Weekend Interview: Dr Ronny Krippner Preserving A “Gorgeous Jewel"
Dr Ronny Krippner
Photo: Joe Priestley
There’s a “gorgeous jewel” in the middle of Ripon. You might not know about it, but for Dr Ronny Krippner it was enough for him to make the move from London to become Ripon Cathedral’s new Director of Music who describes Ripon Cathedral and its music tradition as a fine jewel.
I live in Ripon and often visit the cathedral to hear the choir sing Choral Evensong, which has for some time now been led by the lay clerks, the official name for the back row of singers, the adults who sing alto, tenor, and bass.
Photo: Ripon Cathedral Graham Hermon
I am waiting just inside the cathedral listening to some of the visitors talking appreciatively about the building, I am wondering where I can sit quietly for the interview. Just as the clock strikes 10am Ronny strides in and suggests a plan. His house is a short walk away let’s go there and chat over a coffee. A welcome idea because it is rather chilly in the Nave.
Despite the chill, it is a glorious sunny day and as we walk round the south side of the cathedral, he tells me he was born in Bavaria and through various coincidences got immersed in the English Cathedral Music tradition and “I loved it.”
Although he adds: “I grew up close to Bayreuth next to the Czech Border and it was cold and icy there.”
As we settle down with our coffees Ronny tells me he arrived in England 18 years ago and has never looked back. He started as a choral scholar in Exeter Cathedral and then went on to Bristol Cathedral as an organ scholar. He trained as a teacher whilst in Bristol, followed by a year in Wales as assistant organist at Newport Cathedral.
For the next 15 years he has been in London, first playing at St George’s Hannover Square where coincidentally, his fellow compatriot, the great George Frederick Handel worshipped. He then ran the music at the new minster in the London Borough of Croydon, coupling it with the role of Director of Choral Music at Whitgift School.
Our back row is fantastic, and it is amazing that almost every night those six lay clerks sing the most glorious music here in the middle of North Yorkshire.
“It was a wonderful experience and I had carte blanche as I took on a brand-new role. I was taken on to help the team achieve their aspiration as they didn’t quite know how to put the two together. I produced a plan, and they went with it.
“There wasn’t a guarantee it would work, but we were lucky and we found a new niche for Croydon. We knew what worked and what didn’t. Being at the school was an advantage but it was challenging work and long days. I was incredibly lucky I had many opportunities: choir tours, recording CDs, broadcasts on radio and TV – we ran Croydon Minster like a mini cathedral! We even had five choral services a week from the team of professional singers and boys and girls, many of them on scholarships. The scholarships were the niche which was possible back then.”
Photo: Graham Hermon
It sounds exciting and to be so close to London and everything that was going on musically why I wonder did he want to head up North? What was the attraction?
“Well, Andrew, I knew of Ripon because of the cracking job that Kerry Beaumont had done. He and the choir produced some good CDs. I know it was in the days that the choir school was operating, and it was a different time altogether, but Ripon was on my radar
because of the CDs and YouTube presence.”
“I had never been to Ripon before my interview and audition. During my research I looked it up on the internet. I was impressed with what was happening now and that they still had six lay clerks and it was already a level up when I started reading about the ambitions in the Development Plan ‘Growing God’s Kingdom’ – it all seemed very aspirational for music.
“That’s why I put in an application and was lucky to be shortlisted.
“When I arrived for the interview, I sensed the excitement that everyone was ready to embrace something new. That reminded me a bit of the carte blanche I had at Croydon Minster, and I knew I could replicate here.”
“The Dean & Chapter and the choir exuded a certain atmosphere, something I can’t explain. There was an excitement for something new and that is a good place to start.”
I can feel the sense of urgency and enthusiasm radiating from Ronny and as I am about to ask him what the niche is for a small cathedral where the episcopal See is set in rural North Yorkshire, he anticipates my question.
“In the interview I made it quite clear that one needs to find a niche that works for Ripon. What works for this place? There is obviously a significant difference between Croydon and Ripon. Just take population, Croydon has population of 300,000 and is part of the wider London community, whereas Ripon has a much smaller population of around 16,000 and is rural.”
The detail is important, especially so for a musician, and he is not far off according to official estimates the population is 15,971.
I also get a sense that the differences will have advantages.
“It was hard in Croydon to get people excited about a heavy schedule of rehearsals and singing when there were many opportunities. Here in Ripon, I find people are not as distracted.
“It will be different. I am not saying it will be easier, but one can make a mark in a more visible way. The cathedral is prominent in the community and there are some exciting things that will happen.”
