Friday, July 12, 2019

Talking to British choral conductor Joanna Tomlinson

Photo courtesy Joanna Tomlinson

On June 17th 2019 I met with choral conductor Joanna Tomlinson in Sirolo Italy, where she was running a Lacock workshop for choral singers. Ms.Tomlinson lives and works in London.

PH: Joanna Tomlinson, you are a soloist, conductor, consort singer and teacher. Where do you see your focus in all these disciplines?

Joanna Tomlinson: Primarily as a conductor now, but that hasn’t always been the case. In my postgraduate studies at the Royal College of Music I trained as a singer and, for a few years, saw it as my career combining professional choral singing with solo work in oratorio and opera. But the bug for conducting has taken over more and more over the last few years and it really is what I enjoy most, I think possibly because of the immediacy of seeing the enjoyment when working with amateur singers, actually. You get that reward with your audiences to an extent, but there is something really wonderful about working with amateur singers and seeing how happy they can be when they work something out or enjoy the musical meaning in what you are introducing them to. Choral singing can be life-changing for people and I have seen it so often in choirs, with people finding friendships or a partner or that choral singing can really help them in their lives. It is seeing that close at hand that I love so much, as well as the fact that every aspect of choral music has probably been my great love; I get to do all of it, from early small-scale works to big, grand oratorio work with orchestras - a lovely variety.

PH: Do you not work with professional singers?

JT: Very occasionally I get to conduct professionals, though I do not work with a professional group on a regular basis. That is something I might like to do further down the line. Financially, it entails a big effort to make a professional choir work, with fundraising and finding grants. But I do enjoy working with good amateur singers and it is easier to make that model work, with people paying a subscription.

PH: What are your earliest musical experiences?

JT: Music was in our family from a very young age. My mother’s sister was a professional viola player and was involved in the historically informed performance movement in its early days, playing with such groups as the Academy of Ancient Music. She was also principal viola of the London Mozart Players and worked as a soloist as well. And then at Christmas, the family would be around and we would all play instruments or sing. My aunt would play the viola or accompany on the piano and there would be a lot of music going on.

PH: What form did your early music education take?

JT: I started the recorder very young, as many children do. There was a wonderful headmistress of the school at the time, who said to my mum that I should have a go at the violin. So I started learning the violin and was encouraged in that, but it was the singing that I really wanted to do later on. I joined the local church choir at age ten or eleven and really loved the choral singing, quite quickly learning to sight-read in that situation. Having come from the violin, sight-reading came quite naturally to me. When I was thirteen or fourteen, there was a singing teacher at my school who came and did some demonstrations. I just went up to her and said I wanted to have singing lessons. My poor parents were already paying for other music lessons and now there were singing lessons as well. The singing quickly became what I loved most, though I kept violin, recorder and piano going right up to the end of school.

PH: Did you go to a music school? 

JT: No. But, for 6th form, I got a scholarship to Bedales School, an interesting, quite artistic school, though I actually did maths and physics with music for my A-levels. But there was a lot of music going on at Bedales and the head of music at the time - Nick Gleed - was a keen organist and harpsichord player, so the early music I was into with recorder playing found great camaraderie with him, with lots of Baroque sonatas and such works.  That was wonderful, but I also got very involved with every aspect of music-making there, also doing sound work for theatre. Doing maths and physics, I had toyed with the idea of studying sound engineering. But Nick encouraged me into going for a straight music degree first before specializing, which was really good advice. Actually, after finishing school, I stayed on at Bedales for a year, teaching in the junior school.

PH: So, to your university studies.

JT: I did my undergraduate degree at Bristol University. There, I was playing the recorder and violin reasonably seriously to the end of my music degree and had to use my piano skills but did not carry on with that.  You just can’t practise all those things once you go more into certain things. Even practising singing and conducting is enough! I did my post-graduate degree as a singer at the Royal College of Music. But, in between, I had a bit of time working in arts administration, working for Askonas Holt, an agency representing artists. The job gave really good insight into that world. I also did some work at the Barbican Centre in marketing before starting postgraduate studies. 

PH: What did you do following your postgraduate degree?

JT: I landed some work teaching singing at that point. That would have been harder to go into if I hadn’t had the experience of that year of teaching at Bedales. This gave me the stability of having two days a week of a regular job so I could surround that with my freelance singing at the time.

PH: Let’s talk about the present. What are your various jobs at the moment?

JT: I run the Constanza Chorus, which is a choir I set up ten years ago...with my mum, actually. I was just getting going with the conducting then, having done a little at university when doing things related to singing teaching. My mum basically does all the administration, but is just about to stop doing that and pass the job onto a committee. The choir has really thrived. Our 10th anniversary concert happened just a few weeks ago and I was very lucky to get to conduct the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in the Bach B-minor Mass with fabulous soloists at Cadogan Hall. The choir - 130 singers - really makes a wonderful sound; a lovely group, based in the City of London. The name refers to Constanze, Mozart’s wife, the reason being that the first concert we did was Mozart’s Requiem. And Constanze was a fine singer and I wanted the choir to come from the point of view of having good vocal coaching. The other choir I conduct in London is the Whitehall Choir, which I have now run for two years. I took over from Paul Spicer, who had been doing it for 17 or 18 years. It is a choir that is very much open to everybody; a good mixture of people: about half the choir is in the public sector in some form or another. A smaller choir, their optimum number, which we have now reached, is 70-ish. Not a chamber choir, but it needs to be that size because they do a concert at St John’s Smith Square every year and you can’t get more than 70 plus orchestra in there. I really enjoy that job, actually. Being half the size of the Constanza Chorus, it means one can do more chamber-sized works as well as slightly bigger stuff. They really take to Handel and Bach and that kind of music. My first program with them, which I had inherited but really, really loved, was Handel’s “Joshua”. Then, on Wednesdays, I work with the Farnham Youth Choir in Surrey, which is a really excellent upper voice choir. My predecessor was the founder, David Victor Smith who, with his wife, had run it for 30 years. They stepped down three years ago. That was a very interesting project for me to take over because it had to go from being something that was really founder-led to where all the administration and overseeing do not need to be done by the music director. So, we have made the transition to having the choir run by a committee with an operations manager. But I am the artistic director. That job has taught me a lot about the business side. In the main youth choir - secondary school age 11 to 18 - there are about 45 upper voice singers. The boys leave when their voices change, a bit of a hard thing to deal with, but that’s how it is at the moment. We have two junior choirs which I don’t conduct but I oversee. The littlest choir has about 35 six to nine-year-olds; the middle choir has a similar number of nine to twelve-year-olds. So we have well over a hundred the organization and we are trying to expand a little bit. They do sing well. We are about to take the main youth choir on two tours this summer - one to Gothenburg, Sweden for the European Choir Games and we have also been invited to sing John Rutter’s Mass for the Children in Sion, Switzerland. Under my predecessor, the youth choir sang on the premiere recording of the Rutter piece. The youth choir has traditionally taken part in a lot of competitions and done very well in them. They perform everything from memory and sing a wide range of repertoire from Hildegard von Bingen right through to works written last year, pop arrangements and jazz arrangements...and everything in between, like Schubert and Duruflé, a really mixed secular and sacred repertoire. They are a lovely group. Those are my main regular choirs.

