Saturday 29 June 2019

From Supersize Polyphony to choir creation: I chat to Christopher Monks of Armonico Consort

Christopher Monks conducting Armonico Consort's Supersize Polyphony at Coventry Cathedral (Photo Peter Marsh Ashmore Visuals)
Christopher Monks conducting Armonico Consort's Supersize Polyphony at Coventry Cathedral
(Photo Peter Marsh Ashmore Visuals)
Supersize Polyphony was the Armonico Consort's celebration of large-scale 16th century polyphony including Alessandro Striggio's 40 voiced motet and mass, Ecce Beatam Lucem and Missa sopra Ecco Si Beato Giorno, and Thomas Tallis' 40-part Spem in Alium, and now the ensemble, with the choir of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge have recorded the programme for Signum Classics. Christopher Monks founded the Armonico Consort nearly 20 years ago and we chatted recently about the recording, the consort's wide range of educational activities such as the successful choir creation scheme, as well as the remarkably amount of musical talent in the UK's young people, often without a proper pathway for release.

The idea behind the recording was to re-create the Supersize Polyphony concertis, with the Striggio mass and Tallis motet. But Monks was wary of presenting the listeners with a wall of sound, how to sustain the audience's concentration and attention. Originally, the movements of the mass would have been interspersed with plainchant and the other elements of the liturgy. But we are not even sure that the mass was performed live and certainly do not know what the plainchant was, so Monks has felt released from academic constraint at liberty to use chant by Hildegard of Bingen as the connecting tissue, providing a contrast between the timeless beauty of the Hildegard and the large scale works. With the disc, Monks toyed with the idea of doing the mass in one block, but decided to re-create the concert. Also on the disc is Tallis' four-part O nata lux, with the intention of showing where Tallis' large-scale motet came from.

The concerts provided a series a series of logistical challenges, for a start they involved travelling with fourty-four singers. The issues varied from venue to venue; the music was sung in the round to immerse the audience in sound. So there was always the question of where to place the singers so that they would be surrounding the audience, how to light the singers. Cathedrals were challenges because of the pillars, issues with sight-lines and of course the echo. And the results needed to look good too.

Christopher regards how the concert looks as very important, the expectations of contemporary audiences are very high, and he feels it is the consort's duty to bring stuff to life in as authentic a way as possible. And performing the works in the round is part of that authenticity, though it is also a rod for their own backs.

Christopher Monks conducting Armonico Consort's Supersize Polyphony at Coventry Cathedral (Photo Peter Marsh Ashmore Visuals)
Christopher Monks conducting Armonico Consort's Supersize Polyphony at Coventry Cathedral
(Photo Peter Marsh Ashmore Visuals)
Another challenge was distance, in some venues such as Canterbury Cathedral there was a few hundred feet between performers. It does work, but it it requires the performers to stay faithful to the beat and the conductor, not doing it by ear but by sight. And of course, it can all collapse around you in a bar, so performing the music live in such a manner means you put your neck on the line, such is the excitement of live performance.

Whilst Striggio's mass is in 40 parts, the 'Agnus Dei' expands into 60 which meant that they had to find an extra 20 voices. The ensemble had a few spares, as the 40 parts in the Striggio are allocated differently to the Tallis, and for the remainder they linked up with local choirs. This meant that they worked with some amazing groups, training the local choir and piecing the work the work together in a day.

Christopher would be in the middle, conducting, and as each part entered he would get to part 42 or 43 and see that the members of the local choir would be white-eyed with concentration, but once you got all 60 voices in he would be surrounded by the most heavenly polyphony, a sea of undulating harmony. Christopher talks about the magical moment at bar 12 of the 'Agnus Dei' when Striggio moves from G major to F major.

When I ask Christopher whether all this comes over on the disc, his response is trenchant 'I bloody well hope so'.

