Nicolas Chisholm on his life, career and becoming a musical figurehead

PUBLISHED: 14:49 10 September 2018

Nicolas Chisholm at home in Iford (Photo by Jim Holden)

Nicolas Chisholm at home in Iford (Photo by Jim Holden)

Jim Holden 07590 683036 01825 841157

His combination of talent, teaching and administrative skills has made Nicolas Chisholm an inspirational musical figurehead

Anyone who runs a specialist music school, an orchestra, a village choir or an opera company needs Nicolas Chisholm. His extraordinary ability to combine musical expertise and experience with scholarly discipline and administrative skill has made him sought after by institutions and individuals in the musical scene of the south east for more than 30 years. It is a rare combination of qualities: artistic temperaments are not customarily associated with organisational talent – more usually, the reverse prevails.

Until his retirement in 2010, Nicolas Chisholm was headmaster of the Yehudi Menuhin School, a post he held with distinction for 22 years. Previously, he had been housemaster and head of classics at Hurstpierpoint College following a choral scholarship to St John’s College, Cambridge. He is president-elect of the Incorporated Society of Musicians, chairman of the Trustees of the Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra and a council member of the Brighton Early Music Festival. Nicolas is a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Musicians, governor of St Paul’s Girls School and was, until recently, governor of the Royal Ballet School and chairman of the National Association of Music and Dance Schools. For more than 30 years, Nicolas and his wife Auriol have lived in the beautiful setting of their house and flint-walled garden in the Sussex village of Iford, near Lewes. Lucky villagers can join a Community Choir which meets in the Chisholm’s music room and sing around one of the three keyboard instruments, or join in services at the local church of St Nicholas where Nicolas plays the organ and leads the singers. In 2011, he was awarded an MBE for services to music education.

Nicolas was born in Sunderland, an old shipbuilding port in the north east of England where his father was a priest. Shortly after Nicolas’ birth, the family moved to a curacy in London and home became a series of vicarages where his slightly deaf mother liked listening to very loud recordings from the BBC Proms. “I enjoyed music and played the piano: I wasn’t accepted as a chorister for St Paul’s but I did win a scholarship to Christ’s Hospital, Horsham, a wonderful school which earns its description as ‘a school like none other’.” Nicolas took advantage of everything on offer – music, sport and academic excellence – and discovered a powerful tenor voice. At 16 this became his instrument, taking him as a choral scholar to Cambridge where he read classics, despite pleas from St John’s to read music.

The plan was to sing professionally for a few years before returning to the London Music Colleges as a postgraduate, but during his sojorn as a tenor lay-vicar in Chichester Cathedral Choir, Nicolas had discovered teaching. The choir was neither full-time nor full-salary – singers often filled the gaps at the Prebendal School as part of their package. “After four years at Chichester, I realised I’d been singing every day for seven years. I changed my mind. I really enjoyed teaching and I thought I’d like the challenge of teaching 13-18 year olds.” Hurstpierpoint College instantly accepted him as head of classics despite the fact that there wasn’t much classics going on. Nicolas revived the subject which, together with ancient history, became hugely popular under his direction. He built up the department, recruited an assistant and eventually achieved his ambition to send a pupil to Cambridge to read classics.

When he was appointed housemaster in 1982, Nicolas and Auriol realised they needed a bolthole away from school, and after prolonged house-hunting chanced across the picturesque hamlet of Iford, near Lewes. Auriol was busy finding the cottage, hidden off the small village path, while Nicolas explored the church. Once he walked in he realised they had found home: “I just knew we were going to live here.” At first, they occupied No 2 Manor Cottages, eventually buying No 3 and finally being left No 1 by an aged occupant, no doubt charmed and delighted by her long term artistic, musical, creative and community-minded neighbours.

After 12 years at Hurstpierpoint, Nicolas applied to become headmaster of the Menuhin School at Stoke D’Abernon in Surrey. At interview, he was critical of the facilities offered by Yehudi’s famous institution: there was no library and no proper performing spaces. Morale was low, direction unclear. He outlined a five-year rescue plan and, slightly to his surprise, he got the job. The initial five-year plan became the first of five and Yehudi’s vision was given a sound, practical foundation. Nicolas built a new boarding house, new classrooms and reorganised funding and finance: there was Government funding for revenue, but not for capital projects which relied upon the generosity of donors and sponsors. He built an independent concert hall, helped run the Stoke D’Abernon Festival and ensured continuity of leadership for when he retired in 2010. He could have stayed – and the governors were extremely keen that he did – but it was a demanding and stressful job. “Seventy brilliantly talented children felt like 700, not to mention the diverse demands of world-class musicians who appeared, apparently at random, to offer teaching and take classes.” In Menuhin’s Vision, (Phillimore Books, 2013), Nicolas outlined a detailed and fascinating chronicle of Yehudi’s school and the role he played in it for more than two decades. He is modest about his achievement, but reading the book makes it clear that the school was unlikely to survive, let alone prosper and grow, without the practical talents and dedicated leadership that he was able to provide.

Shortly after leaving the Menuhin School, he was invited to the board of the Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra, becoming chairman of the trustees four years ago. “Keeping a professional orchestra alive today is a challenge. Public funding dried up in the mid-1980s and we no longer receive any support from Arts Councils, national or local. Luckily, we have a terrific band of loyal supporters and we are fortunate in receiving wonderful, if occasional, gifts and legacies. We’re introducing corporate membership and recruiting local businesses who might like to be featured in the programme or sponsor concerts.” High on Nicolas’ list of ambitions is to develop the Children’s Open Rehearsals and perhaps stage special children’s concerts: the third open rehearsal on 25 March attracted more than 900 children and parents to hear the orchestra practising on stage and listen to works performed later in the day. This builds a new, young audience as well as attracting potential musicians – other educational initiatives include sending members of the orchestra to schools to demonstrate their instruments – Nicolas is particularly grateful to the percussion player who ‘ played’ the classroom, making sounds from a blackboard, a window, a desk and a chair.

There isn’t much time left over for his own music-making, but Nicolas still sings with local choirs and groups, although his founder membership of New Sussex Opera remains in name only. He had sung with Opera 70, taken the title role in Albert Herring and directed Don Giovanni: he is especially proud of a singing masterclass in English song and oratorio with Peter Pears at the Britten Pears School for Advanced Musical Studies in 1980/81.

In rare leisure moments away from music, Nicolas is a skilful craftsman, able to make the wooden case for his spinet (a copy of the 1590 model in the V&A) and to carve beautiful lino cuts, many of which are printed and framed, to hang around the white washed old walls of his house. Auriol makes papier mache models, carves wooden bas-relief and runs a watercolour painting group from home, surrounded by the charm and beauty of a garden she has created over 30 years. Perhaps Morris’ dictum that ‘nothing should be in a house unless it is known to be useful and believed to be beautiful’ can be extended to include ‘and able to make music.’ 

Good to know

Tickets for Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2018/19 season at Brighton Dome go on sale on Monday 10 September. This year’s programme launches on Sunday 14 October with a collaboration with the Brighton Festival Chorus as part of its 50th anniversary season. Special guests for the 2018/19 season include pianist Freddy Kampf performing Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto in November, Tamsin Waley-Cohen as soloist on Mozart’s Fifth Violin Concerto in December, cellist Thomas Carroll performing Schumann’s Cello Concerto, soprano Camilla Roberts singing Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs and pianist Steven Osbourne tackling Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto. Other highlights from the season include a musical travelogue led by conductor Barry Wordsworth and the annual Viennese Gala on New Year’s Eve.

Latest from the Sussex Life