Thursday, November 30, 2017

Talking to Canadian-born baritone Greg Skidmore in London

Photo:Paul Arthur
On September 6th 2017, I spoke to singer and conductor Greg Skidmore at his London home. Born in Canada, Greg arrived in London UK as an undergraduate and has made his home there, singing in such prestigious groups as The Tallis Scholars, The Sixteen, The Cardinall’s Musick, Tenebrae, The Gabrieli Consort and Alamire. He is the director of The Lacock Scholars, a consort of young singers specializing in the performance of early a-cappella works.


PH: Looking through your CV, I came across some rather different-sounding activities with which you have been involved. What is “The Spy’s Choirbook?”


GS: That was a major recording project by David Skinner and his group Alamire, an a-cappella early music consort dedicated to Renaissance music, a group quite similar to other groups like The Tallis Scholars or The Cardinall’s Musick. The recording is of repertoire from one single manuscript, which was compiled and created by a man living in the early 16th century called Petrus Alamire. (David Skinner named his group after him.) Alamire was a fascinating man: he was what musicologists call a “scribe”, a compiler and creator of music manuscripts. He was also a courtier, he was an ambassador. A Flemish man, his workshop was in Brussels and that is where he created all the manuscripts, including ‘The Spy’s Choirbook’. As far as I am aware, he didn’t write music himself, but his manuscripts are by far the most elaborate, most beautiful and most expertly made of any polyphonic manuscripts that we have.  


PH: So where does the “spy” come into it?


GS: There is a story that Alamire, being a Catholic from Catholic Belgium, was involved in the nascent reforming tradition in England and that he created The Spy’s Choirbook for Henry VIII. Due to his position as a man of the arts - a musician and artist - he was able (so the story goes) to infiltrate various courts. So, the spying bit comes from his ambassadorial roles. From some correspondence he had had with various people, it may be suggested that he was playing a bit of a double agent role.


PH: And then there is your involvement with “Betrayal”.


GS: Yes. “Betrayal” was a magnificent project. It followed on from I Fagiolini’s (director: Robert Hollingworth) project called “The Full Monteverdi”, which was an immersive theatre piece where the action was played out among the audience. “Betrayal” was a similar idea. In “The Full Monteverdi” it was six singers and six actors but in “Betrayal”, it is six singers and six contemporary dancers. There are six parallel storylines happening; each couple has its own story to tell, very loosely interacting with one of the other couples’ storylines. Each couple largely tells the story of falling in love and then being betrayed. Eventually, the subject matter gets quite dark, because the singer in each of the couples murders the dancer. The twist – echoed in the tortured, chromatically ‘twisting’ music of Gesualdo, who himself had murdered his own wife - is expressed through these parallel stories: the recognition of the fact that you had murdered your loved one followed by a process of grieving and redemption. It was quite an intense emotional journey for the audience, as it was immersive and, this time, a promenade performance; the audience was standing throughout, with the singing and dancing occurring in amongst them. It took place in quite a large space, so there were little pockets of action in the audience and they were was free to move around if they liked and could watch the different couples’ story lines. It was an amazing production, absolutely fascinating to be involved with and, I think, quite captivating for our audiences, as well.


PH: Then there was your participation in dancer Carlos Acosta’s “The Classical Farewell.”


GS: Yes. That was quite a bit more straightforward, from my perspective. That was mainly a ballet show. I sang in one of the numbers - the Hostias (baritone solo) from the Fauré Requiem. It was one item out of an evening’s gala ballet production at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Carlos Acosta put on a string of different farewell projects as his career came to a close, but that was the last time he danced classical ballet in public.


PH: Let’s go back some years. What were your earliest musical experiences?


GS: I grew up in London, Ontario, Canada, and started studying music at the age of three, playing the violin. My parents were very musical people, but neither of them were professional musicians in any capacity. They loved music, however, and started my sister and me on music very early. I started singing from the age of six in a secular community children’s choir called the Amabile Boys Choir. In Canada, the church singing tradition is not as strong as it is in the UK, so I was never a boy chorister in a cathedral. The children’s choir in which I sang was very good, however and we toured and competed a lot throughout America, Canada, Europe and the Caribbean. Being a member of that choir and playing the violin continued throughout my early childhood, with weekly lessons on the violin and weekly rehearsals with the choir. Music was very much a part of my life as a child, but in a secular, domestic context and not institutionalized. My musical exposure was all through the opportunities that my parents were able to provide.


PH: And in your teens?