Rather remarkably, also involved in the large-scale polyphony project last year were quite a number of school children, this was part of Armonico Consort's  outreach scheme AC Academy. Armonico Consort's outreach started officially ten years ago, but has been part of the group's ethos since founding 20 years ago when some of the original singers were natural educationalists and started doing education as part of the choir's activities.

Ten years ago they started their Choir Creation scheme, where they establish new choirs in schools, train a teacher to be choir leader and provide on-going mentoring support for the teachers as well so that they leave behind the necessary skills and choral techniques for the teachers. And it happens to be something that works well. Seven years after starting the scheme the consort organised an event at the Royal Albert Hall and all the choirs were still going.

Choirs from AC Academy's Choir Creation scheme at the Royal Albert Hall in 2016
Choirs from AC Academy's Choir Creation scheme at the Royal Albert Hall in 2016
 The consort is now working with the University of Cambridge to train some of the post graduate choral conducting students to be able to train the choir trainers be the new youth choir leaders, and choir leader trainers of the future. There is a need for people to train and mentor teachers, sometimes having to intervene with head teachers to encourage them to re-prioritise music which can give a school a different identity. Christopher points to the David Ross Educational Trust's Singing Schools programme which has had a transformational effect on schools in special measures.

They have also found a lot of talented teenagers who are keen to train as choir trainers, and at one choir founded in a secondary school the teenagers themselves have taken over the organisation of the choir.

Christopher explains that there are a lot of talented young people with no pathway to achieving their ambitions. This had led to the AC Academy scholarship scheme (which is currently 18 months old) where the scholars are given singing lessons, mentored, coached and generally prepared for university.

The intention is to take young people from deprived backgrounds and schools with no support mechanism, and to surround them with support and energy. This leads to some remarkable improvements in academic results, such that a case can really be made for music in schools. Relatively simple ways can increase the academic talent of children by having organisations like the Armonico Consort participating. Whilst results so far have been terrific, Christopher feels that it is really time to shake things up.

He points out that the Saturday night talent shows on television have given rise to a vast community of bedroom musicians. It is question of how to find these people and create opportunities for them and pathways for their talents. There is a great need for someone to join together all the work being done the Armonico Consort and others in this area.

AC Academy Scholars with Christopher Monks - March 2019 (Photo Peter Marsh Ashmore Visuals)
AC Academy Scholars with Christopher Monks - March 2019 (Photo Peter Marsh Ashmore Visuals)
Keeping school choirs going is always a problem, teachers retire and head teachers change so that they have to work hard at infrastructure issues. The Armonico Consort has created 280 choirs so far through its Choir Creation scheme and every two years it invites all the choirs to an event at the Royal Albert Hall. They have found that 80% of the choirs are still going, an impressive retention rate.

For the Royal Albert Hall events, the music includes everything from plainchant to modern pop, Christopher thinks that it is important that the young singers make up their own minds. There is another Royal Albert Hall event on 3 June 2020 which will include 2,500 young people from AC Academy choirs. There will also be singers from other AC Academy projects, workplace choirs and residential home choirs. These latter started as something of a hobby, but research has shown how participation in music improves well being, has a productive effect on mental health and improves recovery from depression.

With all of the Armonico Consort's performing projects, Christopher tries to find a way to include young people. For its present project, which is a re-imagining of Beowulf with music by Toby Young they include a young people's choir, and Christopher points to Britten's music as an exemplar where the composer was adept at writing seemingly complex pieces which are easy to teach to young people.

But with Supersize Polyphony it was a bit trickier, but Christopher and composer Toby Young crafted a 41st part for some of the Striggio mass and the Tallis which could be learned by the school children. so that there were performances in which the professional singers were joined by 1000s of children.

In preparation they had workshops when they took 40 singers into schools and showed them what the performance was like, starting with Tallis' O nata lux, then performing Spem in Alium with Christopher speaking over the music, explaining what was happening, how the voices came in and out. And then they workshopped the new part for the young singers. Everyone was enthusiastic, even the ones who had been uncooperative at first (you can see the results in a video on Facebook).

