Tuesday, July 3, 2012

British countertenor Patrick Craig talks about his career and the world of countertenors today

British countertenor Patrick Craig has spent the last 16 years singing with the Tallis Scholars, The Cardinall’s Musick and as a singer of St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir (London). He also conducts his own ensemble -Aurora Nova – Britain’s leading all-female choir that sings in St. Paul’s Cathedral. Guest conductor of The Cardinall’s Musick and the Cecilia Consort, Patrick Craig has also conducted, taught and lectured at Tallis Scholars summer schools in Oakham, Seattle and Sydney. On June 20th 3012, I met with Maestro Craig in a café atop a hill overlooking the Adriatic Sea in Le Marche, Italy. We met again in Jimena de la Frontera (Spain) on April 23rd 2013, where Patrick was teaching a week-long choral workshop for amateur singers.

PH: Patrick, are you from a musical family?

Patrick Craig: Yes. My father was a chorister, as I was, at Lichfield Cathedral in the Midlands, England. As an ordained priest, my father needs to sing in his work. As a small child, I grew up being aware that my father sang and I started singing in the parish church choir even before becoming a chorister at Lichfield Cathedral. My mother is a pianist and she also sings. My parents met at Cambridge University singing in a choir…they met through music. Educationwise, my brother took the same direction as I (only two years ahead of me) as a chorister - he was head chorister at Lichfield Cathedral; we both attended the same school and the same college. Today, my brother is a school headmaster.

PH: Would you like to talk about your time as a boy chorister?

PC: Yes. I enjoyed singing solos. I was a high chorister and sang solos such as that in Allegri’s “Miserere”, which goes up to a high “c”. (My brother was a low chorister and we often sang duets together). We received a lot of musical training in the cathedral, although I would not say it was the best vocal training I have had. It was technically a little old-fashioned. Things have moved on a lot since then in terms of the information given to children on how to sing. I did, however, learn a lot about instrumental playing at the cathedral school.

PH: What musical experiences influenced you greatly when very young?

PC: As a small child I was taken to concerts of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. One of my earliest musical memories is that of sitting on the stage at the Birmingham Town Hall (they encouraged children to sit close to the players) hearing ‘cellist Paul Tortelier playing a solo. Actually, the ‘cello had been my first instrument, before I started learning the violin. Hearing this very expressive ‘cellist performing the Elgar ‘Cello Concerto made an impression that has stayed with me. As choristers, we had to sing a lot of church music. From that time, the sense of singing in a community has always been a big thing for me. As a chorister, I learned a lot about teamwork.

PH: What secondary school did you attend?

PC: My mother, working full-time as a special needs teacher, was determined to give me the best possible education. I attended Shrewsbury School, one of the top public schools in Britain. I had a music scholarship, and this helped with the financial side of my school education. The school had not previously enjoyed a huge musical reputation, despite having a good music department; however, the music side took off in the time I was there, with opportunities growing. We went on tour to Europe with the choir. Shrewsbury School provided me with a fast-track music-learning experience: there, I was arranging music for competitions, listening to a lot of music and I was playing several instruments. I entered the school as a pianist and violinist (as a violinist I led the orchestra but never became a solo violinist as I did not have much vibrato technique; thinking about it now, I should have become a Baroque violinist!) I also took organ lessons but kept my piano-playing going. For my last two years of secondary school, I was sent to study the piano with Frank Wibaut in Birmingham; he was one of the top concert pianists in England and was teaching at the Royal Academy of Music (London). Taking my piano studies on a more serious level made an important impression on me. Then, one day (I was 15 at the time) I saw a notice on the school notice-board announcing that there was a harp available. (I had loved the instrument ever since singing Benjamin Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols”, which we performed every year. I still remember the very glamorous harpist who would play each year…a magical creature who played barefoot, accompanying us treble voices.) So I seized the opportunity and began playing the harp, which I still do.

PH: Do you own a harp?

PC: They are very expensive instruments to buy and, after I had left school, my mother hired a harp for me; it was an old harp and the wood was starting to rot. I watched it slowly deteriorate until it eventually exploded from the tension of the strings. My mother decided it was counter-productive to hire these old instruments and she bought me a Japanese harp, the one I still have. This was a big financial investment and I took playing it very seriously.

PH: Did you continue to learn the harp?

PC: Yes. When a student at Cambridge University I took harp lessons, despite the fact that I was an organ scholar, giving me many opportunities to play at university. That was very special – there were only two harpists at Cambridge University then. I was a student at Selwyn College there, where my brother was a choral scholar. For one year, I conducted him in the choir. (This was a challenging situation. He was very sporty and would often turn up late for rehearsals.)

