ROCHESTER CHORAL SOCIETY 150th ANNIVERSARY COMMISSION
Founded in 1873, Rochester Choral Society is celebrating its 150th anniversary in March 2023 with a newly-commissioned choral work, Regards from Rochester, by award-winning British composer, and Rochester resident, Thomas Hewitt-Jones. The work receives its premiere on 18 March 2023 in Rochester Cathedral.
Rochester itself is drenched in history. Regards from Rochester celebrates the rich history of the Medway Towns, exploring themes and valuable human stories while relating them to contemporary society. From the first Saxon settlement through to historic stronghold, from pillar of British naval history through to industrial centre and inspiration for Charles Dickens, composer Thomas Hewitt Jones hopes that this “postcard from Rochester” will celebrate and exude compassion for our planet, social conscience, humanity and kindness – values that are incredibly important to our world in 2023.
Director of Music, John Mountford, says: “Rochester Choral Society has passed some significant milestones recently, with 2022 marking the 100th anniversary of our first performance in Rochester Cathedral. We wanted to commission a piece which reflected the diversity of this area’s rich and turbulent history, with a historically accurate, humorous and engaging new piece. We wanted to find somebody with a connection and passion for the Medway Towns and who wanted to help raise awareness of the cultural and social heritage of the area.”
Composer Thomas Hewitt Jones says: “I was delighted when John Mountford approached me to commission this work for Rochester Choral Society’s very exciting 150th anniversary. Quite early on in our discussions, we decided that the richness of Medway’s history was conducive to a new text, so the result is a 10-movement oratorio which we hope tells the story of the area with sweeping melody and angularity where appropriate. I have written it to be as both engaging and as musically interesting as possible. The final movement of the work brings us to the present day, with the audience joining together to sing with one voice.”
John Mountford believes that choral societies are an essential part of national music-making after the COVID era. “Music is central to the lives of so many people; it binds community and enhances wellbeing for singers and audiences alike.
For Thomas Hewitt Jones, writing Regards from Rochester has been an extremely fulfilling and wholesome commission, not only given the richness of local history, but also due to the strength of the musical heritage of Rochester Choral Society dating all the way back to 1873.
“It was a privilege and a pleasure to discover many historic riches of the Medway area, which is often referred to in relation to Charles Dickens, the former Dockyard and as a stronghold to and from London, but in fact contains numerous other riches. Spending extensive time in Rochester library and reading around the history in detail, it became swiftly apparent that the area’s rich social history made up for any perception Medway may have externally of lack of charm; as the text and music were forming, I was delighted to have conversations with local Medway Council operative John Lester, who is a X generation of the Lester family in Rochester and who offered personal anecdotes of life in Medway since the Victorian era, some of which I have incorporated into the work.
Above and beyond the history books and local connections, in this work I have aimed to reflect throughout the work on the nature of life in 2022, both beyond the recent pandemic (which let’s face it indelibly changed life as we know it) and also in the shadow of contemporary issues that affect our society, not least our collective sense of identity and perhaps most importantly, the current climate change crisis.”
REGARDS FROM ROCHESTER – movements
Introduction & Rochester
The River Medway
Seven Weeks (The Siege of Rochester)
Down to the Docks (Chatham Dockyard)
That House, 1857 (Charles Dickens) Baritone soloist playing Dickens
The Victorian High Street
Our Changing World (Contemporary themes incl. Social Conscience and Climate)
The Medway Hymn – rousing end with audience singing in unison
Rochester Choral Society, one of Britain’s oldest-established choral societies, has always striven to achieve high standards of singing, from the great choral works to traditional folk songs. Since 1922, the choir, which comprises around 75 singers, aged 18-80+, has performed regularly in Rochester Cathedral.
Rochester Choral Society appeared on BBC One’s Antiques Road Trip in January 2023 in an episode featuring Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, who conducted the choir between 1902 and 1907. After the world-premiere of Thomas Hewitt Jones’ Regards from Rochester, the choral society looks forward to a summer performance of Mendelssohn’s St Paul, which was also performed at their very first concert in 1873.
