What will your choir, Tenebrae, be performing at this year’s Sydney Festival?

Tenebrae is singing two programs in Sydney, the first of which features some of the most sublime music of the Renaissance era. The second program is called ‘Music of the Spheres’ and is a collection of music by a range of composers including Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Holst and Parry. This means there’s a heavy leaning towards the greatest composers from what’s known as the second English Renaissance.

Nigel Short. Photo © Sim Cannetty-Clarke

Is there a specific sound you’re always looking to draw out of the choir?

The sound I want from the choir will always depend on what we are singing. The most important thing is the text. We are singers who communicate text and having a love and understanding of how we can get the meaning of these texts across to an audience is every bit as important as perfect ensemble, balance and intonation. The meaning and emotion behind the text we’re singing will dictate how singers use their voices, whether that be creating an ethereal sound that is very well blended or using a little more edge in the tone to convey intensity and drama.

What are the challenges unique to your role as conductor of a chamber choir?

The main challenge for me is to have the choir singing as one. We start right from the breath one takes before we’ve even sung a note. Listen to that and you’ll know how your colleague is going to sing, and then we all listen intently throughout any performance. Listening is just as important as the singing aspect and means we’re working very much as a team towards one goal, rather than being a collection of great soloists who happen to be singing the same piece of music!

How has your time with the King’s Singers shaped your artistic leadership?

It was spending seven years with the King’s Singers that taught me how important it is to listen and exactly what to listen for. Singing every day with the same small team means you get to hear every little nuance each singer brings to the overall sound. It means when I direct Tenebrae I am always doing it from a singer’s perspective.

Tenebrae is a well-established champion of contemporary music. Do you currently have something in development?

We are currently commissioning a new work from Roderick Williams, which will fit into a program called ‘Humanity and Liberty’. Roddy’s piece is called Lucis Creator and is written so that we begin and end each concert with it.

Tenebrae performs at Melbourne Recital Centre on January 20 and as part of Sydney Festival on January 21 and 22