Saturday, 1 July 2017

Path of Miracles: Nigel Short on reviving Joby Talbot, happy accidents and talented young singers

Nigel Short in rehearsal with Tenebrae at St Andrew Holborn (Photo Ben McKee)
Nigel Short in rehearsal with Tenebrae at St Andrew Holborn (Photo Ben McKee)
Nigel Short and Tenebrae are in the middle of their 15th anniversary celebrations with an extensive series of performances across the UK and world-wide. The choir has revived Joby Talbot's Path of Miracles, a work it commissioned in 2005, and is pairing this with a new work from Owain Park, Footsteps. I met up with Nigel Short to find out more.
Nigel Short in rehearsal with Tenebrae at St Andrew Holborn (Photo Ben McKee)
Nigel Short in rehearsal with Tenebrae
at St Andrew Holborn (Photo Ben McKee)

I was curious to find out what it was about Talbot's work which made Nigel and the choir decide to revive it for their anniversary celebrations. Nigel explained that they were due premiere Path of Miracles on 7 July 2005, the day of the London bombings. The performances were postponed and though there had been a huge amount of interest in advance, the re-scheduled performances failed to attract the same attention, neither with the audience nor with the critics. So with such a difficult birth, they wanted to give the work a second chance, so it would get the attention it deserved. This was particularly true as the people who had heard the work were amazed by it, and when singers were exposed to it they became hooked.
Joby Talbot is known for his work with the band The Divine Comedy, his film and ballet scores, writing mainly orchestral music. Nigel says that he was struck by the sheer range of choral techniques which Talbot brought to the Path of Miracles, often thinking orchestrally and giving the music something different.

When the choir first performed the work, it was the technical demands of the piece which struck audiences. But this year it has been the audience's emotional response which has been notable. It is a reflective work, about the idea of pilgrimage, structure around the Pilgrimage to Santiago, and Nigel thinks that the last ten years of strife in the works, the stresses and strains of modern life, have made audiences more open to such ideas. There is little repose in the modern world and he sees concerts, with the audience essentially captive, as giving audiences the time for reflection. Path of Miracles is not a sacred work, Nigel describes it as having gravitas but not being about God.

As well as getting a good reaction from audiences, the performances seem to be attracting a lot of young people keen to hear the CD (on the Signum Classics label) live. The choir's performances are spread out over a long period. Nigel and Tenebrae launched the celebrations in Hull on 18 May 2017 and will be taking the work to lots of places across the UK as well as Europe and the USA (in 2018), and to Australia.

The pairing for the work is a new piece by Owain Park. Nigel felt a new commission would get more focus for the performances, as well as providing a custom built companion piece for the Joby Talbot. Park's new work, Footsteps, has an interesting feature, it includes a role for amateur groups. Whilst parts of the piece are very challenging, others are suitable for amateur singers. It is flexibly written so Tenebrae can sing it alone or be joined by mixed voice choir or just a group singing in unison. Nigel sees the advantage of this being that it enables choirs to feel involved in the Path of Miracles performance. The work's publishers provide a lot of on-line learning tools for choirs involved, but if the group wishes then Nigel goes along to work with them; something not essential but which Nigel sees as being very helpful for the final performance.

Nigel Short in rehearsal with the BBC Symphony Orchestra
Nigel Short in rehearsal with the BBC Symphony Orchestra
Owain Park was originally an organ scholar at Trinity College, Cambridge and directs the vocal ensemble The Gesualdo Six. He was commissioned by Suzi Digby and ORA, and singers in Tenebrae who also sing in ORA recommended Park's work to Nigel. In fact Owain Park had himself auditioned for Nigel as a singer and is joining Tenebrae as an associate artist.