Thomas Hewitt Jones is an award-winning composer of contemporary classical and commercial music. Since winning the BBC Young Composer Competition in his teens, his music has been published by many of the major music publishers and is frequently heard in concert and on radio, TV and in the cinema. Thomas’s diverse catalogue includes small instrumental, orchestral, choral and ballet works, and his large number of choral titles includes seasonal carols. ‘What Child is This?’ (OUP) has become a choral classic of recent years, garnering large numbers of performances each season. In 2021, he released ‘Can you hear me?’, an acclaimed response to the COVID19 pandemic. His most recent projects include ‘In Our Service’, a special commission from the Royal School of Church Music to celebrate the late Queen’s Platinum Jubilee in 2022, and a ‘Divertimento for Strings’ commissioned by Lucy Melvin to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of her ‘Chamber Players’ courses.
He is also a composer of Library (Production) music for several commercial publishers, with a current catalogue of around a thousand tracks available for licensing which can be heard on a variety of media worldwide. He works from his own cutting-edge studio facility. He was selected to be a member of the BAFTA Crew x BFI Network for 2021-2.
(Illustration by Rosie Brooks)
For further press information / interviews, please contact Frances Wilson email@example.com
Guest post by Lucy Melvin
I love this idea of the 21st century version of mixtapes, even though I am still sufficiently old-school not to subscribe to a streaming service, and I still own a casette player and possibly even have my old mixtapes stored somewhere.
I often get swept up in the nostalgia of Desert Island Discs, and like to think which music would tell my narrative were I to be on my own desert island, so here is my list and some of the reasons behind them.
Most of these choices are not classical. In my interview with The Cross-Eyed Pianist for the Meet the Artist series, I mentioned a musical memory of the Schubert Quintet performed at St Endellion; I haven’t included this piece, although the memory will always stay with me, because no recording I have heard can match up to that memory. These memories can’t always be recreated out of context – of location – different performers – different interpretations, or in a recording studio. But with all of these choices, these are the specific recordings which hold the specific memories for me.
No. 1 will always be Bob Marley. No Woman No Cry.
I think this started as a teenage thing. I bought the cassette of Bob Marley’s Legend Album when I was a teenager. Songs on that album seemed to be able to capture all the emotions needed for being a teenager. Now my own children have grown up listening to the several Bob Marley CDs we would listen to on road trips (cars don’t even have CD players anymore, so even that is a past memory), and again, they each had their favourites, but they know that No Woman No Cry is my favourite.
No. 2 is Nina Simone’s Sinnerman
An incredible pianist, and vocalist, this is such a great song. Her own history of being a classically trained musician, but was denied access to further classical training at The Curtis Institute, and so instead funded her private tuition by playing in bars – where she was asked to sing as well as play the piano, and this is how her Jazz style developed. You can hear her skill in piano playing, and love of classical music coming through this track. It was used as the soundtrack to the more recent version (1999 – I suppose is recent to me, but maybe ancient history to others.) of the Thomas Crown Affair: Also a brilliant film.
No. 3 is Van Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl.
As this mix-tape/playlist is meant to tell the story of our life, this is one part of my life which many people might choose to gloss over, but I think that people come into our lives for long periods, or short periods, and we all take something of that time along with us, on the journey that we then continue to travel. I was married for 12 years, and before that, we were together for 7 years. We have 2 amazing children, who we now continue to guide through this world, and even though we are no longer married, our two children are full of inspiration, and hopefully we are doing an ok job at the guiding. In our more care-free times, he used to sing this song to me at Karaoke, and we also had it on a CD listening to it in the car. It is a great song, full of love. Now it is our children who are our Brown-eyed girls.
No. 4 – Cinema Paradiso. Sung by Monica Mancini
I am totally in awe of the output of Enrico Morricone and his contribution to film music. There are so many beautiful melodies which we know and love thanks to him (early on, he used a pseudonym because he still wasn’t sure if he wanted to be a classical composer or a film composer – so there are many other films which he composed music for which went by a different name.) This piece has a very special place in my heart though. When I was in my 20s I performed in Italy quite a bit. I had a duo with a pianist called Luca Verdicchio, and we would perform in the UK and Italy. He loved film music. I already knew and loved the film Cinema Paradiso, and had it on VHS, but he would sit down at the piano and play it, and somehow, hearing it played in Italy, by someone who I could quite easily imagine once looking like the little boy in the film, growing up watching old movies (he loved all of the Chaplin films and could also improvise sound tracks to them) – and in those town squares in Italy, hearing the music, I almost felt transported to part of the movie itself.
