‘We are in a golden age for choral composition… and we’ve tried to reflect that’
Ahead of our upcoming choral tour, director Nicholas Mulroy talks about the joys and challenges of narrowing down the vast array of repertoire both old and new that led to this Marian-inspired programme.
What are your highlights from this programme?
Hard to say! I love some of the newer repertoire: Kerry Andrew’s piece is deceptively simple and folk-influenced, and the Swayne which comes at the start of the programme is a bracing rollercoaster. But I also love the exquisite Palestrina and Victoria pieces, which are a kind of sonic equivalent of the beauty and drama of Raphael and Leonardo. Oh, and the Mouton is very special! And and and ….
What should the audience listen out for?
Part of the intention is that each listener will find different things to love here: there’s a real variety — from the sanctity and simplicity of Hildegard to the vivid joy of Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s piece. It’s also a programme that showcases the calibre and range of our singers.
What are the challenges of building a choral programme which contains a number of smaller works, compared to a programme with one, or only a handful of larger works?
It is a challenge to construct a programme like this, to choose range of repertoire and ensure the quality of the music is as high as it can be. On the other hand, it’s a fantastic opportunity, in contrast to the large-scale Handel and Bach that the group is known for, to craft something more personal, like a tasting menu, with a balance of colour, sonority, styles and periods of music. Some pieces act like the main courses (or the wine!), and between them we might have something lighter or slighter to cleanse the palate. In the same way a chef wouldn’t ask a diner to eat 10 courses of cheesecake, I hope we’ve taken care to hold the audience at the centre of the choices.
How easy or difficult was it putting this programme together?
It begins with a theme — there’s such a rich seam of Marian music through the ages, the first problem was narrowing it down. From there, we try to work out questions of balance, both for the performers and for the audience. Programming a collection of shorter works allows a flexibility: every piece offers the listener something different, which we think offers the listener a rich and rewarding evening.
It’s interesting to see quite a number of contemporary pieces in this programme, what influenced this choice?
We are in a golden age for choral composition, both in the UK and further afield, and we’ve tried to reflect this. Some pieces seem explicitly linked to the Renaissance music we’ll sing, and others take their influences from further afield, and ask what a choir can do and how one might display devotion in music. Two other things: this is all music of the very highest quality, that speaks in its own direct way, so I have no hesitation putting these pieces alongside masters like Bruckner or Victoria. And I hope that for performers and listeners alike, it’s telling to breathe air into new and old music side by side, hearing new voices for perhaps the first time, and old things anew.
It’s also interesting to see the almost 50:50 split between male and female composers, how important was it to have a balance?
I think the first thing to say is that all of this music is chosen for its quality and the way we hope it combines to form a brilliant concert experience. To give a couple of examples, Cecilia McDowall is one of the best choral composers writing today — she writes with such skill and attention to text and colour — and Joanna Ward is a dynamic, imaginative, and hugely engaging presence on the scene. It’s positive, I hope, to engage in some way with the fact that for too long, music has been the preserve of a small proportion of musicians, to acknowledge some of the progress that’s being made, and also to pay tribute to the current crop of brilliant, vibrant compositional voices.
Of the 14 composers in this programme, who would you recommend we find out more about, and why?
Hard to single out, of course, but — in a similar vein to the previous answer — it’s instructive (and sobering) to learn something of Vicente Lusitano (c.1520-c.1561), whose music and life are relatively recent re-discoveries. This tells its own story, of course, but the music is wonderful: intricate, polyphonic, and hyper-expressive.