David Hill in conversation with... Andrew Nethsingha

David Hill
Monday, January 2, 2023

Incoming organist and master of the choristers, Westminster Abbey, Andrew Nethsingha

David Hill: What’s your favourite beverage?

Andrew Nethsingha: Well, I’m very partial to Brandy Alexander cocktails; and I’m keen on all things Cornish, so it’s great to try some of the delicious new white wines made there. And Americanos with oatmilk are a good way to wake myself up!

DH: And your favourite cuisine?

AN: Probably curry. I loved having dal for breakfast every day when we visited family members in Sri Lanka a few years ago. And, to be quirky, it’s always good to have roll-mop herrings in the fridge (P.G.Wodehouse said they’re good for the brain!)

DH: Byrd or Palestrina?

AN: I love both, but something like Byrd’s four-part Mass would be in my ‘Desert Island’ choices above Palestrina. There’s such colour, poignancy and intensity in the music.

DH: Elgar or Vaughan Williams?

AN: Blimey, that’s a difficult one! They’re both indispensable, of course. As St John’s directors of music, you and I probably ought to say Vaughan Williams, because his telegram to the Master of St John’s in the 1950s was decisive in saving our choir school from closure, and thus in enabling the future flourishing of the College Choir. He was and is so influential on subsequent British composers – how amazing that he set up a trust fund to support composers, but expressly banned it from ever promoting his own music. I feel very connected to VW, especially having worked in Gloucester, where the Tallis Fantasia was premiered. But if forced to choose only one of them, I’d go for Elgar, with whose music I feel such a very strong emotional attachment.

DH: What was your musical background and who were your mentors?

AN: We lived in Tenbury until I was four-and-a-half – my father directed 13 choral services a week at St Michael’s, with the excellent men and boys choir. He didn’t even have an assistant – amazing! Then we moved to Exeter, where he was cathedral organist. I sang as a chorister under him; I must have absorbed so much, both consciously and unconsciously! My dad had a deep sense of the music being the handmaid of the liturgy – the antithesis of a concert performance. I had a great organ teacher at school, Gwilym Isaac, who’d been Sidney Campbell’s assistant at Canterbury. I studied at the Royal College of Music and at Cambridge. The best things were being organ scholar under Christopher Robinson at St George’s, Windsor Castle, and under George Guest at St John’s. They are my greatest mentors and teachers. Christopher remains a great support and inspiration 36 years later. His ear and musicianship are second to none, and he’s such a natural teacher.

And then George [Guest]. No one has ever surpassed him in his ability to shape a phrase with feeling. Conveying emotion was his chief goal, and he had such an amazing palette of colours – endlessly inspiring. He enabled 12-year-old choristers to sound like the most musically sophisticated adults. The touching fragility and subtlety of line which he instilled in the trebles was, at best, totally unmatched before or since. I found it intensely moving.

DH: What happened after university?

AN: My first job was as assistant organist at Wells Cathedral. I learned a vast amount from my boss, Anthony Crossland. His boys were very different to George’s, but it was a wonderfully perfect blended sound. I was pleased to attend Tony’s 90th birthday celebrations in 2021. He was very kind to me. I was also privileged to run the choir at Wells Cathedral School, one of the four specialist music schools in England. I had supremely talented young people in my choir – all superstars on their instruments. It didn’t matter at all that few of them were first study singers. We did wonderfully ambitious repertoire!

Then I was organist and choirmaster at Truro Cathedral for eight years. Cornwall is my favourite place in the world. The Cathedral community is wonderful. We had an excellent Dean when I arrived – David Shearlock. He generously and bravely allowed me to get on with my ambitious ideas, like doubling the number of full choir services from three to six, and introducing a system of gap-year choral scholars. Both those things were transformative for the standard, even though the choir was already very good when I inherited it from the genius David Briggs. In fact, the gap-year choral scholarship idea was copied from what Tony had introduced in Wells. Tony was the pioneer, and so many of the rest of us copied. Tony had amazing people like James Gilchrist and David Watkin (later principal cellist for John Eliot Gardiner) as choral scholars.

