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Farewell to competition founder J Mervyn Williams

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Cardiff Singer Cardiff Singer | 10:36 UK time, Wednesday, 4 November 2009

J Mervyn Williams, who founded Cardiff Singer in 1983, has died aged 74.

'Merv', as he was universally known, was a force to be reckoned with in Welsh television circles. As BBC Wales' Head of Music in the first half of the 1980s, he was responsible for a huge amount of music broadcasting from Wales, during which the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra (now the BBC National Orchestra of Wales) became the most-televised orchestra in Britain.

As well as delivering programmes for broadcast in Wales in both Welsh and English, Merv's considerable powers of persuasion led to many commissions from BBC Two in London. These included many very popular series featuring Welsh tenors Stuart Burrows and Dennis O'Neill; performances of sacred music such as Handel's Messiah conducted by Sir Roger Norrington from Savonlinna in Finland and Elgar's Dream of Gerontius conducted by Andrew Davis in Worcester Cathedral; programmes of Christmas and Easter music recorded on location in Israel with Aled Jones and the BBC Welsh Chorus; and recordings of the major symphonic repertoire, such as the complete symphonies of Tchaikovsky conducted by Mariss Jansons, from St David's Hall, Cardiff.

But perhaps Merv's greatest achievement at the BBC was the establishment of this competition. Read Merv's recollections of the struggle he had to get Cardiff Singer off the ground in 1983.

He left the BBC in 1985, shortly after the second competition, to found a very successful TV production company.

Merv was not a trained musician - his degree was in geography - but was extremely knowledgeable and passionate about classical music of all kinds. Distinguished TV music director Rodney Greenberg remembers a lively discussion in the BBC Club in Cardiff started by Merv's perhaps controversial assertion, which drew on his knowledge of both music and geography: "If you put a compass point on Vienna on the map and extend the compass across a 50 mile radius, you'll find that every important development in western music happened within that area."

Anna Williams, the competition administrator who worked closely with Merv for many years, reflects on his legacy:

"Mervyn was the right man in the right place at the right time in early 1980s. His talent for producing ideas of a high standard and his determination to involve the best possible artists coincided with the formation of S4C and the opening of St David's Hall in Cardiff. He used the venue to its full potential - BBC Cardiff Singer of the World still thrives and it has established a lasting partnership between BBC Cymru Wales, Welsh National Opera and the city of Cardiff.

"It was a golden age for the broadcasting of all music in Wales and Merv's death has rekindled many happy memories of the people we worked with and the performances, which will never be forgotten, as we continue to benefit from his legacy.

"Merv had a wonderful life and did exactly as he wished throughout it."

Aarno Cronvall, the Finnish television executive, remembers when he brought Karita Mattila to Cardiff to represent Finland in the first competition in 1983.

"Mervyn was a real character, and gave his time freely to these young singers. His famous advice to them was: 'Do not compete - make music!'

"We all had the feeling that we were a big family supporting each other and we were taken care of superbly. The reputation and the quality of BBC Cardiff Singer of the World has always been excellent and it is the competition and of course Mervyn's 'baby'.

"Mervyn was always low profile in public but he always knew what to do and how to go further. He was a legend in TV music circles. He believed in people. A true, warm, and loyal friend, he encouraged and supported and was always ready to give his advice and help when needed. He believed that music can make the world better. I think he was right."


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