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A legacy that sings

Q&A: Wayne Riddell speaks about his career, his time at the Schulich School of Music and his motivation to give back

Young Wayne Riddle

Acclaimed choral conductor Wayne Riddell has made a legacy gift for choral students

: CBC Still Photo Collection

Wayne Riddell, BMus’60, DMus’14, has given the joy of music to so many – whether they are singing under his baton or listening in an audience.

His distinguished career included roles as chorus master of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, founder of the esteemed Tudor Singers and organist-choirmaster at several Montreal churches.

He led the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul to receive the inaugural Healey-Willan Prize for choral performance from the Canada Council for the Arts and is a member of the Order of Canada.

A former professor and member of the Schulich School of Music advisory board for 22 years, Riddell’s bequest to McGill will support choral students, and honour the memory of his late partner, Norman Beckow, a patron of the arts.

Riddell spoke to McGill about his career, his time at the Schulich Music of School and his inspiration for giving back.

What was the Schulich School of Music like when you were a student and later a young faculty member?

The Faculty of Music, as it was called, was very small in those days, with all the disciplines it was probably fewer than 100 students.

Everyone sang in the choir, whether you played the violin or the flute or whatever, you sang in the choir. That was the only way we could have a choir. That was challenging and wonderful.

We were in multiple buildings … on Drummond, then we moved to McTavish and later to the corner of Mountain and Dr. Penfield. I used Redpath Hall for my rehearsal space.

Eventually we moved into the Strathcona Music Building in 1971. It was a clear upgrade, to all have our own offices and be together. During my time, Pollack Hall was installed [in 1975]. For me it’s the most wonderful 600-seat hall in Montreal. It has wonderful acoustics.

Tell us about your eclectic career.

I graduated with a bachelor of music in education and taught in the public school system for four years. For three of those, I saw about 2,600 students a week. I very much wanted to be a teacher but I also wanted to be a performing musician.

Later I studied organ with a very famous organist in Montreal, Kenneth Gilbert, DMus’81, and that was wonderful.

In 1968 I was invited to become a lecturer in Music at McGill, and eventually I became an assistant professor and then a full professor. I was there for 12 years and I really enjoyed my time there. I had a lot of wonderful students.

By that time I had a professional choir, the Tudor Singers of Montreal. They became very well-known and toured all over Canada, Europe and the United States.

I was organist and choirmaster at the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul. I had 15 very happy years there. Prior to that, I was at the Erskine and American United Church, which is now Bourgie Hall. I followed a wonderful man who had been one of my teachers at McGill, George Little. I was very fortunate to take over that choir, because they could sing almost anything.

I was also choral master with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra for 10 years, which gave me the opportunity to mount large works that I would never have been able to do on my own because of financial considerations.

In 1986 I gave that all up and I had 15 wonderful years as a freelance musician. I travelled all over, in Canada, in Europe, conducting. That was exciting, because I didn’t have to put back every dollar I owned back into the organization.

What is choral life like today in Montreal?

Choral life is more professional today. There are more good choral organizations. They come up with the funds to pay singers. When I was working I had to rely a lot on volunteer singers. We always had a paid core, but most were volunteers who wanted to sing.

In a way it’s good with more paid people, because it naturally elevates the standard. The other side of the coin is, where do the people who just want to sing go?

What are the two funds your bequest will support?

The first is the Wayne Riddell Choral Award, established by friends and colleagues when I received my honorary doctorate. It provides an annual scholarship for a student with an interest in choral music.

I feel honored that a scholarship was created in my name. I’m absolutely amazed at how many people have contributed to it. Something that began quite small has become quite big. I’m hoping the same thing will happen with the Norman Beckow Choral Excellence Endowment Fund.

I wanted to do something to perpetuate Norman’s name. He loved music, and he particularly loved choral music.

I wanted to create a fund that would allow the Director of Choral Studies to do things like bring in guest artists and guest conductors, or any project that they would not have otherwise had the funds to do. So a couple times a year, there’s money to do that extra special thing.

Norman would always do his best to provide the capital needed to make any large project that I was doing happen. A true patron of the arts.

These kind of funds are very important. I got a scholarship when I was a student. They sometimes make the difference between a student being able to come study at McGill or not.

The University can only do so much. Philanthropists provide funds to do things that would not otherwise happen. That’s the wonderful thing about it.

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