Photo: Graham Hermon
That’s good to hear but he is staying tight lipped – there is no way I am going to trip him up into telling me what is on the horizon. He can’t let me know. Well, not now.
He is focused on what matters and there are things about which he can talk.
“We want to remain open to all gifted and talented children. We need to look at our rehearsal schedule and increase what we can without being overbearing on family life, and it can be done. We may have to be quite bold with introducing a new model. But that is the only way to do justice to the children and give them a real opportunity to excel in music. This is all available for free to families that appreciate that level of music making. I have a dedicated team supporting me: our assistant director of music, Tim Harper, and an assistant organist, Shaun Turnbull, from Blackburn.”
He is for now happy to leave the organ playing to this talented Duo and as for the organ: “It is a beautiful monstrous beast in the best way possible.”
He doesn’t forget the back row either, mentioning an adage that the front row can only be as good as the back row and the back row can only be as good as the organ and organists.
“Our back row is fantastic, and it is amazing that almost every night those six lay clerks sing the most glorious music here in the middle of North Yorkshire.”
One of the challenges that Ronny will have to wrestle with is how society has changed over the decades since his illustrious predecessors donned their cassocks, the likes of Lionel Dakers, Dr Philip Marshall, Ron Perrin (who I sometimes turned pages for) and Kerry Beaumont. People are these days less prepared to commit.
...when I started reading about the ambitions in the Development Plan ‘Growing God’s Kingdom’ – it all seemed very aspirational for music.
“It is hard and there is now a different outlook on life. It is true that family life is probably much more different than say 10 or 15 years ago. And that is the same everywhere. One thing I am pleased about is that we are committed to keep both the boys and girls and they will sing as separate choirs. Although now because of covid-related issues they are mixed – but the vision is to have two separate strands.
“It’s important for them to have their own identities. They will be singing together occasionally, but we will try extremely hard to make this work as separate choirs - if it doesn’t work, so be it. But that is our commitment.”
That is good news and even better is the thoughtfulness that has gone into succession planning. Ronny explains that the Cathedral is thinking about the future of its choristers.
“We want to have choral scholars so when the boys’ voices break, and the girls get older they are allowed to continue singing. We want to prepare them for Oxbridge choral scholarships. That worked a treat in Croydon, where we had two or three offers a year.”
“We allowed the young adults to continue singing. It’s not for everyone and obviously a few boys and girls may want to do something else. It can be a bit like marmite and sometimes it is better for a few choristers to stop and that is fine as they have done their bit.
However, there are others who are just getting fired up and we want to give them opportunities.”
“We can at least try as hard as a cathedral to cater for those who are very gifted and talented who may now relish the opportunity to have an organ scholarship. It is possible to be an organ scholar in a gap or Post Grad year. It will be one of those niches to offer the 16+ a sixth form scholarship for example.”
It is refreshing to hear Ronny discuss some of the plans he is allowed to chat about and to hear that same old same old just will not do. Innovative ideas, and ways of doing things are welcomed. Bringing a fresh approach and adapting to an old problem is great to hear. Up until ten years ago, choir directors at the Cathedral could rely on the Choir School and Ronny recognises it was sad it closed, but it was a thing of its time and across the UK the business model of prep schools is changing.
I hear that word again: “Those that came before me had their own niche. Now we have to find a new niche.”
The challenge for him is where in one of England’s smallest cities will this new enthusiastic and dynamic director of music recruit choristers? It will need collaboration and partnerships and that’s another consideration already on the agenda.
“I have ideas on recruitment: It has to be from the villages and there are plenty around, an asset for Ripon. There are lots of beautiful villages relatively close and we are working on a way now of establishing close links with schools that can see how special an opportunity it is for their gifted and talented children.
Photo: Graham Hermon
“When I say gifted and talented it is important to realise it is not geniuses we are after. It is about nurturing children who may not necessarily know yet what is inside them. That is the real beauty of the English choral tradition. I don’t know what it is, but it has a certain je-ne-sais-quoi
feel and the power for unlocking excellence in choral music in a most beautiful way. The reason I left Germany.”
Having edited Cathedral Music magazine for the Friends of Cathedral Music, I know how the tradition is admired across the globe and as Ronny tells me: “It isn’t happening anywhere else like this. I am not saying that we have the best way but it’s a unique tradition and a specific way of doing things and, I know, many of my German colleagues love the English Choral tradition. And there is more Choral Evensong going on in Germany than you think, because it is creating a sense of longing for beauty in worship. It doesn’t matter if they’re Catholic or Lutheran, they all love it! That is the common denominator – Choral Evensong.