GS: That is when I sought out some opportunities myself. I made quite a lot of music at my secondary school. It was a regular state school, not specifically a musical school, but it had a very strong musical program and music was taken seriously there.  Of the two music teachers there, one was exceptional, having a national reputation in Canada within the state education system. There, I played in a concert band there and began to take singing more seriously. Near the end of my teens, I decided to study music at university.


PH: Do you still play the violin?


GS: I don’t, unfortunately. I gave up the violin in my early teens and have never really picked it up again. It’s a regret, and I think I would like to go back to it someday, but only as a hobby.


PH: Would you like to talk about your higher musical education?


GS: Sure. I started out in an undergraduate music degree in the University of Western Ontario, in Canada. At about this time, I started falling in love with Renaissance polyphonic music. In 2002, I attended a week-long summer school course run by the Tallis Scholars and had an amazing time; that experience changed my life. That was in the summer after my first year of university and when I returned home I began desperately trying to figure out how I could move to the UK on a more permanent basis. What I came up with was a one-year exchange program at Royal Holloway College (West London) and so in July 2003 I went to England to do that exchange year. That was the third year of an undergraduate degree in academic music, which included a performance aspect, as well as history and music theory. After that single exchange year, I was meant to go back home to Canada to finish my degree, but I managed to transfer my studies fully from my Canadian university to Royal Holloway. I spent a further year there and then graduated.


Following my undergraduate degree, I again had to find a way to stay in England. I went into the cathedral singing world at that point, becoming a choral scholar at Wells Cathedral in Somerset for a year. I then went to Gloucester Cathedral as a lay clerk and after that to Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, again as a lay clerk.


During this time, I started a course of graduate research at the University of Oxford. It started out initially as a master’s degree and I translated that master’s degree into a course of doctoral research. After a few years in Oxford singing in the cathedral and doing the doctoral work, I accrued enough time in the UK such that my immigration status changed. I was then able to be fully self-employed, not requiring a sponsor (which had been up until that time the various cathedrals where I worked) and moved to London to become fully freelance as a singer. I decided, at that point, to put the doctoral research into a dormant state, which is where it currently is. If I wish, I can come back to it at a later date and finish it off.


PH: So how do both solo singing and ensemble singing connect for you?


GS: Initially, when I first arrived in the UK, my goal was never to be a soloist and, indeed, the music that I like the most now and that I still find the most rewarding is ensemble music. But in any singing I believe that you need to be able to sing technically in a sound way. I have always had individual singing lessons and I still do. Those singing lessons necessarily involve learning solo repertoire.  In my university undergraduate degree, there were opportunities to perform as a soloist and I took my vocal technique lessons very seriously. As things went along, opportunities to perform professionally as a soloist came my way as well. I took them and continued to increase and enhance my vocal technique. That allowed me to take on bigger and more demanding solo roles. Solo singing as a complement to ensemble singing is a great way to have a varied singing career. Learning to sing on my own in a fully committed way has enhanced my understanding of how to sing in an ensemble as well and I also bring that into my conducting.


PH: Would you like to mention singers or teachers who have influenced your career?


GS: Yes. My current singing teacher is Robert Dean and I have been seeing him for six years. He teaches at the Guildhall School of Music, London. Also a conductor, he used to conduct the Philharmonia Chorus, a symphonic chorus in London, and he still conducts operas around the world. He is a fantastic singing teacher and has had a huge influence on my singing technique. A singer who has had a great impact on me would be tenor Nicholas Mulroy. I am lucky enough to have worked with him pretty regularly in I Fagiolini and in other groups, but he is a little older than me and I have always looked up to him. He has a facility with communication in the way he sings that I find inspirational. He has never given me tuition in any formal sense, but I think I have learnt an enormous amount from watching him sing. Another singer I feel similarly about is mezzo-soprano Clare Wilkinson; we have worked together in I Fagiolini and Alamire and I am attracted to her ability to communicate, to be musical and to allow the power of her musicality and her artistry to dictate the way that she sings – not merely following the rules of vocal technique.


I met Eamonn Dougan a very long time ago, in 2004. He was a young baritone in the sort of world that I was trying to enter - that of chamber choirs and consorts in London. I had one singing lesson with Eamonn, and enjoyed it a lot, but he was never a formal teacher of mine.


In my very early days in the UK, I was mentored by some singers in the Tallis Scholars, and they helped me out enormously – not necessarily with singing. I would have coffee with them; I would ask them questions about the singing world or the UK or whatever and they might suggest a church choir I might audition for or someone I might have a talk with. Those singers were Patrick Craig, Deborah Roberts and Francis Steele. Those three, in my very early days in England, were incredibly important mentors for me.


