that helps you not to do that in your own set-up.  If there’s one piece of advice I’ve got for people who, as you asked me a few minutes ago, for people who are interested in doing this kind of work professionally, it is to get as much experience as possible, and to work as much a possible with others.  For a choral director, it’s important to sing in a chorus.

BD:   You have done so?

O’Donnell:   I have, but not for a while, but I certainly did as a younger person.  You have to be on the receiving end, and you have to be capable of seeing it from the opposite perspective.  Just like a good doctor has to imagine what it’s like to be his own patient, you’ve got to imagine what it’s like to be singing yourself as a conductor.

BD:   [Paraphrasing the old proverb
“Physician heal thyself.” (Luke 4:23)]  Musician conduct yourself.

O’Donnell:   Exactly, absolutely!  Well put!

BD:   Let me ask a real easy question.  What is the purpose of music?

O’Donnell:   [Laughs]  That’s far from an easy question.  Music can have an almost limitless number of purposes.  It’s an easy question from Westminster Cathedral Choir’s point of view.  The purpose of Westminster Cathedral’s liturgy, and the music within it, is to raise people’s hearts and minds to the worship of God, and to contribute to the overall combination of things which go to make up the liturgy.  When we sing services at Westminster Cathedral, that is what we do, and the way we do that is by performing the music that we sing there to the highest standard we can imagine.  As the director of that group, I’m responsible for setting the pace, and I’m inspired to do that by the quality of the people I work with.

BD:   So, it’s mutually supportive?

O’Donnell:   It is totally.  If I had a rotten choir who weren’t interested in what they were doing, I would find it very difficult to achieve the results that I believe that we are capable of achieving, and ought to be achieving with our facilities and with the caliber of the professional men that we have.  With the facilities we have at Westminster Cathedral, we should be achieving high results.

BD:   I assume that you are part of the audition process, so you know what’s coming in.

O’Donnell:   Oh yes, I’m responsible for the auditioning process.  I choose who comes into the choir.

BD:   Are there also other ears that listen?

O’Donnell:   Yes, indeed, when we choose a new lay clerk at Westminster Cathedral, I always invite all the existing lay clerks to the auditions.  They are actively involved in it, and I listen to what they say because they have to work with them as colleagues.  The decision is mine, but I don’t actually appoint.  The Administrator of the Cathedralthe Rector of the Cathedral, if you likeofficially makes the appointment as the employer, but he does it on my recommendation.  If I say no, this person is unsuitable, then he wouldn’t appoint him.
BD:   I would assume that most of the time you’re in the happy and disastrous position of trying to decide between two or more applicants that are almost equally qualified?

O’Donnell:   Yes, and that’s not uncommon in the arts world, I’m afraid.  You have to decide what you want, and often you might have to choose, as you say, between two people of absolute equal level of expertise.  But somebody might get slightly closer to the style that you want, or somebody might have the personality that you think would fit in better, which would just tip the decision.  But it can be very difficult.

BD:   Are there times you just simply draw lots?

O’Donnell:   [Smiles]  No, we’ve never had to do that, but I suppose it’s possible.  Normally, if you think about it hard enough, you can work out which way to jump.  But it’s an important decision.  It’s crucial.

BD:   Is it encouraging that the standard in applicants is getting higher and higher, or is that a wrong assumption?

O’Donnell:   No, it is a correct assumption, and it’s very encouraging.  It’s a compliment to us.

BD:   These are for the lay clerks.  Are they also for the boys?

O’Donnell:   Yes.  Choosing boys is not quite the same, because we can only take Roman Catholic children in the choir.  In Britain, just as in other countries, and maybe also in America, there isn’t the same culture of choral singing.  By this I mean art music sung by a choir.  In the (Anglican) Church of England, there is a culture to which most of the cathedral choirs belong.  So, we have a slight handicap in that we’re not dealing with a situation where it is usual for young Catholic families to imagine that their son might come to a choir like ours, so we have to spread our message carefully.

BD:   Would you rather be in Rome, leading the Vatican Choir?

O’Donnell:   No, I certainly wouldn’t!

BD:   [Somewhat surprised]  Why?

