In the lead-up to accomplished young conductor Sam Allchurch making his debut as Music Director of Sydney Chamber Choir this Saturday, March 30th, classikON chatted with him about his pathway to conducting, programming music about music, inclusivity in classical music, and the difference between a choral concert and a poetry recital.
classikON: The Sydney Chamber Choir is ‘passionate about choral music and its unique ability to celebrate and reflect upon the stories of our past, present and future’. Do you attribute this ‘unique ability’ purely to being able to sing texts, or are there other factors?
Sam: Oh, that’s a good and serious question to start with! I think text has a big part to play in the ability to communicate stories and sing about things and ideas that are quite concrete. To an extent, it’s the way that the ideas are conveyed in the text, but it’s also the humanity of the singer’s voice, which conveys the ‘stuff between the lines’ of the text. There’s so much more that music adds to a text, otherwise we would just have a poetry recital! It’s the things that bring it off the page: the composer’s notes, the harmonies, the melodies – and then the singers’ interpretation of them, that makes it exciting. So I think it’s all of that combined, which allows choral music to interpret a story, to reflect on a story, that kind of thing.
Music on Music is a very meta programme… can you tell us more about it?
Yes! It’s funny you say that – I was going to call the programme ‘Meta Music’ instead, but then I thought that was maybe a bit niche! I wanted to create a programme that was very special: this is my first programme as Music Director of the ensemble. In planning the programme, I really wanted to do a major work by Britten, and a major work by Bach, because I think both composers write for the voice wonderfully and intelligently and emotionally. In each half of the programme, there is a great work by each of these composers: Bach’s Motet Singet dem Herrn and Benjamin Britten’s piece, Rejoice in the Lamb. Those works kicked off the programme, and they were ‘music about music’: these are pieces about singing, these were pieces about making music, these are pieces about reflecting the divine – or whatever that might be in a particular context; and so they anchored the programme, and then we built around that.
I wanted to create a programme that was very special: this is my first programme as Music Director of the ensemble… Part of what I was wanting to do was to pay homage to my predecessors with the Choir, and also acknowledge the Choir’s history.
Part of what I was wanting to do was to pay homage to my predecessors with the Choir, and also acknowledge the Choir’s history: it was founded by Nicholas Routley in 1975, and Nicholas has a great passion for, and expertise in, Early Music, and so there’s a piece of the Renaissance composer Josquin [des Prez] on the programme. Josquin wrote this elegy to his composer friend [Johannes] Ockeghem, listing a set of contemporary composers right at the end: you get this sense of all of these composers standing around Ockeghem’s grave, or at his funeral, lamenting the death of one of their own, which is really beautiful. It was Paul Stanhope who took over the Choir from Nicholas, and he’s a composer himself – a very fine one – and so we’ve programmed his Cherubic Hymn. And then my most immediate predecessor is the late Richard Gill [AO], who was a huge influence on me; in a sense, Music on Music a nod to him, because I think whilst Richard was really passionate about music education and its ability to do wonderful things for the brain and improving skills in numeracy and literacy, he was also a great advocate of music for its own sake: music for music, music for art, that kind of thing – and that it should be there for everybody. So it’s not one piece of music necessarily that honours Richard, but perhaps the idea. So that’s a little bit about the programme!
How old were you when you decided to be a conductor and what led you to conducting in the first place?
A naturally bossy temperament – from a very young age, I had no problem telling people what to do! I was really influenced by my great mentor and now colleague, Lyn Williams [AM], who is the Artistic Director of Gondwana Choirs – I sang in Sydney Children’s Choir from the age of around ten and I saw her conduct, and thought I wanted to do that. I just love being around choirs. I left Sydney Children’s Choir when my voice changed when I was about thirteen; I joined my local church choir, which was a very simple affair – we’re talking about Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring on a good day – but they were very kind to me by letting me conduct. I had this great opportunity to stand up in front of a group of people from quite a young age and run rehearsals, do all the administration, and choose and prepare the music. It was great to feel confident in front of a group of people, and to learn how to get the best out of whichever singers you have in front of you. I think that’s the great thing about choirs: you can have choirs singing authentically and meaningfully on a wide range of levels, So, I think I got into conducting reasonably young, and then just pursued it from there.
