Favourite Things: Conducting a tour of cathedrals and churches

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Conductor Robert Webb is artistic director for Weston Park Hospital Cancer Charity’s musical extravaganza, Proms in the Peaks, in Castleton on Sunday, September 7. He will be joined by tenor John Hudson, soprano Deborah Norman, Bel Canto Choir and Junction 33 Dance Band in aid of the region’s only cancer hospital. Robert grew up in Guisborough, North Yorkshire, studied at Selwyn College Cambridge, worked in Cambridge, then Oxford, before moving to Sheffield in 2003. He is director of Bel Canto Choir, the Sheffield Chamber Choir, Sheffield Sterndale Singers, Sheffield City Opera and the Danensian Choir based in Doncaster, as well as having a private teaching practice in Sheffield. Proms in the Peaks: tickets £15/£13, www.promsinthepeaks.org.uk, tel 226 5370.


St Maries Catholic Cathedral in Sheffield

St Maries Catholic Cathedral in Sheffield

I have conducted and played the organ in most English cathedrals. During the day, they are full of tourists, but in the evenings or early mornings, when they are empty, the atmosphere changes totally. It is difficult to choose a favourite, as they all have different characters and personalities. Durham and Peterborough for their architecture would be near the top of the list, Bristol for its acoustics, Oxford for its quirkiness, and for the fact I worked there for three years, but the one which holds most significant memories is York Minster. It was the first cathedral I sang in, in 1985, and also the first cathedral organ I played. I remember it vividly. Around 25 years ago, when I was an undergraduate, I spent an evening practising there. Just me, my mother, and the glorious sound of the magnificent cathedral organ in that stunning empty building. I relived that experience just a couple of weeks ago, spending a week there with the Danensian Choir.


I am very happy pottering in the kitchen and am quite a good cook. My favourite foods usually include meat and a fine piece of steak is my preference (and by well-cooked, I mean very rare), bought from one of the many excellent butchers in Sheffield. If eating out, Marinello’s, a small Italian restaurant on Ecclesall Road, would be my first choice. The food and wine are top class, and these, combined with the cheerful service, make you feel as though could be in Italy.


I do not have a pet myself (my portly cat William died a few years ago), but I am lucky enough to be favourite “uncle” to a beautiful labrador/lurcher cross called Roxy. She lives with her owners, two of my oldest friends, for most of the year in Devon, but spends the summer in a beautiful village called St Jean de Côle in the Dordogne, where I try to spend a couple of weeks each summer. Walking Roxy in the hills or spending time splashing around with her in the stream is wonderfully relaxing, and I write this piece, just having finished a concert tour here with some singer friends, with Roxy sitting on my feet, contentedly asleep.


Being a conductor mainly of church music, most of my favourite pieces come from this genre, and I spend most of my time immersed in this type of music rather than pop music. However, when I was an undergraduate, a group of us singers were great fans of The Communards led by Jimmy Somerville with his extraordinary counter-tenor voice - it has been suggested that I bear some resemblance to him - and we used to sing along at the top of our voices in the college bar to “You are my World”, much to the annoyance of many of the other students. If I hear their music now, it brings back such happy memories.

Sheffield Concert Venues

I have conducted countless concerts in Sheffield, but my favourite venue has to be the Catholic Cathedral of St Marie on Norfolk Row. The acoustics are perfect for unaccompanied choral music, and my Sheffield Chamber Choir is currently preparing a programme of stunning 20th century choral music which will suit the building beautifully for a concert in September.


My parents still live in Guisborough, somewhere I can truly call home. I recently took Sheffield Chamber Choir to do a concert in the church where I learned to sing and play the organ, to raise money for Save The Children, and to celebrate my parents’ golden wedding anniversary. It was so nice to have in the audience people who have known me all my life, including many of my former teachers. It is concerts like that one, raising money for a good cause and providing pleasure to many people, which make the life of a musician worthwhile, and I am delighted to be able to help Weston Park Hospital Cancer Charity.