Wednesday, 9 April 2014

John Shirley-Quirk remembered

From Evan Dickerson : 

The death of eminent English bass-baritone John Shirley-Quirk, 82, was announced on 7 April. He died in Bath, but the cause of death remains unknown. Born in Liverpool, John Shirley-Quirk sang in a church choir and played violin as a child. His university studies were in chemistry and physics, but singing was his abiding passion and he took singing lessons with Austen Carnegie. In 1957 he began studying with baritone Roy Henderson and from 1961–1962 performed with the Cathedral Choir at St. John's in London. He made his operatic debut in Pelléas et Mélisande in 1961 at the Glyndebourne Festival. In 1963 he was invited by Benjamin Britten to join his English Opera Group, with whom he performed until Britten’s death in 1976. His work included roles in the premieres of Britten's Curlew River, The Burning Fiery Furnace, The Prodigal Son, Death in Venice, and Owen Wingrave. Shirley-Quirk made his debut at New York's Metropolitan Opera in 1974 with a performance of Death in Venice. In 1975 he was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

His recording career though featured a wider spread of English composers: he was the soloist in the first recording of Sir Michael Tippett’s The Vision of St. Augustine and in 1977 he created the role of Lev in Tippett’s The Ice Break at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. He also performed and recorded A Child of Our Time under the composer in the 1980s. His dedication to Vaughan Williams’ vocal works is to be heard on many of Sir David Willcocks’ recordings for EMI, including the first complete version of the Songs of Travel. He sang in the premiere recording of Delius’s Requiem in 1968. In later years he continued to make important recordings, singing the baritone soloist in Britten’s War Requiem under Richard Hickox in 1991 and the cameo role of the Recorder of Norwich in the premiere recording of Gloriana under Sir Charles Mackerras in 1992. He was also a soloist in Solti’s recording of Mahler’s eighth symphony. Aside from his singing career, Shirley-Quirk taught at Bath Spa University and at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore from 1992 until 2012. 

Vocally he was known for a warm and generous tone, which reflected the man, if my one encounter with him around 1993 was anything to go by. He had visited my singing teacher, the late Jean Austin Dobson, for afternoon tea and saw no reason to leave just because she had a few ‘evening students’. Their witty rapport was palpable, and he endured my baritonal efforts, singing some of Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel. This was music that I even then was conscious that he had a very deep connection with. He was patient and deferred to “dear Jean” when it came to matters relating to my technique, though he liked my tone. We discussed at some lengths the problems of singing in English and also its rewards when done well. The comment that has stuck with me though was, “don’t be afraid of the words – get stuck in!” It has shaped how I appreciate singers and listen to vocal performances ever since.

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