PH: Do you take on one-time conducting jobs?

JT: Yes. Such as the Lacock course I am conducting this week at Monteconero and quite a lot of workshops - like come-and-sings - and I also get invited to do some vocal coaching work as well with groups. I have stopped teaching in schools but I do some private singing teaching and some private conducting teaching. I do some teaching for the Association of British Choral Directors, an organization that offers courses to absolute beginners through to advanced courses.

PH: You sound very busy. What about your own singing nowadays?

JT: I keep the singing going, though I just don’t have time to do any opera contracts these days. (My opera work included bits and bobs, more chorus work, but the odd solo. I did a couple of seasons of “Opera Holland Park” some years back.) I do some choral work; primarily I sing with Sonoro, a professional group that my husband Neil Ferris conducts. Occasionally, when I have time, I go into other groups: I have done a fair bit with the BBC Singers and have worked with the Gabrieli Consort and other ensembles over the years, but it is just getting harder to juggle that in now that the conducting work is quite regular. Still, it is nice to do an oratorio as a one-off day. It is good to get to the point that you can trust there will be enough in the long as one engagement doesn’t clash with other activities. Earlier in my career, I used to get so frustrated when that happened! Actually, I had a lovely project recently chorus-mastering a really beautiful new piece by Howard Skempton. I was preparing the chorus for Glyndebourne and it was an amateur chorus of women and children. It was a piece about motherhood. Sheila Hill wrote the text. It was an event of a recent Brighton Festival.

PH: Where do you stand regarding the early music authentic performance movement?

JT: Well, I think it is really important that we inform ourselves as much as possible, read and educate ourselves about stylistic things. It is something that has interested me a lot. In my undergraduate studies I wrote a dissertation on French Baroque ornamentation. I think sometimes people take things they read and interpret them in a way they choose to interpret them. They perhaps take things too far and can be militantly obsessed with how “it should be” and that their way is “authentic” and that it can’t be any other way. I think there can be a lot of snobbishness in the early music world about things like vibrato in the sound. When we sing well, when everything is coordinated well, there is likely to be vibrato happening naturally. The trick is probably to book singers who have less weighted voices and, therefore, the vibrato (if they are singing freely) will be rather more imperceptible, with a smaller oscillation. To try and constrict singing can be dangerous and actually really affect the tuning negatively. I’m all for freedom of breath and freedom of singing expressively and with phrasing without tightening everything to make a slim sound. Blend can really occur when vowels are matching and everyone is singing well. You don’t have to blend by constricting. I think perhaps some people misinterpret that.  I love authentic playing. I love hearing period instruments played well. I get the impression that players are getting better and better. 

PH: You are also involved in contemporary music. Do you see it as a special field of yours?

JT: I enjoy singing contemporary music but I wouldn’t call myself a specialist in anything other than choral music generally. I am more a choral specialist than an orchestral specialist. But I do like to keep my options open and do a bit of everything. I have always been like that, with violin and recorder and piano and singing, loving Baroque music and modern music. As I have got older, I have become more open to everything as well...less snobbish about certain things and seeing the value in everything. Music has value if it is well crafted. It is worth exploring everything and I like to try and keep an open mind.

PH: Do you write music?

JT: Occasionally. I used to do more. I have written the odd piece for my choirs and arranged the odd thing for them. Not that much nowadays. It’s something I would like to do more of in time.

PH: Do you write about music?

JT: No, other than program notes, which obviously is a conductor’s job we have to do a lot. I have recently become a co-editor for “As You Sing”, an upper voice collection for Oxford University Press, which my husband Neil and I were invited to compile to include works of living composers. We didn’t have to write very much; we did an introduction. I enjoyed doing the writing for that, actually, very much an editor’s eye. With the OUP editor we were commissioning works or asking composers if they had works that fit the criteria we were after for the book. There are nine pieces - works by such established composers as Cecilia McDowall, Sarah Quartel, Kerry Andrew and Oliver Tarney and others now starting to get published.  Michael Higgins is just now starting to be published by OUP, partly because we introduced his music to them, which is really nice. One piece is in two parts; most are in three (SSA), with one or two in four or more parts. We really want the book to be used by young people, mostly teenagers, and by women’s choirs.  Women’s choirs are very popular in the USA and I think they are starting to be more popular in the UK. We wanted the texts to be appropriate to both children’s choirs and women’s choirs. Nature seems to feature a lot; we didn’t want the texts to be too romantic, patronising or childish. It has been collaborative and really interesting and has taught me a lot about why I pick a piece or don’t choose to work on with my choirs, really analysing what works in choral writing. 

PH: Would you like to talk about your future plans?

