If you had to give an aspiring vocal ensemble just one piece of advice, what would it be?
Never underestimate the importance of words. They give life to the vocal line.
How you were introduced to ensemble singing?
I’m one of the few British conductors working in vocal music who didn’t do the traditional choirboy/Oxbridge thing – for which some will probably never forgive me! I started singing at school and I have to say I completely loved it, even if it wasn’t cool!
What’s the first thing you look at when you open a score for the first time?
It depends very much on the repertoire. Of course nowadays, such is the proliferation of recorded music, one looks at a score to confirm a sound picture in one’s mind rather than to create that sound picture. Certainly in vocal music, I will be thinking about colour, balance and especially the setting of poetry.
If and when you have to programme a concert, what factors influence you most?
Programming is probably the thing about which I agonise the most. It can be a huge challenge in vocal music, where pieces are often short and the programme may comprise as many as 20 or 25 pieces. I have to say I’m not hugely impressed by the programming of many vocal groups; for me there has to be a logical progression piece to piece and I particularly dislike those programmes, concert or recorded, of the conductor’s favourite pieces in no apparent order. But it takes a huge amount of time and research to do it properly… I like good themes, and connecting music over many different centuries
How rigidly do you like to keep to a score in performance?
On one level, I’m extremely rigid; I grew up doing so much early music that I’m always trying to read the notation of the score very carefully. It seems to me that many composers are very specific in their requests – take Elgar or Britten’s music for example where there are often huge numbers of markings in every bar. On the other hand, no amount of scholarly accuracy will make a great performance, one has to be free to enter the emotional world. I don’t see these two aims as being contradictory.
What, for you, are the marks of a great composition for vocal ensembles?
For me it’s the perfect marriage of music and poetry, and something which is ‘singable’ however broadly defined. Or to put it another way, I particularly detest so much contemporary vocal music that might be described as “mood music” (no names…)
What, in your opinion, makes a great ensemble singer?
Ears… and a great team player
Do you have any pet-hates when you hear choirs or vocal ensembles perform?
I’m not a great lover of trickery; those choirs or ensembles that are often technically extremely proficient but somehow seem to be self-conscious in their virtuosity… and I don’t liked clipped accents for superficial brilliance.
Is there anything that you do when you perform, rehearse, compose or conduct that others might find unusual? (quirks, tricks, useful tips)
I’m sure there are many many things, but one thing that I think is really crucial, is for conductors to find a range of gestures which relate to the physicality of breathing. This is especially important for conductors like me who spend most of their time with orchestras. Even the beginnings of a chord can be actually quite difficult, especially in pianissimo singing. I have to say that an ex-King’s Singer shared one tip which I find to be particularly useful… but conducting is all about adapting to different circumstances.
If you could have had a different career, what do you think it would have been, and why?
I must admit that I would quite like to have been a head teacher; I’m really passionate about the whole process of education, and I’ve always loved working with kids and young adults – but I of course would have had to have had quite a free hand in the curriculum, which is not really practical in today’s over-regimented schools. I also sometimes dream of being an architect, partly because I like the idea of creating something of more permanence than a concert which often disappears into the ether.
Are you able to say why you particularly love choral music?
I do love choral music, and very deeply – but only some of it. I think the best choral music is that which moves us in a way that is completely different to the experience one would get from symphonic or chamber music. But I think we should be quite critical; a lot of choral music is at best well-crafted functional music, some not even that. But a setting of great words enhanced by the beauty and fragility of the human voice – there’s nothing better than that.
Do you have a favourite choral composer and, if so, whom and why?
I have to say at the moment, I’ve got a serious Howells bug! I do find his music moves me quite profoundly, and I think he has such a personal style that the world would be poorer without his music.
Is there a piece for choirs or vocal ensembles you’d like to recommend to us that we might not have heard of before?
Almost impossible to answer as almost every single piece has been recorded to death, but certain particular pieces that mean a lot to me: Sheppard’s magnificent Cantate Mass, Andrea Gabrieli’s O Sacrum Convivium, Howells’ Requiem of course and Britten’s A Boy was Born – these are works that I feel are unquestionable masterpieces.
Is there anyone or any group in the world of choirs and vocal ensembles that you admire particularly, either current performers or groups from the past?
That’s a tricky question; on one level we are surrounded by choirs and ensembles who sing at an extremely high level – but you don’t go to the pain of running an ensemble to recommend others! And thank goodness we all have a different set of priorities; I have to say I’ve been massively impressed by Gabriel Crouch’s new group Galicantus, even of course if it includes members of Gabrieli Consort and indeed ex-King’s Singers.
Do you have a guilty pleasure? If yes, will you tell us what it is?
Of the ones that are printable, I have to say that a glass or two of good port goes a long way, and I’m strangely fond of Twiglets!
Read all the KS Q&As on the Ensemble Hub Dropbox.
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