PH: You have sung with a lot of groups. Can you refer to some of them?


GS: Sure. I suppose the group I have been singing with for the longest is a group based in Birmingham, UK, called Ex Cathedra. It is directed by Jeffrey Skidmore. (I am of no relation to him whatsoever).  That’s where I first met Eamonn Dougan and Nicholas Mulroy. I have been singing with Jeffrey really rather regularly since 2004.


As mentioned earlier, I have sung with Robert Hollingworth in I Fagiolini for around 10 years, but more regularly for the last three or four. I sing with the Tallis Scholars every so often, as a “preferred deputy” so they say. I have sung with Alamire for approximately ten years as well, do a little bit of deputising in The Sixteen, have performed for the last 10 years with the Gabrieli Consort (director: Paul McCreesh) and also do some deputising in the BBC Singers. About six years ago, Eric Whitacre started a professional choir in London and I have sung with them almost from the beginning. I have done a few projects with The Cardinall’s Musick as well. In London, it is a freelance system, so, with the exception of a few organisations (the BBC Singers being one and cathedral choirs being another - they are all contracted groups), the other groups I mentioned are project-based, freelance choirs.


PH: That is a lot to juggle.


GS: It is. There are two things that I would say are the most important for young singers coming to London: the first is sight-reading ability - absolutely crucial; you just have to be able to sight-read very quickly - and the second is diary management and administrative skills. This doesn’t sound very glamorous but it is incredibly important to be able to quickly respond to requests and be very, very careful and thorough with your diary. That’s how you juggle a freelance career.


PH: Do you teach?


GS: I don’t do very much teaching. I do a tiny amount; I have at times had a few pupils I taught for a year or so. Vocal teaching is not really a focus of mine. I am much more interested in being what you might call a “clinician” - working with choirs, working with small groups. In January of 2018, I am going to fill in for Robert Hollingworth at York University and teach his Masters students on the Solo Voice Ensemble Singing course that he runs there. I run workshops and guest conduct choirs, but in terms of one-on-one vocal tuition, it is not one of the things I have prioritized, I suppose.  


PH: You direct the Lacock Scholars.


GS: Yes. We are now starting our fourth academic year. There are two “flavours” to the Lacock Scholars; it is a slightly flexible institution, I suppose. Their name comes from the Lacock Courses, which are run by Andrew van der Beek and happen all over the UK and Europe, but the main group is a London-based amateur consort; we give performances throughout the academic year in London and do our own projects. There are also groups of students whom I facilitate - I find them and work with them, choose music for them, etc. – such that they act as scholarship holders on Lacock choral courses. There were ten of those singers at recent Lacock course in Ludlow, on which I was Assistant Conductor. They are the ‘course participant’ version of the Lacock Scholars. There is a link between the two groups in that very often students who go on some of the Lacock courses will join the standing consort I direct when they move to London or will do a project or two or will be within the orbit of singers that form the Lacock Scholars in London.


PH: This brings me to your conducting work and workshops.


GS: The Lacock Scholars are my primary conducting vehicle and, on top of that, I do courses and workshops with various different people. I started conducting when I was at Oxford, where I started a student group - a male voice Renaissance polyphonic ensemble. That ensemble no longer exists, so the Lacock Scholars are my primary focus now. I am always looking for other opportunities: I am currently in the process of setting up a workshop in Rotterdam and, next year, I am also starting a residential week-long course in my hometown in Canada - the Canadian Renaissance Music Summer School. That will hopefully be aimed at undergraduate- and graduate music students who are interested in learning specifically about Renaissance polyphonic music and whose degree programmes don’t necessarily offer them the opportunities to do that. We are currently in the process of getting that accredited by the university in my home town (Western University), so that students from other universities would be able to come and spend an intensive week with me learning about Renaissance polyphonic music, then apply that experience for potential course credit in their own programmes.


I have done a few workshops in Australia with I Fagiolini and I was a course tutor in the south of France at a place called “La Maison Verte”, run by Francis Steele (a previous member of The Tallis Scholars). I don’t, however, direct a choral society and have no plans to! So, my conducting is part of a wider musical career, of which singing is the main focus, but I am trying to change that balance. I love conducting and very keen to do more!


PH: Did you study conducting?


GS: I did not study conducting officially. I have studied conducting in the school of real life, I suppose. As a singer, all day, every day, I make my own evaluations of which conducting techniques work and which don’t, and I take a very active role in that. I have had an enormous amount of experience of precisely what it is like to be a singer being conducted, in a way that many people who study conducting at a music college will not have had. They will gain a theoretical understanding of how to conduct, but they won’t have the visceral understanding, they won’t have the accumulated knowledge, the first-hand experience of what it actually feels like to be conducted. So, the formal training is something that I don’t have, but I think I am able to bring quite a few insights into how I conduct from my career as a singer.


