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Things That Have Interested Me

Facing the Music

James Fenton
copyright © 2007

Originally published in The Guardian
16 June 2007

When the early music conductor Robert King was jailed, at the beginning of this month, on charges of sexual abuse of minors, his agent, Harrison Parrott, dropped his name from its distinguished main website list (John Adams, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Oliver Knussen, Sakari Oramo, and so on). One might have thought that, whatever the rights and wrongs of the case, a separation could be made between professional or artistic matters and the conductor's personal life. And besides, an artist who has just been sent to Wormwood Scrubs is going to need some professional assistance in sorting out his affairs. This is one thing that agents are for. Instead, Katie Cardell-Oliver, King's manager at Harrison Parrott, told me his future with the firm is still under discussion: "For obvious practical reasons, we can't represent him while he's unable to work."

The initial reaction from Hyperion, the company for which King made 95 recordings, was also uncertain: no decision had yet been made, it was reported, as to whether to delete his discs from the list. In a few days, however, the possibility that, for instance, the 10 much-praised volumes of Vivaldi's sacred music would be found to be infected with paedophilia, and would therefore have to be burned, had been discounted. Instead, there came from Hyperion's parent company, Harmonia Mundi, the following carefully worded statement.

"The recordings of the King's Consort will remain available, since they have involved the efforts of literally hundreds of first-rate musicians and it does not seem fair or appropriate to restrict their work from sale. Mr King does not receive income from the continuing sale of Hyperion CDs." Implicit behind the second sentence is the idea that one might otherwise wish to boycott, say, the Monteverdi series, or the Purcell anthems series, on grounds of disapproval of King's private life. But now we know he was not on a royalty.

These long-running series of comprehensive recordings are what makes Hyperion distinctive and worthwhile as a company. Leslie Howard's complete Liszt piano music, Graham Johnson's Schubert and Schumann songs, Robert King's Purcell recordings are part of a list that has managed, by organising itself better than other record companies (more intelligently and with a better sense of the purchaser's real needs), to weather the economic storm.

The professional catastrophe that Robert King faces is also, of course to a lesser extent, a catastrophe for Hyperion. Hyperion has been able and willing to keep its large long-term projects going and to keep the results in stock. It is an accumulative library within its chosen specialities.

So the work of the King's Consort, which the 20-year-old King founded in 1980 and built up from scratch, together with its associated choir, has also been able to make sense, accumulatively, over a quarter of a century. Scholarship and musicianship have gone hand in hand. Performing texts have been prepared, and are made available to the public. Our familiarity with the baroque repertoire has been increased. It was open to Hyperion - indeed, it still is open to Hyperion - to make such points with rather more emphasis. Perhaps I have missed some expression of professional loyalty on their part. If so, I apologise.

It is, of course, very hard to extend sympathy to someone in King's position without seeming to overlook, or to condone, offences against minors. For my part, once the court has done its work, and the sentence of, in this case, three years nine months has been set in motion, I think that there is every reason for the individual to feel sympathy for the convicted. We are individuals. We are not the state. We are not obliged to agree with the sentence, and nobody can prevent us from keeping an open mind about the verdict.

For the ordinary, anonymous private citizen convicted in such cases, there is the sentence itself, and there is what you might call the multiplier: you lose your job, very likely your home, you are submitted to persecution by fellow prisoners, and so forth. There are many aspects to this multiplier, which continue well after your release. Anyone who has watched the multiplier in action will be bound to feel horror at its effects.

For the artist, there are all these aspects of the multiplier, and then some more. The case of Robert King has unique ramifications. The judge recognised some of these when not ruling against any future work with children. King, as a married man with a young child, was deemed to have entered a new phase in his life. And this decision is crucial to anyone who works with early vocal music. To be debarred for life from working with the male treble voice would have been a harsh fate.

As it is, the King's Consort and its choir are being conducted, in the immediate future, by their recently appointed associate, the harpsichordist Matthew Halls. The consort is managed by King's wife, who stood by her husband throughout the case. Presumably the future of the whole operation is in some question. It is a tragedy for all concerned. And I strongly believe that when our most distinguished artists are in such terrible situations - whether or not they brought it on themselves - we should offer them some kind of support, not because, as artists, they deserve a better treatment than anyone else, but simply because we have so much to thank them for.

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