Baritone and composer Roderick Wiliams was a choral scholar at Oxford’s Magdalen College before becoming a music teacher. At the age of 28 he returned to studying and performing music with London’s Guildhall School of Music. Now an established singer of opera, concert and recital, he has performed in some of the world’s most notable ensembles including all the BBC orchestras, the Berlin Philharmonic, and New York Philharmonic.
In 2016 Williams was crowned Singer of the Year Award in the 2016 Royal Philharmonic Society Awards and the following year received an OBE for services to music. A regular performer at Southbank Centre, Williams kindly agreed to share his love for classical concerts, and his experience of performing in this interview.
I love hearing music made live in a room by living, breathing people. A big rock concert has its own thrills, but often that can be a tiny number of people making a huge noise out of massive speakers. It’s not that far removed from listening to a record. What I like is that the sound in acoustic, classical, music is made by instruments and singers right in front of you. The air vibrates and the sound goes through your body. It may be just one person or it may be a chorus and orchestra of hundreds, but they are all making music with their fingers and their breath.
I don't think I want to change things, necessarily, but I’d like to add to what we have. Around the world there are some beautifully designed concert halls and spaces with glorious and interesting acoustics. That’s great. But you have to persuade some people to come to them. I also like the idea of music going out to people, playing music in different and unusual spaces, being really creative in where music happens.
Also, I understand that some people like to make an occasion out of an evening out – dress up, put their make-up and best shoes on and so forth. That’s fine by me. But as a performer I’m really not fussed what audiences wear to listen to music. I’d love them to feel comfortable turning up in whatever they have been wearing during the day if that’s what is easiest. People don’t dress up to pop down to the cinema; they just go to have fun. I hope they feel that going to a concert is the same.
As a singer who faces the front, I find myself looking out at the audience most of the time, unless I’m singing in an opera. My chamber concerts tend to be especially intimate, in a room of perhaps only a couple of hundred people, if that. So the way the audience reacts, the way they smile, frown or cry, the way they sit perfectly still or shift around uncomfortably, all of that plays directly into how I sing for them. I love singing in the round in recitals because it gives audience members a chance to observe each other as they listen to a performance. I think that’s great fun. Then they can get an idea of what I see when I sing to them straight on.
We all bring baggage to things like this, imagining how we’re meant to behave and how others will tut and look down on us if we get it wrong. But it’s actually the tutters who are going to empty the concert halls, so we want to fill our auditoriums with open-minded people, people who are up for an adventure. You don’t have to like everything you hear. You don’t have to like anything you hear, in fact. If the performance wasn’t for you, so be it. There’s nothing wrong with you if the music doesn’t touch you. But the main thing is to give the whole experience a try.
That’s really hard as there’s so much music out there of such a variety of styles. I’m heading a team to listen to Holst’s Planets Suite, so I’d suggest a newcomer might try to listen to a movement from that, Mars or Jupiter perhaps. It’s probably a good idea to listen to a bit of the music you’re going to hear in concert ahead of the show. But don't worry about spoilers; hearing it live and seeing the people playing in front of you will give you all the buzz you need.