Herefordshire People: Geraint Bowen, MusicMan

PUBLISHED: 17:10 09 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:49 20 February 2013

Geraint Bowen

Geraint Bowen

Geraint Bowen, organist and director of music at Hereford Cathedral, artistic director of the Hereford Three Choirs Festival and conductor of Hereford Choral Society, talks to Mark Ewins. Photographs by Shaun Thompson

The entrance to the cloisters of Hereford Cathedral is via a tiny arched doorway. No matter how many times one passes through it, the impression is of entering a timeless environment that is entirely divorced from whatever century happens to be outside it. The feeling of calm and everything being right with the world is instant and the only clue to modern times is the occasional bicycle propped up against the cloister wall.

One of these is likely to belong to Geraint Bowen, organist and director of music at Hereford Cathedral, artistic director of the Hereford Three Choirs Festival and conductor of Hereford Choral Society.

To try to capture in words the man behind these roles isn't easy for someone as modest as Bowen. He is a man devoted to his music and his choirs, and radiates a feeling of respect for them that ensures they will sing with him, rather than for him.

Geraint was born in London and received his early musical education as a chorister at Hampstead parish church under Martindale Sidwell. He was organ scholar at Jesus College, Cambridge, and after graduating his first post was assistant organist at St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin. Three years later he moved to Hereford Cathedral as assistant organist, where he worked from 1989 to 1994 with Dr Roy Massey, and in 1995 he moved to St Davids Cathedral, Pembrokeshire, as organist and master of the choristers. In 2001 he moved back to Hereford to succeed Dr Massey on his retirement.

He describes Dr Massey as a huge influence on him and recalls the awe he felt on encountering for the first time the unfailingly high standard of music that he maintained at cathedral services all the year round, whether it was at a carol service in front of 1500 people or Evensong on a wet Monday in November when the choir outnumbered the congregation. "I learned from Roy what the standard should be," he says.

Geraint's predecessors at Hereford Cathedral always included the title of Master of the Choristers, and this is still very much his role. His responsibility is to run the choir, recruit and train members to it, and plan the music for the services.

"The boys sing in eight services a week, every day except Wednesday, but including three on a Sunday: Eucharist, Matins and Evensong," says Geraint. Considering that the boys are all aged between 8 and 14 years, this is a demanding schedule. On a weekday, the boys must be present for rehearsal at 8.10 am for a rehearsal lasting just under an hour. Then they have a normal school day before returning for a further rehearsal at 4.30 pm and a service at 5.30 pm - however they are feeling! "Remember, the boys all have to travel in because there are no boarders," adds Geraint, clearly showing the respect he has for his young choristers.

On Sundays, they can "have a lie-in", as they are not expected until 8.55 am, where they are joined by the gentlemen lay-clerks at 9.20 am to prepare for the three services that day.

Geraint is also respectful of the adults behind the children. "The average eight year-old doesn't wake up one morning and think, 'Oh, I want to be a choir boy!' Someone needs to sow the seed of the idea and that might be a parent, a teacher, parish priest or choirmaster."

Of course, this regular schedule of early starts and late finishes also involves the parents who transport the boys, and Geraint is clearly aware that without them, his job would be impossible.

But there are definite advantages to being a Hereford Cathedral chorister. In addition to the life skills gained from the rigorous life - learning to be "a round peg in a round hole", as Geraint puts it - the boys gain a valuable scholarship to Hereford Cathedral School. And when they finally leave the choir at the age of 13 or 14, there is a continuum as they remain at the school and retain contact with the choir. Geraint's wife, Lucy, teaches singing and he says, "It's great to see how many ex-choristers come back and ask Lucy for lessons."

He adds, "We are lucky with the supply of choristers and the stalls are all filled for the year ahead."

However, the choir consists of more than just the boys and Geraint is equally praising of the lay-clerks. Such is their commitment that the longest serving of them has sung with the choir since 1974 and the 'new boy' joined 10 years ago! Just as the boys have a demanding schedule, the lay-clerks must fit in their duties around a range of day jobs.

Outside the regular routine of services, the choir has recorded a CD of works by William Byrd, made numerous radio and television broadcasts, performed cathedral concerts that include the Bach Passions and the Christmas Oratorio, and has been on four tours of the USA. Each year it combines with the cathedral choirs of Gloucester and Worcester to perform a major concert as part of the Three Choirs Festival programme.

