Saturday 22 April 2023

If you have an ensemble that is diverse already, it makes it more inviting, younger singers in the audience realise it could be them: the ideas behind the founding of new vocal ensemble Vox Urbane

Vox Urbane & Dan Ludford-Thomas - launch concert
Vox Urbane & Dan Ludford-Thomas - launch concert

Vox Urbane is a new professional vocal ensemble formed by conductor Dan Ludford-Thomas and artistic director Helen Meyerhoff. The choir launched on 16 April 2023 at a concert in the distressed grandeur of the Asylum Chapel, Peckham with a programme that included a UK premiere by Tara Mack alongside music by Judd Greenstein, Philip Glass, Poulenc, Meredith Monk, Shruthi Rajasekar, Joanna Marsh, Barbara Dudek and Dan Ludford-Thomas. The 16-strong ensemble has been established by Dan and Helen in response to what they see as a startling lack of diversity in classical music, beginning with a particular focus on gender and ethnic diversity.

Both Helen and Dan came to singing through non-traditional pathways, with both having a large degree of luck in their early careers. So, they wanted to create a group which was inclusive of singers who did not just tread the standard cathedral/college route, casting the net for a wider social experience with singers from diverse cultural and artistic backgrounds without any compromise on artistic standards. Diversity for them means ethnicity and gender, but also those from lower socio-economic backgrounds and everything in between.

The concert on 16 April was by way of a launch and a fund-raiser, but there are already other plans afoot. There will be a collaboration with Stanford Chamber Chorale during the London leg of the American choir's tour in June 2023, there are plans for Vox Urbane's associated young artists' ensemble, Vox Next Gen, to work with Lewisham Choral Society whilst their outreach scheme, Vox Roots, will be working in Hackney. They are also hoping to develop more outreach for singers from state schools who cannot afford the Summer choral courses.

Vox Next Gen
Members of Vox Urbane and Vox Next Gen in the studio of artist Alf Löhr (Photo Noel Williams)
When Helen grew up in North Lincolnshire, she was not allowed in the school choir (that was for boys) and had to take private singing lessons. She had never heard of anything like choral scholarships, but luckily her mother saw an advert for the National Youth Choir, which led to her studying at the Royal Northern College of Music. Even so, she had little idea about singing as a career and after university stumbled into a professional church choir singing almost by accident.

In many ways, Dan had a more traditional path as he was a chorister in a parish church. Except that his family is West Indian, and whilst some family members were Church of England, many were Baptists. He and his brother were choristers at St Matthew's Church, Northampton, and Dan found that he excelled. He had no idea how to go about a musical career, but winning choirboy of the year provided him with the fuel. He and his family had no real idea of the access points to music education, it was a case of learning along the way. He gained a choral scholarship but felt like an outsider and did not fit in, his cultural reference points were completely different from his contemporaries.

The London choral scene is amazing, but the Oxbridge background of singers remains strong. And both Dan and Helen say that as young singers they had to soon learn to assimilate. Luckily for their careers, they did so quickly, but now feel that singers should not have to. A lot of young singers morph into the accepted norms, whereas Dan and Helen feel that young performers should be able to enter as they are and not have to conform to type.

The planned repertoire for Vox Urbane is eclectic, Dan and Helen admit to loving everything. But so much of the standard unaccompanied choral repertoire is sacred, which means that it has a limited message,  so they are trying to broaden things. They don't want to ignore the great music from the sacred choral repertoire but want to recontextualise the issues. And to achieve diversity in their composers, much of the repertoire needs to be new. They are planning to commission music from composers from diverse cultural backgrounds, the only requirement being that the music be excellent.

Vox Urbane
Vox Urbane (Photo Louie Carrigan)

The singers in the current group are all excellent, they have to be. The launch recital featured some tricky repertoire including Poulenc's Figure Humaine, plus music by Philip Glass, Judd Greenstein from Roomful of Teeth (not a rock band as I naively assumed, but a virtuosic American vocal ensemble), Meredith Monk, Shruti Rajasekar, Joanna Marsh and the UK premiere of a work by Tara Mack (an American composer of West Indian heritage who lives in Hackney), and a piece by Polish composer Barbara Dudek, originally commissioned for Lewisham Choral Society, that explores ideas of inclusion.

The core Vox Urbane group is 16 singers, though this can be flexible, it could grow and for the Judd Greenstein piece in the concert, they went down to just eight singers. Also in the concert were the young artists' group, Vox Next Gen, who sang four of Dan's folk-song arrangements. Vox Next Gen consists of singers in the 18 to 24 age range. Some want to be professional singers, but others are simply good singers, and the idea behind the ensemble is to simply provide a pathway for them. Vox Roots is the basic level of this, with outreach to schools with the hope of eventually finding children who can move into Vox Next Gen. At the moment it is difficult to find good singers for professional choirs who are not white and middle class, so feeder mechanisms need to be created. The only way to make such diversity viable. Helen comments that if you want to build a choir, any choir, you have to start with young children.

Vox Urbane & Dan Ludford-Thomas - launch concert
Vox Urbane & Dan Ludford-Thomas - launch concert

What they want to be able to do is to give the young singers the option and the access points to move into a professional singing career. Dan was lucky, his parents helped him find a way, but if you have an ensemble that is multicoloured already, it makes it more inviting, and younger singers in the audience realise that it could be them. 

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