In Truro it was fantastic to run my first choral society, Three Spires Singers and Orchestra. What an incredible experience: Gerontius, Missa solemnis, Verdi’s Requiem, Beethoven’s Ninth, Belshazzar’s Feast, A Child of our Time… The very first person I auditioned when I arrived in 1994 was a young lady called Lucy. She became the assistant publicity officer for the choir, and invited me to put up posters with her. We got married a year later!

And then Gloucester – what a blissful time. It’s an extraordinarily beautiful building and we had very special friends and colleagues there. It was the greatest possible privilege to direct the Gloucester Three Choirs Festivals and to work a lot with the Philharmonia. The last thing I conducted in Gloucester was Mahler’s Eighth Symphony! My life has consisted of one privilege after another – I’m ridiculously lucky.

DH: Tell us a little about what it has been like to be director of music at St John’s.

AN: Well, I’d already taken over two choirs that were very good, but I could see room to make them even better. It was a totally different thing, and very daunting, to arrive in St John’s. I knew the choir better than any other; it had been one of the very best in the world for several decades, and I was taking over from another of my idols – a chap called David Hill… I don’t know whether you’d agree, David, but my own feeling is that St John’s Chapel is the best building in the country for Anglican choral music. It’s the perfect acoustics – the sound almost seems to emanate from the walls themselves. You can sing loudly or very softly, fast or slow. The building imparts a wonderful warmth and bloom to the sound. There’s both an awesome sense of space and also a great feeling of intimacy. While we all have our own musical personalities, of course, there’s been a deep-rooted common aim in terms of style and soundworld between all four of the last directors of music. I’m not sure whether that can be said of any other church choirs in England except one, or possibly two. There’s something laid back about music-making in St John’s. The building itself has a numinous quality – a sense of the divine – conducive to transcendent experiences even for non-believers. I was very struck by something you said in a Gramophone interview 15 years ago, David: ‘Listen to the choir from 20 years ago, and go into the building now, and you will hear that they’re two Burgundies from the same valley, probably on the same chalk, but tasting slightly different.’ I couldn’t agree more. I hope the same is thought to be true now. It’s very special to work in a place where one can nurture a unique and distinctive soundworld. Some great European orchestras do the same thing, but they don’t have the same constant turnover of personnel as a college choir.

I find it fascinating how the sound of a choir depends on the hierarchy of parameters that the director chooses. Some prioritise rhythm and precision. Others might focus on vocal technique or vowel sounds. For me, at St John’s my principal concerns have included tone colour, character, phrasing and the emotion of the text.


Andrew Nethsingha conducts the Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge © BENJAMIN EALOVEGA

DH: And now you start at Westminster Abbey. Are you looking forward to planning the coronation of King Charles III?

AN: I can’t tell you anything about the coronation, though I’m sure it will be a great occasion. But I can tell you how much I’m looking forward to working at the Abbey. It’s another huge privilege, to be succeeding James O’Donnell in this great building, with superb organists, the finest group of lay vicars in the land, and wonderful trebles from the unique Abbey Choir School. James is the most distinguished person currently working in British cathedral music. I went to London recently and learned so much from watching him direct three rehearsals. He’s such a consummate musician, an inspiring teacher and the kindest person. As when I arrived at St John’s, I will be taking over a choir absolutely at the top of its game.

DH: Are there any composers or works you would find it difficult to live without?

AN: Definitely Beethoven. It’s sad for me that he didn’t write music we can sing liturgically but, to be honest, my greatest musical passion is orchestral music. I’ve been obsessed with Bruckner’s symphonies since immersing myself in Haitink’s recordings in my teens. Indeed, so many of my favourite composers have names beginning with B: Byrd, Bach, Beethoven, Bruckner, Brahms…

DH: Thank you, Andrew.

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