JT: As I mentioned before, there are the two overseas tours with Farnham. In the Autumn, my Whitehall Choir is singing “Messiah”. Everyone thinks they know it well. They have done a lot of Handel but not “Messiah” in the last 20 years. We are going to have a come-and-sing as well in the Autumn, really focusing on vocal technique. We will perform at St. John’s Smith Square, which is very exciting. They have a lot of people wanting to do it at that venue, so we feel very lucky to get to do it there with some super soloists and period band. And then, in a few weeks’ time, I have another come-and-sing coming up at a festival at the St Marylebone Parish Church. Sonoro, the choir I sing with has a really interesting project at the moment: it has taken six well-known pieces, including works like Tallis’ “If You Love Me” and Stanford’s “Beati Quorum” and then commissioned six contemporary composers to write a paired piece with each, using either the text or something that reflects on the original; the aim was that those pieces are not so very difficult and that amateur choirs could include them in their repertoire. We have done some really beautiful and artistic YouTube videos of all twelve pieces of the “Inspirations Project” and are about to tour various places around the UK to do workshops on them with amateur choirs and then to perform either with those choirs or separately. I hope it will be an interesting experience for them to sing alongside us. There will be a London workshop as well. 

PH: You have mentioned your work with come-and-sing events. Are they one-off sessions?

JT: Yes. People just turn up and learn a work on the day...for a bit of a fun sing-through but I try and really make sure people come away with something tangible, such as singing technique, and make sure there are one or more new ideas they can take away from the day and back to their own choirs. 

PH: When it’s not music, what interests you?

JT: Food: I like cooking and I like nice food and wine. And I have two lovely step-children. I enjoy time with them and my husband. I love doing yoga and would like to make more time for that and perhaps one day go on a yoga retreat. However, being a freelance musician doesn’t leave a lot of time for other activities.

PH: Joanna, it has been a pleasure talking to you.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Talking to Vera Vaidman about her upcoming Tel Aviv concerts of J.S.Bach's unaccompanied works for violin and 'cello

Photo: Davide Iadiccio
On March 4th 2019, I spoke to violinist/violist Vera Vaidman in Tel Aviv. Born in St. Petersburg and in Israel since 1973, Ms. Vaidman’s international career as a recitalist, soloist and chamber musician has taken her to Europe and the USA. She teaches chamber music at the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music, Tel Aviv University and violin and viola at the Har Nof Conservatory, Jerusalem. Ms. Vaidman is about to embark on a series of concerts four weeks in succession in Tel Aviv, in which she will perform all the unaccompanied solo violin works of J.S.Bach and the ‘cello suites on viola.

PH: Ms. Vaidman, playing all these works in close succession seems like a mammoth undertaking.

Vera Vaidman: Actually, I do not know of anyone else who has done this on both instruments. I played Bach's complete works for solo bowed instruments in the Bargemusic concert series in Brooklyn, New York in March 2018 (Bach’s birthday month).. The concerts received ardent reviews. I have been playing the violin works all my life and have also recorded them. Performing them again is an opportunity to revisit the works and delve deeper into the music.

PH: And the ‘Cello Suites on viola?

VV: Actually, I only started playing the viola ten years ago...quite by chance. Three pupils of mine were performing Dvořák’s Terzetto for 2 violins and viola Op.74. The violist was unable to play and I stepped in at the last minute and took her part. Playing Bach on the viola has helped me to understand the violin works better.

PH: How would you guide the listener attending the concert series?

VV: The repertoire is much broader than what one imagines it to be. Bach intended the listener to “hear” the accompaniments in his inner ear. The audience should listen out for the works’ inner voices and “hidden” polyphony. These works, going well beyond anything that had been written in that genre, were revolutionary in Bach’s time and, in fact, they remain so today!

PH: will you be playing them by heart?

VV: Yes, and with all the repeats. In New York, I had to give up on repeats due to constraints of time, but will not omit them in Tel Aviv.

PH: What is your approach to playing Baroque music?

VV: I do not come from a background of playing on period instruments. I will be playing on aluminium-wound gut strings but with Baroque bows and will engage in some vibrato - not the kind suited to Romantic music, but for timbral warmth...not to be producing a sterile sound. I suppose you could call it music on the modern violin/viola but in the spirit of Baroque.

PH: Vera Vaidman, many thanks for your taking the time to share this information and your thoughts.

Friday March 8th at 11:00
Sonata 1001, Partita 1002 (violin), Suite 1012 (viola)
Friday March 15th at 11:00
Suite 1007 (viola), Sonata 1003, Partita 1004 (violin)
Friday March 22nd at 11:00
Suite 1008, Suite 1009 (viola), Suite 1005 (violin)
Friday March 29th at 11:30
Suite 1011, Suite 1010 (viola), Partita 1006 (violin)
The concerts will take place at the Israel Conservatory of Music, Tel Aviv.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Talking to violinist/singer/conductor Dmitry Sinkovsky at the 2019 Eilat Chamber Music Festival

Photo: Maxim Reider
PH: I met with Dmitry Sinkovsky (Russia) on February 9th at the Eilat Chamber Music Festival (Dan Hotel Eilat) where, in two concerts of Baroque music, he featured as solo violinist, solo singer (countertenor) and conductor of his own ensemble, La Voce Strumentale.

PH: Mr. Sinkovsky, do you come from a musical family?

Dmitry Sinkovsky: Yes...well...I would put it this way: my parents were not professional musicians, but at that time in the Soviet Union, all people (my father was an engineer) received musical education at music schools. So, it was my parents who gave me my first solfege lessons. My grandmother, however, was a professor of Harmony at the Moscow State Conservatory.

PH: So you started with violin lessons at age five. Were you expected to go on to play the Romantic repertoire, etc?

DS: Oh yes. This was the typical classical way of education. In our Moscow music education, everyone was treated as a soloist, playing Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Shostakovich, winning the Tchaikovsky Competition and things like that. Of course, this was the tradition, but, at a certain moment, I decided to find my own way.

PH: It must be quite pioneering to become an early music performer in Russia.

