“Choirs are much better without a conductor at a particular point,” English choral director Simon Halsey tells Latitude 34, one of the six choirs of Gondwana’s National Choral School, as he leads an energetic rehearsal of John Rutter’s setting of Sing a Song of Sixpence, clearly revelling in the group dynamic.
I caught up with the conductor, who’s made a career of conducting choirs – from the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus he’s led since 1983 to the London Symphony Chorus he’s conducted since 2012, not to mention a 15-year stint as Artistic Director of the Rundfunkchor Berlin – between the Gondwana rehearsal and a swim at the beach.
Simon Halsey. Photo © Matthias Heyde
Halsey has been a regular visitor to Australia over the years, particularly in the late 1990s when he was Principal Guest Conductor of the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, whom he will conduct in Brahms’s Requiem in February. “I came for the British summer, for July and August every year, and this was just wonderful for me. My kids knew Sydney better than they knew any city in the UK,” he says.
But it’s clear seeing him work with the choir of high school children that it’s his passion for his work, as much as the pleasures of a Sydney beach, that has brought him back, the conductor leading a fast-paced, detailed rehearsal shot through with plenty of jokes and self-deprecating humour.
“I increasingly think it’s to do with bringing people together in circumstances that often, in modern life, militate against that,” he explains when I ask what continues to inspire him about choral singing. “If I’d answered this question 40 years ago, it would all have been about the excellence of music making, the importance of culture and all those things. I increasingly think it’s to do with mental health, with healthy societies, with people doing things together.”
“Of course I’m still striving to do things as well as I can, but I would rather lots of people did it as well as they could rather than the absolute total perfection of something done with a small number of professional musicians,” he says. “You bring people together and they do something and there is a shared goal, and it’s not clear after five minutes what your religion is, what your educational background is, how much money you earn, what part of the town you come from. I think it works equally well for sport, but singing is particularly good because studies show that it uses parts of your brain that you don’t use for speech, for other sorts of learning and communication.”
Halsey is soon singing the praises of choral outreach initiatives, from Lyn Williams’ work with Gondwana Choirs – and particularly her work with Indigenous young people – to examples in Boston and New York, as well as choral programs for people over 55 in the UK, “which very much chimes in with me, because I’m in that age bracket now,” he says.
“I realised just how lonely a lot of old people are. You know, you stop work, then your partner dies, your kids have moved away,” he says. “In Gateshead and Newcastle they have these choirs and orchestras that meet in the mornings and will rehearse 11 till one so of course what happens is your choir meets on Tuesday morning, so you meet your mates from it for coffee at ten, and then you sing for two hours, and then at one you have lunch with your friends.”
“And these choirs are quite big – whatever happens you’ve got 60 friends and you spend a day with them,” he says. “And probably they’re calling each other up and saying, you know, do you want a pint on a Friday evening and so on – and lives are very much enriched by this.”
“Although I’m still very much involved in the sort of excellence that Gondwana and Sydney Philharmonia Choirs represent at the London Symphony and elsewhere, a lot of the work we do is educational and community outreach,” he says.
For Halsey, bringing people together from across different sections of the community is incredibly important at this point in history, particularly in his home country. “I make no bones about this, I think Brexit, for the UK, is the biggest single disaster of my lifetime,” he says. “Because what’s happened is we have released all the bad forces in our society and ruined what was a perfectly good country that was doing pretty well – and now we are at war with each other.”
“And actually we’re not alone, are we, I mean you have Trump walking out of meetings in America, the government closed down, it’s happening everywhere – but for me, in my homeland, I live in a multicultural society which is now at war with itself,” he says. “And all the things that even if you thought them, you know you weren’t allowed to say, suddenly, in both the United Kingdom and the United States, everyone’s allowed to say anything! All the things that are really shocking, really horrible.”
The debate has also affected Halsey on a personal level. “I live in a place where I can’t actually really talk to my brother at the moment, because he’s on the other side,” he explains. “And I so passionately believe that he is wrong and he so passionately believes that he is right that actually our family for the time being is really tainted and we are at daggers drawn.”
“The United Kingdom is going to have to be healed at some point. And I hope that it will be music and sport and common pursuits that allow us to heal ourselves, because it’s truly vile at the moment,” he says.
Simon Halsey. Photo © Matthias Heyde
On his current trip to Australia, Halsey’s activities are primarily educational, teaching masterclasses at the Australian Choral Conductors Education and Training summer school, leading a workshop with the Brisbane Concert Choir and another with the Tasmanian Symphony Chorus. He will, however, be conducting one performance of a work that ties in with his desire to bring people together, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs’ performance of Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem in a version for two pianos and choir.