PH: Let’s talk about your career as a countertenor. How did it begin?

PC: At age 13, I went down from singing treble to alto; I never got to explore my lower voice, as I did not think my voice had broken. When I was 18, an ear-nose-and-throat specialist told me my voice had not broken. Sadly, I carried on thinking my voice had not broken till I was 22 years of age. I went right through school and university speaking in falsetto, quite a traumatic experience in an all-male school, and then taking university choir rehearsals in a high voice. A speech therapist at Cambridge told me that I had “this other voice” and that I could “start using it tomorrow”! I told her that I was established with my present voice and that I was not sure I could change that. However, before moving to London, I decided to try to use my lower speaking register and did intensive speech therapy in Cambridge. For two weeks I visited the speech therapist every morning, using pitch in music to hear my voice now placed two octaves lower than how I had previously been speaking. In the afternoons I had to go to the shops, to call my parents etc., to practice using my “new” voice. The friend who accompanied and supported me during those two weeks, Lucy Winkett, has referred to my story in her book “Our Sound is Our Wound”. I then went to London with a new speaking voice identity. This is certainly not how most countertenors start their careers, but it is a big part of my story!

PH: At what point did you actually decide on a professional singing career?

PC: Had I been born many years earlier, I might have ended up singing in a cathedral (not necessarily in London) as a lay clerk, combining that with a teaching role. I like children. I took a history degree at university and just assumed I would be a history teacher, having no intention of becoming a professional singer. Then a weird thing happened: my tutor at university forgot to put in my application for my teaching degree, a one-year course necessary for me to take in order to go into the profession. This changed the direction of my whole life and I had to do something else; I went to Wells and sang in Wells Cathedral choir for a year. It was then that my singing teacher, Nigel Perrin, suggested I go to music college. So, my history tutor's negligence was rewarded with my entering an environment where there were lots of opportunities and I could pay for music college by taking on all sorts of singing jobs that would not have been there many years ago.

PH: Who was a major influence on you as a countertenor?

PC: I would say it is Michael Chance. He came to Cambridge University when I was there, singing solos in Bach Passions and the B minor Mass. I found his singing compelling…he had a very masculine-connected, rich sound. Hearing him sing made me think that I would like to be doing that.

PH: And Alfred Deller?

PC: Oh, very important. Last year was Alfred Deller's 100th birthday. He was the singer who relaunched the countertenor voice, a voice previously very much hidden away in cathedral choirs. He was  very meaningful to what I and many other countertenors do now. Today there are hundreds of top countertenors; this has all happened in the years from when Alfred Deller became famous. I wanted to mark Deller's 100th birthday at St. Paul's. In the 5 o'clocj Eucharist on the very day of his 100th birthday, I sang the "Esurientes" from the Bach Magnificat and I soloed with the choir in the whole of the "Agnus Dei" from Bach's B minor Mass, both  classic Deller pieces recorded by him. It was a grand and very emotional event. I was so happy we had marked him on the actual day; like so many great singers, he had sung at St. Paul's having come from Canterbury Cathedral. His was not a loud voice, but it had lots of blade and carried well. For me, there is something about the countertenor sound that really suits the St. Paul's Cathedral acoustic. (We now have four very fine and different countertenors singing there. Deller himself spoke of countertenors as being different from eachother.) I think Alfred Deller stood in the same place as I stand in the Cathedral choir, so I do sense his presence. And Deller was then the first singer (a countertenor too, in those days!) to perform on Radio 3 just as it was starting in the 1950s; he was not yet well known.

PH: Today you are greatly involved with the music and activities in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London.

PC: Yes. I have been singing in the choir there for sixteen years; that is my salaried job. We sing from 4:30 to 6:00 in the afternoons – that includes a half hour rehearsal and then Evensong. Then on Sundays we do three services; in addition, of course, there are many extra services we are invited to do. I have also taken on other responsibilities at St. Paul’s: I am an assistant librarian, I proofread all the service papers and I teach singing to some of the clergy. My community centre is very much that job.

PH: I hear you have made a major change in the musical life of the cathedral.