DS: To call us pioneers would be something of an exaggeration, because the much earlier generation, that of Alexei Lubimov (b.1944), did the real pioneering job. We are the second- or even the third wave of Russian early music players. But I am not a typical Russian early music performer. Neither is Grigorii Krotenko (here playing with La Voce Strumentale), a fabulous musician, who plays double bass, viola da gamba, other instruments; he also conducts his own orchestra and performs contemporary music, as well. We are all musicians who adore early music, coming from a strong early music background.

PH: Is early music your main focus?

DS: No. I also play modern violin.

PH: And the other players in your ensemble?

DS: We are not conservative early music performers who ignore the rest of the world. For example, I am staying on in Israel for the next ten days to perform with a dramatic theatre: it is a play in Russian about two Russian poets - Marina Tsvetaeva and Boris Pasternak and the love triangle with Rainer Maria Rilke. It’s a love story through the horrors of Soviet Communism. I am actually participating as an actor in it, a third actor who controls their emotions, who plays the violin and sings and acts a bit with them. At one stage, I appear in the play as Rilke and I sing for Marina. It’s very, very special. The performance includes music of Honegger, Bartok, Ysaÿe, Shostakovich, Penderecki (totally contemporary) and one piece by Bach. But the play is nothing to do with early music in general.

PH: Would you say a few words about La Voce Strumentale?

DS: Sure. This group was created in order to perform- and specialize in Baroque music, but we also recently recorded a CD of contemporary music written for us by Sergey Akhunov, a Russian composer quite popular now   I hope the disc will be issued in 2019. So, the ensemble is developing not only in the direction of “orthodox” early music, but it plays contemporary music on gut strings.

PH: Where do you personally stand regarding the Historically Performed Music movement?

DS: I would say it is developing a lot, now moving in the direction of perfection...which is good, which is very nice, but we have to be very careful with that; the “beauty of imperfection” is also a good phrase I often use. To me, the meaning of beauty is not only a golden, perfect column which must be a specific shape; it can also be wooden and irregular with different shapes. Beauty can be barbaric and wild or it can be sophisticated. That’s my vision on music. My vision on music is colour and emotion and emotion before all. It starts with the dream/emotion and the perfection behind them follows. We need to use technique to support the emotion. This is my concept of music-making in general.

PH: Your engagement in early music was much prompted by Baroque violinist Marie Leonhardt.

DS: Yes.  I discussed the early music scene with Marie Leonhard, who was one of my teachers. She told me that in every country early music is different. The Russian approach, of course, goes a bit more for perfection and is a little more compact and serious. But this is also somewhat a cliché as nowadays, with globalization and Internet, I no longer believe there remains any typical national school. People are born in one country, study in another, then live somewhere else; they collect all the different influences on the way. This also applies to Russia now...there is no longer a “typical” Russian style of performance. That they can’t play Bach and Handel, only Tchaikovsky because it is “in their blood”, I don’t believe any more. It has become quite mixed.

PH: Do you join opera companies to sing in Baroque operas?

DS: Yes, yes, sure. Last year I did two: the title role in Handel’s “Lucio Cornelio Silla” conducted by Dorothy Berlinger (who is also a recorder player) together with a very international cast of good singers - Anna Dennis, Kerl Fuge, Stefanie True and others. The other was Vivaldi’s “Orlando Furioso”, in which I sang the role of Ruggiero. But I am not making my sole focus on an opera career. Am trying to keep a balance between conducting projects and as a violinist and singer, without going too much in any one direction.

PH: Do you teach?

DS: Yes. I have a few students. I still have my teaching position in Moscow, but only three students at the moment. I can’t take on more as it is simply impossible with all the travel I do.

PH: Do you compose?

DS: Oh well...not really. It would be interesting to do this. It is something I keep in my mind, but it is a project that is “zipped” for the time being. I am happy with what I am doing now and where I am and there is still much to develop in my current activities.

PH: Do you edit music publications.

DS: No. I haven’t till now.

PH: When it’s not music, what interests you?

DS: I have to say that everything in my life is connected to music. I am interested in looking at violins and old instruments. I love wine...but this is also connected to music and all the arts.  Oh... but there is another interest: I am starting to fly small ‘planes. My teacher is in the United States, where I very am often as conductor-in residence of the Seattle Symphony. So that’s my hobby!

PH: Maestro Sinkovsky, this has been most interesting and enlightening. Many thanks for your time!

Meeting with pianist Grigor Asmaryan and violinist David Grimal at the 2019 Eilat Chamber Music Festival

Photo: Maxim Reider

On February 8th 2019, I met with violinist David Grimal (France) and pianist Grigor Asmaryan (Armenia/Germany) at the Dan Eilat Hotel following their recital at the Eilat Chamber Music Festival.


PH: We have just heard your program titled “Tzigane”, works by Enescu, Ravel and César Franck. Would you say a few words about it?


David Grimal: We are presently touring with this program; we have played it in Germany and France and we will play it in Taipei in a few weeks. I wanted to combine works connecting with that of George Enescu, such as the César Franck. The program also includes the Chausson "Poème" op.25, not played here in Eilat. It was Enescu’s favourite piece. He loved to play it. (My favourite Enescu piece is Sonata No.3.)  Of course, if you combine it with Franck’s Sonata in A major and Ravel’s “Tzigane” you have this Romantic- and gypsy side of music...French, Hungarian and Romanian.


PH: Grigor Asmaryan, you are new to this festival. Do you still live in Armenia?


Grigor Asmaryan: No, I left Armenia in 2000 and have been living in Germany for the last ten years, working as a répétiteur at the Hochschule für Musik Saar and performing chamber music.  Before that, I lived and studied in Paris for eight years.  I am a regular guest at the International Chamber Music Week (Thuringia), the Starnberger Musiktage (Germany) and the Olympiaregion Musiktage, Seefeld (Austria).


PH: And your studies, David Grimal?


David Grimal: Some of my studies were in Paris and then with a violinist called Philippe Hirschhorn and have played in many master classes, with Isaac Stern and “company”, but my mentor was Philippe Hirschhorn.


PH: How long have you been playing together?


