Can you tell us a little bit about the composers on the Northern Lights programme, and what their work means to you?
I grew up immersed both in the Nordic romantic repertoire and new pieces from Sweden and surrounding countries. Not only is it exquisite music but it’s a marvel to sing and I believe that the development of choirs of such high standard as you find in the North of Europe comes from folk and religious tradition and the tremendous pedagogical work of the masters such as Eric Ericson but it also happened thanks to the repertoire itself.
With the pieces of Alfvén, Stenhammar and Sibelius, the audience will be able to travel to a very special climate of beautiful romantic sonorities, but also get a taste of folk tradition, gentle polska 3 time rythmn, melancholy and a sense of longing, very present in their works. With Rautavaara, Mäntyjärvi and Rehnqvist, we present fresh, choral invention that is also a natural continuation from the older giants of Nordic music. The atmospheres are highly contrasting and moods and characters should provide a lovely experience for our audience.
“With the pieces of Alfvén, Stenhammar and Sibelius, the audience will be able to travel to a very special climate of beautiful romantic sonorities, but also get a taste of folk tradition.”
Can you share some insights into what being a guest conductor involves? How much is done in advance of arrival here and during rehearsals with Chamber Choir Ireland?
A part from the musical preparation of the scores, I already imagine shapes and colours of phrases, anticipate challenges for the singers in terms of intonation, blend or conveying of the text and I work out different solutions of how to resolve them. And once in rehearsal, you have to develop, mould and shape what the singers are proposing. This is a very exciting process that can take you on a new, unexpected path. But it is vital that the singers are able to come with you on the journey. For this you have to stay flexible, read the room, the group and individuals so that you adjust pacing – pushing or relaxing, staying sensitive to possible fatigue or need of contrast. The music is the reason we are together and our vehicle of motivation and expression but you are above all working with people!
You have been the Chief Conductor of the BBC Singers since 2018. What impact has the pandemic had on your plans and what is in the pipeline now that it is, hopefully, behind us?
It was particularly hard when travel was impossible. In 2020 I didn’t see them between mid March and November. And with projects cancelled one after the other, it was a real challenge to know where to project future plans, which pieces would be possible, which venues, audiences or not, and also trying to maintain confidence. But I must admit it was also rather amazing to be at home for so long and to take things slowly, being able for the first time to spend a long time with my little boy who was not even 2 years old at the time, without the anxiety of leaving him behind to travel.
Since we’ve been back to a regular pace, we adapt programmes with the ever changing protocol and it’s testing for both singers and team. And I’m very moved by everyone’s resilience and courage, doing everything possible to create music and feed Radio 3 with new content every week. And we have such exciting projects ahead that I can’t wait to start this year, from Purcell to James MacMillan, traveling together to the Edinburgh festival, an exciting new commission from Joanna Marsh with electronics and Joby Talbot’s wonderful Path of Miracles.
Do you have a favourite composer and conductor?
Bach! And as for conductors, in the choral tradition, Eric Ericson – he completely revolutionized the genre. Digging up forgotten works, commissioning new ones, developing the Swedish choral sound to a precise and clean intonation combined with warmth and focus. And being a dedicated professor, never seizing to work with amateurs alongside the prestigious professional ensembles. His legacy is for me absolutely tremendous and as a Swede, it feels like a direct responsibility to try my absolute best to keep developing all these aspects.
Are there any exciting trends or developments that you see emerging in the choral sphere at the moment?
Many – in terms of choral composition, I believe that there is versatility, encounters of different media and aesthetics. But the most vital development in my opinion is everything that is done to get children singing. Through community work, schools.. The access to choral singing should be completely democratized and inclusive. It is the most beautiful form of coming together and we must make sure that choral singing remains and develops to embrace the future generations.
Northern Lights with Guest Director Sofi Jeannin is in the Pepper Canister Church on Saturday February 19 tab 6.30m. Tickets €5-€20.