PC: You could say that. When I started out at St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1995, there were no women doing anything there in the liturgy – there was one female verger, no female servers and no female clergy. I found that odd after being at university in a choir that was half men and half women. Actually, in my last year at Cambridge University, I put on a concert of music for women’s voices, a program on the theme of the Virgin Mary…some wonderful music, including the “Ceremony of Carols”, in which I played the harp part. Then, in London, I thought it would be amazing to carry this idea on and run an all-female choir. So I brought in a choir of 18 women – Aurora Nova - to sing a service when the cathedral choir was on holiday. As you can imagine, we got a lot of publicity following that first Sunday the women’s choir sang. The Guardian newspaper published a small article and a picture of the groundbreaking event. This choir has now been in existence for 15 years and has sung over 100 services across 40 Sundays. The members, some of them top singers from the The Sixteen or the Tallis Scholars, are singers I work with regularly; they have real energy, are able to meet on the day of the service and learn much material in record time…some of it being music that is rarely performed.

PH: And the other ensembles of which you are a member?

PC: I sing with the Tallis Scholars, which I joined in 1997; I have done 750 concerts with them over that time. They do about 50 a year, most of them abroad. We go to the USA twice a year, to Japan every other year and we have been to Australia. We also do “hit and run” concerts in Europe, flying there one morning and returning the next. The Tallis Scholars have been going for almost 40 years. (I still feel I am one of the babies there.) Singing in it has been quite a formative and solid part of my career. Quite soon after joining that, I started singing with The Cardinall’s Musick, which is a newer early music group run by Andrew Carwood, who now happens to also direct the music at St. Paul’s Cathedral; he is the first non-organist to direct music at St. Paul's. Carwood’s approach is different to that of the Tallis Scholars. He likes the group to be more soloistic…it is more about individual voices than about total blending. He also likes to place the music in a historical context. Whereas the Tallis Scholars give a very formal, strictly disciplined presentation, Andrew Carwood likes to turn around and talk to the audience, explaining about the works on the program, providing background information. I really like this approach, but both ways are valid. I have done much recording with both groups. The Tallis Scholars’ glorious years of recordings were the 1980s, but they slowed down somewhat after that time.

PH: Let’s talk about your solo singing.

PC: In 1992, I went to study at the Royal College of Music in London on a post-graduate singing course. I spent two years there. In those days, there was a countertenor teacher – Ashley Stafford – who has continued to be my singing teacher till today. There were only two countertenor students at the Royal College at that time. I chose the regular singing course (rather than the early music course, as was expected of countertenors). There I took classes in languages, movement, drama and different genres of song; opportunities for me were broadening very quickly. I had not been singing for very long, so, technically, I was on a bit of a fast track. In the meantime, Ashley Stafford was changing his own direction and training to become an osteopath! This meant that my singing lessons became a little sporadic. During my time at the Royal College of Music, I performed in two Händel operas. The London Händel Festival also needed countertenors for solo roles; I had to step up and suddenly found myself being viewed, doing broadcasts of Händel operas on the radio and big festival performances. That was a steep learning curve for me. I then did most of my solo singing soon after leaving the Royal College of Music, having more time then than I do now. I was frequently asked to do a lot of solo work before Christmas and Easter –  Messiah and the St. John Passion, etc. – in works that have countertenor soloists. Nowadays, the Tallis Scholars go to the USA every year before Christmas and before Easter, so those time slots have become less available for me for solo work. My solo options now mainly come from St. Paul’s Cathedral, because we do big performances of such works as the St. John Passion,  Messiah and Haydn’s “Nelson” Mass and I am one of a rota of four for the solo alto parts. I still  do the occasional solo role for a choral society concert, but I do not get to “exercise that muscle” so much nowadays. However, I do love my working life and feel no need to add more activities. St. Paul's Cathedral is flexible about my ensemble work and concert tours with both ensembles.

PH: And recitals?

PC: I did some recitals at the Royal Academy, where students were required to build up recital programs, but that has never been a big part of my career. I do not see myself as a recitalist.

PH: You are now at the height of your singing career. Did you imagine your career would go in this direction 20 years ago?

PC: Well, I must disagree with you on that point. The truth is that 20 years ago I was at a high point and have been lucky to have remained on that plateau. My jobs with St. Paul's Cathedral, The Tallis Scholars and The Cardinall's Musick have been running in tandem for 15 years or so. It has been quite consistent, with the solo work falling off a bit due to my heavy work load.

PH: You are enourmously busy. Do you ever feel you would like more time for yourself, to live a slower-paced London existence?

PC: That will happen when I retire. Things are still at a somewhat manic pace, but what I do is to squeeze the "ordinary" life in somehow - theatre, friends, etc. London is brilliant!

PH: Do you teach?