David Grimal: We play together from time to time, but we work a lot together: Grigor plays with all my students. I very much enjoy playing with him. He is a wonderful musician. Sometimes you play with great names, great pianists, but they don’t listen to you. They listen to themselves. They have no flexibility so you can’t “sing” as you wish and you have no “space”. It’s a kind of ego battle on stage. Grigor is so friendly that I don’t need to force my violin to survive.

PH: How much do you discuss the music when you practise?


David Grimal. We just play. We don’t rehearse a lot. We don’t talk a lot. I think we understand each other very well. In music, as with human relationships, it’s what you don’t say that really matters. With music you can’t lie. I think we share some common “space” and it makes sense.


Grigor Asmaryan: For me it’s a miracle to play with David.


PH: In contrast to the bulk of the program, the three encores you played - Ferenc Vecsey: “Valse Triste”, Moritz Moszkowski.: “Guitarre” and Manuel Ponce: “Estrellita” - offered some gentle sentimentality.


David Grimal: Yes. Quite intentionally. I think it meets a need in audience members...some sweets.


Thursday, November 30, 2017

Talking to Canadian-born baritone Greg Skidmore in London

Photo:Paul Arthur
On September 6th 2017, I spoke to singer and conductor Greg Skidmore at his London home. Born in Canada, Greg arrived in London UK as an undergraduate and has made his home there, singing in such prestigious groups as The Tallis Scholars, The Sixteen, The Cardinall’s Musick, Tenebrae, The Gabrieli Consort and Alamire. He is the director of The Lacock Scholars, a consort of young singers specializing in the performance of early a-cappella works.


PH: Looking through your CV, I came across some rather different-sounding activities with which you have been involved. What is “The Spy’s Choirbook?”


GS: That was a major recording project by David Skinner and his group Alamire, an a-cappella early music consort dedicated to Renaissance music, a group quite similar to other groups like The Tallis Scholars or The Cardinall’s Musick. The recording is of repertoire from one single manuscript, which was compiled and created by a man living in the early 16th century called Petrus Alamire. (David Skinner named his group after him.) Alamire was a fascinating man: he was what musicologists call a “scribe”, a compiler and creator of music manuscripts. He was also a courtier, he was an ambassador. A Flemish man, his workshop was in Brussels and that is where he created all the manuscripts, including ‘The Spy’s Choirbook’. As far as I am aware, he didn’t write music himself, but his manuscripts are by far the most elaborate, most beautiful and most expertly made of any polyphonic manuscripts that we have.  


PH: So where does the “spy” come into it?


GS: There is a story that Alamire, being a Catholic from Catholic Belgium, was involved in the nascent reforming tradition in England and that he created The Spy’s Choirbook for Henry VIII. Due to his position as a man of the arts - a musician and artist - he was able (so the story goes) to infiltrate various courts. So, the spying bit comes from his ambassadorial roles. From some correspondence he had had with various people, it may be suggested that he was playing a bit of a double agent role.


PH: And then there is your involvement with “Betrayal”.


GS: Yes. “Betrayal” was a magnificent project. It followed on from I Fagiolini’s (director: Robert Hollingworth) project called “The Full Monteverdi”, which was an immersive theatre piece where the action was played out among the audience. “Betrayal” was a similar idea. In “The Full Monteverdi” it was six singers and six actors but in “Betrayal”, it is six singers and six contemporary dancers. There are six parallel storylines happening; each couple has its own story to tell, very loosely interacting with one of the other couples’ storylines. Each couple largely tells the story of falling in love and then being betrayed. Eventually, the subject matter gets quite dark, because the singer in each of the couples murders the dancer. The twist – echoed in the tortured, chromatically ‘twisting’ music of Gesualdo, who himself had murdered his own wife - is expressed through these parallel stories: the recognition of the fact that you had murdered your loved one followed by a process of grieving and redemption. It was quite an intense emotional journey for the audience, as it was immersive and, this time, a promenade performance; the audience was standing throughout, with the singing and dancing occurring in amongst them. It took place in quite a large space, so there were little pockets of action in the audience and they were was free to move around if they liked and could watch the different couples’ story lines. It was an amazing production, absolutely fascinating to be involved with and, I think, quite captivating for our audiences, as well.


PH: Then there was your participation in dancer Carlos Acosta’s “The Classical Farewell.”


GS: Yes. That was quite a bit more straightforward, from my perspective. That was mainly a ballet show. I sang in one of the numbers - the Hostias (baritone solo) from the Fauré Requiem. It was one item out of an evening’s gala ballet production at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Carlos Acosta put on a string of different farewell projects as his career came to a close, but that was the last time he danced classical ballet in public.


PH: Let’s go back some years. What were your earliest musical experiences?


GS: I grew up in London, Ontario, Canada, and started studying music at the age of three, playing the violin. My parents were very musical people, but neither of them were professional musicians in any capacity. They loved music, however, and started my sister and me on music very early. I started singing from the age of six in a secular community children’s choir called the Amabile Boys Choir. In Canada, the church singing tradition is not as strong as it is in the UK, so I was never a boy chorister in a cathedral. The children’s choir in which I sang was very good, however and we toured and competed a lot throughout America, Canada, Europe and the Caribbean. Being a member of that choir and playing the violin continued throughout my early childhood, with weekly lessons on the violin and weekly rehearsals with the choir. Music was very much a part of my life as a child, but in a secular, domestic context and not institutionalized. My musical exposure was all through the opportunities that my parents were able to provide.


PH: And in your teens?


GS: That is when I sought out some opportunities myself. I made quite a lot of music at my secondary school. It was a regular state school, not specifically a musical school, but it had a very strong musical program and music was taken seriously there.  Of the two music teachers there, one was exceptional, having a national reputation in Canada within the state education system. There, I played in a concert band there and began to take singing more seriously. Near the end of my teens, I decided to study music at university.


PH: Do you still play the violin?


GS: I don’t, unfortunately. I gave up the violin in my early teens and have never really picked it up again. It’s a regret, and I think I would like to go back to it someday, but only as a hobby.


