Friday 8 March 2024

Lumen Christi: I chat to Master of Music, Simon Johnson about his first disc with the choir of Westminster Cathedral

Simon Johnson & the choir of Westminster Cathedral recording at Buckfast Abbey
Simon Johnson & the choir of Westminster Cathedral recording at Buckfast Abbey

Ad Fontes, the record label founded by Buckfast Abbey, is releasing Lumen Christi on 22 March 2024. A sequence of sequence of music for the Easter Vigil from the choir of Westminster Cathedral, this will be a follow-up to the choir's Vexilla Regis disc on the label. The new disc features plainchant alongside music by Lassus, Andrew Reid, Victoria, Palestrina, Matthew Martin, Jean L'Heritier, Jean Langlais and Martin Baker. But perhaps more significantly, the disc is the first one for the choir under its current Master of Music, Simon Johnson. Simon became Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral in September 2021, following thirteen years as the Organist and Assistant Director of Music at St Paul’s Cathedral.

The choir's disc Vexilla Regis, released in 2019, featured music for Holy Week so the new disc, with its focus on the Easter Vigil Liturgy which takes place on the evening of Easter Saturday, makes a logical follow on. The Vigil, in its full form one of the oldest and most dramatic liturgies, begins between sunset on Holy Saturday and sunrise on Easter Sunday with the kindling of an Easter, the lighting and blessing of the Paschal candle, and continues with the Easter Proclamation, the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of Baptism where baptismal vows are renewed, finally ending with the Liturgy of Communion, the first communion in the church since Maundy Thursday. Simon explains that the structure of the disc relates to the Easter Vigil liturgy and that 80% of the music on the disc is what the choir would perform normally. There are a few extras, such as the setting of the Vidi Acquam by Matthew Martin (this would usually be sung to plainchant) and a few more motets than would be usual in the service.

Simon Johnson & the choir of Westminster Cathedral recording at Buckfast Abbey
Simon Johnson & the choir of Westminster Cathedral recording at Buckfast Abbey
The disc is very much a snapshot of the choir's life. The choir has plenty of single composer discs in its back catalogue devoted to composers such as Palestrina and Victoria, but Simon points out that the recording industry has changed significantly and the reasons for doing a disc in 2024 are vastly different to the 1980s. Also, Ad Fontes was keen for the choir to explore recording from a Roman Catholic angle and Simon was happy to do so.

To make the recording, the entire choir of men and boys decamped to Buckfast Abbey which Simon describes as an 'interesting operation', but he admits that it was a nice thing to do, to get away from London and to get the boys away from the pressures of everyday life. Also, post-lockdown, the trip represented an important group bonding exercise. However, in the future, their recordings are likely to be in the fine acoustic of the cathedral.

Simon took over the choir in September 2021 amidst two significantly problematic episodes. In 2020, changes to the timetabling at the cathedral's choir school caused controversy with some arguing the changes put the cathedral's choral tradition at risk; Westminster remains the only Roman Catholic cathedral in the UK to have daily services sung by the cathedral choir. The controversy reportedly led to the resignation of the then Master of Music, Martin Baker [see article in The Guardian]. But 2020 was notable for another reason as well, COVID forced churches everywhere to suspend normal services and those church choirs involving children had a very particular duty of care [see my 2020 interview with Edmund Aldhouse, director of music at Ely Cathedral]. And emerging from lockdowns, choirs that had children on the top line found themselves with an entire generation that had not sung together.

Simon feels that they have come out of things quite well. The arrangements at the school have settled down and recruitment is good. They have not reduced the number of sung liturgies, but have changed when they happen. What has been kept is the important pattern of repetition, doing things over and over. He is happy with the progress of the choir and this can be heard in the live stream of the Sunday morning service [see the cathedral's website].

The recording of the new disc took place during his second year in post and whilst the music relates to the Resurrection of Christ, the recording itself can also seem to be the resurrection of the choir, and doing the recording was in itself good for the choir's health. Simon hopes to make further recordings, there is an idea to do one focused on the music for Pentecost.

