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Mind the Gaps!

How five choirs coming to Kings Place are putting women’s contributions to choral music back on the map. By Amanda Holloway.

The theme of Venus Unwrapped has been a revelation for artists bringing their programmes to Kings Place this year, not least for the five choirs appearing in the second half of the year.

Venus has prompted conductors such as Edward Wickham at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, Harry Christophers and The Sixteen and Ken Burton of the London Adventist Chorale to scour their libraries and their networks for works by female composers.

‘We came up with fantastic music I wouldn't have encountered otherwise’

Wickham and the St Catharine’s choirs – a mixed student choir and a ground-breaking girls’ choir – have made several recordings for Resonus featuring music by female composers. But up to that point, Wickham admits that his default position when programming was probably ‘a particular type and gender of composers’. He has since revised that approach: ‘Which means pushing myself and the choir and coming up with some fantastic music that perhaps I wouldn’t have encountered otherwise.’ He says other choir directors in Cambridge are also engaged with the issue of finding women composers, and they share recommendations.

The choir’s programme of readings and music on 7 Dec includes well-known names such as Judith Weir and Rebecca Clarke, a new commission from Diana Burrell, as well as a carol from Hannah Kendall, who represents the new generation of composers. ‘Most of the music is contemporary, but the concert will open with the very earliest example of Christian hymnody’, says Wickham.

A Hymn to Light is a fragment of music written on papyrus, found in an ancient rubbish dump at Oxyrhychus, in Egypt. ‘We like to think that our college patron, St Catharine of Alexandria – if she had existed – might have known this song, since it’s from her period, the 4th century,’ says Wickham. The ‘secular service’ of lessons and carols closes with Judith Weir’s My Guardian Angel, which requires audience participation. ‘It’s a lovely work, ingeniously put together,’ says Wickham, who has coaxed many an audience into singing Weir’s simple phrase over a polyphonic descant, to great effect.


© Tim Rawle

Paul Hillier has made connections with many contemporary composers through his work with the Hilliard Ensemble, Theatre of Voices and the Estonian Chamber Choir, including great Estonians Arvo Part and Veljo Tormis. But the Theatre of Voices concert on 27 Sep casts light on women composers from the Baltic States – not just the peerless Kaija Saariaho, but lesser-known names such as Crimean-born Galina Grigorjeva. ‘She writes mostly from within the Orthodox Russian tradition,’ explains Hillier. ‘She has developed her own broadly tonal style rooted in early Russian polyphony and chant.’

A new commission from Helena Tulve based on 17th-century Japanese poet Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North, a Zen Buddhist’s reflections on travelling through Japan, adds to Theatre of Voices reputation for promoting exciting, in some cases radical, creative voices. Tulve has long been writing music of stark, zinging purity for choirs, but perhaps her time to step into the limelight has come.

‘Firsova has a sensual way of dealing with the text that is very personal’

Planning for The Sixteen concert on 29 Nov, Harry Christophers has enjoyed the chance to champion – and revisit – pieces that they have commissioned through their links with the Genesis Foundation. Their programme references St Cecilia but revolves around the Virgin Mary, with an extraordinary Stabat Mater by 32-year-old Alissa Firsova forming a central part of the evening.

‘There’s a harmonic texture to her pieces that reminds me of that feeling you get on going into a Russian Orthodox church,’ says Christophers. ‘Firsova has a sensual way of dealing with the text that is very personal and quite different from other settings of the Stabat Mater. It’s really good.’

Other distinctive musical voices include Cecilia McDowall’s Medieval-infused ‘Now may we singen’ and ‘O speculum colombe’ by Margaret Rizza, who is associated with meditative, approachable music for the Catholic Church. ‘She wanted to broaden her spectrum and write fuller pieces, with us in mind,’ says Christophers. ‘Her work will be a surprise to many.’

An important work by Roxanna Panufnik will be heard in both The Sixteen’s programme and that of The Brodsky Quartet and Gesualdo Six – her Modlitwa (Prayer), in different arrangements. It’s a musical bond with her composer father, Andrej, who set only one of the two verses of this prayer to the Virgin. After her father died, she considered setting the second verse herself, but her mother was reluctant.

As Roxanna explains, ‘One night I had a dream. I was walking round the garden and my father appeared at the window and beckoned me over. We improvised together at the piano, and when I woke up I realised it was okay to set Modlitwa to music.’ The Brodskys and Gesualdo Six present new arrangements of five of Roxanna’s works, including a homage to her father ‘O Tu Andrzej’, interleaved with Renaissance reflections by Gesualdo and Morales and a new work inspired by the chants of Hildegard von Bingen.

Ken Burton was delighted by the brief to programme music by African-American women composers (10 Oct), so it came as a surprise to find that the London Adventist Chorale had already performed some without knowing it. ‘The collections we were singing from contained works with just a surname and an initial. The E I thought was probably Edward, for instance, turned out to be Evelyn [Simpson-Curenton]!’

Burton has put together a lively programme combining a cappella and accompanied choral music, and solo song, by African-American women from the early 20th Century, such as Florence Price, up to those writing and performing today. ‘I want to put across the idea that black musicians in America at the time were writing classical music. But most of them would also have done arrangements of spirituals, or music with some reference to the African-American experience.’

One of the most powerful moments in the evening will be the women of the choir singing Still I Rise, a poem by Maya Angelou set by Rosephanye Powell, (b. 1962). Tying in with the iconic image of Venus Rising, Burton says it’s perfect for a season celebrating female musicians. ‘I’ve certainly discovered some wonderful music and I’d like people to go away thinking “I just didn’t know this existed.” I want them to be as pleasantly surprised as I was.’

And that is the mission of Venus Unwrapped – to dip deeper into the well of talent that exists and has always existed outside the established – for which read male – canon.

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