Saturday 21 May 2016

A kind of alchemy - I talk to Lionel Meunier about Vox Luminis and its distinctive sound

Vox Luminis at the Brighton Festival - photo Victor Frankowski
Vox Luminis at the Brighton Festival - photo Victor Frankowski
Lionel Meunier
Lionel Meunier
Lionel Meunier is the artistic director of Vox Luminis, the vocal ensemble which he founded in 2004 and in which he sings baritone. The ensemble was on tour in the UK recently and I was able to catch up with him after their concert at the Cadogan Hall (see my review), to find out more about the ensemble and its distinctive approach the music they sing. Their programme at Cadogan Hall had been, in many ways, quite a daring one; a Belgian ensemble performing all English Tudor composers to an English audience.

My first question though, was about the choir's distinctive sound. For Lionel it is about richness of sound, he likes using many different voices with varying vocal colours, rather than all similar, to create the sound that he imagines in his head. He tries to use each voice in its best range, and describes the process as a kind of alchemy. The ensemble's name is a good indicator, Vox Luminis, and Lionel is interested in the vocal brightness which can be achieved from overtones, rather than something artificial sounding. This interest in the quality of sound, and the issue of vocal placement, Lionel admits, something of an obsession.

Whatever language they sing in, they have a native speaker in the group

Discussion of the quality of the group's sound leads directly to the question of language and clearly for Lionel the two of intimately linked. From the outset the ensemble has had members from a variety of different nationalities. This means that whatever language they sing in, they have a native speaker in the group, who can then coach the others. Though Lionel admits that they can never hope to achieve the fluency of native speakers, they can aim for (and achieve) a sense of unified approach to the language. Being a non-native can, Lionel feels, also be an advantage. He points out that in his native French, the singing is almost routine and requires little effort to shape the syllables.

In a foreign language the singers take care to ensure a unity of approach to the shaping of syllables. At this point in our discussion Lionel demonstrates a couple of English words and with one like 'Lord' points out details in the articulation of the 'L' and the placement of the dipthong that I was completely unware of. It is this understanding which in English, for instance, helps ensure the singers do not fall into the trap of making the English vowels flat.

Beyond simple sounds, most importantly for Lionel, the singer ensure that they understand and express the text. There is a balance here to be achieved between over doing things and being too low key. Lionel feels they do not always reach their goal, but keep striving.

They perform the music in they way that it speaks to them


Vox Luminis rehearsing at the Cadogan Hall
Vox Luminis rehearsing at the Cadogan Hall
The whole sound of the choir is a very personal thing for Lionel, yet he take the view that there is no good or bad way. They simply perform the music in they way that it speaks to them. They certainly do not aim to be a clone of UK ensembles, and particularly with the English repertory, this would be impossible. When the ensemble picks up a new (to them) English piece, the singers may have heard it performed on CD or in recital, but they certainly have not been singing it since childhood like many British singers who are former members of cathedral and collegiate choirs. This means that with a work like Byrd's Ave Verum, Vox Luminis approaches the piece as if anew. They take the scores and find their own way through the work.

Lionel likes to check the original sources and tries to perform works the way they would have been done originally. This means, where possible, sticking to the original pitches. Lionel discovered a lot of the repertory through listening to ensembles like the Tallis Scholars and Stile Antico, but does not attempt to imitate them. The group performed Tallis's 40-part motet Spem in Alium for the first time last summer. Many of the British singers taking part found the performance refreshing as Lionel and Vox Luminis took such a different approach to the work.

Vox Luminis had sung English works to French and Belgian audiences and finally decided they would just do it, and bring a programme of English music to England. Lionel said that they tried simply to sing the music, and felt that it was important that the singers liked it, that they made music and enjoyed it. We return to the important point that the words need to mean something, but have to be shaped. Here Lionel demonstrates the complexities and potential pit falls of a phrase like 'the spirit of truth' (something I as a native rather take for granted).

The World Youth Choir  gave him the experience of choral singing

I was interested to find out about how Lionel came to create the choir in the first place. He studied recorder at the Institut Supérieur de Musique et de Pédagogie, Namur before going on to study voice at Royal Conservatoire of the Hague. It was whilst studying recorder in Namur that Lionel first heard the World Youth Choir. He went on to join the choir (by now studying voice and recording, and in fact shared a flat with the tenor Michael Spyres) which gave him the experience of choral singing and he found he was happy to be on-stage communicating.

Vox Luminis at St John's College, Cambridge
Vox Luminis at St John's College, Cambridge
They performed Scarlatti's Stabat Mater with 36 singers. Lionel felt that this was wrong, he wanted to do the piece with just one singer per part. He was too you to be invited to do so by other groups, too lacking in experience, so he decided to do a performance with friends. It went well and he was very happy and the intention was to do one performance per year. They were students so they worked a lot by themselves, working hard without any concerts. Singing so much together they not only developed the group's distinctive sound, but friendships developed too.

Finding a CD label which trusted them was important step. When they signed with the Ricercar label (now part of Outhere Music) the group had only done 10 concerts in three and a half years, but the label trusted them. They then moved to doing six concerts per year and by then Lionel felt that they had something to say. He admits that the group's approach is very particular, and he doesn't mind people not liking it. What he dislikes is people say they have no opinion of the group's performance.

When the group's recording of Schütz's Musikalische Exequien got a Gramphone Award in 2012 there was a complete storm. Lionel was only able to stay sane by switching off his phone and computer, and simply concentrating on Vox Luminis.

There was a lot more we could have talked about. Lionel is a lively and engaging conversationialist who has clearly thought about Vox Luminis' performance style and can articulate his ideas with great charm. However our interview had to be cut short as the concert hall was closing for the night (and Lionel had a tour schedule to attend to, with a concert in Cambridge the following night).

Vox Luminis has further UK dates planned, so watch their website for details. And I hope tob e able to catch up with Lionel then, and talk more about the way he creates the ensembles sense of vocal identity.

Vox Luminis on disc:

Elsewhere on this blog:

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