There are huge similarities between St Paul's Cathedral, the Anglican establishment where he was assistant director to Andrew Carwood's director of music, and Westminster Cathedral, the Roman Catholic establishment where he is now Master of Music. Both have choirs of children and men, with a choir school to tend to the children, plus lay clerks. Both establishments are in London, so partake of the highly professional system for lay clerks in the capital. Also, Andrew Carwood, who was director of music at St Paul's whilst Simon was there, is a Roman Catholic and a former Westminster Cathedral lay clerk himself, so the repertoire at St Paul's had a rather catholic bent.

But that said, the liturgies are very different. Though the lay clerks at Westminster perform Vespers daily, the main musical focus is the mass, whereas, at St Paul's Cathedral, the choir is more geared towards choral evensong. As a result, the repertoire differs. Though Simon did chant with the choir of St Paul's, moving to Westminster Cathedral was a quantum leap when it came to the amount of chant that the choir sang. This makes a big difference, but Simon loves chant and appreciates the opportunity his role gives him to immerse himself in it. 

With a choir that involves boys, any recording requires planning ahead. The Lumen Christi disc was made a few weeks after Easter, just after they had performed the Easter Vigil liturgy, and the disc includes motets performed at other times during the Easter liturgies. Looking ahead to this year, the choir is performing Bach's St John Passion in the cathedral in a few weeks [on 14 March 2024, see website] and then there will be a radio broadcast of a Tenebrae service during Holy Week. Simon's way of laying the foundations for such extra activities is to take ten minutes at the end of each rehearsal. Ten minutes daily means he has an hour per week to devote to working with the boys on any new music, to chip away at it. And of course, during recording sessions, there is time to refine things. He also describes the choir as very spontaneous and reactive, he works with what is there.

Westminster Cathedral Choir was always famous for its very particular, continental-style sound. Simon was very conscious of this heritage when he took over the choir. George Malcolm, who was Master of Music for 12 years from 1947 to 1959 was very fond of this type of sound. Also the choir's singing of so much chant, and the particularity of the acoustics of the cathedral apse where they sing probably contribute to the sound. Also, they sing almost exclusively in Latin, which means that Simon polishes just five vowels with the boys each day. 

That said, when he turned up this was on his mind as when services resumed, the boys had not sung together for almost two years and initially the sound was not there. But it is back, and Simon feels that the present Westminster Cathedral Choir is recognisably the same choir, the sound he grew up listening to on all those recordings.

Generally, congregational numbers are returning to pre-COVID levels. But for his first Sunday at the cathedral, with the choir rehearsing in the cathedral (so they could be spaced out), he was struck by the size of the congregation, the nave was full fifteen minutes before the service began. The commitment of the congregation struck him, thus bucking trends.

Simon Johnson & the choir of Westminster Cathedral recording at Buckfast Abbey
Simon Johnson & the choir of Westminster Cathedral recording at Buckfast Abbey
The organist on the disc is Peter Stevens, the assistant master of music, Simon describes him as first-rate so Simon never feels the need to go to the organ console during regular services. The rebuilding of the choir at Westminster was more than a full-time job, a role that he was completely immersed in and in fact, a role that he always wanted to do. Simon's organ playing tends to be for half-term and holiday breaks when he gives recitals, and he has ones coming up in the USA and in Germany. 

Never miss out on future posts by following us

The blog is free, but I'd be delighted if you were to show your appreciation by buying me a coffee.

Elsewhere on this blog

  • Szymanowski's rarely performed Harnasie from the LPO, with a visual installation from Wayne McGregor & Ben Cullen Williams - concert review
  • Danza Gaya: Simon Callaghan & Hiroaki Takenouchi play with wonderful élan & relish, clearly having a great deal of fun - record review
  • Ian Venables' intense settings of John Clare at the centre of the Dante Quartet's Conway Hall concert alongside Gurney and Elgar - concert review
  • Six Concerts avec plusieurs instrumentsLondon Handel Players at Wigmore Hall - concert review
  • Musical strengths, visual confusion & two Rakes: English Touring Opera's new production of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress - opera review
  • Shamus O'Brien: withdrawn by the composer for political reasons, Stanford's most popular opera languished in the 20th century but all that seems set to change - interview
  • Dancing with PiazzollaWelcome to the sophisticated world of the London Tango Quintet - record review
  • Music that is vividly alive & vibrant, yet requires concentration & dedication to listen to: Anselm McDonnell's Kraina - record review
  • Beauty and meaning: Handel's Theodora from Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo with Louise Alder in the title role - record review
  • Home

No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular Posts this month