PH: Do you write music?


GS: I do not. I have done a small amount of arranging. But I think I have so much respect for composers, certainly from the past and also some current composers, that I have been daunted and it has never been something I have pursued.


PH: Do you edit?


GS: I do.  I regularly create editions of scores. When I was doing my academic training, that was a major focus. I have spent quite a lot of time thinking about editing, theoretically and practically, teaching myself the skills, and gaining the familiarity with the various software tools. I actually think that the scores singers look at is hugely important to how they sing; crucially, in removing problems and obstacles for them and allowing them to concentrate on the things that are important. So, my role as an editor is, again, really strongly influenced by my life as a singer. My editing is primarily practical, as opposed to academic, though I understand the academic concerns as well. So, the editions I create try to be hybrid (a mix of so-called ‘scholarly’ and ‘performing’ editions) and not overly academic. There’s a negotiation to be had, I think, between an edition of music as primarily an academic artefact - an object that communicates information about the past - and a score that is actually meant to be used in the present for a performance, and how those two uses interact. That negotiation is something of which I am very aware when I make editions.


PH: Do you write in words?


GS: I do. For quite a long time, I regularly wrote program notes for The Tallis Scholars. They do an enormous number of performances and these are slightly different all the time. They have a very large repertoire from which they draw and their performances will be tailored to different audiences. So they require quite a lot of program-note writing! I did that for four or five years when I was in Oxford. I have written CD liner notes as well for Ex Cathedra and for Tenebrae (another chamber choir based in London with which I sing pretty regularly) and I have done a very small amount of academic writing for journals. So, most of the writing I do is about the music that I am actually performing.


PH: Do you work with amateurs?


GS: I do. As a conductor, most of the clinician work that I do is with amateur singers. The standing group of Lacock Scholars based in London, whom I direct, is an amateur consort, meaning that it is not a fee-paying ensemble.


PH: Are the members not all on the way to singing careers?


GS: The difference between a music student and an amateur singer is complicated: some of them can move on to professional music-making and some will not. Those music students who are very good as undergraduate students but who don’t indeed move on to professional singing are precisely the kind of singers who make up the London-based Lacock Scholars. While they don’t receive fees for the singing they do, their singing is at a very high standard; it is at the elite undergraduate singing standard that we enjoy in the UK. I am always pushing that standard, as well, always trying to give them opportunities to sing at a higher level. So, strictly speaking, it is an amateur organization but with an ambitious standard of singing.


PH: Till now, we have only spoken about early music. Do you perform later music?


GS: I do. Especially as a soloist, I sing Romantic music and 20th century music - actually, music from every time period! As a recitalist, I have performed the music of Fauré, Duparc and Vaughan Williams, for example. As a freelance singer in the London singing scene, you need a broad range of skills and familiarity with a broad repertoire. My focus, my specialty, and where my heart lies is in the music of the Renaissance and early Baroque, but I have sung, for example, in the chorus of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder and done many other projects of contemporary music of various kinds.


PH: Are you interested to do new music?


GS: I am, but it is not one of my main focuses, I would say. I am, however, interested in working with young composers, with composers who are just setting out and specifically with composers who, like Vaughan Williams, have an affinity with and are inspired by music of the past. There are a few young composers around who are exploring the links between older styles and newer and how they can actively incorporate old music into their compositions while also expressing something new. Two of these are Ben Rowarth and Nicholas Ashby. These are composers in the early stages of their careers and I have performed some of their music with the Lacock Scholars. Ben and I are working on a major commission for 2018, where he will be writing the music for a Compline church service (the evening service in the Catholic tradition’s daily round of prayer, from the monastic tradition). We will be working together to create music for the entire service, one unified musical experience, leading the congregation through that liturgical journey. That will be for the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music.


I have never been drawn to the Darmstadt school of avant-garde music-making and by saying this I am not making any value judgements; the contemporary music world is quite specific unto itself, especially in the more avant-garde styles. You have to specialize in that, I think, to truly engage with it and that has never been something that I have done. But there is a lot of music being written these days that is not necessarily in that stream and I am very interested in that kind of music. I have sung for Eric Whitacre quite a lot, a contemporary composer, but not within that tradition. I also love the music of Arvo Pärt, for instance, and there are quite a few composers in the cathedral tradition in in the UK who write music more in the Vaughan Williams / Finzi / Benjamin Britten tradition, a vibrant composing tradition as well.