O’Donnell:   Well, I’m English!  [Both laugh]  I’d rather be in London.  I don’t think that the Vatican Choir is an easy job to do, and I prefer my own situation.  What I like about Westminster Cathedral is the fact is that it is both an English cathedral and Catholic.  It is the combination of those two things which I really think is exciting.  So, I’d rather be where I am.

BD:   They work together, rather than pulling apart?

O’Donnell:   Oh, yes.  We are a traditional English cathedral choir which happens to be Catholic.  That sounds a casual way of putting it, and I don’t mean it that way.  There is a fundamental difference in liturgy, in repertoire, in style, and in all kinds of other things.  I’m not making light of it, but we are designed to be as we are.  The founder of Westminster Cathedral, Cardinal Vaughan in the late nineteenth century, designed the choir to be an English cathedral choir which would sing in the Roman Rite, and that’s what we are.

BD:   Do you make the boys sing differently for recordings than you do in the church or for concerts?

O’Donnell:   No, I don’t.  I try to make them sing well all the time, so there’s no difference.  If you’re singing modern French music, you might adopt a different style of performance, but I wouldn’t make them sing in a different technical way.  I do encourage them to sing well.  I hope I’m right in saying that the style of our choir has quite a distinctive sound, unlike some of the other English choirs, although we’re not that dissimilar from them.  The boys have a quite a direct style, and quite a bright sound with quite a bold musical gesture, which is vivid and actually does suit a lot of different repertoires of music.

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BD:   [Noting that he was thirty-seven years old]  Are you at the point in your career that you want to be at this age?

O’Donnell:   I think so.  I’m very happy where I am.  I was appointed quite young to my position, but I feel I’ve grown into it, and I’ve grown through it.  I’m also changing it all the time.  It’s developing.  It’s not standing still.  The Choir is developing, the Cathedral is developing, I’m developing, and while that happens, I think that’s good.

BD:   Do you see yourself staying there for another fifteen, twenty, thirty years?

O’Donnell:   I don’t think I could answer that question.  I don’t see myself leaving tomorrow or next year, but I can’t guarantee what will be around the corner in my life.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Oh, gaze into your crystal ball!  [Both laugh]

O’Donnell:   No, I prefer not to.  All I can say is that at the moment I’m pretty happy.  There aren’t that many positions.  In fact, there aren’t any for a Catholic musician such as myself in Britain that I would rather be in.  There aren’t very many jobs of the sort that I am in, which I would I regard as a promotion in any way.  We’ve won some pretty significant awards recently.

BD:   That helps to guarantee your longevity?

O’Donnell :   Well, it’s a great recognition of the work that we’re all doing.  It’s a recognition of my work certainly, and as director of music, I have to acknowledge that.  But it’s also a recognition of the Choir’s standing, and that’s something not to be taken lightly.  There are many good choirs of our sort in Britain, but there aren’t very many that are better, and none where I’d rather work.

BD:   Good.  I’m glad you’re content.  There are a number of recordings of the Choir with you directing.  Are there any recordings of you giving an organ recital?

O’Donnell:   No, I haven’t really recorded alone.  I have made one recital disc at Westminster Cathedral of popular pieces for organ, and some transcriptions.  [Remember, this interview was held in 1998.]  I have plans to do some more recording, but that is something that I haven’t been able to pursue as much as I would have liked.  [Note the concerto recording shown below which was released in 2014.  A review in Gramophone magazine said the organ playing had
sensitivity and spark.]


BD:   Do you like making records?

O’Donnell:   I do, but I don’t always find the process of studio recordings
with its takes, and going over the whole thing over and over againto be that great.  [Note that the concerto recording was made at a live concert.]  But actually, there is a good thing about recording in that it does enable the Choir to concentrate on itself in a way that wouldn’t be possible in other circumstances.
BD:   Does it then set up an impossible standard for you to duplicate?

