Interview: Joshua Stephens

So how did you get into the organ?
I was a chorister at Sheffield Cathedral. I joined the choir when I was eight and was recruited by the then Director of Music Neil Taylor, who is a previous Bradford Cathedral choir member. He came to my school and got me to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ and that was the beginning of five happy years in the cathedral choir. That absolutely changed my life: we toured to America, Paris and sang at Notre Dame Cathedral, the Netherlands; all experiences which will stay with me for the rest of my life. It’s shaped and molded everything I currently do.

Joshua Stephens

When my voice changed at thirteen, I became interested in the organ, but I didn’t start learning it until I was fifteen. I carried on singing in various school choirs and I’d always played violin, but piano and organ was new to me. When I was eighteen, I successfully auditioned for the Royal Northern College of Music where I studied with Darius Battiwalla and Thomas Trotter, which was a fantastic experience. During my second year of undergraduate studies was the first year I gave a recital at Bradford Cathedral.

During my studies, I performed a lot of solo and chamber music, which was fun and very different from church music. When I finished my degree, I came back to Sheffield as organ scholar at the cathedral after some freelancing in Manchester. Following that I was Second Assistant Organist at Wells Cathedral. It was an incredible and fantastic experience working there with then Director of Music, Matthew Owens. They had such an incredible programme of music, with an amazing repertoire every night which felt like the making of me. I then returned to Sheffield in 2018 as Assistant Director of Music, and I am now acting Director of Music.

How are you finding the role?
It’s as demanding and rewarding as you’d expect; working with Choristers and parents, Lay Clerks and Choral Scholars, and the wider Cathedral team and community, then developing a performance programme that’s both engaging for the Choir – ensuring quality performance, along with a sense of development for members, but also one that is catered the needs of the worshipping community. I also have busy performance schedule on top of that with local choirs and recitals up and down the UK. It’s busy, but very fun and rewarding! Everyday has new positive challenges. I’m excited and invigorated by the role.

For you, what makes a great lunchtime organ recital?
The time of the day affects what you play. A lunchtime recital should have a little of everything to offer: you want something fun, something serious; you want a little bit of academic as well. It’s good to try and cater for everyone. However, when I attend recitals and concerts, I find I’m less interested in what people are playing but more interested in them as a person and their personality shining through that performance. Someone showing me who they are without saying anything is interesting: it’s all about the performer.

How did you pick the pieces for that you were going to do for your recital?
I have a formula for a recital: I choose a big piece, then a little piece, big piece, little piece, like a meaty sandwich. Bach’s Toccata, Adagio, und Fuge C-dur means a lot to me as a few years ago I played the entire thing live as a voluntary on BBC Radio 3 Choral Evensong. Some people may approach a broadcast as if it’s the most nerve-wracking thing, but I just had the time of my life! So whenever I play the piece it reminds me of that experience. It was a high pressure and scary experience but it was amazing.

I remember the BBC producer asking if I can play this and my colleague turning to me at the time and saying ‘can you?’. I nodded, and said I could play it and it was sealed, and off into the Radio Times! It was such a great experience.

Scheidemann’s Alleluja Laudem dicite Deo nostro is a little bit naughty as I’m playing a piece with ‘alleluja’ in it during Lent, but it’s a really interesting piece. Scheidemann was really one of the best cover artists of his day. The piece itself is actually based on a motet for singers by Hans Leo Hassler, who was one of the most influential European composers of his generation. Scheidemann was an interesting character, as whilst the rest of the world went to Italy to study music, he went to the Netherlands to study the organ specifically with Sweelinck. What you get with Scheidemann is an eclectic style: he’s taken an Italian-based motet and applied it with a Dutch twist and a Germanic accent. The type of music happening in the Netherlands at the time was directly linked to and inspired by the works of William Byrd, which had been taken to Amsterdam by various English composers and musicians who were either living or tour around that part of Europe at the time. It’s an eclectic European mix!

Francis Jackson’s Impromptu is a piece I’ve just played this lunchtime. It’s one of my favorite organ works to play: it’s beautiful and lyrical, then it goes into a fun sea-shanty, which is a little bit tongue-in-cheek really, and then it returns to its previous lyricism. It’s again a wonderful demonstration of personality. Francis Jackson wrote it for Sir Edward Bairstow for this 70th birthday. Francis Jackson was a chorister at York Minster, under Bairstow, and they had a very close relationship. Bairstow was almost a father-figure, in a mentor-type role. What you get through this music is this exchange of admiration for one another. Amazingly, Francis Jackson is still alive at 102 years old! During my time at Wells Cathedral, I premiered a piece by Jackson for choir and organ, which was wonderful. Since then I’ve taken a closer look at his music, and it’s fantastic. I think he’s an incredibly intelligent and playful composer.

Judith Bingham is one of the leading composers in Britain at the moment, and St Bride, assisted by angels is a fantasy-type piece which is based on a poem written by Bingham herself. The interesting thing about the poem as it’s only for the player; it’s not meant to be heard by the audience, and the player is supposed to convey the words, which are more-or-less there instead of the dynamics. It’s interesting to see the journey of St Bride flying through time all the way to the nativity. It’s also very playful. What I love about Bingham in particular, and I met her in 2017, is that she’s a very kind and approachable lady but with a dark and fun sense of humour. This really comes out in her music, sometimes unwittingly, and you get her personality coming through her music, which is what draws me to it. It’s all about the person behind the notes.

If we were just interested in the music itself, we could just type it into a computer and hear the notes. It really is about who is performing and what they can convey. If you go and hear a certain piece by Bach it’s going to be brilliant as his music has that quality about it, but what does the player offer? There’s always an essence of who they are and what they’re about, and that’s what interests me as a performer. And you often convey your own personality without realising it; it’s fascinating!

And finally Reger’s Improvisation from his Zweite Sonata. It’s a serious piece but it reminds me of an angsty teenager having a tantrum! It’s hyper emotional and the musical harmonies are so dense. The interesting thing about Reger as a composer is that his sense of harmony is too complex for the structure of the composition. But it’s a wonderful work, and full of romanticism – a fantastic dramatic piece.

Alongside many other achievements, you’ve also collaborated with Maxine Peake?
I collaborated with her on a dramatic reading by Percy Shelley called The Masque of Anarchy. It’s a poem set around the Peterloo incident, so it’s very politically-charged. That was just one of the stand-out moments. It was very odd playing the organ for a theatrical show, and much of it was improvised. We only had to follow our cues. I remember in the first rehearsal, Maxine was so phenomenal that we missed our cues; we were so taken by her performance; drawn in so instantly. She’s one of the most incredible artists I’ve ever come across.

After that I saw her starring as Hamlet, and she proved herself to be one of the most compelling actors I’ve seen live. I’ve been quite lucky in this regard. I’ve done lots of interesting things, including singing on recordings and featured with the choir on two Channel 5 programmes at Christmas. It can all feel surreal at times.

What are your plans for the rest of 2020?
I am going to be in my current role for at least the rest of the academic year until August time. In that time, like any Director of Music would, I want to build up the reputation and membership of the department and really solidify its future trajectory. I’m really excited about that, but I’m especially interested in looking at new and imaginative ways in how choral music can reach out and change the lives of people in our community. That’s an on-going journey which is exciting to be part of.

Since this interview, Joshua has been appointed as Master of the Music at Sheffield Cathedral.

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