PH: Where do you stand regarding the Authentic Movement?


GS: Ah...a great question! Music, for me, is alive right now and it exists to be performed and to move people - right now! I think I am sceptical of the value of a musical performance if it only acts as an academic demonstration, if you will. So, I think the Historically Informed Performance movement needs to be constantly challenged to the extent that it is does not find itself becoming unmusical... if that makes sense. If the primary goal of a performance is merely to recreate a performance from the past, a performance that has already happened, I feel as though something has been missed or forgotten.


As I said, I think the primary goal of any performance is to create a meaningful, moving musical experience right now, in the present. This said, in my scepticism about the Historically Informed Performance movement, I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. There is much that we can gain from looking at academic sources, learning about how instruments were built, reading stylistic treatises, looking into performance contexts, types of voices, types of ranges, etc. There is an enormous amount of academic musical knowledge that we have and have access to and I think all of that knowledge should continue to be expanded. Academic research is incredibly important. I think performers should make strong efforts to learn everything that they can about the music they perform.


But I don’t believe that performers can learn everything they need to know about how to perform from academic study. They also have to be expressive; they also have to create and contribute something of themselves as artists, as totally contemporary, modern people. And they have to communicate with audiences in a way that is absolutely modern, happening right now. I think, and it might sound obvious, but at the most fundamental level music written in the past was meant to be performed in the past for people at that time; the composers and musicians who were writing then were not thinking about how their music would be performed in 400 years’ time. They were thinking about how their music was going to be performed next week, about how to express something to their contemporaries or how to create beautiful structures; or they were thinking about how to impress their patrons, or some other less romantic concern. So, whatever they were thinking about was, for them, “right now”. I think that in order to honour what they have given us, we also need to understand that their music has to has to be alive...the music has to be relevant; it has to mean something to us ‘right now’.


One of the things that I think happens too often is that performers attempt to create “time machines”, creating experiences that allow audiences to think as though they are going back in time, to experience what it might have been like in 1715 in a performance of some Bach cantata, or something. I find that problematic. I think the value in a performance comes from its expressiveness, from artistry; it comes from indeed the very, very same things that I would assume would have been present, and important, in that performance in 1715. It’s the artistry, I think, that has to be most important thing and the academic concerns, while also important, must be in a fundamentally supporting role.


The authenticity movement has been criticized for decades. Almost since it began, it has been criticized for similar reasons by many people, performers and academics, who understand that the success of an ‘authentic’ performance – its ability to ‘transport us back’ to ‘hear what the composer intended’ will only ever be of a limited kind because of practical realities: we arrive at a concert hall in a car, we get off a train, we don’t live in an autocratic mid-16th century European absolutist monarchy. We are fundamentally separated from the past and so, to attempt make a re-creation of a performance will only ever be varying degrees of unsuccessful. To think that you have, in 2017, experienced a musical performance that resembles a performance from 1617... I just think there is a bit of illusion (delusion?) in that.


Again, the most important thing about a performance, any performance but most importantly any performance in 2017, is whether you have been moved, whether you have been touched, whether the music has caused you to have an aesthetic, emotional, musical, artistic experience. To provide those experiences is what I believe music has always done - in any period; that this has been its primary power, to cause beautiful experiences to happen.


As a musician who is focused on singing music written in the past, I have had to think about this question a lot. I also confronted these issues in my doctoral work as well. It’s a hot topic! At the end of the day, I go for a focus on artistry at all times, for all audiences.


PH: I see you have recorded extensively.


GS: Yes. The recordings I have done have largely been through my association with various organizations, various groups. Recording is a regular part of what I do. I can’t remember how many recordings I have made. I have recorded with most of the groups with which I sing, and also with the cathedral choirs of which I have been a member. The recordings I am most proud of are one-per-part and two-per-part early music consort recordings with groups like I Fagiolini, Alamire and Ex Cathedra. Recording becomes part of that freelance career we spoke about earlier. The recording side of the job is really quite integrated with the concertizing and, in the case of a liturgical choir, with performing in regular church services.


PH: When it is not music, what interests you?


GS: Well, as a teenager, I played sport quite a lot. I don’t do enough of that now, but I follow sports - I follow a bit of football in the UK and basketball in America is one of my interests. And I have an interest in technology: I am fascinated by what has happened in the last 20 years or so in terms of mainly computer technology. I do quite a lot of computer programming myself as well, at a low level. It’s a hobby. I don’t have any formal training in it, but, if you go to the Lacock Scholars website - – you’ll see my work. I coded that website myself. Also, I suppose I am a bit of a current events “junkie” - I read a lot about politics and the news and try and keep on top of things. I’m interested in the psychology of politics and the analysis of it, what makes people tick and vote and think certain things about society.