PH: Would you like to talk about your higher musical education?


GS: Sure. I started out in an undergraduate music degree in the University of Western Ontario, in Canada. At about this time, I started falling in love with Renaissance polyphonic music. In 2002, I attended a week-long summer school course run by the Tallis Scholars and had an amazing time; that experience changed my life. That was in the summer after my first year of university and when I returned home I began desperately trying to figure out how I could move to the UK on a more permanent basis. What I came up with was a one-year exchange program at Royal Holloway College (West London) and so in July 2003 I went to England to do that exchange year. That was the third year of an undergraduate degree in academic music, which included a performance aspect, as well as history and music theory. After that single exchange year, I was meant to go back home to Canada to finish my degree, but I managed to transfer my studies fully from my Canadian university to Royal Holloway. I spent a further year there and then graduated.


Following my undergraduate degree, I again had to find a way to stay in England. I went into the cathedral singing world at that point, becoming a choral scholar at Wells Cathedral in Somerset for a year. I then went to Gloucester Cathedral as a lay clerk and after that to Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, again as a lay clerk.


During this time, I started a course of graduate research at the University of Oxford. It started out initially as a master’s degree and I translated that master’s degree into a course of doctoral research. After a few years in Oxford singing in the cathedral and doing the doctoral work, I accrued enough time in the UK such that my immigration status changed. I was then able to be fully self-employed, not requiring a sponsor (which had been up until that time the various cathedrals where I worked) and moved to London to become fully freelance as a singer. I decided, at that point, to put the doctoral research into a dormant state, which is where it currently is. If I wish, I can come back to it at a later date and finish it off.


PH: So how do both solo singing and ensemble singing connect for you?


GS: Initially, when I first arrived in the UK, my goal was never to be a soloist and, indeed, the music that I like the most now and that I still find the most rewarding is ensemble music. But in any singing I believe that you need to be able to sing technically in a sound way. I have always had individual singing lessons and I still do. Those singing lessons necessarily involve learning solo repertoire.  In my university undergraduate degree, there were opportunities to perform as a soloist and I took my vocal technique lessons very seriously. As things went along, opportunities to perform professionally as a soloist came my way as well. I took them and continued to increase and enhance my vocal technique. That allowed me to take on bigger and more demanding solo roles. Solo singing as a complement to ensemble singing is a great way to have a varied singing career. Learning to sing on my own in a fully committed way has enhanced my understanding of how to sing in an ensemble as well and I also bring that into my conducting.


PH: Would you like to mention singers or teachers who have influenced your career?


GS: Yes. My current singing teacher is Robert Dean and I have been seeing him for six years. He teaches at the Guildhall School of Music, London. Also a conductor, he used to conduct the Philharmonia Chorus, a symphonic chorus in London, and he still conducts operas around the world. He is a fantastic singing teacher and has had a huge influence on my singing technique. A singer who has had a great impact on me would be tenor Nicholas Mulroy. I am lucky enough to have worked with him pretty regularly in I Fagiolini and in other groups, but he is a little older than me and I have always looked up to him. He has a facility with communication in the way he sings that I find inspirational. He has never given me tuition in any formal sense, but I think I have learnt an enormous amount from watching him sing. Another singer I feel similarly about is mezzo-soprano Clare Wilkinson; we have worked together in I Fagiolini and Alamire and I am attracted to her ability to communicate, to be musical and to allow the power of her musicality and her artistry to dictate the way that she sings – not merely following the rules of vocal technique.


I met Eamonn Dougan a very long time ago, in 2004. He was a young baritone in the sort of world that I was trying to enter - that of chamber choirs and consorts in London. I had one singing lesson with Eamonn, and enjoyed it a lot, but he was never a formal teacher of mine.


In my very early days in the UK, I was mentored by some singers in the Tallis Scholars, and they helped me out enormously – not necessarily with singing. I would have coffee with them; I would ask them questions about the singing world or the UK or whatever and they might suggest a church choir I might audition for or someone I might have a talk with. Those singers were Patrick Craig, Deborah Roberts and Francis Steele. Those three, in my very early days in England, were incredibly important mentors for me.


PH: You have sung with a lot of groups. Can you refer to some of them?


GS: Sure. I suppose the group I have been singing with for the longest is a group based in Birmingham, UK, called Ex Cathedra. It is directed by Jeffrey Skidmore. (I am of no relation to him whatsoever).  That’s where I first met Eamonn Dougan and Nicholas Mulroy. I have been singing with Jeffrey really rather regularly since 2004.


As mentioned earlier, I have sung with Robert Hollingworth in I Fagiolini for around 10 years, but more regularly for the last three or four. I sing with the Tallis Scholars every so often, as a “preferred deputy” so they say. I have sung with Alamire for approximately ten years as well, do a little bit of deputising in The Sixteen, have performed for the last 10 years with the Gabrieli Consort (director: Paul McCreesh) and also do some deputising in the BBC Singers. About six years ago, Eric Whitacre started a professional choir in London and I have sung with them almost from the beginning. I have done a few projects with The Cardinall’s Musick as well. In London, it is a freelance system, so, with the exception of a few organisations (the BBC Singers being one and cathedral choirs being another - they are all contracted groups), the other groups I mentioned are project-based, freelance choirs.


PH: That is a lot to juggle.


GS: It is. There are two things that I would say are the most important for young singers coming to London: the first is sight-reading ability - absolutely crucial; you just have to be able to sight-read very quickly - and the second is diary management and administrative skills. This doesn’t sound very glamorous but it is incredibly important to be able to quickly respond to requests and be very, very careful and thorough with your diary. That’s how you juggle a freelance career.


PH: Do you teach?


GS: I don’t do very much teaching. I do a tiny amount; I have at times had a few pupils I taught for a year or so. Vocal teaching is not really a focus of mine. I am much more interested in being what you might call a “clinician” - working with choirs, working with small groups. In January of 2018, I am going to fill in for Robert Hollingworth at York University and teach his Masters students on the Solo Voice Ensemble Singing course that he runs there. I run workshops and guest conduct choirs, but in terms of one-on-one vocal tuition, it is not one of the things I have prioritized, I suppose.  


