Sir Michael Perry former chairman of Unilever discusses his love of choral music with John Allison, assistant editor of Opera magazine and music critic for The Times.
On the stage of London's Barbican Hall, Sir Michael Perry began to recall some rather more exotic platforms. 'During my time in Buenos Aires, I enjoyed a standing ovation at the majestic Teatro Colon after Purcell's Fairy Queen. True, I was alongside 100 other people but I was thrilled out of my pants.' No need, then, to ask if the former chairman of Unilever's interest in choral music means more than just a listener's love and knowledge of the subject. Not only does he sing, as a bass, in choirs, he even does some conducting, if time permits.
Alas, it seldom does. 'When I landed up as chairman of Unilever, there were very few chances. I was a member of the Bach Choir briefly, but I was unable to make the statutory three-quarters of rehearsals or even any of the concerts. The director, Sir David Willcocks, was very understanding but in the end I realised it was all a bit silly.'
Perry is relaxed and ebullient as he tells how he discovered singing relatively late. Even at Oxford, with its great choral tradition, Perry took little notice of 'the curious goings-on in chapel'. It was only later he discovered that the voice was something that could be used without real training and at a sophisticated level. 'It happened when I was working in Bangkok, of all places. I fell under the spell of a brilliant young man - the marketing director of the local Shell subsidiary. He drew me into music and singing in his local church choir.' Perry, as part of a mainly expatriate choral society in the late 1960s, performed Bach's St John Passion, and, he says, 'it really went from there. To sing a St John in a place like Bangkok where nothing like that had ever happened before was pure magic. We were doing Bach in the jungle, or at least surrounded by it.'
Singing in the jungle may seem extreme but Perry firmly believes that the location can bring an extra frisson to music-making. 'I've been unmoved by technically perfect performances of Bach's B minor Mass in London,' he says, 'but I'll never forget the experience of hearing it during my time in Tokyo. Or the performance of it in Buenos Aires, conducted by a Roman Catholic priest, which had spirituality oozing out of every single line.' It was in Buenos Aires that Perry himself began directing choirs, communicating the knowledge he had acquired to other people. 'I soon found myself in great demand locally. I even gave a paper on William Boyd.'
Wherever Perry has been in the world during the course of his business career, he has taken his passion for choral music with him. And yet for Perry, part of the joy of choral music is that it is a world away from his work interests. That there are few, if any, parallels that one can draw from the former and apply to the latter seems to be a major attraction, a pleasure during which this renowned strategic thinker and planner can, quite simply, relax. As a trustee of Glyndebourne and chairman of the Shakespeare Globe Trust, Perry is as aware as anyone of the increasing role business plays in supporting the arts in Britain. But while he enjoys sharing wonderful performances with business partners, he knows that music isn't golf, where the big deals are so often done. Instead, music is very much a private, family affair. 'My wife is involved too. She's an alto. One of my daughters is a professional soprano. She's married to a bass, though he's an amateur. My other daughter and son-in-law sing soprano and tenor in a choir.'
After more than two decades abroad, the Perrys returned in the mid-1980s to live in London and Worcestershire. But there was no let-up in Perry's musical forays. 'It was absolute paradise to get thrown into the Three Choirs Festival. I'm an avid Three Choirs man, therefore it is de rigueur to be an enormous admirer of Elgar. But in the English tradition I still think Purcell is the greatest. He had the greatest facility for linking a line of music to a particular sentiment or emotion. In church music, Purcell transcends everything.'
Perry would like to spend more time singing, but 'retirement' has actually made him busier. 'At the moment it's half a dozen directorships and a couple of charities. All these things take more time than they should, leaving not enough time for ... fun.' But as we sit and watch the concert together, Perry is clearly making that time.