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Richard Yarr: Meet the Northern Ireland man who put talented local musicians on the map

Richard Yarr, presenter of Radio Ulster's Sounds Sacred programme, founded the School Choir of the Year and International Organ competitions and was also recently honoured with the Freedom of the City of London, as Stephanie Bell finds out

Richard Yarr at home with his dog Alfie
Richard Yarr at home with his dog Alfie
Richard Yarr relaxing at home
Richard with the judging panel, including celebrity vocal coach Carrie Grant, at the 2019 BBC NI School Choir of the Year final
Richard with his Freedom of London at the official reception in the Corporation of London’s church in the City of London, along with this mum Patricia and brother Allen

It is hard to imagine a young Richard Yarr ever worrying about finding a job that would allow him to indulge his passion and talent for music. Fearing that he would forever remain a student, it was his parents who urged him to apply for a post as director of the BBC's music library while on his third return to university to study for a PHD.

Richard (45) had read music at Queen's University Belfast and graduated with first class honours degree in 1992.

He gained a choral scholarship to King's College London, where he spent another two years studying for a master of music degree.

He then came back to Queen's and embarked on a four-year doctoral course.

He had been immersed in the world of choral and classical music from an early age and could not envisage his future without doing the one thing he loved.

The push his parents gave him to apply for a job he had no interest in proved a launchpad to a career which has seen him make his mark on music here, picking up multiple awards along the way.

He recalls his apathy as he appeased his parents by going along to the BBC for his interview. "My parents saw the job advertised in the Belfast Telegraph and I think they thought at that point I was going to be a student forever," he says.

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"I had done some work with the Ulster Orchestra in their press office part-time and the job at the BBC involved looking after BBC recordings of the Ulster Orchestra.

"I wasn't even sure I wanted the job but thought I would go anyway.

"I think because of that I wasn't nervous at the interview and that paid dividends as I got a call that day to come back. I still wasn't sure I was going to take it, but mum and dad both urged me to, saying it was an excellent company."

That was in the year 2000 and now, as a senior producer in arts and music, he has had creative input into some of our biggest music events in his role overseeing local classical music output for BBC Radio Ulster and BBC Radio 3.

Passionate about giving young musicians a chance, he created the now well established BBC Northern Ireland School Choir of the Year competition.

Outside of the office he is making just as big an impact.

He devotes his spare time to chairing the Charles Wood Festival and Summer School in Armagh and a few years ago set up and is now artistic director of the Northern Ireland International Organ Competition for young organists aged 21 and under. He is also patron of the Young Musician of the Year competition.

For Richard it is all about giving young musicians a chance to shine.

His remarkable achievements saw him travel to London last month where he was honoured with the Freedom of the City of London at the Guildhall and also elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

He says: "They are great honours and I'm humbled to receive them. I was nominated for the freedom by people who were aware of my work with young musicians in Northern Ireland."

In addition, Richard has just marked a year in the presenter's chair of Sounds Sacred, a Sunday night Radio Ulster show he grew up listening to.

He is also an organist, musical director and classical music producer. He has been playing the organ since he was 15 but says his introduction to music started much earlier.

He grew up on a dairy farm in the village of Upper Ballinderry and has one younger brother, Allen (41) a business agent. His dad Jim sadly passed away nine years ago just two weeks after his 70th birthday and his mum Patricia worked in the presentation unit of UTV and then as a postmistress in the local village.

He remembers an idyllic childhood where family life revolved around music both at home and in church, where his mum was a member of the choir.

He says: "I loved growing up on a farm. They say dairy cattle produce a better milk yield if you play classical music to them and I did a lot of playing.

"We lost daddy nine years ago to prostate cancer. It came on really suddenly and it was a bit like watching a battery going flat as the life drained out of him.

"My brother has three kids and I am the doting uncle. I am single but I have little Alfie a cocker spaniel and he is a lot of fun.

"I've really good memories of my childhood and there was lots of fresh air and some real characters in the country and one of them was my piano teacher Bridie Morgan.

"She was really talented and quite unique and she was the person who took me to the Ulster Hall for the first time to hear the Ulster Orchestra. I remember we went to the Scandia restaurant after and they had that piano that played itself.

"She was an early inspiration for me. She really did push me.

"We had music in the family. Mum and dad were always playing country music and went to country dances. Mum was in the local church choir and I would have gone along with her to choir practice and sat waiting and I really absorbed it and loved it."

He moved to the Inchmarlow prep department of the Royal Belfast Academical Institution in primary five and it was here where his natural musical talents really shone.

He became a chorister in St Anne's Cathedral, a move he still regards as one of the best things he has done in his life.

He says: "That exposed me to a high level of music making with others in a group. There was great discipline in going to the choir practice several times a week.

"It was my first experience of professional music making and the skills I learnt there have sustained me through my life.

"Also at Inst we had a great music teacher in Philip Bolton, who I believe is still there. He was absolutely wonderful and really inspired us. The music classes were small and we got really good one to one tuition.

"He made us listen and exposed us to a whole range of music.

"I found that it was coming naturally to me. I had to work hard at other subjects but in music I was getting good results without too much effort."