In 2002 it took part in a gala concert at the Barbican Hall with the City of London Sinfonia, conducted by Harry Christophers. In 2005 the choir performed in a special concert in the Chapel Royal at St James's Palace in the presence of the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall; and it performed for the royal couple again when they visited Hereford Cathedral at the end of January. Its most recent recording, a CD of works by Herbert Howells, will be released later this year.

Of course, this schedule includes Geraint himself and yet, every three years, this effort needs to increase enormously. Triennially, the Three Choirs Festival arrives in Hereford, as it will in August this year. It is a festival of world renown with a history going back almost 300 years; and preparing its extensive programme is the responsibility of its artistic director. The planning starts at least 18 months before it comes to fruition, with an initial deadline caused by the unique custom of publishing the outline programme at the preceding festival. Geraint says, "This has the effect of clearing the 'What' from the mind so one can focus on the 'How'."

Asked how he manages this in an already packed routine, Geraint responds in typical fashion by praising others. "The home year does bring a lot of pressure," he admits. "I'm lucky to have Lucy, who understands that there is no such thing as a whole day off in such a year, especially in the three months before."

But he is also full of praise for the Hereford Festival Committee, and mentions the "very hard working" Jeremy Wilding, its chairman, the festival's General Manager, Paul Hedley, who Geraint describes as "fantastic", and its "meticulous" local administrator, Guy Rawlinson.

In addition to these people, Geraint works with his two colleagues in Gloucester and Worcester, Adrian Partington and Adrian Lucas, balancing both the programme and the books by sustaining the artistic integrity of the festival and making sure that the tickets will sell. There must be a mix of old and new works and, as the three contingents of the Festival chorus rehearse in the home cities for much of the time, there must be a balanced workload.

Orchestras and soloists need to be booked and, in this respect, Geraint is delighted with the relationship that has grown with the Philharmonia Orchestra, which has been the principal orchestra at each festival in recent years.

Doesn't all this wear you down?" I ask Geraint. He replies, "Not at all. It's rather like being let loose in the sweetie shop!"

The Three Choirs Festival Chorus is primarily drawn from the choral societies of each city - and a regular part of Geraint's life is to be conductor of Hereford Choral Society, to which he was introduced as accompanist in his time as assistant to Dr Roy Massey.

Geraint describes his involvement as "a delight and privilege", and looks forward to the rehearsals. One might think that putting in a further 1 hours on a Monday evening would be a bit of a 'busman's holiday', but Geraint says that conducting up to 180 adults is very different from conducting 18 choirboys. "I'm always learning from the responses of the chorus," and adds, "the audience hear the final product, but each rehearsal is an experience to be enjoyed."

Presently, Hereford Choral Society is rehearsing Mendelssohn's St Paul for performance in the cathedral on March 28. Geraint points out that, "When I asked the chorus at the first rehearsal how many of them had sung this work before, only four hands went up. Yet, as we started, this glorious sound came out. It either says a lot for the sight-reading ability of this chorus, or for the preparation they had put in with a CD - or both!"

Planning the society's performances also starts early, and Geraint tries to ensure that there is a balance between the expected and other works which broaden horizons.

"I have a mission to perform less well-known works by great composers - great works in the shadow of even greater ones," he explains. Hence the Society is performing St Paul instead of Elijah to mark Mendelssohn's 200th anniversary.

As we conclude, Geraint has saved one more accolade for someone else: Peter Dyke - the assistant organist at Hereford Cathedral, organist to the Hereford Three Choirs Festival and accompanist to Hereford Choral Society. Whilst many people have a 'right-hand man', Peter is easily described as both hands of Geraint, as his own are busy keeping time for his choirs. Peter's ability as a musician is admired by anyone who hears him, but Geraint points out that it is his sense of timing that keeps the rehearsals lively and moving along.

As I stepped back out through the portal of the cathedral cloisters, I realised that at no point had this modest man mentioned his other numerous achievements, not least of which was running in the London Marathon in 2006 in aid of Oxfam. Please note that this was during the preparation for the Hereford Three Choirs Festival of that year.

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