PH: Greg Skidmore, it has been most interesting talking to you. Thank you for sharing so much of your ideas and professional experiences.


Thursday, October 5, 2017

Singer and conductor Eamonn Dougan is researching, performing and recording Polish Baroque church music. We met to talk in in Ludlow, UK

Maestro Eamonn Dougan (photo: Peachtree Photography)
On August 16th 2017 I met with Eamonn Dougan in Ludlow, Shropshire, England. An inspirational director and renowned baritone, he is fast emerging as a leading conductor of the younger generation. Eamonn Dougan read music at New College, Oxford, before continuing his vocal and conducting studies at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Informed by his singing, Eamonn is an engaging communicator with a particular passion for Bach, the French Baroque and 20th century English repertoire, including MacMillan. Today he serves as the associate conductor of the world-renowned vocal ensemble “The Sixteen”.

PH: If I understand correctly, you have a great interest in Polish Baroque music and have made a deep study of it. Would you like to talk about it?

ED: Yes. This is a project I have been running with The Sixteen. It came about when we were approached by a Polish artistic foundation, the Adam Mickiewicz Institute (Mickiewicz was a Polish literary figure). It was the institute’s initiative. They sent over some scores to The Sixteen. We had a look at them and decided it would be a worthwhile project. It has actually turned out to be far more than that and has gone from strength to strength: this is repertoire of real worth and music that nobody, certainly in the UK, has ever come across before, except for maybe some violin pieces by Mielczewski. I had never come across Pękiel or Gorczycki or Mielczewski, nor the Italians Pacelli and Bertolusi. Giovanni Francesco Anerio and Luca Marenzio, who spent time in Poland, are fairly known names. It’s interesting to discover that there was a whole swarm of Italians who went and worked in Poland. I have researched the programs alongside a very fine Polish musicologist - Barbara Przybyszewska-Jarmińska. She has been wonderful in helping me devise the programs and in providing scores. I would say she is the world authority on Polish music of this period; she has written an important book about music in Poland in this time. So, with her guiding me, it has been a valuable experience exploring this music...a voyage of discovery.

PH: And you have done several recordings of it.

ED: Yes. Five volumes now and I think it is true to say that there has been a premiere recording on each disc. There is also an incredible story about one of the Marenzio Masses on the disc titled “Helper and Protector”. Till recently, the Missa super “Iniquos odio habui” was familiar only in the form of the Kyrie and Gloria movements, preserved in sources that were produced in Protestant environments and adapted to their needs. The first recording of the whole cycle of the Ordinary, including the Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei, has been made possible thanks to a copy from 1603 originating from Silesia which, from the 19th century until 1945, was part of a large collection of music manuscripts from the 16th and 17th centuries held in the Stadtbibliothek in Wroclaw. That collection, which after World War II was considered lost, was appropriated by the Soviet authorities and, during the 1950s, secretly transferred to the Staatsbibliothek Preussischer Kulturbesitz in former East Berlin. Declassified since the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is now accessible to scholars and musicians.

PH: Eamonn, where were you born?

ED: I was born in Bromley, Kent. Both my parents are Irish but I was born in the UK, so I have a foot in both camps.  

PH: Are you from a musical family?

ED: After a fashion, yes. There are no other professional musicians, but my mother was, by all accounts, an excellent singer when she was younger and my father was a chorister in the Armagh Cathedral. Music was always on the record-player at home.

PH: What were your own early music experiences?

ED: I started piano lessons at quite an early age. Music was always something that has brought me comfort; it is always what I turn to, the most constant thing in my life. It has always been there. I was at a school in southeast London, not a specifically musical school.

PH: When did you do your serious career training?

ED: It all really started when I went to university: I was lucky enough to win a place to read Music at New College, Oxford, and I received a choral scholarship to sing in the chapel choir there, which is a very renowned institution. I sang under the directorship of Edward Higginbottom, and that is where it all began for me. He was an inspiration and, without doubt, I would not be doing what I do today if it were not for him. There, I did three years as an undergraduate and choral scholar. Once I finished my degree I didn’t feel ready to leave Oxford - I had too much going on, having set up various groups: I had a group I was conducting that was doing some really interesting things, exploring music of the French Baroque, which was a particular passion of mine; this was also Edward’s great speciality, so he was helping me with that. I stayed on in Oxford for a further two years, singing as a lay clerk. Then I met a wonderful singing teacher - Susan McCulloch. She encouraged me to apply to the Guildhall School of Music in London to do postgraduate vocal studies there and I was lucky enough to get in, where I did two years of study.