Tenebrae's Associate Artist scheme enables young singers to be able to sing with Tenebrae on a regular basis. Over the years Nigel has had young singers come into sing with Tenebrae when older singers are not available. He sees the problem with this being that the young singers do a good job but then the choir does not see them again for six months. So Tenebrae has found the money to pay for young singers to come and be associate artists, spending six months getting to know the choir and being paid the full rate. It is a flexible arrangement, which allows the young singers to sing themselves into the group as well as making contacts through the other, more senior singers. Nigel sees this element of making contacts as being very important to younger singers' careers. The funding for the scheme is limited, and if the group could find more funding they would expand the scheme further.

Nigel comments that there are so many good young singers around, all they lack is experience.

Nigel Short in rehearsal with Tenebrae
Nigel Short in rehearsal with Tenebrae
Nigel had a long career as a singer, starting as a treble and eventually joining the Kings Singers. It was after leaving the Kings Singers that he founded Tenebrae almost by accident. He had gone to Switzerland, intending to learn to ski properly, and through friends of friends ended up putting a choir together for concerts. There had been no career plan, and certainly no thoughts of conducting whilst he was in the Kings Singers.

He worked with the singers as ensemble singers, encouraging them to really listen, they way he had learned with the Kings Singers. And Nigel prefers those who listen the best for singers in the group, even though they may not have the best voices. He is keen for his singers to listen, and to put text and the meaning of the piece first and foremost. He likes a big choral sound, but he also wants to get the sort of precision and accuracy familiar from the Kings Singers, but with a choir of 20 singers.

Text is something Nigel is keen on, he points out that if you have 20 singers all doing exactly the same thing at the same time, then the text can be both expressive and understandable. He uses a variety of techniques to make the words carry and our discussion includes as number of demonstrations from Nigel.

He does not feel that Tenebrae has a particular sound. There is no one description for the group's sound, and instead he varies things depending on the repertoire, using different approaches for Poulenc and for Brahms. But the choir is very well disciplined in terms of balance, intonation and ensemble.

Nigel Short in rehearsal with Tenebrae
Nigel Short in rehearsal with Tenebrae
Other plans, beyond Path of Miracles include two more recordings. There is a disc of Pawel Lukaszewski's choral music, which Nigel calls nice and lush. The music includes settings of Lamentations and Tenebrae Responsories. This year (2017) Nigel Short and Tenebrae performed Tenebrae Services as part of St John's Smith Square's Holy Week Festival in 2017, and he plans to use Lukaszewski's music at next year's festival. Another disc is of settings of Psalm texts, modern settings of ancient texts, with Bernstein's Chichester Psalms, Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, Schoenberg's Friede auf Erden and Zemlinsky's Psalm 23. The recording is with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and uses large forces but Nigel brings the same attention to detail as when working with a smaller choir. The Zemlinsky in particular he sees as a nice surprise, and calls it a very dramatic work 'with a couple of Star Trek moments'.

When I ask about Nigel's desert island works, ones he would love to conduct, he names Poulenc's Sept Repons de Tenebre and RVW's Oxford Elegy. He hopes to be performing this latter work as part of a project centred on Ivor Gurney. Gurney and Herbert Howells were present as teenagers at the premiere of RVW's Tallis Fantasia , an event which switched them both onto music. So the recording will use orchestrated versions of Gurney songs (with Sarah Connolly), works by Gurney and by RVW, plus a new commission from Judith Bingham, A walk with Ivor Gurney which mixes Gurney's poetry with Latin inscriptions found in the Gloucester hills. The home-sickness of the Roman soldiers in Gloucestershire echoing Gurney's own longing for his native Gloucestershire whilst he was in the trenches.
Nigel Short
Nigel Short

Nigel Short and Tenebrae will be performing Joby Talbot's Path of Miracles and Owain Park's Footsteps at the church of St Bartholomew the Great on 7 July 2017 as part of the Voices of London Festival and at Tewkesbury Abbey on 12 July 2017 as part of the Cheltenham Music Festival.

Full details of the choir's performances from the Tenebrae website.




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