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 DuruflĂ©, 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.