Richard Hickox studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London during 1966 and 1967, before becoming organ scholar at Queen’s College, Cambridge (1967 to 1970). He founded the Richard Hickox Orchestra (later to become the City of London Sinfonia) and Singers in 1971, and with them presented programmes of a wide range of repertoire, from the fourteenth century to the present day. His initial reputation was as a choral conductor: he was organist and Master of Music at St Margaret’s Church, Westminster (the church of the Houses of Parliament) from 1972 to 1982, became director of the London Symphony Orchestra Chorus in 1976 and of the Bradford Festival Choral Society in 1978, showing early signs of great promise in conducting major works such as Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius. During the 1970s he was also closely involved in several British music festivals, notably those at Spitalfields in London and at Woburn in Bedfordshire. His period with the London Symphony Orchestra Chorus brought with it the benefit of working with internationally acclaimed conductors: as Hickox himself observed in an interview with the critic Bill Newman, ‘…working over ten years, first hand with Abbado, Previn, Sir Colin Davis—who was particularly kind—Celibidache: with these names regularly, you learn rather a lot!’
As Hickox’s career developed, he started to conduct abroad and to acquire several permanent appointments: he was principal guest conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra from 1980 to 1985, associate conductor of the San Diego Symphony Orchestra from 1983 to 1984, associate guest conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra from 1985, and chief conductor of the Northern Sinfonia of England from 1982 to 1990 (after which he became that orchestra’s conductor emeritus). With the violinist Simon Standage he formed the period instrument orchestra Collegium Musicum 90 in 1990, of which he remained a co-director; and served as chief conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales from 2000 to 2006. In his work as a symphonic conductor Hickox appeared extensively as a guest conductor with numerous orchestras in Europe, America and the Far East, often presenting music by British composers, with whom he was closely identified.
This repertoire strand has also been prominent in his activities in the opera house: Hickox has conducted Vaughan Williams’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Britten’s Paul Bunyan and Billy Budd at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, as well as Peter Grimes in Hamburg and Billy Budd for Opera Australia. His revival of Walton’s opera Troilus and Cressida for Opera North in 1995 marked a most positive turning-point in the fortunes of this work. He has in addition conducted a wider operatic repertoire, for instance at the Spoleto Festival in Italy, where he was chief conductor for five years; here he led productions of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen, Menotti’s The Consul, Prokofiev’s War and Peace, and Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. Other composers whose operas Hickox has conducted include Bellini, Berio, Dallapiccola, Gluck, Handel, Mozart, Offenbach, Shostakovich and Verdi, and this catholicity of repertoire was clearly a factor in his appointment as chief conductor of Opera Australia from 2005–2008.
Hickox was active as a recording artist since the beginning of his career in the early 1970s and created an enormous discography. Many of these recordings have been published by the independent label Chandos, a company noted, like Hickox himself, for an empathy with British music. This has resulted in important recordings of music by many hitherto neglected composers such as William Alwyn, Malcolm Arnold, Michael and Lennox Berkeley, Frank Bridge, Doreen Carwithen, Frederick Delius, George Dyson, Gerald Finzi, Percy Grainger, Gustav Holst, Herbert Howells, Edmund Rubbra and Michael Tippett. His discography also includes more familiar names such as Beethoven, Brahms, Bruch, Elgar, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Poulenc, Prokofiev, Vaughan Williams and Walton. Major highlights include the first recording of the original version of Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No. 2 ‘A London Symphony’, which won Record of the Year and Best Orchestral Disc awards from The Gramophone magazine in 2001, and his recording of Peter Grimes, which won a Grammy award.
Hickox was a fine musician who successfully managed to develop a reputation both as a specialist (in the interpretation of British music) and as a generalist, notably in his operatic work. His engaging personality, sense of humour, and no-nonsense approach to music-making all paid significant dividends, as did his willingness to take on a vast burden of work. He was highly realistic in his approach to recording, commenting about his own development to Bill Newman, ‘I used to go into a session with the sound of a recording in my head. No group of players I conducted gave me that, and I became frustrated… Now my aim is to mould any group I work with, giving and taking from it. You get a different sound from each, and I love to take that sound, moulding it with my own musical ideas.’ Hickox was made a CBE in 2002 for services to British music, and, despite his tragically premature death on 23 November 2008, had virtually become a ‘grand old man’ of British musical life.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).