A joyous programme: Founder and Composer of The Sixteen Harry Christophers CBE introduces ‘An Immortal Legacy’

Harry Christophers CBE is the founder and conductor of The Sixteen who bring their ‘An Immortal Legacy’ to Bradford Cathedral on Saturday 14th September. Ahead of the concert we spoke to Harry about the history of the Sixteen, their recent successes and his hopes for the future of choral music.

Harry Christophers CBE (photo: Firedog)

Firstly can we offer our congratulations on your receipt of the Herald Archangel Award for your work at the recent Edinburgh International Festival. How does that feel to receive that?
It’s great. We’ve had a lovely association with the Festival for many years now, and we’ve just done the premiere of James MacMillan’s Symphony No.5 (commissioned by Genesis Foundation especially for us) on Saturday [17th August] which was pretty special. It’s been an absolutely wonderful year.

How has the Edinburgh International Festival been?
It’s amazing, with that and the 4000 acts that are on at the Fringe. It’s just the most incredible city; one of the finest in the world. You cannot imagine any other city being able to cope with so much going on, and so much activity in the arts. We were there for the best part of the week. We did a concert at the Queen’s Hall which is a lovely older venue, now a glorious concert hall. We also got a standing ovation for the MacMillan piece which was fabulous; I don’t know how he does it!

It must be really positive to see everyone embracing the arts?
Absolutely! Edinburgh is just brimming with people, and the lovely thing is that there are so many young people there and everything is fantastically accessible. You just wish that every city in the world could embrace that kind of culture and diversity, and be welcoming. Everybody was so lovely, which is what most people say when they come up to Edinburgh in August. Everyone is just so calm and helpful, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s been the smallest thing at the Fringe or the grandest at the International Festival, it’s all treated the same. I love it!

You are presenting the ‘An Immortal Legacy’ programme to us in September – could you tell us a little about how that came about and what people can expect from it?
I call it a mixed bag programme. It’s very much what The Sixteen is about: it gives people a wider spectrum of choral music and its beauty. A lot of our grass-roots – which is, of course, Renaissance – are wonderfully approachable pieces. There are one or two that are well known, and some not so. People who come from a choral tradition will know Byrd’s Laudibus in sanctis very well but they may not know Sheppard’s In manus tuas III. I’m looking forward to the 20th and 21st century Britten’s Choral Dances from Gloriana: people should never be put off by Benjamin Britten! It’s a wonderful celebration of Queen Elizabeth I, which is why I’ve put a few madrigals in the first half to balance that. Tippett’s fantastic Five Spirituals from A Child of Our Time are one of the main-stays of the choral repertoire today; they are fabulous, heart-felt settings.

And we’ve had a long association with James MacMillan and no programme would be right without a couple of his pieces in. I guarantee a large majority of the audience will come out speaking about one or both of the pieces of James’ in the programme: they are wonderfully atmospheric, bringing in Celtic roots. It’s a programme that encompasses the best of unaccompanied vocal music that will suit a building like Bradford Cathedral, where you’ve got an ambience and the notes resounding around the pillars, which is very important for audiences too. You don’t have to be a person of faith to actually appreciate this music in a lovely setting. It’s a very joyous programme but it will also occasionally test people’s emotions.

Will it be something welcoming to those who maybe have not yet seen The Sixteen?
Very much so. It’s exactly those sort of people that this programme is aimed at. Those who know the choral tradition will hear a lot of well-known pieces but for people who don’t know anything about it, it will be a phenomenal introduction to our world. I would encourage anyone who has not been to a concert like this to come along and see what you think. We’d welcome anyone to come up and see us at the end and speak to us and let us known what your impressions were. I always find it fascinating to hear people’s reactions. I’ve never heard from anyone that wasn’t inspired by unaccompanied voices. It starts with plain song, which is absolutely beautiful, but when it goes into polyphony you suddenly realise that you’ve gone from the 13th century, to the 16th century, and then leaping forward to the 20th and 21st centuries. The world might have changed, but the spirituality and emotion of this music hasn’t changed.

