Teenage tenor steps up to solo spot for opening night

The Kingdom, with soloists Claire Rutter, Sarah Connolly, Magnus Walker and Ashley Riches, the Three Choirs Festival Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra dn Adrian Partington, conductor

Gloucester Cathedral 23 July 2016

[Photos: Ash Mills]

A teenage choral scholar of Gloucester Cathedral was given the chance of a lifetime when he stepped in at a few hours’ notice to sing the tenor solos in Edward Elgar’s The Kingdom at the opening night of this year's Three Choirs Festival.


Magnus Walker, 18, was given the opportunity when James Oxley, the well-known professional soloist booked to sing the demanding role in one of Elgar’s most famous works on Saturday 23 July, lost his voice on the morning of the concert and was unable to sing. So Adrian Partington, artistic director of the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival, turned to his own cathedral choir and chose one of his youngest singers to step up to the solo spot.


‘When a singer falls ill on the day of a major concert you have a choice between trying to get a big name replacement, or at least someone who has sung it before,’ he said. ‘Our administrators did put out a call to artists’ agents, but even if an established tenor had been free they could not have got to Gloucester in time for our rehearsal. ‘

There is a precedent for this situation in Three Choirs Festival history as William Armiger, a member of the Gloucester festival committee and a former bass lay clerk of the cathedral, once stepped into the breach when a soloist fell ill during a festival performance of Messiah.

The Kingdom, the second in an uncompleted trilogy of oratorios by Edward Elgar dramatizing the life of Christ, is not frequently performed and many established soloists have never sung it. The music is also much more complex than in works such as Handel’s Messiah on which young singers normally cut their soloistic teeth.

‘I have five absolutely splendid tenors in Gloucester Cathedral choir, but after consideration I decided to ask Magnus to sing the role for various reasons, but primarily because his ambition is to be an operatic soloist, with a voice that as it develops will be big and dramatic; he is a natural performer who has no shyness and no fear. ' said Mr Partington. 'The role is awkward but not vocally demanding for a young singer; I had confidence that Magnus would rise to the challenge – as indeed he did – and I felt that this would give him an experience that he would never forget at the start of his career.


‘I rang him at 12.45 and he came straight over for a run-through with the piano; he is a very quick learner and by 2pm he was ready for the rehearsal on stage in Gloucester Cathedral with the Philharmonia Orchestra, the Three Choirs Festival Chorus – with whom he had expected to be singing the concert – and fellow soloists Claire Rutter (soprano), Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano) and Ashley Riches (bass).’


Six hours later – wearing white tie and tails borrowed from another member of the cathedral choir – Magnus Walker was making his Three Choirs Festival solo debut. His extraordinarily accomplished performance was greeted with acclaim by the audience and admiration by his colleagues.


Joseph Denby, a tenor lay clerk of Gloucester Cathedral who has been Walker’s mentor during his year as a choral scholar with the cathedral choir, said: ‘I’m so completely and utterly proud of my choral scholar Magnus. What an amazing opportunity for a first gig: singing with the Philharmonia Orchestra and alongside Sarah Connolly. I shed tears of happiness listening to him.’


Reviewing the performance for the ‘Seen and Heard International’ website, the critic John Quinn wrote: ‘Introducing the concert and announcing the change of soloist, the Dean of Gloucester assured us we wouldn’t be disappointed; he was right … Inevitably, given his age and at this stage in his vocal development his voice is not as large as those of his three senior and vastly experienced colleagues. However, everything that he sang was clear – in terms of both words and music – and completely accurate. Adrian Partington must have been mightily relieved to have so reliable a substitute and one who needed no “nursing” through the performance.


‘But more than that, Walker didn’t just sing the music; he sang the role. His important solo in Part IV (“Unto you that fear His name”) is a rhapsodic piece of writing with a demanding tessitura. Walker sang it with fine assurance.  He had every reason to be proud of his contribution to this performance and at the end Adrian Partington rightly singled him out for a well-deserved bow before anyone else.’


Adrian Partington (left), with tenor Magnus Walker and baritone Ashley Riches