PC: Yes. I have taught music consistently since leaving music college. It is a very good way for singers to supplement their income. Doing a teaching day fits in well with the hours I work at St. Paul’s Cathedral. I taught in schools; one of the schools was the Harrow School in London, an all-boys school. For a while I was the only singing teacher there. The Harrow School has the curious tradition of always having a countertenor voice teacher, whereas most of the boys there are tenors or basses! I taught there for about four or five years, but today only do private teaching. As I mentioned before, I teach singing to London clergy and feel I have something to give there.

PH: There are many "schools" of singing, but your approach seems to be based on a much wider, more flexible and dynamic concept.

PC: That's true. A lot of singing teachers I know have a set technique on which they focus, giving them  real structure to their teaching, which is very directional. Such a method is Estill  Voice Training, a very specific and different approach to singing and totally alien to me. As I mentioned earlier, my singing teacher is a trained osteopath; for him, singing is first of all about body integration...singing with the whole body and understanding how it works. But also, the idea of my- and his basic technique is a stripping away of artifice from the voice. I am interested in releasing the natural, God-given instrument, whereas many schools of singing "impose" a technique on the voice. For me, singing technique is trusting what you do and not the constant worry about "fulfilling specific instructions". I perfectly understand the need of those rigorous singing techniques when singing a Wagner opera, but I am lucky to be singing the kind of music using release. I do have stamina as well. As to the "dynamic concept", Ashley Stafford, my singing teacher turns up to each lesson with a new idea. I have been studying with him for 12 years and we are always moving on. He has a very creative mind.

PH: Your world of singing combines cathedral music with the most specialized ensemble singing. Where does running a workshop for amateur choral singers fit in with that?

PC: For me it is the same mission; there is no barrier between the two. In my daily work, I work with people who may go at a faster pace, coping with more information, but, for me, any concert  is about communication, about saying something, about discovering something together with the audience. A week like the Jimena de la Frontera workshop is about passing on knowledge, not just through a singing performance but also by adding layers of  information. I feel that, in making music, we are going into the music to discover something about the way we think, who we are and what we are doing here. Communicating carries me into what I do.

PH: Do you still write arrangements?

PC: No. Sadly, I did not really pursue that. In the early days of Aurora Nova, before I was more familiar with the existing repertoire for women’s voices, I arranged a few pieces of church music that I really liked for the choir, such as Benjamin Britten’s “Jubilate in C”. I have carried on using these arrangements but also use the repertoire for women’s choir and am now connected with composers who commission works for the choir. Arranging is a very time-consuming activity.

PH: Do you compose?

PC: No. I have never composed. I have never been called upon to do it but would like to try one day.

PH: Watching you conduct, it is clear to me that you have a good sense of movement. Do you dance?

PC: I love dance and go to quite a lot of dance performances in London – often to the Sadler’s Wells Theatre, where they stage a lot of modern dance. I especially enjoy modern dance. I recently went to see the Pina Bausch Company, which is doing a big festival in honor of the 2012 Olympics in London. I found it moving. But I have never trained in dance, apart from movement classes at college. One of my teachers there said I had a good imagination for movement, but I have never pursued it. However, it is a field that interests me very much. I have a feeling that the voice and dance are very closely connected; for me, they are the two most thorough expressions of human emotion. Using your voice is using your body. Well, if I am reincarnated, I would like to come back as a dancer!

PH: Observing your work as a choral conductor, I have noticed your interest in the various non-musical connections of the music being studied.

PC: Yes. That is something I learned from singing with The Cardinall’s Musick. It is very much the approach of its director Andrew Carwood, who is a true Renaissance man. He is very well read, has an amazing memory for facts and has inspired me to go into interpretation of a work, of the kind where you bring in the social history surrounding the music. (Actually, I read History at Cambridge University. I took several courses in Social History, a field that deals with the “little” people who do not get mentioned in history books.) For me, to link the sociological aspect to music is very interesting. Much music has been sponsored by the rich and famous, but a lot of the composers have come from more lowly backgrounds. I find the linking together of context – where the music was heard, where it came from and its emergence - helpful and informative to both performer and audience. It is nice to have time to explore this side. When Andrew Carwood has been absent, I have stepped in and done the presentation in concerts, also conducting and singing in them – big, step-up concerts for me. I have also used the historical background approach in Tallis Scholars summer workshops in England, America and Australia. It is nice to go back to my undergraduate studies and bring historical aspects into music.

PH: Let’s talk about the world of countertenors of today.

