It’s not every day the music director of an American symphony orchestra is called upon to be a central player in one of the highest-profile weddings ever. But that’s exactly what happened to Christopher Warren-Green, music director of the Charlotte Symphony in North Carolina, who was the music man behind the British royal wedding on April 29.
The British-born Warren-Green, who is also music director of the London Chamber Orchestra, has previously conducted music at several royal events, including Prince Charles of Wales’s 60th birthday and the Queen’s 80th birthday. For the recent wedding festivities, Warren-Green helped select the music program, along with Prince Charles and the couple themselves, Prince William and Kate Middleton (now Duchess of Cambridge). Then, on April 29, he conducted the London Chamber Orchestra at Westminster Abbey before a virtual crowd of hundreds of millions around the world.
I caught up with Warren-Green just after the wedding, when he was back in the U.S. rehearsing and performing with the Charlotte Symphony.
Jennifer Melick: Was there a favorite moment at the wedding?
Christopher Warren-Green: The highlight for me was the Prince of Wales—his face at the reception just before the newlyweds got into that Aston Martin. I think he was talking to the Queen of Spain, and he just broke off and bounded up and introduced everybody. In 30 years, I’ve never seen his face so excited and happy with the music. The Prince of Wales had a big hand in what was played. He has been a champion of [British composer] Hubert Parry, and in fact there is a film being released on 27 May in the U.K., all about Parry—about the Prince of Wales, and his reviving of Parry’s music. I was just glad that he was so pleased.
Another favorite moment was when I got into a taxi, wearing my morning coat. The taxi driver was playing Hubert Parry’s “I Was Glad” [played at the wedding service as Kate Middleton processed down the aisle] on the radio. The driver asked, “Were you there?” And I said, “Oh, yes.” And he said, “Listen to that! Isn’t that fantastic? I’ve got to have that!”
Melick: I believe you have been a friend of the Prince of Wales for quite some time.
Warren-Green: Well, if you are a friend of royalty, you don’t say you are! That’s the protocol. But I do believe that the prince has said it, and we do go back “a long way,” in his words, so it seems okay to talk about that now. I conducted the first concert in modern times in the throne room of Buckingham Palace, quite possibly since Queen Victoria’s time, when she danced to the music of Johann Strauss Sr. And since then the highlights have been the Prince of Wales’s 60th birthday party, which had a huge orchestra and chorus in the throne room of Buckingham Palace. I also arranged and conducted the music for Prince Charles’s wedding to the now-Duchess of Cornwall. Then there was the Queen’s 80th birthday, where the Prince of Wales gave a dinner just for the royal family, with a short recital of Handel’s music that he asked me to put together for the evening. The Prince fished out George the III’s harpsichord, and we dusted it off and used that. The birthday party was in Kew Palace. Kew Palace belonged to George III and Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg, and now I am director of the Charlotte Symphony in Mecklenburg County in the United States!
Melick: How long have you been working on the most recent wedding?
Warren-Green: For the last five months. I had a lot of meetings with Prince Charles, and quite a few with Prince William and the now-Duchess of Cambridge. We had two days’ rehearsal before the actual wedding.
Melick: Is choosing the music just a very much grander version of a regular wedding?
Warren-Green: In a way, not. I originally thought they wanted to have a quiet wedding, but it’s a royal wedding, and everybody was waiting for it—everybody wanted to take part. Which is why it was such an honor to be invited from outside the Abbey. The tone of the wedding was kept secret. And I now understand why. They’d steered very much away from the usual baroque music—Handel’s music, especially—which suits weddings well. They wanted a much softer feel. It was very much a pastoral theme, right through even to the flowers and the beautiful things that were sewn into the wedding dress, and the decorating on the cake. The theme was very pastoral, a celebration of British landscape and the English countryside.
Melick: So the pastoral theme worked its way into the music?
Warren-Green: Yes, all the music in the church including as guests were arriving was pastoral, and represented most of the great British composers. Of course there had to be some fanfares from the state trumpeters, which you always play for the Queen, and such. John Rutter had arranged a lot of the music.
Melick: Was picking the music a sort of whittling-down process?
Warren-Green: Yes. I made a lot of suggestions, but the couple certainly had very firm ideas themselves, and of course Prince William had asked his father, because his father is such a great music-lover, to help. And that’s how we arrived at Parry in the service.
Melick: What for you was the most important goal of your involvement at the royal wedding?
Warren-Green: Most important, I wanted to please the happy couple. I really wanted them to be happy with their wedding. It’s that simple. And I very much wanted the Prince of Wales to be pleased with that. So getting his reaction at the reception afterwards was great fun. They have a great sense of humor. There was a lot of banter between the Prince of Wales and his two sons.
Melick: Did everything go exactly according to plan?
Warren-Green: Exactly. And the greatest thing of all was that the Crown Imperial [during the recessional] and the “I Am Glad” fit just the right moments! Of course, the planning that went into the whole event was extraordinary.
Melick: Then you came straight off the wedding and headed for your orchestra in Charlotte, North Carolina?
Warren-Green: I came back and conducted two performances of Sibelius’s Second Symphony last weekend, and the Grieg piano concerto with Stephen Hough—he made that concerto sound like it was being played for the first time. And now I am flying back to London to do a televised concert in the Royal Albert Hall, then I come back to Charlotte for another week of meetings, then I go back to England for a concert with the London Chamber Orchestra, so I am back and forth all the time. But I live here in Charlotte—we love it here.