CLoSer Interview: Holst Singers

We caught up with Will Davies from the Holst Singers, our Guest Artists at our next CLoSer concert, to find out more about this extraordinary choir.

Holst Singers, what are the origins of the choir and its name?
We were founded in 1978 under Hilary Davan Wetton, but for almost two decades have been conducted by our Musical Director Stephen Layton, who has shaped and nurtured the celebrated sound we make. I believe our name was actually taken from the Holst Room at St Paul’s Girls’ School where we originally rehearsed in the early days – so I guess we are named after the composer, but not directly!

How many singers in the choir? What’s the average profile of a Holstie? (if there is such a thing!)
We have a core of about 40 singers who are the ‘regulars’, who you’ll catch performing at most concerts. I’m not sure there is an ‘average’ Holstie! I suppose most of us are graduates with a chapel choir background, so Oxford and Cambridge feature fairly heavily in the choir’s make-up. Outside of that, we’re a very varied bunch, a whole range of ages and occupations. Without wanting to sound too cheesy, the thing that unites us all is music. I think we’re in a unique position as an institution– we’re one of the nation’s top-flight choirs, but we work entirely as a self-run amateur outfit, with no subscription fees or anything like that. It means that everyone involved is there to concentrate on the music-making; it works really well for us.

What is it like working with CLS Artistic Director Stephen Layton?
In short, truly inspiring. He’s one of the world’s greatest choral conductors, and it shows. He always seems to know exactly what he wants to achieve with the music, from the broad sweep of a piece to the subtle nuances. What’s great is that he knows how to get us to produce the performance he wants; he works us hard, but it’s always worth it for the end result.

The_holst_singers_web

What’s the range of the choir’s repertoire? Do you enjoy performing newly-commissioned work, or prefer more established repertoire?
We love getting our teeth into a wide range of repertoire. I suppose we have a reputation for performing works in the very loose category of ‘unjustly neglected a cappella gems’ – works by Baltic composers like Tormis and Ešenvalds for instance, or the Russian Orthodox music on our Ikon recordings. We’re also actively involved in performing new commissions, from premiering Tavener’s Veil of the Temple to working with Imogen Heap on her soundtrack to The Seashell and the Clergyman.

Talk us through the pieces you’re performing for CLoSer.
We’re performing two pieces, Stravinsky’s Mass and Immortal Bach by Knut Nystedt. The Stravinsky is a great work. It’s quite severe, almost bleak at times, but beautiful with it. It’s scored for choir and a fairly small wind ensemble, and you get these wonderful moments of sparse, dissonant instrumental writing with the choir almost chanting the text, especially in the Credo. That’s probably the most challenging movement for us – not because it’s particularly difficult musically, but because he treats the text in a really counterintuitive way. Instead of setting it in the ‘usual’ way (accented and inflected as one might speak it, with expression) he produces a sort of muttering mantra; it’s this kind of ‘march of belief’, which is surprisingly tricky to get your head around at first.

Immortal Bach is really interesting – Nystedt takes the first two lines of the chorale Komm, süßer Tod and deconstructs them. You hear the unadulterated chorale first and then you hear it transformed, by dividing the choir into separate groups who sing each phrase of the chorale at different speeds, coming together at the cadence points before continuing onwards. It’s a bit tricky to explain without a choir on hand to demonstrate, but it’s very effective – the result is this fantastic smeary collage of Bach.

What do you hope the audience take away from your performance on 29 February?
I hope they get an impression of how the human voice can speak powerfully to you, in unexpected ways. I think the thing that connects the music we’ll be performing is that neither piece uses voices conventionally, to wring emotion from words or to make you say, “Oh, what a lovely tune”. The Nystedt is in a sense just the application of a simple mathematical rubric to a Bach chorale, and the Stravinsky is ascetic, austere music; and yet both produce this captivating atmosphere.

What would the Holst Singers desert island discs be and why?
Ah, now this is going be tricky. I’d have trouble enough doing my own, letting alone trying to speak for the whole choir – I’m inevitably going to get lynched when they see this! “How could you miss out Spem in alium?!” Ah well, here goes…
I think we need something early in there. Let’s have Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, because it’s pretty damn fit, especially the way the Kyrie kicks off; I could listen to that soaring-and-descending motif go round and round all day. It would be rude not to have anything Slavic on the island, let’s cram the Rachmaninov Vespers in the bag too. Last one… we need something English in there too. This’ll be a controversial one, but let’s go for the Vaughan Williams Shakespeare Songs. The middle movement is the sexiest thing ever. Wait. We get a full set of sheet music for these on the island too, right?!

CLoSer: Spirit of the Voice
Weds 29 February, 7.30pm
Village Underground, Shoreditch

Poulenc Suite Francaise
JS Bach French Suite
Poulenc Le Bal Masque
Nystedt Immortal Bach
Stravinsky Mass

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