Being brought up in the church he says his faith today is grounded in love. He adds: "Love is the driving force behind my faith. I trust that God's love is unconditional and that helps me to embrace daily challenges and how I respond to others."

Going on to read music at Queen's he joined the choir and the university orchestra making the most of his time there.

It paid off as he was one of only two in his year - and the first for several years - to graduate with a first class honours degree.

He wanted to broaden his horizons and was delighted to be awarded a choral scholarship at the prestigious Kings College in London to study for his master's degree.

He says: "They paid me to be a tenor in the college choir performing at services and concerts. It was exciting and the money helped me to live in London. Choral singing is part of my DNA and I really enjoyed the time there and made great friends who I still keep in touch it. "

On joining the BBC in 2000 - albeit somewhat reluctantly at first - he was soon amazed by the opportunities that opened up to him and has since made the most of every minute.

This includes a range of creative partnerships with organisations including the Ulster Orchestra, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Opera.

He created BBC Northern Ireland's School Choir of the Year competition in 2014 and co-ordinated the BBC's coverage of Londonderry UK City of Culture in 2013.

During his varied BBC career he has also worked as part of the BBC Singers Management team in London and with the BBC Proms.

Co-ordinating coverage of the City of Culture for the BBC's TV and radio coverage, both locally and nationally, he created a programme called Pure Culture which won the Silver Music Event of the Year gong at the Irish Radio Awards.

It wasn't long after that he changed roles and became senior producer of the Classical Music Unit overseeing all aspects of production.

It was in this role he created the very successful NI School Choir of the Year, which launched in 2014.

"It has been an incredible success and this year's winners got to perform with Katherine Jenkins at the Waterfront Hall and I think it has really increased the standard of singing in primary and post primary schools here," Richard says.

"The winners and finalists get to perform in the Ulster Hall and this year it was on TV for the first time and I am really proud to be associated with it and to have pioneered it."

Richard has made a huge impact in helping young musicians in Northern Ireland develop their talent.

He has been playing the organ since he was 15 and at 18 was the youngest organist at Christ Church Parish in Lisburn where he remained as director of music for 26 years.

He left just a few years ago because he could no longer make the com mitment which involved a Thursday practice and two performances on Sundays.

He says: “Leaving was like a grieving process. I had grown up with these people and played at their weddings and christenings and they had all become good friends, but I really couldn’t commit to it any longer.”

He has since taken up the same role at the Presbyterian Church in Rosemary Street in Belfast, the city’s oldest church which is celebrating its 375th anniversary this year.

As an adjudicator with the Northern Ireland Young Musician of the Year he has travelled to music festivals all over Ireland.

It was while judging at these festivals that he had the idea for a new competition for young organ players which every year attracts entries worldwide.

He explains: “I suddenly realised that you can do anything in these competitions except play the organ and young organists were missing out. You come into the world listening to an organ at christenings, an organ plays at your wedding and you leave this world with an organ playing at your funeral and I felt it needed proper nurturing.”

In 2012, he launched the Northern Ireland International Organ Competition, open to people under 21, and was stunned by the response.

“I was absolutely inundated and had a lot of entries from the UK. I put up a fairly substantial first prize of £1000 and the chance for the winner to have their performance professionally recorded,” he says.

“I was quite bold and approached people like Westminster Abbey and St Thomas’s Church in Fifth Avenue in New York to get prizes and allow competitors the chance to perform in these great places.

“It’s now in its ninth year and we have had winners from Russia, two from Germany and some from the UK. This year we had our first American taking part.”

This indefatigable musical maestro has also done a lot to promote young musical talent as Chair of the Charles Wood Festival and Summer School in Armagh.

Working behind the scenes of radio has been the perfect outlet for his musical passion and expertise, but this time last year he added yet another string to his bow when he took over as presenter of Radio Ulster’s popular Sunday evening request show Sounds Sacred.

He says: “Growing up Sounds Sacred was the soundtrack in our home on a Sunday evening and we would have been playing it in the background as we ate our Sunday tea.

“Canon Noel Battye had presented it for 30 years and was greatly admired and had a huge following.

“I didn’t go looking for it. Someone suggested that I should try it and John Bennett, who is my mum’s cousin and a great friend, helped me through a pilot and I was very grateful to him.

“I’ve loved it. The audience is very friendly and I get lots of emails and cards and hand written things and there is such a diverse range of people listening to it from as far away as the Cayman Islands and Germany.

“I am delighted to get requests and I just love that part and of course the music is in my DNA.”

And while music consumes much of Richard’s life, back home in east Belfast close to Ballyhackamore village he indulges his other great love which is food and also enjoys spending time with his two nephews and niece.

He adds: “I am a bit of a foodie and am delighted to live beside ‘Ballysnackamore’ which is filled with great places for me to enjoy food.

“I am very settled in my life. I need to get my PHD finished as I have this big body of work sitting there and I don’t like things that are unfinished.

“My nephew James, who is six, is learning to play the piano and it is like deja vu as I am helping him after family Sunday dinner and it is from the same old books that I was taught from.

“I enjoy spending time with my other nephew Daniel (4) and niece Sophie (1) and we have great fun together.

“Life is good and at the minute I wouldn’t change a thing.”

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