500 years of St John's College, Cambridge
Thursday, November 17, 2011
We may be celebrating 500 years at St John’s College this year, but it is quite a month for contemporary music for the choir. At Evensong tonight we will sing a dramatic piece that Giles Swayne wrote for us recently, Adam lay ibounden. Last week we gave the premiere of a new Magnificat by Judith Weir, and in a fortnight we will premiere The Annunciation. It’s a beautiful new piece written for us by former St John’s College student Jonathan Harvey and I’m extremely moved that he has completed it for us despite his recent illness.
New music is just one of the ways we look to the future. My predecessor George Guest, who first established the choir's reputation, was a pioneer and innovator; introducing important new repertoire to Britain through services and recordings, creating a new and distinctive choral sound and taking the Choir of St John’s College to parts of the world which were new to British choirs. As director of music, I am keen to continue the tradition of innovation. We have introduced termly Bach Cantata Evensongs and have founded, with Margaret Faultless, a professional period-instrument orchestra, St John’s Sinfonia. We perform and record with many ensembles, including a recent disc containing many hitherto unrecorded Lassus works with His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts.
We’ve just launched the choir’s new website - www.sjcchoir.co.uk - which continues to host our groundbreaking weekly webcasts of services. We have also started an archive section, SJC Live, in which we offer free of charge recordings of many pieces recorded live in our services during the past three years. I hope this will be an increasingly useful resource for choral directors exploring new repertoire, as well as for choral enthusiasts in general.
Of course the essence of my work is nurturing and training our young singers. Boys join the choir when they are eight years old and stay for five years. They have a fantastic education in all respects, not only musically, and they get to undertake frequent tours (including the USA this year and Japan next year). The sense of professionalism and team spirit they acquire is invaluable in later life.
Our altos, tenors and basses join the choir when they are 18 or 19 and generally have three years in the choir. It is very stimulating to have the constant freshness which ensues, but it is a considerable challenge to prepare 200 services a year to the highest standards when, at any given time, so many members of the choir are new.
We are an educational establishment and I feel it is important for me to introduce our singers to as wide a range of music as possible. The first seven releases in our Chandos contract include five single-composer discs, one from each of the 16th to 20th centuries.
The 500th anniversary celebrations come to a climax with a concert I will be conducting at Ely Cathedral on Friday. We are combining with four other excellent Cambridge choirs, from Caius, Clare, Trinity and Jesus, as well as with various alumni of our own choir, to perform Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the Philharmonia Orchestra – a thrilling combination. These choirs together form an exceptionally fine chorus.
It is going to be a spectacular event and we are also bringing the Walton and Elgar’s ravishing and exhilarating Straussian tone-poem Alassio (In the South) to the Royal Festival Hall in December. The last time I conducted Elgar with the Philharmonia was when Vernon Handley was taken ill three hours before a Three Choirs Festival concert in Gloucester. I conducted the Enigma Variations (a 30-minute work) on 15 minutes rehearsal! It is good to have rather more time to prepare this time, and I hope it will be a performance to remember as the college enters its next half millennium.
The Choir of St John’s brings the College’s 500th anniversary year to a climax with celebratory concerts at Ely Cathedral on Friday November 18 and London’s Royal Festival Hall on Thursday December 15.