I have, since then arranged this piece for all sorts of different ensembles – taken it on tour with my pupils, and each time I tell them that it is one of my favourite pieces, and they can’t let me down by playing it badly. I arranged it during Lockdown for violin and piano and made a montage of the signs on Cinemas which were shut during the pandemic, and other symbolic images of that time. It was recorded remotely (with my own rather embryonic recording equipment) with David Bullen on the piano, and set to the images of photos around London which I had taken….
….but the one for the playlist will be this one: the voice of Monica Mancini accompanied by orchestra to the music of Morricone’s Cinema Paradiso. As I said in the previous song selection, it is really important to appreciate all of the people who come into our lives, but there are still some who like to be kept private. This piece was introduced to me by that private person. It was a piece which had such a strong and personal story for him, combined with my own personal memories of this piece, this is the one I am choosing to keep in my playlist/mixtape.
No. 5 Velvet Underground Sunday Morning
Who doesn’t love a nice Sunday Morning? Whatever it is you choose to do with your Sunday mornings. This piece is full of twinkly sounds, and mellow vocals. It is another teenage throwback for me, but I was especially reminded of it during lockdown when I needed some more feel-good songs to get me through each week. Lockdown was a big part of everyone’s recent history, and getting through it was a big thing for everyone, so this one is on the mix-tape.
No. 6. Oh Holy Night. Sung by Aled Jones and Malakai Bayoh
I have a complex relationship with religion. It was a big part of my upbringing, and therefore has contributed to much of who I am today, but I often think that as adults we need to take much more responsibility for our own individual actions, but sometimes the rituals of religion can seem to negate that element of individual responsibility. However, I still like to believe that there is an example of something mysterious that we can’t quite name, or articulate. Music can have that power to transcend, and especially at Christmas time, the magic and mystery can come alive. Malakai has made musical history for many reasons: Not being daunted by anything else whilst singing at the ROH for example, but most of all, I hope will be remembered for this beautiful recording he made in 2022, and whatever career he has ahead of him, this piece is beautiful and full of magic.
Now for my classical selections
The 1st and most importantly is Haydn’s Quartet op 76 no 2. “The Fifths”
This is my all-time favourite string quartet. Hartmut Ometzberger (lead violinist of Callia Quartet) and I played this together in August 1995 – and I still have the photographs. We both studied with the same teacher: Emanuel Hurwitz, and his quartet (Aeolian Quartet) was the 1st to record all of Haydn’s Quartets on LP. – They were then released on CD, which I have, so unlike many other classical music memories, this is one which I have as a recording. When we 1st played together in 1995, we were probably 18 and 19 years old, and straight away, we said this was the piece we wanted to play. We next played it together after a gap of many years, in 2017. This was at a performance in the Thames Tunnel in Rotherhithe. There were many friends of mine who had never been to a classical music concert before, who said that when they heard the opening bars of this piece, they had never heard anything quite so powerful. It is in D Minor, which all my pupils know is my favourite key. I see some keys in colours. Not all, but some of the more powerful keys have a colour for me. D Minor is a deep purple, which is my favourite colour. So many wonderful pieces are composed in D Minor, it is a beautiful, and dramatic key to compose in.
My 2nd classical piece is Mendelssohn’s Octet
I don’t have a specific recording in mind, so I have selected this one performed by the Melos Ensemble (also lead by Emanuel Hurwitz) . I was too young to remember a particular sound of the performance which I heard, but I can remember a visual memory of seeing this for the 1st time, and I guess this was what struck me as the brilliance of string chamber music. I was at a concert when I was probably about 5 or 6. I think I was sitting on the floor, like children often do, and I was looking up at each of the performers, and watching the interplay between all 8 of them, and how the melodies were passed from one to another, or who was playing with whom. It is a piece of sheer joy, and brilliance, and at that age, I was very aware of the magic of it (again, that power to transcend). Whenever I teach it to pupils, I tell them this story of how I have never forgotten that memory. I hope that they will remember just as much of the magical moments created for them through music.
And finally my last selection would be Jaques Loussier playing Bach’s Prelude No. 1 in C Major
Bach has to be on the play list. But, again so many different interpretations. What to choose? Solo violin? Solo cello? So, for something which encompasses something of all of my previous selections above, this is the one. That moment when he goes from Bach into Jazz is such fun – and then back again to Bach.
