« REVIEW - Ladysmith Black Mambazo | Main | Cheesy Name, Sublime Music »

May 20, 2006

I know it's only a cappella, but I like it

The Times (UK):

Far from enjoying a rock-star lifestyle of ease and luxury, the “Mick Jagger of early music”, Harry Christophers, is squashed into the back seat of a family car with three male singers from his choir, and me. We’re on our way to Norwich Cathedral, where the Sixteen are to perform, as part of the choir’s annual Pilgrimage tour of Britain, a programme by Tomás Luis de Victoria, the 16th-century Spanish master of sacred choral music. He’s hardly a household name, even for classical fans, yet tonight, as often on this tour, it’s a full house.

Christophers is a slim, softly- spoken man, his hair a Jaggeresque curly tangle. He’s sheepish about the comparison with the Stones frontman. “Well yes, Classic FM did once call me a rock god of classical music,” he says, to good-natured teasing from his companions. “And I used to have very long hair . . .” They recall that on their last tour of the States, the Sixteen found themselves performing on one side of Wiltshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, while the Rolling Stones were playing on the other, part of the Forty Licks tour. “Of course, the queues were for the Sixteen,” Christophers says, wryly.

It’s all about scale. Within the esoteric world of early choral music the Sixteen (there were originally 16 of them) are at the pinnacle. They tour widely, not only abroad, always a good money-spinner for an English choir, but throughout Britain — seen as a more difficult market. Last year they won Ensemble Album of the Year at the Classical Brit Awards. They are “the Voices of Classic FM”. Now they have a new London home at the South Bank, where they will be associate ensemble for the coming season.

The niche they have carved out for themselves in 26 years comes from Christophers’s passion for Renaissance, pre-Reformation music and Handel. There are other rivals on the same territory – groups such as the Tallis Scholars, the Gabrieli Consort and, of course, John Eliot Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir, Baroque specialists. All of them have succeeded in bringing to a mainstream audience the sort of music that ten years ago was on the margins. “We all have our idiosyncrasies,” Christophers says. “Peter Phillips at Tallis lets the music breathe and speak for itself. I don’t; I tend to interpret more, which can lead to its own problems. Sometimes I stand back and think, hang on, I’m trying to put something into the music that’s not there.”

Then there’s the legendary Eliot Gardiner, or Jeg, as they refer to him. “Jeg demands absolute, total dictatorial precision,” says Christopher Royall, a Sixteen stalwart who sang with the Monteverdis in the past. “Harry coaxes, but for Jeg I had mostly fear, as well as respect for him. But mostly fear.”

Tonight’s concert in Norwich is to be candlelit, a popular feature of the tour, but not without hazard. There’s the poor light for one thing. And the noise. “We did the same thing in Salisbury Cathedral,” Christophers recalls. “They put big plastic sheets down to stop the wax falling on to the stonework and in quiet moments you could hear this splat . . . splat.” We meet the rest of the choir at the glorious cathedral in Norwich, golden in the afternoon sunshine. They can’t rehearse until Evensong is over, and as they wait, small boys in school uniform, the cathedral choristers, come bounding out. The Sixteen look on indulgently; most of them started their own singing careers in cathedral or church choirs.

The rehearsal, which covers only extracts of the programme, is brisk and friendly. The 18 singers, aged between 22 and 60, are all professional sight-readers, and most of them are already very familiar with the work. The music is handed out there and then: no one practises at home. This can be scary for the deputies — singers brought in to cover for absent core members. One young man who was returning after six weeks off with voice strain was seeing it for the first time. “I’m singing without knowing what notes are coming next,” he said nervously.

I had heard the Sixteen only in a concert hall before. Here, in the sort of building Victoria’s devotional music was written for, it sounds quite different. In full throttle, the 18 voices rebound off the vaulted ceiling and stonework with dizzying resonance. “In these fabulous buildings,” Christophers says, “you can see the music working its way round stone pillars and stained-glass windows. Every phrase goes up and down, reflecting the architecture. You can’ t capture that in a concert hall.”

Fabulous they may be, but some of England’s venerable cathedrals make poor venues: cold and uncomfortable. The Sixteen have abandoned Ely: “It’s perishing,” one singer recalls. “All the locals know it, and they come with coats, cushions, blankets, the lot.” Winchester (tomorrow) is a favourite, and this year they have added Southwell at the end of the Pilgrimage in the autumn. Long hours of travel, shared meals and waiting about mean that the singers know each other extremely well. They praise the Sixteen’s team spirit, saying that Christophers chooses his members not only for their musical talents but also their ability to socialise. They share a passion for sport — Christophers, an Arsenal fan, jokes that he’s the Arsène Wenger of choral music, selecting the best squad.

All the singers are freelance, though the core members have regular engagements with the Sixteen and make about 30 per cent of their income from it. The rest of the time they sing with other groups, at Glyndebourne, in the choirs at Westminister Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral, and they teach in private schools. Some have left the choir’s ranks to pursue illustrious solo careers, such as Mark Padmore and Carolyn Sampson.

There’s a kind of undergraduate jollity about them, hardly surprising since many have come through the same colleges — mainly Oxford and Cambridge. “They produce phenomenal choirs and fantastic singers,” Christophers says. He is from Magdalen College, Oxford, while several others are from St John’s College, Cambridge. “It’s like going round with your mates,” says one young tenor, Will Unwin, “it’s really a lot of fun. No one does it to make a million pounds, but as a result everyone does it for the right reasons. “One night you can find yourself one of 13 on stage at the Albert Hall live on radio and feeling like king of the world, the next day you’re doing a wedding in North London for £55. The job satisfaction is absolutely brilliant.”

It’s time for the performance. The cathedral gleams in the candlelight and the singers are waiting in their evening dress, some of the men playing table football in a vestry. Some 700 tickets have been sold for this, the opening night of the Norwich Festival, and the nave is full. “It’s a bit like the Proms effect,” says the festival’s artistic director, Jonathan Holloway. “People come to the festival from all over the county and they might not go to anything else all year. There’s a real sense of ownership.” Christophers comes on stage to huge applause, raises his arms and the people of Norfolk are plunged back five centuries to Catholic Spain.

Posted by acapnews at May 20, 2006 12:35 AM