O’Donnell:   [Thinks a moment]  I don’t think it’s impossible.  It does set up a standard that I feel is a good thing, because it shows the Choir and me what we are capable of.  I hope that when we record, we are putting down our best work for posterity.  When we sing live, we are doing the best we can at that time.  There’s always a feeling of going for the best performance you are capable of, so if you are achieving your best at the time, the comparison is irrelevant, because your best on Tuesday might not be the same as your best on Thursday.  As long as you’re aspiring towards the highest standard that you can reasonably aspire to, then that is the noble thing, and is the thing you try to do in musical terms.

BD:   Is there such a thing as musical perfection?

O’Donnell:   I don’t think there is.  Perfection is necessarily illusive for us mere mortals, and it might be misguided to try to achieve perfection.

BD:   But you always strive for it?

O’Donnell:   You strive for your best, and that’s not necessarily the same thing.  I don’t think I could ever achieve perfection, so maybe striving for it is not the right thing.  I know what you’re getting at, and people use the word ‘perfection’ maybe slightly loosely.  You aspire for the highest standards you can, and you aspire to improve all the time.  When we perform a piece of music, what I want to do is a really fine account of it which harnesses all the ability available in the best way.  If that’s a definition of perfection, then yes, that’s what we’re striving for.  But those who hark after perfection all the time are bound to be disappointed, and it could lead to trouble.

BD:   Do you ever get the opportunity to direct a mixed choir?

O’Donnell:   I do from time to time, but it’s not a deliberate thing.  I’m happy being the master of one choir, and I find that absorbing and demanding.

BD:   Too demanding?

O’Donnell:   No, not too demanding, no.

BD:   Just the right demands?

O’Donnell:   I hope so, yes.  Sometimes it’s too demanding in the sense that any job can become too demanding when you have other things going on.  But no, I don’t think it over-stretches.  It stretches, but it doesn’t break.

BD:   When you’re on tour, you have to deal with all kinds of different acoustics.  Do you find yourself adapting to the acoustics very quickly?

O’Donnell:   Yes, and this is something that the boys find harder than the men because they’re used to singing in one place.  When they go somewhere else, to adapt to the new place isn’t always easy, but it comes fairly quickly.  They sometimes need a bit of help, but any singer or instrumentalist playing in a completely different environment often needs a bit of feedback.  You need somebody to listen objectively, and say yes, that sounds good, or no, that sounds as if you’re working too hard, or that could be softer and that could be louder.  So, you adjust.  The important thing is to have enough time in a new place for people to feel that they’re getting used to it.

BD:   In these new places, or even in your familiar place in Westminster, do you make sure to have another set of ears out there listening carefully?

O’Donnell:   No, not always.   I sometimes go myself.  In Westminster we know what works.

BD:   Won’t it change when there are Christmas decorations, or with a special placement of the Choir?

O’Donnell:   No, not really.  And, as I say, you can’t really change the way people sing hugely.  You can change the style, and you can listen.  A musician should be able to hear what the effect is, and judge it in a very good room with easy acoustics.  It shouldn’t be necessary to work too hard.  It should be possible to make your utterance in a natural way, not an over-blown way when the gesture is too large.  In a larger place with perhaps with a more generous resonance, you might need to work a little harder to make the clarity of your utterance.

BD:   If you know you’re going to a large resonant place, do you schedule less polyphony, or alter the selection of pieces?

O’Donnell:   No.  You could drive yourself mad if you try to tailor-make every program for the exact acoustics, particularly if you don’t know the place, and you don’t know how it changes when an audience goes in there.  In the broadest possible terms, there are some pieces which might suggest themselves as being particularly suitable, and some that might suggest themselves as being particularly unsuitable for a certain occasion.

BD:   In your home church, do you know that some things don’t work, so you avoid them?

O’Donnell:   Yes.  One thing which consistently doesn’t work well is intimate music.  Whereas in some settings, the Choir might be surrounded very closely by the audience or congregation, but for us, we are quite a distance away from the nearest person in the congregation.  So, singing very intimate verse anthems with long solo verses is hard to make that come over that distance.

BD:   Do you avoid those altogether?

O’Donnell:   I avoid doing too many of them.

BD:   I wish you lots of continued success with this tour, and with the performances at home, and the recordings.

O’Donnell:   Thank you very much.  It’s been very nice to be here.


© 1998 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on October 24, 1998.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 2001.  This transcription was made in 2022, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.