When you’re not rehearsing or conducting, where are you most likely to be?
At the moment, I’m likely to be doing quite a lot of those two things! I guess the thing I like to do when I’m not rehearsing or conducting is to go for a good long run – I’m a very average middle-distance runner. So you’ll find me running in and around near where I live in east Sydney.
After you finish a concert, what is the first drink you want to have in your hand?
Usually a glass of nice cold white wine, preferably some sort of chardonnay.
Nice! You have said you’d like to ‘experiment with venues’ with Sydney Chamber Choir in the future – in your wildest, craziest dreams, where would you like the choir to perform?
Well, I’d love to do some secret locations in Sydney, because it has some fantastic hidden gems – although I’m sure every city has them! There’s a place called the Paddington Reservoir, which is an old oil reservoir. It’s actually not totally hidden, because it’s been nicely re-designed by a fantastic architectural firm. There are also a whole bunch of water tanks and things like that around Sydney that I think would be really cool to explore. The challenge, of course, is making them safe and everything, and they’re quite big projects: we’ll still be doing concerts in concert halls, but why limit ourselves to that?
I’d love to do some things with a smaller audience, and create a quite intimate experience – the thing about Sydney Chamber Choir is that they’ve got such great voices that I’d love to get the audience to wander in and out of the Choir, and enjoy hearing different voices individually. That would be quite fun!
Sydney Chamber Choir will still do concerts in concert halls, but why limit ourselves to that?
That sounds great! You spoke before about the amazing Richard Gill – so how do you hope to continue his phenomenal legacy of creating an inclusive and accessible environment in classical music?
They’re big shoes to fill! I think the thing about Richard is that he never patronised anybody; he always felt that everybody deserved the best music – whatever the genre. And he wasn’t a snob about genre: in fact, one of my favourite things about him was that he had a secret – or maybe not so secret! – love of Country and Western music; he seemed completely happy strumming out those sorts of things on the piano. But I think that whatever it is, people deserve the best in that particular genre, and great music is, in some senses, really complicated and complex, but it’s also very simple in that it can just have a fantastic impact on people straightaway. So I think it’s being able to enjoy music, and understand it on an intellectual level – have some sense of how it’s functioning, what it’s doing, where it comes from, that kind of thing, but also just have the sheer artistic pleasure of listening to music and being part of music, and making music. Richard’s career spanned the spectrum of the profession: one day he’d be working with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra or Sydney Chamber Choir – really top-notch musicians in a trained sense – and then the next day he’d be doing a flash mob choir for anyone who wanted to come and sing, and then the next day he’d be working with a group of school children. He believed that you can and you should do both, as much as possible – you don’t need to lock yourself in an ivory tower just doing one sort of thing. And actually, people can be good at working in all those different levels, so I’m hoping we can do that.
Richard [Gill AO] never patronised anybody; he always felt that everybody deserved the best music – whatever the genre.
classikON is also passionate about contributing to an inclusive and accessible environment in classical music, so with this in mind: when should we clap?
You should clap whenever you want to, I think! Well, clap when you want to, and when it feels right. I was talking about this with a friend the other day, this notion of there being rules about that kind of thing. If it’s very artistically important to the musicians and the conductor to keep the flow of the music going and create an arc, that sort of thing, then it’s their job to keep the tension – the good tension – in the room, so that people don’t want to clap. And you see people do that all the time really effectively – conductors and musicians, whoever is delivering the art, it’s their responsibility: if they want that kind of silence, it’s possible to create it. So I think the notion of, ‘oh, you shouldn’t clap between pieces because it’s a rule’ is not very helpful… clap when you feel like!
You can catch Sam in action this Saturday 30th March at Sydney Chamber Choir’s first concert of their 2019 Season, entitled Music on Music. For more information and to buy tickets, click here.