Monday 22 September 2014

Beyond the Swingles - an encounter with Jonathan Rathbone

Jonathan Rathbone - photo credit Gerald Place
Jonathan Rathbone
photo credit Gerald Place
The Vasari Singers and Jeremy Backhouse have an enviable tradition of commissioning new music and on 17 October 2014 at St. Alban's Holborn, they will be giving the premiere of Under the Shadow of his Wing by Jonathan Rathbone. Rathbone is not, perhaps, a name that is immediately familiar, and if you know his name, then it might be in connection with the Swingle Singers with whom he was associated for 12 years. But, like many, Rathbone is classically trained and moves between various musical worlds.

His new work takes its title from a line in the Compline service and the piece forms a type of vespers service, going from evening, through twilight to gloom. 85 minutes long, it was mean to be 60 but expanded in composition. The work is a sequence of settings of liturgical texts in English and Latin, including a complete Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis.

It is written for two choirs and designed for a large acoustic and during the piece the choirs start behind the audience; Rathbone describes them as 'creeping out of the gloom'. Then during the work, they process around using the full space in the church; the score includes a detailed scheme of which choir should be where during the piece. Rathbone wants the audience to be surrounded by sound. Rathbone's intention is that the individual movements can all be use independently in the liturgy, and the Vasari Singers has already performed the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis at Lincoln Cathedral.

Rathbone say the style of the piece is deliberately very listenable and rather lush; he wants the audience to relax into their seat. He refers to the work's style as modern but nice, and says it is typical of his work now but admits that he has written more avant garde music in the past.

Rathbone sang in Coventry Cathedral Choir, singing alto at the age of eight along with Paul Daniel and Harvey Brough. Rathbone credits singing alto with developing his feel for harmony. He went on to be a Choral Scholar at Cambridge, and during his time there he started writing and arranging more, and even wrote a music. He still enjoys arranging and says he likes the feeling of not having a black slate.

Rathbone's degree at Cambridge was in Mathematics so he went on to study at the Royal Academy of Music, during which time he sang at the Church of St Brides. A friend from Cambridge, Philip Sheffield, had joined the Swingles. Then when Sheffield left them, Ward Swingle left at the same time. Sheffield suggested Rathbone as a replacement for Ward Swingle. Rathbone says that he was just what was needed to replace Ward Swingle, a general musician rather than a specialist singer, and perfectly happy filling in harmony lines (and there was a lot of that in the Swingle arrangements). In fact, Rathbone had arranged three pieces for the Swingle Singers before his first concert with them.

During Rathbone's time with The Swingle Singers, their repertoire continued to include not only the familiar arrangements but also classical repertoire. They sang Berio's Sinfonia and Ravel's L'enfant et les sortileges a lot. Rathbone says that one of the nicest concerts that  gave was one in Uppsala Cathedral, all classical but sung with microphones. Rathbone is very positive about the use of microphones, saying that they give you so much scope for being quieter of louder. They recorded a whole CD of Quilter and Ireland, but failed to get permission from Ursula Vaughan Williams to record RVW's Songs of Travel as the were unable to convince her of their serious intent.

Rathbone was both musical director and manager of the group and describes it as the job from hell. His house was full of CD's, a telex machine and sundry equipment, whilst he had to mortgage his house as collateral. But he loved doing, despite the vast quantities of paperwork (which he loathes, and still does). And in an age before the internet, he would be up late at night or early in the morning, talking to agents in USA or Japan.

But Rathbone wrote his first anthem when he was eight and has always loved classical music. He describes The Swingles as something of a diversion from something he was heading towards. When he left The Swingles, he was doing some orchestrating for the All Soul's Orchestra, and took on a couple of choirs. But one of the biggest problems he faces in placing his music is that The Swingle Singers always come up, and does not usually help. For one of the choirs he conducts, he did some rehearsals with them before applying for the role of conductor but many people who had not been at the rehearsals were dubious. The word Swingle loomed large in his background and they were worried about what he would do with the choir.

Rathbone finds quite a divide in the UK between classical and jazz. But when he worked in Holland, the choir was going to moving from singing close harmony with Rathbone to performing Bach's Mass in B minor, something that he could not imagine happening in the UK.

He admits that he is still more well known for his Swingle work, and that he still works extensively in the jazz area. He has been working on jazz arrangements with Nordic Blue and does a lot with a youth choir in Bergen.

His back catalogue includes over 120 carols, product of regular Christmas concerts with the choirs that he directs, plus The Christmas Truce for narrator and choir which is one of his most popular works. But when I ask him what he would like to compose, in an ideal work, he answers an opera or a ballet. He has had projects for both in the past, but they have fallen through.

Choral music is Rathbone's main interest, though he also enjoys orchestration. He admits that orchestras are able to get things together rather quicker, and allow him to no more with notes and intervals. He realises that his background is quite eclectic. Having been classically trained, when he joined the Swingles he learned to write in jazz harmony, a style completely missed out in his college education. But he has given up worrying about which bit of his musical background he is using, he writes because he just likes the sound of it.

Jeremy Backhouse and the Vasari Singers give the world premiered of Jonathan Rathbone's Under the Shadow of his Wing at Church of St. Alban the Martyr, Brook Street, Holborn, EC1N 7RD on  17 October 2014. Further information from the Vasari Singers' website.

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