PH: When did you actually start singing professionally?

ED: The great thing about being at New College was that we sang six days out of seven - a real crash course. Your musical standards just rise within weeks. That was incredible training. I had not sung at anywhere near that level till I got there. We were working with Christopher Hogwood, René Jacobs - singing for great conductors - as well as for Edward. It was work on a highly professional standard. We were also singing with the Academy of Ancient Music, the King’s Consort and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

PH: When did you begin conducting?

ED: I had started conducting at school, actually. I don’t really know how it began. I just felt this urge to do it and I would go to our local library, which had a music hire section. I would take scores out, also taking home recordings of the works. So, I started looking at such scores as the Duruflé Requiem, the Mozart Requiem and the Fauré Requiem...

PH: Did you study conducting?

ED: Not at that stage. That came later.

PH: After Oxford, I believe you started your London career as a lay clerk in London.

ED: Yes. I started singing in- and deputising in various churches. That’s how you start to get onto the circuit. I then joined some of the smaller groups around London. That helped to support me through my studies at the Guildhall School as well. When I left Guildhall, I couldn’t make ends meet just from singing, so I took a teaching job as well...teaching as a peripatetic singing teacher a couple of days a week. I then got a job conducting a chamber choir. It was a real “portfolio career”. You often find young musicians will perform, teach and do whatever. I had a good church job at the Brompton Oratory in London for six years; it is a huge Catholic church with a fine choral tradition, located right next to the Victoria and Albert Museum. I met quite a lot of colleagues there who were coming in deputising. That, in turn through people I met there, led to colleagues suggesting to Harry Christophers, director of The Sixteen, that he take me into the group. I came into The Sixteen as a deputy, started working with them and was lucky enough that a space came up in the group and Harry asked me to join. After a couple of years, he made me his assistant conductor and then I became the associate conductor.

PH: What about your solo singing?

ED: Well, that is something that has very much taken a back seat over the last few years. I used to do a lot of it, but have kind-of made a pragmatic decision that I am now focusing on conducting. That is where I see my future. You can spread yourself too thin. I used to sing quite a bit of opera as well and, ten years ago, made a decision to stop doing that, too. Once I started conducting more and really wanting to focus on that, I thought I couldn’t be all these different things. That’s when I cut the opera out. Over the last four-or-so years, my solo work has really dropped off as well. But that’s all right. I’m okay with that because conducting is what I do now.

PH: Let’s go back to the question of your studying conducting. Where did you do that?

ED: On the job. Initially. Edward was my big influence. People used to tell me that I looked like him when I conducted...that I conducted like him, that is. You pick it up “on the street”, so to speak. I had worked for some great conductors, but also some people who aren’t very good conductors; so, hopefully, that way you learn what not to do as well. But I reached a point where I knew I didn’t have the conducting technique that I needed and, as I was starting to do some bigger repertoire with orchestra as well, I felt I needed some help. Fortuitously, I met Martyn Brabbins when I chorus-mastered for him at the St. Endellion Festival in Cornwall. He was conducting “Death in Venice” when I chorus-mastered for him. Meeting him was another life-changing moment. He is one of the most phenomenally, technically gifted conductors I know of, as well as being a wonderful man. I watched him rehearse for two weeks. After the first performance, I said to him: “I want to learn to do what you can do.” For many years, Martyn has been running a conducting course as part of the St. Magnus Festival in Orkney (the festival was founded by Peter Maxwell Davies). He suggested I come to study there with him in Orkney, which I did, attending an intensive two-week course doing proper symphonic repertoire - Beethoven Symphony No.1, Brahms No.2, Bartok’s “Concerto for Orchestra”, Debussy’s “Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune”, Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture - big stuff I had never encountered before as a conductor.

PH: He was clearly a big influence on your professional career.

ED: Yes. I have been extraordinarily lucky with the artists who have seriously influenced my life: Edward Higginbottom, Susan McCulloch (the singing teacher with whom I studied for ten years) and singing teacher Robert Dean (who has been similarly life-changing). I met Harry Christophers and have worked very closely with him. He has been a huge influence for me and a real mentor figure. And then, as I mentioned, I met Martyn Brabbins. I feel these five people have really shaped who I am musically today.

PH: We talked about your interest in Baroque music, but I understand you do also conduct 20th century and new music.

