Meet...the Durham Singers!
We were delighted that Dr Julian Wright, Director of the Durham Singers, wrote this for Revoice! on their important work introducing young singers in the North East to period performance...
How many students arrive at music college with the experience of having already sung arias from the major baroque choral works, with a professional period instrument orchestra? Probably not very many, particularly not outside the traditional centres of early music specialisation. For the last six years, the Durham Singers, a 40-voice amateur choir who mostly specialise in unaccompanied repertoire, have been bringing together a fully professional period orchestra, led first by Duncan Druce, and since 2013 by Caroline Balding, to perform a baroque or classical choral work in Durham Cathedral. Instead of using established professional singers, we’ve drawn our soloists primarily from young singers based here in the North East, either undergraduates studying at the universities in Durham or Newcastle, or local singers who are preparing for music college. Many of our soloists were also participants in Samling Academy, a programme for singers in the North East aged 14-21 that Samling Foundation have run for the last few years alongside their long-established Samling Artist scheme, and last year this developed into a formal collaboration, with Samling Artist Bradley Travis singing the role of Gabriel in The Creation alongside three Samling Academy participants. We’re currently preparing for Messiah on 19 November, with Samling Artist Arshak Kuzikyan and five younger Samling Academy singers, ranging from GCSE students to pre-conservatoire.
The Samling Academy weekends particularly focus on performance skills, and so we know that our soloists will come to us with the confidence, mental preparation and technique that they need to deliver their arias in front of an audience of over 500 people in the huge acoustic of Durham Cathedral. This gives me the basis to work with them over the weeks before the concert on developing style to deliver a really polished performance.
Some of what we offer by way of performance experience is common to any professional orchestra, experienced in accompanying voices. But of course there are important stylistic points that are developed through working with a period instrument orchestra, which are different and distinctive. And yet, as I hope I can explain here, these points about style absolutely do not transfer directly into ‘how’ a young singer delivers their own line. As the conductor who comes to this with a background in singing, this seems especially important to me; there are significant technical issues around learning to sing a solo line which come first. I’ll come back to those later.
Above all, as leading period instrumentalists have taught for decades now, singers (similarly to keyboard players and others) can learn much from the life and style of historically-informed practice, particularly in string playing. It’s essential to hear the dance rhythms and to understand the lightness of touch in period-informed violin playing. In allegro arias a young singer feels both the power and the elegant lightness of the downbeat, and finds out just how catchy the dance rhythms can be - their task is to bring that out in their text. And in slower music, the harmonic urge of a beautiful suspension seems to catch the imagination of young performers more when they hear it played with bowing that creates space for the other moving parts.
For me as musical director, the most special thing about this combination of period players and young soloists is that the orchestra create a sense of air with the way they phrase, and this lets a gentler or younger voice through the texture, meaning that you can really allow them the space they need to make the audience listen carefully to them. It’s like having a very soft lighting scheme with a clear spotlight for a solo actor on a stage - they are totally visible and even on a huge stage, if the backlighting is soft and subtle, the actor’s presence really stands out. That comes down to the soundscape of the period orchestra, with its huge dynamic range, its capacity to be fiery one minute and silky the next, and above all to phrase and breathe for the singer.
How far do young singers emulate the wide range of shading and dynamic contrast of a baroque violin? Depending on the nature of the voice, they may still be taking time to develop the solid support that is the foundation of their singing. One can easily compare the leading professional sopranos or counter-tenors, all equally in favour with professional period instrument ensembles, and contrast their use of vibrato. Style has to come instinctively, but it is I think a mistake for someone learning to deliver their solo parts for the first time to begin the learning process with questions about when to straighten the sound, when to put lots of shading into their lines. The basis of the young voice is the instrument itself and the line it produces, and that has to be established first and foremost. I sometimes feel like the correct analogy for using vibrato in the voice is not what the left hand of a violinist does, but rather what the bow does; a singer’s vibrato is a natural result of an evenly produced voice, just as the evenness of the right arm is the basis for all string playing. And sometimes a young mezzo-soprano, for example, needs longer to build the physical strength that will give their voice an even sound throughout their range – they may need to learn about varying vibrato at a later stage of their development than a light lyric soprano.
All that shading and nuance has to work in the context of a performance in a building that brings its own particular acoustic challenges. Our youngest voices may have to work more at legato line, letting the strings deliver the shading within the music, simply because they need that sustained sound to carry through even the gentlest accompaniment. So at the moment, working on “He was despised” with a young countertenor, I’m asking him not to lighten too much on the syllables “des” and “sed”, because in a large building, only a very strong voice can really do this without upsetting the line. We’re focussing instead on producing a beautiful legato that can just be nuanced with soft phrasing, and then to allow the performance to take shape around that. He has an instinctive sense of how these 18th-century phrases are made up of up-bows and down-bows: ‘A man of sorrows’ starts with an up-bow and so on. But for this voice, which is still developing, and in a big building, we are trying to work against his stylistic instinct, allowing the first word in the phrase to be sung through evenly, not lifted. What this does for the audience, I think, is allow them to connect almost viscerally to a line that really carries down the building.
The wonderful thing for the younger singers is that a period band can easily produce great variety of texture and huge dynamic range, so that even a forte passage can be delivered more through the excitement of the downbeat, leaving the rest of the bar quite quiet, because the band delivers the rhythmic impulse explosively but then releases, allowing the voice to carry. Young soloists learning important arias for the first time are often amazed by how much easier life gets when they don’t have to sing forte right through every semibreve! (I’m reminded, in a more general sense, of Barbirolli’s comment when working on Messiah with Kathleen Ferrier, that she had always had a feeling of ‘struggling’ in some of her arias; she’d not until then actually sung the role with the original 18th-century orchestration!)
A particularly important aspect of our work with the younger singers is developing their understanding of the narrative power of recitative. We’re really lucky to have wonderful continuo players, and the input of cellist Deborah Thorne, who has been a key member of our team since we began these concerts, is invaluable. The continuo breathes and emphasises the nuances in the text: whether that is from the cello’s bowing, the colour of the rippling chords in the harpsichord and theorbo, or the textures chosen by the chamber organist, the continuo can create a landscape into which the singer folds their line - and this landscape of course can be tailored to what the soloist’s voice can manage in terms of speed and dynamics. The very best players breathe with the singers without the conductor needing to do anything….! But of course, that’s about years of experience as accompanists, not just about period style. It’s also important that the young singer feels instinctively something of the improvisatory nature of baroque music-making, and there is simply no substitute for that than to do it with experienced period players.
Preparing for Messiah we’re thinking primarily about the way the singers interact with the strings and continuo of course, but in previous years, for example when we’ve performed the Bach B Minor Mass and St Matthew Passion, we’ve been able to offer our soloists their first opportunity of working with baroque wind and brass - natural horns, oboes da caccia or baroque flutes, and that’s been really exciting to watch intelligent young singers having their music making lifted to another level by hearing the colour of those instruments. One smart young contralto commented on the aria ‘Sehet, Jesus hat die hand’ near the end of the St Matthew that she’d not realised, until she heard the oboes da caccia, how warm and embracing this aria needed to be. We’ve also been very lucky to receive funding to take some of our orchestral players and our soloists to give workshops in local primary schools and last year we had a hundred primary children watching our final orchestral rehearsal for The Creation and singing along to The Heavens are Telling. We hope that maybe some of our next generation of soloists may have been among their number.