“The reason I am keen to keep both boys and girls separate is not only because they have two distinct characters, but there are also different psychological developments in terms of age groups. What I really find is dangerous, is if the opportunities for boys diminish if the top lines are mixed. Then where are the tenors and bases coming from?
“We are not just talking about lay clerks. There are hundreds of choral societies and chamber choirs, there are so many of them in Britain – another musical envy across the world.
“You can see it in Germany. They don’t have the tenors and basses and why is that? Twenty years ago, there was a big push for children’s choirs because German choirs were getting older and older and there were not any male voices coming through. They started mixing children’s voices in the choirs and what happened was these dynamics led to the choirs becoming almost entirely girls. Fascinating. I wonder if anyone has done a PhD on it?”
There is also a wider problem, one I had not considered. Several music publishers are now printing editions of choral music and often well-known pieces are edited for three voices two upper and a male part to cater for the shortage of male singers.
Ronny is quick to acknowledge that in some places times are tough, especially after the pandemic. I also point out that it can be financially difficult to establish a second choir with the same opportunities.
It’s going to be a hard job, but Ronny is open minded and pragmatic. He knows he is operating in a small pond and that’s why he gets the concept of collaboration. More importantly he understands its importance and is realistic about how to achieve it. He believes it is important to talk to as many musical organisations as possible. His vision is that no one should ignore each other.
Dr Ronny Krippner is well-known for his improvisations and is giving a lunchtime organ recital in the Cathedral on Thursday March 10th at 1pm. “The organ is wonderful not just the colours but how it interacts with the acoustic of the building – it is amazing. In essence, there are two organs: one that speaks to the nave and one that speaks to the choir. I look forward to experimenting and improvising. I will play some Bach and improvise and there will be a surprise!”
I chat about the first 100 days and what would he want to achieve by Easter. But for Ronny it is more than that he sees the long term picture. He wants to get the musical infrastructure in place during his first year.
“Of course, there will be a honeymoon period of a few terms. It is either there and we have found it, or we haven’t. It is relatively straightforward and for now it is clear where we want to go, and partnership will be key.
The advantage of working in partnership with others is that individual organisations can achieve so much more when joining forces. That is what we are hoping for here.”
Photo: Ripon Cathedral Graham Hermon
“The beauty of us all coming out of the pandemic, which has been so life-changing and may have even changed cathedral music long term, is that there is a sense of excitement. It is now the right time to think big, not just because I have arrived, but because we have come out of a massive, restricted life. The kids are different, less resilient with low concentration spans. They are not used to being with each other and, having taught in England for 15 years, I can see the difference. Things need to be relearnt and routines established.
“I still think we can creatively explore where the opportunities for kids are and rehearse and sing during the day without it being a burden for the kids or parents. Yes, they have to invest, but we can make it happen. We can create a network where suddenly things are possible that is the power of partnership.”
Ripon Cathedral is open daily, and this year is an incredible milestone, celebrating 1350 years since its consecration by St Wilfrid in 672AD. The choir will celebrate with a concert on 9th July where it will sing with orchestra Haydn’s Nicholas Mass and other pieces.
“One of my favourite moments during my career was at Croydon when I had to get the young choristers ready to perform Bach’s Magnificat with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London’s Cadogan Hall. It’s difficult with split treble lines and semiquaver runs. I almost lost my mind over it as we hammered out the notes. It was tough. It stuck though and it was the kids’ best musical experience. They realised that they were doing something special. It was electric when we came to performance. It changed lives – and some of the kids didn’t even know they could sing at all!”
It all sounds exciting, and I am looking forward to the day a glorious full Choral Evensong returns with perhaps a Howells’ Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis and maybe the return of the Jackson final response sung at the end of the service. Howells is one of Ronny’s favourite composers and it was Howells’ œuvre that got Ronny hooked on English choral music. He describes him as his “gateway man.” Ronny has his eyes on recreating a first class choir that will broadcast on radio and TV and make recordings.
One thing is for sure. He’s raring to go.
“Places are in change and maybe that’s our niche opportunity, trying to find our feet after the pandemic. The musical landscape for cathedrals has changed quite dramatically. No one knows what that means for the future, we are in the middle of it.
“Everyone is ready to roll!”
As I leave with that sentiment ringing in my ears, it’s a great endorsement for Dr Krippner’s ambitions and aspirations as he polishes the gorgeous jewel at this lovely cathedral.