ED: Yes. I have always tried to make sure that I don’t do just early music and I have actually conducted quite a few world premieres of new works - works by Gabriel Jackson (with The Sixteen), Eriks Esenvalds and Nico Muhly, the latter two with Britten Sinfonia. In the coming weeks, I am going to be conducting the world premiere of a piece by Thomas Hyde at a festival in Belgium. The whole festival will be based around Magnificat settings. We commissioned a Magnificat from him for The Sixteen and will be highlighting it alongside some older settings of the text. Tom and I were actually at school together. Even as a young lad, he was obsessed with composing. He is now a professional composer and a fellow at King’s College, London, also teaching at Oxford University. And now, some 25 or 30 years after meeting him again, I commissioned him to write a piece I am premiering with The Sixteen.

A lot of performance of new music has come through The Sixteen. We are very lucky to have a close association with composer James MacMillan which, especially over the last few years, has been a joy to develop. About three years ago, James set up his own festival - the Cumnock Tryst - in his hometown of Cumnock in Ayrshire, up in Scotland. I have been directing the Festival Chorus there for the last three years and am going back in October to do another year. The Sixteen has a training scheme for young singers, called Genesis Sixteen, supported by the Genesis Foundation; it is run by philanthropist John Studzinski. A patron of the arts, he has been supporting The Sixteen and funding this training course. So, for the past three years, I have taken a group of Genesis Sixteen singers up to Cumnock Tryst and they have performed there, either as soloists with the Festival Chorus or doing a program on their own. James wrote a piece for us which we premiered there. It was amazing to do a MacMillan premiere. Next year I am going to be conducting the world premiere of a big piece he is writing for brass band, string quartet, the Festival Chorus and tenor Ian Bostridge. It is hugely exciting to be lined up to conduct a work like that.

PH: This week you are in Ludlow directing mostly amateur singers at a Lacock choral course. Do you like working with amateurs?

ED: It is something I have always done. I do love it and get a lot out of it. I like to work hard and I like to work people hard - that’s what I am here to do. I’m enjoying this week, because I like sharing this Polish Baroque church music, music that not many other people do. I think that’s part of my job with this music, to spread the word of it. Being a singer and having studied singing for so many years now, I love working with singers. I feel I know how to make improvements for people. I know what I am talking about. I know what’s “under the bonnet”. It’s about speaking the right language and, because of the wonderful teachers I have had - Sue McCulloch and Robert Dean - I feel I have been extremely well taught and it’s lovely to be able to impart that knowledge to people and help them improve their singing, whatever standard they are at. It is very gratifying for me when you give an exercise and you can hear the improvement immediately.

PH: Do you write in words?

ED: I don’t have that much cause to, really, but I enjoy it when I do it. The most recent things I have had to write are the liner notes for the Polish CDs we have been recording. But most of my time is taken up with learning music and a great deal of administration. When you are a conductor, 90 per cent of your time is actually spent in setting things up, rather than actual music-making! So, the time spent in music-making is to be cherished.

PH: Where do you stand vis-à-vis the Authentic Movement?

ED: long have you got? I have been brought up with it. It has changed a lot in the last twenty years if I think back to when I was a student, working with Chris Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music. I think when you have the opportunity to perform this music with all the right elements - the appropriate bows and violins, instruments strung the correct way -  then it is wonderful, but I am not exclusive at all. I’m very happy to do Bach on modern instruments. My preference would be to do it with period instruments, but I am by no means exclusive. I’m not a musicologist, but I’m not a purist either. For me, it is much more important to just be doing the music and, honestly, I’m not enough of a specialist. There is a lot more I need to learn about the whole Authentic Movement in terms of doing stuff with instruments, but I’m very happy to be guided on that by people who know more than I. So, this week having David Hatcher guiding the instrumentalists has been fantastic. He has taken a lot of things I have suggested and actually changed some of them because he has a better idea of what instruments work well with which parts. For the Polish recordings, I go to the experts and get their opinions on how to do things. I would much rather ask their opinion and tap into their expertise.

PH: You perform many different kinds of music. Do you have any preferences?

ED: Put it this way: for me, the greatest music to perform is that of Bach. I can’t go a year without doing performances of Bach.

PH: When it isn’t music, what interests you?

ED: My children, my wife. I’ve got a young family - two boys. One is seven, the other two. My wife is a singer as well. She is busy. It is important for us to make time for the family. Quite simply, that’s where I spend the rest of my time.

PH: Maestro Eamonn Dougan, it has been most interesting talking to you. Many thanks for making time during this very busy week of music-making.