Stephen Wilkinson obituary

Charismatic conductor able to draw exceptional performances from his devoted choirs, including the BBC Northern Singers

Known to all those who sang under him as an inspirational conductor, Stephen Wilkinson, who has died aged 102, was regularly described by colleagues as a man of extraordinary charisma and communicative ability. He conducted the BBC Northern Singers, the first of the choirs with which he was primarily associated, for nearly four decades, from 1954 until 1993, by which time they had become the Britten Singers. In addition to its domestic responsibilities, the Manchester-based choir performed at festivals all over the UK, widely around Europe, in Australia and the Far East. Its repertory included works – often premieres – by such composers as Holst, Walton, Elizabeth Maconchy, Kenneth Leighton, Nicholas Maw and Judith Bingham.

Wilkinson’s other major choir was the William Byrd Singers, which he conducted from 1970 until 2009, the year in which he turned 90. With that ensemble he was able to reach a high level of achievement in imaginatively conceived programmes. The one for the final concert, at Christ Church, West Didsbury, for example, characteristically interwove Gesualdo’s Responsoria with Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross for string quartet. It was a favourite programme of his whose previous performances had included St John’s Smith Square in London. Distinguished instrumentalists who performed alongside the Singers included the organist Gillian Weir and, as a teenage pianist, Stephen Hough.

Born in the rectory at Eversden, south-west of Cambridge, Stephen was the son of Marion (nee Corke) and the Rev Gordon Wilkinson. As a boy chorister he trained at Christ Church, Oxford. From St Edward’s school in the city he won an organ scholarship to Queens’ College, Cambridge, where he studied music under Edward Dent, Boris Ord and Patrick Hadley.

His studies were interrupted by the second world war and he served in the Royal Navy, first on Atlantic convoys, then for two years as a mine disposal officer on the Faroe Islands. From there, in 1943 he went to HMS Vernon, a torpedo school and experimental centre housed near Brighton, but was invalided out after an explosion from a mine, and needed operations on his right hand. In 1944 he was mentioned in dispatches “for courage and undaunted devotion to duty”. After returning to Cambridge to complete his degree in 1946, he went on to become director of the Hertfordshire Rural Music School, continuing to relish working with scratch choirs at music schools and workshops throughout his career.

In 1953 he joined the music staff of the BBC first in Leeds, then from 1961 in Manchester. On one of the five visits of the BBC Northern Singers to the BBC Proms, the Guardian’s music critic Edward Greenfield described the ensemble as “a choir to equal – or even outshine – any in this country”.

Undoubtedly Wilkinson had the ability to draw exceptional performances from his devoted singers. Other choirs he guest-conducted were the BBC Singers, the Nederlands Kammerkoor, Utrecht, and the RTE Singers in Dublin, as well as numerous university and conservatoire chamber choirs. In 1991 he founded a string ensemble, Capriccio, intended as a springboard for the National Youth Orchestra. He also enjoyed working with young singers on choral courses at Chester, Canford and Preggio in Umbria. Even after his retirement, he continued, into his 90s, to direct the annual Chorale course in Chester. In 1992 he was appointed MBE.

He was additionally active as a composer of choral music. Works of his performed by the William Byrd Singers included Betjeman’s Bells, Some Psalms and That Time of Year. A programme of a capella works – his own, interspersed with folksong arrangements – appeared under the title Dover Beach on the Deux-Elles label (2012). He considered his setting of Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach to be his best and deepest-felt work.

A typically humorous arrangement of the folksong The Piper of Dundee caused a moment of consternation when it was broadcast by Radio 3. On the assumption that the piper “must have had a dram or two”, he modulated at the end of each verse, a semitone down, then up, finally sounding two keys together.

Further choral collections included The Other Carol Book and Grass Roots, 12 studies in folksong. Two collections of solo songs, The Sunlight on the Garden (2005) and Eternal Summer (2014), were followed by a recording on Signum Classics (2017), entitled The Sunlight on the Garden and containing songs from both. His daughter Clare, a mezzo-soprano, recorded two of his songs with the viol consort Fretwork on a CD entitled The Silken Tent (2009).

Wilkinson’s love of music of the era of Byrd, despite a self-confessed childhood aversion deriving from exposure to it in the choirstalls of Christ Church, was evident in his own style, which featured piquant harmonies often based on false relations – chromatic conjunctions of notes a semitone apart. Both these, and his many imaginative arrangements of traditional melodies, were always a joy to sing.

Some settings were mildly jazzy, for example an arrangement of the spiritual I’ve Been in the Storm, marked “Tempo di Blues”. The latter was intended to entertain an audience awaiting the result of the lottery in Dendermonde, Belgium, in the 1980s. Unfortunately the announcement came sooner than expected, delaying the premiere for many years. Another interest pursued into retirement was the translation of poetry from the Faroese language – an enthusiasm kindled during his war service.

In 1945 Wilkinson married Anna Dam, whom he met in the Faroe Islands, and they had four children, David, Christina, Bernard and Andrew. Anna died in 1975, and later that year he married Delyth Jones, a psychotherapist and soprano, with whom he had two daughters, Clare and Stella. Delyth and his children survive him.

• Stephen Wilkinson, choral conductor and composer, born 29 April 1919; died 10 August 2021


Barry Millington

The GuardianTramp

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