Stile Antico burst onto the musical scene in July 2005 with competition success at the York Early Music Festival, and in a single decade has established itself as one of the world’s finest vocal ensembles. The group marks its tenth anniversary season in 2015-16 with a series of celebratory concerts and projects, including a birthday recital at the Wigmore Hall, an extensive US tour, performances at some of Europe’s leading festivals, and the release of its tenth disc, A Wondrous Mystery. Stile Antico’s record label Harmonia Mundi celebrates this milestone by drawing on the group’s already formidable legacy of prize-winning recordings to create a tenth-anniversary compilation album, and by reissuing its breathtaking debut disc, Music for Compline. Meanwhile, the group looks to the future with the recent launch of the charitable Stile Antico Foundation, a bursary for young singers, and a collaboration with DIAMM on the reconstruction of Tudor repertoire.
KA – Kate Ashby WD – Will Dawes RH – Rebecca Hickey
If you had to give an aspiring vocal ensemble just one piece of advice, what would it be?
Start young! We were really helped by the fact that we started Stile Antico when we were all at college (in fact, some of us were still at school). It meant people were quite used to do things for free and we had the time and energy to explore and set down the group foundations. (KA)
Persevere. Nowadays, we’re so used to quick fixes, and immediate actions, it’s easy to feel as though it might never work out. Becoming established as a group takes a long time, so keep at it. (WD)
Love what you do and show it! (RH)
How you were introduced to ensemble singing?
I started singing aged 4 with the Berkshire Young Musicians Trust, but my first experience of professional ensemble singing came about when Ben Parry fell off his bike, and I stepped in to sing with the Dunedin Consort at very late notice. He’s since recovered! (WD)
Getting together with three of my school friends to sing an upper voice arrangement of ‘Chattanooga Choo-Choo’ for a music ensemble competition. I realised then that, for me, ensemble singing was the most enjoyable side of singing. (We won by the way!) (RH)
What’s the first thing you look at when you open a score for the first time?
The text. Knowing what it all means is vital in getting the right mood for the piece from the start. (RH)
We always start with the text, which is exactly what the composer started with. Generally the music we sing is in Latin, so we will look through the text and translation before singing through a piece a couple of times. And then the hard work starts… The music we sing comes from a time before composers stipulated tempi, dynamics and articulation. We have the words and the notes, but how we interpret them is up to us, which is one of the reasons we find working with this repertoire so rewarding. (KA)
How rigidly do you like to keep to a score in performance?
Certainly not ‘rigidly’, but faithfully! Within that, we do like to experiment with tempo, dynamics and ficta whilst aiming for something we would like to think the composer (whether dead or alive!) would enjoy. (RH)
A score is a little like a recipe. Someone has taken time to come up with a plan that works, and that they think is the best way to cook that dish. However, you’re always free to add a little more of this or that, if you feel that those who eat the result will appreciate it! So, leaving that metaphor to one side, there’s room for a little flexibility if you think that some gentle tinkering might help. (WD)
If and when you have to programme a concert, what factors influence you most?
The Renaissance sacred repertoire we perform was never written to be listened to in a concert set-up. Instead the moments of polyphony were intended to intersperse a service of spoken texts and plainchant. Listening to ninety minutes of polyphony can be quite intense, so we try to help the audience in a few ways. We always have a ‘theme’ around which the programme is based – music from the Hapsburg Court, or pieces written for the monastic rite of Compline, to take a couple of examples. We also try to find as much variety in scoring as possible, always trying to include pieces for smaller groups of voices to provide aural variety and to give us each a little time off! Including a few spoken introductions in performance helps guide the audience through the programme. (KA)
What, for you, are the marks of a great composition for vocal ensembles?
Something that’s enjoyable to sing! Bach is joyous to listen to, but often makes great demands on voices by treating them as instruments. (WD)
What, in your opinion, makes a great ensemble singer?
Someone who fits in, both musically and socially. (WD)
Someone who listens more to others than to him/herself. (RH)
A great ensemble singer needs to have a top-quality, reliable voice, excellent intonation and rhythmic awareness, an interest in the repertoire, and needs be able to get on with people easily. We travel a lot, so they need to be happy with that. There are a lot of different skills needed! (KA)
Do you have any pet-hates when you hear choirs or vocal ensembles perform?
I don’t presume to judge other groups but I always think it’s a pity when singers look disengaged from the music in performance – or even bored! (RH)
Is there anything that you do when you perform, rehearse, compose or conduct that others might find unusual? (quirks, tricks, useful tips)
Probably more than we realise! Communal physical warm-ups before recording sessions and Pilates on Miami Beach spring to mind. We like to have a ‘team talk’ just before every concert to focus our minds on what we are about to do which some might consider eccentric – but we find it helpful. (RH)
Are you able to say why you particularly love choral music?
I think choral music at its best is an inspiring combination of personal and communal communication. Singing is such an immediate form of expression, and joining voices together in choral music heightens that expressive power. (KA)
Do you have a favourite choral composer and, if so, whom and why?
William Byrd. I’ve never sung a bad piece by him, and every piece has a moment that takes your breath away. (WD)
I never tire of singing (or listening to) music by William Byrd. His music is so expressive and has a rhetorical awareness that makes it very rewarding to perform. Pieces like his epic motet ‘Infelix ego’ are full of an intensity that makes them emotionally exhausting to sing, but very satisfying. (KA)
William Byrd, in common with many of my colleagues! His writing is so expressive and yet economical – and a joy to sing. (RH)
Is there a piece for choirs or vocal ensembles you’d like to recommend to us that we might not have heard of before?
We very much enjoyed getting to know the sacred music of Giaches de Wert for a performance in Antwerp last year – we particularly fell for his heart-rending setting of ‘Vox in Rama’. (RH & WD)
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?
King’s Singers aside (!), The sounds of Vox Luminis, Polyphony and Tenebrae are really something special. Then there’s the Real Group, who are just astounding. (WD)
Oh many, but I could single out The Cardinall’s Musick for their warm and passionate singing and I Fagiolini for their daring and inventiveness! (RH)
Do you have a guilty pleasure? If yes, will you tell us what it is?
I’m rather fond of unhealthy foodstuffs. Ben and Jerry’s Phish Food Ice Cream is a particular weakness… (WD)
Watching all the TV programmes my husband can’t bear on my iPad on tour e.g. Call the Midwife, Downton Abbey! (RH)
Read all the KS Q&As on the Ensemble Hub Dropbox.
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