PH: You direct the Lacock Scholars.


GS: Yes. We are now starting our fourth academic year. There are two “flavours” to the Lacock Scholars; it is a slightly flexible institution, I suppose. Their name comes from the Lacock Courses, which are run by Andrew van der Beek and happen all over the UK and Europe, but the main group is a London-based amateur consort; we give performances throughout the academic year in London and do our own projects. There are also groups of students whom I facilitate - I find them and work with them, choose music for them, etc. – such that they act as scholarship holders on Lacock choral courses. There were ten of those singers at recent Lacock course in Ludlow, on which I was Assistant Conductor. They are the ‘course participant’ version of the Lacock Scholars. There is a link between the two groups in that very often students who go on some of the Lacock courses will join the standing consort I direct when they move to London or will do a project or two or will be within the orbit of singers that form the Lacock Scholars in London.


PH: This brings me to your conducting work and workshops.


GS: The Lacock Scholars are my primary conducting vehicle and, on top of that, I do courses and workshops with various different people. I started conducting when I was at Oxford, where I started a student group - a male voice Renaissance polyphonic ensemble. That ensemble no longer exists, so the Lacock Scholars are my primary focus now. I am always looking for other opportunities: I am currently in the process of setting up a workshop in Rotterdam and, next year, I am also starting a residential week-long course in my hometown in Canada - the Canadian Renaissance Music Summer School. That will hopefully be aimed at undergraduate- and graduate music students who are interested in learning specifically about Renaissance polyphonic music and whose degree programmes don’t necessarily offer them the opportunities to do that. We are currently in the process of getting that accredited by the university in my home town (Western University), so that students from other universities would be able to come and spend an intensive week with me learning about Renaissance polyphonic music, then apply that experience for potential course credit in their own programmes.


I have done a few workshops in Australia with I Fagiolini and I was a course tutor in the south of France at a place called “La Maison Verte”, run by Francis Steele (a previous member of The Tallis Scholars). I don’t, however, direct a choral society and have no plans to! So, my conducting is part of a wider musical career, of which singing is the main focus, but I am trying to change that balance. I love conducting and very keen to do more!


PH: Did you study conducting?


GS: I did not study conducting officially. I have studied conducting in the school of real life, I suppose. As a singer, all day, every day, I make my own evaluations of which conducting techniques work and which don’t, and I take a very active role in that. I have had an enormous amount of experience of precisely what it is like to be a singer being conducted, in a way that many people who study conducting at a music college will not have had. They will gain a theoretical understanding of how to conduct, but they won’t have the visceral understanding, they won’t have the accumulated knowledge, the first-hand experience of what it actually feels like to be conducted. So, the formal training is something that I don’t have, but I think I am able to bring quite a few insights into how I conduct from my career as a singer.


PH: Do you write music?


GS: I do not. I have done a small amount of arranging. But I think I have so much respect for composers, certainly from the past and also some current composers, that I have been daunted and it has never been something I have pursued.


PH: Do you edit?


GS: I do.  I regularly create editions of scores. When I was doing my academic training, that was a major focus. I have spent quite a lot of time thinking about editing, theoretically and practically, teaching myself the skills, and gaining the familiarity with the various software tools. I actually think that the scores singers look at is hugely important to how they sing; crucially, in removing problems and obstacles for them and allowing them to concentrate on the things that are important. So, my role as an editor is, again, really strongly influenced by my life as a singer. My editing is primarily practical, as opposed to academic, though I understand the academic concerns as well. So, the editions I create try to be hybrid (a mix of so-called ‘scholarly’ and ‘performing’ editions) and not overly academic. There’s a negotiation to be had, I think, between an edition of music as primarily an academic artefact - an object that communicates information about the past - and a score that is actually meant to be used in the present for a performance, and how those two uses interact. That negotiation is something of which I am very aware when I make editions.


PH: Do you write in words?


GS: I do. For quite a long time, I regularly wrote program notes for The Tallis Scholars. They do an enormous number of performances and these are slightly different all the time. They have a very large repertoire from which they draw and their performances will be tailored to different audiences. So they require quite a lot of program-note writing! I did that for four or five years when I was in Oxford. I have written CD liner notes as well for Ex Cathedra and for Tenebrae (another chamber choir based in London with which I sing pretty regularly) and I have done a very small amount of academic writing for journals. So, most of the writing I do is about the music that I am actually performing.


PH: Do you work with amateurs?


GS: I do. As a conductor, most of the clinician work that I do is with amateur singers. The standing group of Lacock Scholars based in London, whom I direct, is an amateur consort, meaning that it is not a fee-paying ensemble.


PH: Are the members not all on the way to singing careers?


GS: The difference between a music student and an amateur singer is complicated: some of them can move on to professional music-making and some will not. Those music students who are very good as undergraduate students but who don’t indeed move on to professional singing are precisely the kind of singers who make up the London-based Lacock Scholars. While they don’t receive fees for the singing they do, their singing is at a very high standard; it is at the elite undergraduate singing standard that we enjoy in the UK. I am always pushing that standard, as well, always trying to give them opportunities to sing at a higher level. So, strictly speaking, it is an amateur organization but with an ambitious standard of singing.


PH: Till now, we have only spoken about early music. Do you perform later music?


GS: I do. Especially as a soloist, I sing Romantic music and 20th century music - actually, music from every time period! As a recitalist, I have performed the music of Fauré, Duparc and Vaughan Williams, for example. As a freelance singer in the London singing scene, you need a broad range of skills and familiarity with a broad repertoire. My focus, my specialty, and where my heart lies is in the music of the Renaissance and early Baroque, but I have sung, for example, in the chorus of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder and done many other projects of contemporary music of various kinds.


PH: Are you interested to do new music?