Christopher Monks and Armonico Consort (Photo Simon Jay Price)
Christopher Monks and Armonico Consort (Photo Simon Jay Price)
A project for the Autumn is Land of Pope and Glory. Christopher wanted to address the stories of the Papal legacy across Italy, as well as the less glamorous popes, encapsulating it in one concert with narration. They will be performing Allegri's Miserere but also rarer pieces. Another project is aimed at getting more boys singing, addressing the problem that when boys' voices break they tend to stop singing. So the Armonico Consort has co-commissioned a Toby Young piece with the Kings Singers, so that 600 young people will be singing alongside the Kings Singers in October.

In Spring 2020 Christopher is performing Bach's Mass in B minor with the Armonico Consort. He calls the work a massive challenge and comments that each time you re-visit the work you look at it and think what on earth was I doing last time.

Armonico Consort on disc
  • Supersize Polyphony - Striggio: Mass In 40 & 60 Parts, Tallis: Spem In Alium - Armonico Consort, choir of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, Christopher Monks
  • J.S. Bach: The Solo Soprano Cantatas Vol 1 - Armonico Consort, Gillian Keith, Christopher Monks
  • Greensleeves - Folk music of the British Isles  - Armonico Consort, Christopher Monks
  • Purcell: Dido and Aeneas - Rachael Lloyd, Robert Davies, Elin Manahan Thomas, Armonico Consort, Christopher Monks

Armonico Consort performances
  • Beowulf - Armonico Consort & AC Academy Singers - Malvern (3/7/2019), Poole (5/7/2019), Cambridge (16/7/2019), Petworth (18/7/2019)
  • Land of Pope and Glory - Warwick (28/9/2019), Yeovil (1/10/2019), Malvern (4/10/2019), Wimbledon (23/11/2019)
  • The King's Singers featuring AC Academy Singers - Solihull (10/10/2019), Warwick (11/10/2019)
Full details of performances from the Armonico Consort website

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Musically Satisfying: Hansel & Gretel at Grange Park Opera (★★★★) - opera review
  • Leonardo: Shaping the Invisible (★★★½) - I Fagiolini - CD review
  • Distinctive, uncompromising, theatrical: the music of Erika Fox revealed on the Goldfield Ensemble's Paths from NMC (★★★½) - CD review
  • Pacey, intimate & youthful: Mozart's comedy Le nozze di Figaro at the Grange Festival (★★★★) - opera review
  • The Rake's Progress: Barbara Hannigan conducts a young cast at the Aldeburgh Festival (★★★★) - opera review
  • Cycle of history: Daniel Slater's imaginative staging of Handel's Belshazzar at Grange Festival (★★★★★) - opera review
  • Chineke! Chamber Ensemble in Saint-Saens, Wallen & Coleridge-Taylor at Wigmore Hall  - (★★★★★) concert review
  • Focus, concentration, engagement and enthusiasm: Gabrieli Roar in An English Coronation (★★★★★) - concert review 
  • Displaying their charms: Thomas Arne's The Judgement of Paris receives its first recording (★★★★)  - CD review
  • Gender bending Baroque: Lawrence Zazzo and Vivica Genaux swap genders and roles in this brilliant Baroque opera recital  (★★★★) - CD review
  • Garsington Opera: the UK stage debut of Offenbach's late opera comique Fantasio intrigues and engages - (★★★★½)  opera review
  • A sense of architecture: Philippe Herreweghe and Collegium Vocale Gent in Bach's Mass in B minor (★★★★½) - concert review
  • Aldeburgh Festival: Knussen Chamber Orchestra's concert debut in Knussen, Takemitsu, Stravinsky, Britten, Schubert (★★★★★) - concert review
  • An artist obscured by his own mythos: Ron Howard's documentary 'Pavarotti'  (★★★)   - Film review
  • Home

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