A well-known teacher, musician and composer is holding the biggest event of his life in hopes of finally hearing his works performed by a professional group of musicians before his illness stops him in his tracks.
Rick Birley, 68, who lives in Dorchester, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s 15 years ago. The disease hasn’t stopped him pursuing his dreams in the arts – he has been composing, writing poetry and creating artworks, amassing a huge portfolio of works in the arts.
But his recent compositions have all been brought to life through computer software and Rick wanted the chance to hear his creations brought to life by real people – expert musicians who can tease out the story and emotion behind the dots on a page.
He said: “The older I am, the more debilitating my Parkinson’s becomes, the more unfair it seems to be that I am denied the chance to be heard.
“I sense that I am getting close to a time when I will not possess the power, the energy or the mental capacity to promote my works. So with my brother’s encouragement and backing I have initiated Project22, aimed at performing and recording as much of my music as possible in the time I have left.”
Rick has been involved in many amateur and semi-professional performances in his time. Despite his illness, his huge energy shines through – a million things are whirring in his brain as we chat.
“I have put on a play every term for 29 years,” he said. “That’s a lot of plays.”
Rick has taught at many schools but is perhaps best known in this area for his role teaching music at Weymouth College, where he composed the score for many plays.
His students there were the same age as he was when his love of music was sparked, part-way into studying French, RE and biology, by hearing Ravel. He switched courses, then faced an uphill battle to develop musical technique from a standing start.
Four decades later he has seen many of his compositions performed by local groups. The Imperial College Symphony Orchestra has performed his works in Dorchester and London. He has also worked with the Edinburgh Contemporary Music Ensemble, the Chapel Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, a BSO String Quartet, the Bournemouth Sinfonietta, and many soloists.
He steered away from his family’s involvement in private education after years of feeling depressed at private school.
He has since doggedly stuck to the public sector, as private schools jarred with his politics as well as sparking bad memories. For decades he has sought to bring music making at any level to everyone.
But for his Concert of music for Advent he wanted to push the boat out and let people hear his compositions in the finest way he could muster.
His brother David helped to fund the concert, which will be performed by the 16 members of the newly-formed Birley Singers and the 20-strong Birley Players, groups of young professional musicians living mostly in London. Other funds came from Rick’s pension.
He said: “There’s no point in having unspent savings at the end of life, and I am tormented by the thought of never hearing any of my quite extensive compositional output performed by professional musicians.”
The concert will be directed by Richard Gowers, a hugely talented musician who became a prize-winning Associate of the Royal College of Organists when just 16 and a year later became a prize-winning Fellow.
Rick said: “There is a world of difference between amateur and professional music making, so although I am enormously grateful to have had local groups – choirs, orchestras, ensembles, students et al bravely taking on my technically demanding scores – I would dearly love to hear, in particular, my orchestral works performed by a top professional orchestra.
“It’s not as if I haven’t knocked on many doors over the years! But the very idea that humble individuals like me dare approach professional outfits like the BSO, LSO, BBCSO, Hallé (to name but a few) is laughable.”
A Concert of music for Advent is set to be performed in St Saviour’s Church, Pimlico, on Saturday, December 3 at 7.30pm and Rick is hoping to fill the place.
This concert is of choral and instrumental music, some of it designed especially for Advent, but with an alternative viewpoint of Mary’s predicament.
Rick said: “I have deliberately imagined Mary as a lively teenager whose accidental pregnancy outside of marriage could have had very difficult social consequences.
“Yet, by claiming – and exclaiming – the miraculous immaculate conception, and the certainty that she would bear not just an ordinary baby, but a saviour, no less than the Son of God.”
The two vocal soloists are Louise Davies (soprano) & Brian Parsons (tenor), and Julie Trevett is a guest saxophonist.
Tickets are available at £20 from the door, or email Rick: email@example.com or Jon at jonathan.dorchester@ gmail.com to reserve.
Visit rickbirley.com to hear more of his work.