Behind the lens: 40 years of photographing the RCM
For more than four decades, Chris Christodoulou has been the College’s go-to photographer, capturing many wonderful moments and historic events in the Royal College of Music’s history.
A familiar face to many performers in the world of music, Chris has also been photographing the BBC Proms since 1980.
He shares some of his favourite memories of capturing RCM events on camera over the last four decades.
Here, the then Prince of Wales talks to cellist Jacqueline du Pré. This image was taken at the RCM’s Centenary Concert at the Royal Albert Hall on 30 January 1983 – Chris’ very first commission for the College.
‘It was an afternoon concert, and I didn’t have my thinking cap on, so I turned up in full black tie,' Chris tells Upbeat. 'I had to run around to find an ordinary tie, and someone eventually had to run back and find a less formal suit for me!’
This striking image was also taken at the Centenary Concert in January 1983, again at the Royal Albert Hall.
‘This was an arrangement of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, accompanied by RCM students on timpani and trombones – conducted by Sir Georg Solti, no less,’ remembers Chris.
The performers at the eight pianos were John Barstow, Hubert Dawkes, Peter Element, Colin Horsley, Michael Gough Matthews, Angus Morrison, Phyllis Sellick and Yonty Solomon, who were all professors at the College.
‘I thought I was going to be clever and take this photo from the organists' bench. But when I got there, the organist was sitting there, of course! He wouldn’t have been very happy if I had shared the bench with him. I had to run up to the balcony – let me tell you, that’s a long way. I was lucky to get the shot, as the piece wasn’t very long.’
Scroll through the gallery below for more images:
In the first photo above, taken in 1986, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich gives a masterclass to RCM students.
‘He was one of these musicians that liked to play along and demonstrate what he was talking about, showing a particular bowing technique, for example,’ says Chris.
Chris has been photographing classical music since 1979 but is not a musician himself. ‘I’m not at all musical. I need a tape measure to find middle C on a piano!’
‘In some ways it’s a great advantage not being a musician. As someone who doesn’t know about the serious technicalities of music, you listen to all these things with an open mind. You’ll be surprised how things become very clear to you.’
[quote quote="You get a different flavour of picture in rehearsals." author="Chris Christodoulou"]
The second photo above shows Dame Janet Baker in 1990. ‘I was able to take some photos of Dame Janet Baker a few times in some wonderful masterclasses. In this photo, she is rehearsing for the Soirée d’Or, an annual fundraising gala held by the College.’
For Chris, rehearsals are often the chance to be creative with photos and capture the most dynamic shots. ‘You get a different flavour of picture in rehearsals,’ he says.
In 1992, pianist Sviatoslav Richter gave a recital at the Britten Theatre, shown third in the gallery above. ‘Richter was an absolute legend,’ Chris says. ‘The number of faces in the front row who went on to be pianists is incredible. It was definitely a pianists’ night in College!'
‘This image was taken back when I was using film. It was impossible to get a photo of Richter at the piano as he used to play only with a very dim lamp.’
Chris fully switched over to digital cameras in 2004. ‘I was late with digital. I tried to shoot the Last night of the Proms in 1998 on a huge Kodak digital camera and lasted about 20 minutes with it. I probably missed a couple of generations of digital cameras which were unsatisfactory – it saved me a lot of money!’
As for all the negatives from over two decades of shooting on film? ‘I’ve never destroyed a single negative. All my work is in two filing cabinets.’
[quote quote="There’s something about black and white – I still like it." author="Chris Christodoulou"]
In this photo taken in the Britten Theatre, tenor Alfie Boe plays the title role of Albert Herring in the RCM Opera Studio’s 1998 production.
‘This was one of Alfie’s last operas at College. The following year he then sang the lead in Albert Herring at Glyndebourne. This photo is him down to a tee.’
Over the last 40 years, Chris has been able to follow the careers of many musicians coming through the RCM. ‘It’s magnificent. I’ve known some students since they were at the Junior Department – then the next thing I know I’m seeing them walk out on stage at the BBC Proms. It doesn’t get better than that.’
Chris captured the RCM Opera Studio’s productions in black and white until 2006. ‘I switched to colour around that time. There’s something about black and white – I still like it. It makes your brain work looking at a black and white photo.’
In the photo above, Bernard Haitink is pictured conducting the RCM Symphony Orchestra in February 2011.
‘What can you say about Haitink? I’m struggling to find the words. I think I’ve photographed him more than any other conductor.’
‘He was a wonderful persona,’ remembers Chris. ‘He gently told musicians what not to do and really let them play, and I don’t think I ever heard him go over a phrase more than twice. He’s sadly missed – he was such a gentleman to work with.’
In 2012, pianist Lang Lang gave a masterclass in the Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall.
‘There was the most incredible buzz amongst the students. This picture really sums up the masterclass,’ Chris says.
‘You can see in the photo – it was so crammed, there was seating on the stage area. That was the first time I’ve ever seen that. It was a terrific masterclass.’
This photo shows violinist Nicola Benedetti giving a masterclass in 2019.
‘Nicola Benedetti is a students’ dream. She’s so entertaining and really works with students to develop everything based on what they’re playing. I feel after I’ve finished photographing a masterclass with her that I can play the violin!’
See Chris’ photos from the Spring Term opera in the printed summer issue of Upbeat.
Upbeat is produced in print once a year in the Summer Term. If you’d like to receive this version, email DAE@rcm.ac.uk.