The Sixteen are marking their 40th anniversary this year – how does it feel to reach such an incredible milestone?
I would never have dreamt it back in 1979 and to see where it is now is quite staggering! People often ask why we’re called The Sixteen – originally there were sixteen singers performing 16th century music, particularly English Tudor music – but we have grown. What is nice is going through the repertoire from those Renaissance roots through the Baroque and then skipping a bit to the 20th century. There’s a wonderful resurgence for the love of choral music, thanks in part to how in this day and age we realise how fragile the world is, and that the human voice has that fragility as it’s so personal to us all. We’re not putting a clarinet mouth-piece in our mouth or a violin under our chin – we’re actually delivering it from our soul and our own being, and that’s a very special thing. It’s always been about performing and communicating with an audience, and that principle from 1979 has never changed and it’s still very much there today. We’ve done so many wonderful things in our anniversary year. We did a fantastic stage production of Handel’s Belshazzar at the Grange Festival in Hampshire, a visually phenomenal production that was so colourful and active. It’s probably one of Handel’s finest pieces and perfect for the stage. Then to crown it last week with James MacMillan’s choral symphony in Edinburgh with the largest scale of The Sixteen ever presented.

We were there with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra as well as the forty-strong Genesis Sixteen choir, which is our student programme. It was staggering and James was ecstatic. We feel very privileged to have this fantastic relationship with James which has blossomed since we first commissioned him in 2002. Things are just going from strength to strength, and I just wonder quite what is next. There will always be challenges and new things we want to do, with more community projects. We had a fantastic project with Streetwise Opera two year ago with Bach’s Passions and I’d like to see The Sixteen do more project-based work, and taking our music to a wider audience, which is what we’re all about.

What have been the particular highlights of your time conducting with the Sixteen?
The highlight for all of our careers was performing James MacMillan’s Stabat mater in the Sistine Chapel, in front of Michelangelo’s phenomenal murals, and I doubt we’ll ever get anything better than that; it was very special. I think also performing at the Sydney Opera House was very special, and the very start of the Choral Pilgrimage in 2000 in York Minster was an amazing project. It was only going to be for the year 2000 but here we are 19 years later going to many more Cathedrals up and down the country. In fact, we’re very happy to perform in Bradford as our aim by the end of the year is to have performed in every Cathedral that is mentioned in Simon Jenkins’ book English Cathedrals, which is our ulterior motive!

What’s been really lovely about that, and what we’ve seen particularly over the last 20 years with the group, is getting into these wonderful communities. We’re based in London, but it’s not the centre of the universe, and it’s great when we get up to new places. You’ve got wonderful communities and a great love of this music, and it’s fantastic to meet new faces.

Finally do you think the future of choral music is positive?
I think it is. These things are always ‘despite’ something, such as the total lack of arts education in state schools which is just a travesty. If it’s going to continue under the Government we currently have then the arts are only going to get to a minority all the time, so it’s up to individuals, and thankfully there are great individuals across the country who are forming community choirs and Cathedrals are working hard to embrace a wider selection, but it’s very difficult. We need more girls’ choirs, and this all needs to continue, but it all needs funding! There are wonderful philanthropists out there who are helping but we need more of them, but it’s very much up to the individual. We have a wonderful supporter in Michael Watt of Ronnie Scott’s who underwrites our entire outreach programme.

It’s so interesting to see such fantastic people who are doing great things. People always talk about the Gareth Malone effect but it can only help. Television and social media have a great part to play to promote the love of choral music and get people interested. The great thing is that it doesn’t cost anything: you don’t have to buy an instrument, your voice is there. Obviously if you get an interest in it, it will cost you to have lessons but actually the basic instrument is there. Long may it continue, and I’m sure it will. In various parts of the country there has been a real rise in appreciation of what it is about singing in a choir. It’s community: it’s a great social gathering and whether it is secular or sacred it’s fantastic.

The Sixteen present their ‘An Immortal Legacy’ programme on Saturday 14th September at 7:30pm at Bradford Cathedral. Limited tickets are available from bradford-cathedral.ticketlight.co.uk

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