GS: I am, but it is not one of my main focuses, I would say. I am, however, interested in working with young composers, with composers who are just setting out and specifically with composers who, like Vaughan Williams, have an affinity with and are inspired by music of the past. There are a few young composers around who are exploring the links between older styles and newer and how they can actively incorporate old music into their compositions while also expressing something new. Two of these are Ben Rowarth and Nicholas Ashby. These are composers in the early stages of their careers and I have performed some of their music with the Lacock Scholars. Ben and I are working on a major commission for 2018, where he will be writing the music for a Compline church service (the evening service in the Catholic tradition’s daily round of prayer, from the monastic tradition). We will be working together to create music for the entire service, one unified musical experience, leading the congregation through that liturgical journey. That will be for the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music.


I have never been drawn to the Darmstadt school of avant-garde music-making and by saying this I am not making any value judgements; the contemporary music world is quite specific unto itself, especially in the more avant-garde styles. You have to specialize in that, I think, to truly engage with it and that has never been something that I have done. But there is a lot of music being written these days that is not necessarily in that stream and I am very interested in that kind of music. I have sung for Eric Whitacre quite a lot, a contemporary composer, but not within that tradition. I also love the music of Arvo Pärt, for instance, and there are quite a few composers in the cathedral tradition in in the UK who write music more in the Vaughan Williams / Finzi / Benjamin Britten tradition, a vibrant composing tradition as well.


PH: Where do you stand regarding the Authentic Movement?


GS: Ah...a great question! Music, for me, is alive right now and it exists to be performed and to move people - right now! I think I am sceptical of the value of a musical performance if it only acts as an academic demonstration, if you will. So, I think the Historically Informed Performance movement needs to be constantly challenged to the extent that it is does not find itself becoming unmusical... if that makes sense. If the primary goal of a performance is merely to recreate a performance from the past, a performance that has already happened, I feel as though something has been missed or forgotten.


As I said, I think the primary goal of any performance is to create a meaningful, moving musical experience right now, in the present. This said, in my scepticism about the Historically Informed Performance movement, I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. There is much that we can gain from looking at academic sources, learning about how instruments were built, reading stylistic treatises, looking into performance contexts, types of voices, types of ranges, etc. There is an enormous amount of academic musical knowledge that we have and have access to and I think all of that knowledge should continue to be expanded. Academic research is incredibly important. I think performers should make strong efforts to learn everything that they can about the music they perform.


But I don’t believe that performers can learn everything they need to know about how to perform from academic study. They also have to be expressive; they also have to create and contribute something of themselves as artists, as totally contemporary, modern people. And they have to communicate with audiences in a way that is absolutely modern, happening right now. I think, and it might sound obvious, but at the most fundamental level music written in the past was meant to be performed in the past for people at that time; the composers and musicians who were writing then were not thinking about how their music would be performed in 400 years’ time. They were thinking about how their music was going to be performed next week, about how to express something to their contemporaries or how to create beautiful structures; or they were thinking about how to impress their patrons, or some other less romantic concern. So, whatever they were thinking about was, for them, “right now”. I think that in order to honour what they have given us, we also need to understand that their music has to has to be alive...the music has to be relevant; it has to mean something to us ‘right now’.


One of the things that I think happens too often is that performers attempt to create “time machines”, creating experiences that allow audiences to think as though they are going back in time, to experience what it might have been like in 1715 in a performance of some Bach cantata, or something. I find that problematic. I think the value in a performance comes from its expressiveness, from artistry; it comes from indeed the very, very same things that I would assume would have been present, and important, in that performance in 1715. It’s the artistry, I think, that has to be most important thing and the academic concerns, while also important, must be in a fundamentally supporting role.


The authenticity movement has been criticized for decades. Almost since it began, it has been criticized for similar reasons by many people, performers and academics, who understand that the success of an ‘authentic’ performance – its ability to ‘transport us back’ to ‘hear what the composer intended’ will only ever be of a limited kind because of practical realities: we arrive at a concert hall in a car, we get off a train, we don’t live in an autocratic mid-16th century European absolutist monarchy. We are fundamentally separated from the past and so, to attempt make a re-creation of a performance will only ever be varying degrees of unsuccessful. To think that you have, in 2017, experienced a musical performance that resembles a performance from 1617... I just think there is a bit of illusion (delusion?) in that.


Again, the most important thing about a performance, any performance but most importantly any performance in 2017, is whether you have been moved, whether you have been touched, whether the music has caused you to have an aesthetic, emotional, musical, artistic experience. To provide those experiences is what I believe music has always done - in any period; that this has been its primary power, to cause beautiful experiences to happen.


As a musician who is focused on singing music written in the past, I have had to think about this question a lot. I also confronted these issues in my doctoral work as well. It’s a hot topic! At the end of the day, I go for a focus on artistry at all times, for all audiences.


PH: I see you have recorded extensively.


GS: Yes. The recordings I have done have largely been through my association with various organizations, various groups. Recording is a regular part of what I do. I can’t remember how many recordings I have made. I have recorded with most of the groups with which I sing, and also with the cathedral choirs of which I have been a member. The recordings I am most proud of are one-per-part and two-per-part early music consort recordings with groups like I Fagiolini, Alamire and Ex Cathedra. Recording becomes part of that freelance career we spoke about earlier. The recording side of the job is really quite integrated with the concertizing and, in the case of a liturgical choir, with performing in regular church services.


PH: When it is not music, what interests you?


GS: Well, as a teenager, I played sport quite a lot. I don’t do enough of that now, but I follow sports - I follow a bit of football in the UK and basketball in America is one of my interests. And I have an interest in technology: I am fascinated by what has happened in the last 20 years or so in terms of mainly computer technology. I do quite a lot of computer programming myself as well, at a low level. It’s a hobby. I don’t have any formal training in it, but, if you go to the Lacock Scholars website - – you’ll see my work. I coded that website myself. Also, I suppose I am a bit of a current events “junkie” - I read a lot about politics and the news and try and keep on top of things. I’m interested in the psychology of politics and the analysis of it, what makes people tick and vote and think certain things about society.


PH: Greg Skidmore, it has been most interesting talking to you. Thank you for sharing so much of your ideas and professional experiences.