PC: I feel the countertenor world has changed hugely during my 20 years in the business. Whereas I was the only countertenor in my second year at the Royal College of Music, there are now 11. I think the countertenor world has exploded in my time. It goes back to Alfred Deller, who, as mentioned earlier, began his career at Canterbury Cathedral Choir and then moved to St. Paul’s Cathedral, where he sang for 15 years. Similar to my own way of life, he used the job at St. Paul’s to serve as his  base in London, from where he ran the Deller Consort. I feel I have inherited that opportunity. With fewer around, there were many more opportunities for countertenors 20 years ago.

There are a lot more young countertenors out there today and with a really high standard, with the teaching of teenagers more prevalent. Teenage singers today are so confident and so are 21-year-old singers applying for jobs. The standard of the sound of countertenors has improved very much over the last 20 years, as has their ability to become more spectacular. I have countertenor acquaintances who are pursuing solo careers…such as Robin Blaise, a friend of mine, who travels the world as a soloist. There are many more like him who have stepped up a level and I admire them hugely. Nowadays the countertenor is being used in opera in a way it could not have been when I started out, due to the volume of sound needed to register in opera houses. The truth is that the countertenor voice has gained in “glamour rating”. Not necessarily in a good way, music has become “youth-oriented” and that suits the countertenor singer. The countertenor voice flourishes early and does not need the years of maturing that the bass voice does. The fact that the countertenor voice has the most impact in the singer’s 20s and 30s suits the current music scene. And there are superstar countertenors out there cashing in on that and enjoying many opportunities for recording. There is a turnover, as they do not last so long in the limelight. Well, I am also a part of that scene; it is nice to see the countertenor voice being more accepted in general classical terms.

PH: How do you see your own future as a countertenor?

PC: Ultimately, I do not feel my countertenor voice will see me through to retirement, but I might be wrong on that, as it is going very well at the moment.

PH: What plans do you have for the immediate future?

PC: Many. There is the Tallis Scholars’ 40th anniversary coming up next year. The Cardinall’s Musick is still touring with concerts of the entire sacred works of William Byrd. I would like to study more conducting technique, as I am now getting more opportunities to conduct orchestras at St. Paul’s Cathedral. It is very exciting. On the Sundays of July, we do a series of orchestral Masses. I will be directing the last of those this year (2012) and will be using the City of London Sinfonia, a professional orchestra. This will be quite a learning curve for me. The orchestra players do not know me and are going to want to see what I can do! Then there is a big event for me for the Olympics: on July 29th I will direct Gounod’s “Messe solennelle de Sainte Cécile” – a big Gounod 45-minute work. I will be doing the upper voice version of it with Aurora Nova, together with the orchestral part (it is frequently done with organ accompaniment). It should be quite spectacular! This is the biggest future plan on the horizon!

PH: Is there a lot of competition in the kind of work you do?

PC: All these jobs are greatly sought-after. A lot of people are interested to be doing what I do. There is a raft of people - many of them very young and confident - ready to step in if a job becomes available but work possibilities are not increasing. The recording world has shrunk a bit and YouTube has changed things. However, we must be ready to embrace the latter and other opportunities offered by the Internet, such as Facebook.

PH: And long-term future plans?

PC: I think I would like to gradually shift the emphasis from singing to conducting and possibly run a regular church choir, involving my interest in sacred music, in liturgy, and to be a director of music rather than a singer.

PH: You were an organ scholar. Do you see yourself as an organist in your future plan?

PC:  I would need to get back to doing a lot of work there and that needs time. It would be useful for a church job, although I do not enjoy it enourmously.

PH: In 20 to 30 years time, what do you imagine you will write in your memoirs? What will characterize them?

PC: They will not be musically- or intellectually focused. They will be about the people, the friends the stories. I am bad at remembering individual concerts. The concerts I remember are when something unusual happens! (When I was a student performing the Durufle Requiem, a man in the audience had a heart attack and fell into the aisle. Our conductor did not see it and we continued singing. Mind you, for a music-lover, this is not a bad way to exit the world! Such wonderful music.) My memoirs will centre around the bigger experience of being part of the music world.

PH: Patrick, when it is not music, what other interests do you have?

PC: I am quite a pop culture person. I love good American- and British television. I keep up on dramas; at the moment the current trend is Danish dramas, which I find really thrilling and enjoyable. Have already mentioned dance performances. I also really love going to the theatre in London. Through a friend of mine I get to go to press nights at the National Theatre; so, at a reduced cost, not only do I get to see amazing shows, I am also able to “stalk” all the celebrities I see on television! These are dream nights not to be missed. I also like to cook both for myself and for friends. I do not do too much entertaining as, with travelling a lot, I need my own space. And I enjoy all the different cuisines when travelling.

PH: Patrick, many thanks! It has been most interesting talking to you and hearing about the many sides to your professional life.


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