Brings the astonishing sound of Tenebrae to Snape Maltings
IT’S possible that if you go to Snape Maltings to hear the vocal ensemble, Tenebrae, sing on Saturday, November 11, you will need to remind yourself to breathe. Any commemoration of The Great War is an emotionally charged occasion, but Tenebrae could just tip you over the edge, with the astonishing purity of their voices and the spellbinding beauty of their sound.
And founder-conductor Nigel Short’s choice of programme couldn’t be more precisely intended to move you – songs of remembrance and hymns for peace, written in the turbulent opening decades of the 20th century and elegies of more recent times. To many people, Nigel will be recognisable as one of The King’s Singers, the renowned vocal ensemble, formed 50 years ago by six recently graduated scholars from King’s College, Cambridge. He was with the group between 1994 and 2000, and had been singing continuously as a chorister since the age of seven, including at Westminster Abbey and St Pauls, as well as solo and operatic roles. It was time for a change. So, he went off to Switzerland to learn to ski and stayed for a couple of years. Then Tenebrae came along.
“Someone asked if I could help them organise some singers for a concert of Christmas music in Geneva Cathedral,” he recalls. “I told them I had a group of friends who could do it, so they agreed. Suddenly things rather took off. I found myself directing the choir in a recording of Christmas music and taking them to Switzerland for not just one concert but five. After the tour the singers came up to me and said, we have to do this again and keep it going. So Tenebrae really came about by accident rather than a specific plan to create a new chamber choir. In fact, Tenebrae has been the perfect vehicle for expressing Nigel’s passion for vocal music, and choral music in particular. As 19 singers he describes them as a choir, although when they come together as 30 or 40 singers, they are more like a large chorus.
“We sing music that spans nine centuries and the thread can be anything ranging from the fact that it’s music by a composer of a certain nationality. Or the theme can be mood led and reflective, along the lines of Parry’s Songs of Farewell, and for which we can sing pieces by John Tavener, Vaughan Williams and Britten, to name a few. I always try to create sequences of music rather than just a list of pieces to be sung, so that we create an atmosphere, and then build the intensity of that as we go, as opposed to applause after each and every piece. I think this allows our audiences to relax.” Tenebrae will no doubt be greeted by a warmly appreciative Snape audience, ready to soak up choral music that has held us in its thrall for centuries. Its enduring appeal, Nigel believes, is down to the fact that it’s “totally human”.
“There’s nothing but the heart and soul of a singer on offer, whereas with instruments there’s always something technical that can sometimes get in the way of communicating with a listener. We all need ways to relax these days, in what is a mad, chaotic world, where it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find quiet time and ‘space’ in which to unwind and switch off. Choral music helps us do that, I believe.” For all its purity and precision, Nigel insists this is not difficult music and most pieces could be sung by a good amateur choir.
“The music we sing varies in levels of
‘The name Tenebrae is the Latin word for shadows, and whenever possible we like to present our concerts by candlelight. It makes a more special atmosphere than just bright, white stage lights’
difficulty. Perhaps there are some pieces that would be a bit of stretch, but I’d never suggest to any choir they shouldn’t attempt a piece!” Of course, exceptional voices help, which is how Tenebrae achieves its sound, as well as they way they work together.
“A choir with lots of great individual singers can sound good but have no common approach. I like to have a very disciplined approach and for all voices to slightly mould into one another, so you hear the text and the vocal line first and foremost, rather than a group of individual voices going at it individually. That’s why we have choir practice, to sing and breath as one, and share the same musical goals.
“The sound of Tenebrae always changes slightly according to the team of voices we have. The singers and I are happy once we’re confident we’ve done all we can to achieve what is best for the music. I tend not to arrive at a rehearsal with a totally set idea of how a piece of music should sound. As a director you must give the singers input and a share of the responsibility.” I wonder how conducting voices differs from conducting musicians. Nigel is swift to correct my error.
“Careful! Voices, singers are musicians! It’s an amusing mistake that makes us smile (sometimes). The only significant difference in conducting players from singers is that the former have no text, so you need to try and show how you want a note or phrase shaped by either mouthing the words or articulating with your hands.
Nigel has selected the Snape programme as something of a tribute to poet and composer Ivor Gurney and others who were composing around the time of World War I. This will be only his second performance at Snape, so he’s very much looking forward to returning.
Fifteen years after his happy accident, has Tenebrae become Nigel Short’s life’s work?
“For most of my life I thought I wanted to be a singer. Everything pointed in that direction until I left the King’s Singers aged 34 with no idea of what direction I wanted life to go in. Fifteen years later it feels as if all my years of singing were in preparation for what I do now, directing a team of wonderful singers (and musicians!) in trying to make the most beautiful and atmospheric music we possibly can. There’s nothing I’d rather be doing.”