“I’ve always loved the Brahms Requiem and it’s sort of my favourite piece,” says Halsey, who picked up a Grammy for his 2008 recording of the work with the Rundfunkchor Berlin, Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and was instrumental in the creation of the staged Human Requiem that had its Australian premiere at last year’s Adelaide Festival, which Halsey describes as “the best thing I will ever do in my life, I think.”
Brahms’s Requiem is ‘German’ in the sense that it’s sung in the vernacular rather than in Latin, as Mozart and Verdi’s Requiems were – an egalitarian choice on the part of Brahms. “Of course it’s a sacred piece and of course the words come out of the bible, but he chose the words with the most enormous care,” Halsey says. “He said it could be called ‘a human requiem’. In other words, the words are perfectly singable if you’re Jewish, Muslim, Sikh or no religion. Because it doesn’t specifically speak about Maria or Jesus Christ.”
“That’s a very interesting thing, that curiously the Brahms comes into its own rather wonderfully in an increasingly secular age,” Halsey says. “He never meant it to, but suddenly it’s a really useful piece.”
For Halsey, his 15 years in Berlin leading a full-time professional choir were an incredible experience and one that informs his work on the piece. “If you imagine the equivalent of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, that same number of people, being professional singers who meet and rehearse exactly like an orchestra and give 36 programs and 100 concerts every year and tour every year and all have pensions and the chief conductor conducts 20 weeks a year and famous guest conductors come in in the other weeks,” he says. “This is barely known in the world – there are only about 20 choirs like that in the entire planet – and I had one of them! And I had the one in Berlin! And it was the symphonic chorus that belonged to the Philharmonic Orchestra! Oh my God! And I used to stand there thinking every day, I didn’t rent a house for more than a month at a time for the first five years because I expected to be sacked at the end of every single month.”
While Halsey speaks German, working with the Rundfunkchor Berlin transformed the way he approached German choral music. “I can really pronounce every word, I know what every single word means, I know where the verbs are, I know where the adjectives are, I know why that particular word’s been chosen and how it relates to the next one. Just in the way that we would know exactly how an English sentence is constructed in this way – and oh my goodness it makes a difference.”
German choirs also have a different sound to English-speaking choirs, he explains. “The language dictates where the vowels sit and how energetic the consonants are, and depending on your mother tongue, your natural singing sounds a little bit different.”
It’s not difficult to recreate that sound with an English-speaking choir, Halsey says, “as long as you know what you’re talking about.”
“I’m 60 years old, I’ve been doing this job for 40 years, I think I can do the German repertoire now, and I can do the English repertoire, and I can do the Latin repertoire,” he says. “But you know I now would hardly dare touch French music. Whereas ten years ago I was perfectly happy to do it.”
In his performance of Ein Deutsches Requiem with Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, Halsey will be using a reduction for two pianos based on one published in Brahms’s lifetime and written, or at least authorised, by the composer. “From the time of about Mozart onwards – from regular music printing onwards – all symphonies and all major works were all produced in two piano, four hands, versions,” Halsey says. “If you wanted to learn a Schumann Symphony, a Mozart symphony, a Haydn symphony, you simply went down to the music shop, you bought Mr Haydn’s or Mr Beethoven’s latest symphony, you took it home and you sat at home and played it, with your dad or your mother or whoever it was.”
The version Sydney Philharmonia Choirs will be using is based on the four hands version, except that it will be performed with a choir rather than on pianos alone. “To do the four hands version is a bit of a cheat, because Brahms never intended that four hands would substitute the orchestra and play with a choir,” Halsey says. “But it’s very intimate and rather wonderful.”
“The idea is to work intensely with Philharmonia Choirs to try and do something, to go as deep into this piece as we can in the given time,” Halsey says, drawing on his 15 year experience as “the only Brit in Berlin.”
Ultimately it’s experiences like the upcoming Ein Deutsches Requiem concert and Gondwana’s National Choral School that Halsey hopes will help heal the rifts opening up in society around the world. “Coming together with a whole load of kids or a whole load of adults, from every possible walk of life, to do Brahms – and doing something together – has become so important now,” he says, “that I sort of think just for the time being in my life, that’s the main reason for doing what I do.”
Simon Halsey conducts Sydney Philharmonia Choirs in An Intimate Evening with Brahms at City Recital Hall on February 8