Fri 10th December 2010
Tuning, sight-reading, tone and knowledge – the secrets of a glorious tradition
Eric Whitacre recording his recent Decca disc in London (photo: Alex MacNaughton)
Gramophone’s January issue asked an international jury to name the world’s leading choirs, and then invited American composer Eric Whitacre to reflect on why the list is dominated by British ensembles.
At the age of 18, when I first began singing in choirs, I devoured every choral recording I could find. I collected a huge and varied number of choral discs but over time realised that I was partial to those albums performed by British choirs. Three recordings stand out in my memory: Vaughan Williams’s An Oxford Elegy, Stephen Darlington conducting Christ Church Cathedral Choir; Arvo Pärt’s Passio from the Hilliard Ensemble; and “The Treasures of English Church Music”, John Rutter conducting the Cambridge Singers. I loved these recordings and marvelled at such perfect singing.
Then suddenly, five years ago, I received an e‑mail from Stephen Layton, letting me know that he had discovered a few pieces of mine in a music store in Amsterdam and would I be kind enough to send him everything I’d ever written. I did – and one year later he sent me the finished disc “Cloudburst”, performed by his incredible choir Polyphony. Never had I dreamt that my music would one day be so beautifully and masterfully recorded by such a quintessentially British choir.
Since that time I have had the great privilege to work with a number of choirs in the UK, with each experience being a thrill: writing a piece for the The King’s Singers and the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain; recording my album “Light & Gold” with the Eric Whitacre Singers (all Brits) and Laudibus; and, most recently, concerts with the London Symphony Chorus and the Welsh choir Cordydd. After much thought I’m finally beginning to understand what makes these British choirs so incredible.
Tuning: perhaps the most powerful weapon in the technical arsenal of a choir, choristers in the UK are taught from a very early age not only to sing in tune but to listen to those around them. A perfect example is Alamire, David Skinner’s phenomenal early music group to which I have recently been introduced, a choir that sings so in tune that the music seems to shimmer and float in front of the speakers.
Sight-reading: the Brits are possibly the world’s greatest sight-readers. In my travels I’ve certainly never seen anything like it. Every time I rehearse a choir here I am astonished at how quickly they parse the music and absorb it. When we recorded “Light & Gold”, the Eric Whitacre Singers and Laudibus had just six hours to read through and rehearse 80 minutes of my music. Good singers here are simply expected to read.
Tone: bright and clear, with a healthy spin and not too much vibrato. I love the warm, long, open vowels, the purity of the vowel colour being perfect for the close harmonies in my music. I love the way the women can sing in their upper registers, rich and crystalline. And when a British choir truly dedicate themselves to the consonants – like in the line “giving their kisses like clouds exchanging foam”, a line from my a cappella work A Boy and a Girl – there is little that’s more sweet or more affecting.
Knowledge: British choirs simply get it. I’m sure it comes from the centuries-old tradition of singing but there is a seasoned polish and an attitude about the music-making that is at once soulful and unsentimental, expressive without being maudlin. They have the beating hearts of singers and the brains of trained musicians and this places them among the most potent and versatile artists on the planet.
I certainly do not underestimate the influence of such extraordinary choral conductors as John Eliot Gardiner, Stephen Layton and Harry Christophers. What can I say? I am genuinely in awe of the British choral tradition and look forward to each opportunity that I have to listen to and work with the many and varied exceptional choirs.
And the the choirs in ascending order of votes (20-1) are:
20 I Fagiolini
19 Arnold Schoenberg Choir
18 Stile Antico
17 The Balthazar-Neumann Choir
16 Westminster Abbey Choir
15 Les Arts Florissants
14 Choir of New College, Oxford
13 The Tallis Scholars
12 Choir of King’s College, Cambridge
11 The Dunedin Consort
10 Swedish Radio Choir
9 RIAS Kammerchor
7 Collegium Vocale Ghent
6 Wells Cathedral Choir
5 The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge
4 The Sixteen
3 The Cardinall’s Musick
1 The Monteverdi Choir