We're continuing our Meet the Trustees series with Richard Fries, who joined our board in 2002.
Music is one of my greatest passions, but sadly only as a listener. Since youth I’ve had a keen interest in contemporary music, first prompted by the old Third Programme. I’d known Colin Matthews for some years, admiring not only his music (The Great Journey long a favourite), but also his selfless commitment to promoting contemporary composers. So when I retired from the Charity Commission, I was delighted to be asked to join NMC’s Board. As a charity committed to seeking a wider appreciation of contemporary British composers through making their work easily (and permanently) available, and driven by this mission rather than commercial considerations, NMC is unique – and uniquely valuable.
I came to music at an early age, working my way through my step-father’s voluminous collection of 78s. They introduced me to great singers like Alexander Kipnis and Isobel Baillie. But the collection hardly went beyond 1828 - Schubert was my step-father’s passion, especially Winterreise (a passion I share – I have over a dozen recordings!). The Third Programme introduced me to Webern, Elliott Carter and Stockhausen. My teenage rebellion was to buy CDs of the Bartok quartets – difficult to remember that Bartok was modern in the 1950s, and a challenge to the older generation!
My career was in the civil service, joining the Home Office in 1965, so different in ethos and scope to today’s Home Office. I worked on a wide range of issues from criminal justice and policing, immigration and race relations (and even horse-racing!) Then in 1992 I was appointed to the Charity Commission with the grand Victorian title of Chief Commissioner, symbolic of the journey of modernisation on which the Commission had to embark.
Retiring in 1999 I continued to be involved in initiatives to develop charity and not-for-profit law and regulation in this country, Europe and worldwide. It also gave me the chance to become a trustee of various charities – gamekeeper become poacher?! That was when I joined the Board of NMC, as well as St John’s Smith Square (long a favourite venue).
Living in London has been a wonderful place to enjoy all types of music. I was able to get to know contemporary music through the London Sinfonietta, the Arditti Quartet and others in a patchwork of venues, such as the Round House, the old Almeida Festival and St John’s. One of my proudest moments was hearing the string quartet Graham Williams wrote for my wife Carole and me premiered by the Carducci Quartet.
I’ve always been surprised at the resistance many music lovers show to contemporary music. Music must, to me, be a living, continually growing art. Historically how each generation has reacted to the past is one of the fascinations of music; and that fascination is part of the attraction of hearing contemporary music. NMC’s great contributions is to enable music lovers to keep abreast of what British composers are producing and, essential, to be able to hear their work more than at a single performance. The idea that contemporary music is all rebarbative dissonance is so wrong. Just one example to disprove this: Colin Matthews’ moving memorial Berceuse for Dresden, written for the rededication of the Frauenkirche.
Not that I like all that NMC produces! Indeed one of my criteria for whether NMC is doing its job is precisely that no one could like every release – that’s my test of whether NMC’s reach extends widely enough to give a good cross-section of what composers are producing now!
So often I hear a new piece, am intrigued, but need to hear it again to appreciate it properly. For example I found Emily Howard’s string quartet, Afference, fascinating but tough on first hearing (shades of Xenakis); but with repeated listening it has become a favourite. That is one of the Debut Disc series with which NMC makes such a valuable contribution for young composers, offering them a whole CD devoted to their music.
It’s a privilege for me to be able to support NMC as a trustee and friend as it approaches its 30th anniversary. The range and quality of what NMC’s small team led by Colin and Anne manage to produce on NMC’s stretched resources is a wonder. And their ability to keep abreast of new technology – so far from the era of 78s on which I grew up! – is stunning. My wish for NMC is that this year’s anniversary should be celebrated by the support of music lovers enabling NMC to grow ever stronger.
If you'd like to support our work, you can do so by donating to our Anniversary appeal here or becoming a Friend here. Every little helps and no contribution is too small! Thank you.