Lucy Melvin is founding Director of Chamber Players chamber music courses, which have been running since 2009. Chamber Players is quite unique in its ethos in that there are no audition requirements, and pupils are welcome from pre-grade 1 through to Diploma and above. Through experienced knowledge of the repertoire and care and attention to each pupil’s age and ability, every pupil is placed in an appropriate ensemble with their peers, according to their ability, age and previous experience, finding the most appropriate parts to suit them.
Previously a member of the Illyria Trio, with pianist Annabel Thwaite and cellist Sheida Davis, and duo with Italian pianist Luca Verdicchio, she has performed in concert halls, and intimate chamber music settings across Europe.
Lucy’s interest in education and chamber music performance led her to coordinating Classical Collective: a diverse concert series organising exciting performances for audiences of all ages, in venues across South London, as well as managing the performance opportunities for the Callia Quartet.
The words “salon concert” conjure up an image of a beautiful setting in nineteenth-century Paris, London or Vienna where a select few intellectuals and dilettantes gather to enjoy music, poetry, art and conversation – an exclusive event for like-minded individuals.
Today the spirit of the salon concert lives on in venues like the 1901 Arts Club (whose furnishings could have come straight from nineteenth-century Paris), the spacious Marylebone drawing room concerts of the highest order regularly hosted by Bob and Elizabeth Boas, or the more modern vibe of Fidelio Café on Clerkenwell Road, and in series such as …Petits Concerts or 7 Star Arts’ concerts at a convivial little Japanese café in Kew. But whatever the venue, the modern salon concert is about creating a special intimacy and connection between audience and musicians, and an ambiance of shared experience, and venues such as the 1901 Arts Club and Fidelio Arts Café have succeeded in reimagining the salon concert for the 21st century audience. Not only is it a wonderful way to experience live music, the modern salon concert breaks down the barriers normally associated with classical music in a formal concert hall and brings music-lovers together in a convivial, relaxed setting. The experience of enjoying music amongst friends is uplifting and inspiring.
Down in a pretty part of West Sussex, not far from Petworth, another salon concert series takes place, organised and generously hosted by Neil and Debbie Franks. Neil is chairman of The Petworth Festival, a keen amateur pianist, passionate music lover, and supporter of other musicians.
An elegant music room-cum-library, which boasts two fine grand pianos, (including possibly the best Steinway B I’ve ever played!) and seats around 70 people, is the setting for Neil Franks’ salon concerts. Initially, these house concerts were very much “music for friends, with friends” – he’d gather together a few talented piano friends and we’d play solos, duos, 6-hands, 8-hands and more – and mingle with audience during the interval and afterwards. Lately, his house concerts have transformed into a modern salon where young talent is showcased and celebrated. For Neil it is also an opportunity to support musicians in their careers and to recognise the “great value derived by the musicians in performing their own very personalised and precious repertoire to small audiences in intimate settings, and the huge enjoyment realised by audiences. In the right settings, the combination generates some absolutely wonderful and passionate performances. The same was true in the British and European salons of the 19th and early 20th centuries and much was written by composers and musicians at the time about the tremendously important and inspirational value they took from those evenings” (Neil Franks)
“Between us, we very much enjoyed putting the programme together that I think I can say came together quite naturally as each pianist had something special to offer that led to a perfect combination of solos, duets, 2-piano duos, and even 8-hands pieces. The solos were almost mini, individually-curated recitals, and the multi-handed pieces offered contrast to the solos in which the individuals were in the spotlight.
Each pianist also gave short but informally presented introductions to their pieces – a far more welcoming practice than the paper-consuming lengthy, and usually rather dry and inaccessible essays of programme notes. The result was 2 hours of absolutely absorbing music: not just absorbing the notes, but really feeling the very vibrations of the music in the salon environment, something that is a rarity in a concert hall however magnificent the pianos might be. One of the notable advantages of the salon is the total elimination of any physical barrier between performer and audience.” (Neil Franks)
“It is abundantly clear that classical music is in need of a lot of tender loving care, just like so many forms of cultural activities where consumption patterns have changed in recent years – and would have changed even if Covid didn’t happen, but Covid concentrated the disruption in a very short period. We are all very aware of the options available now, very much including the opportunity to “consume” our music online. We are equally aware that the majority of classical music takes place in formal settings of concert halls in major cities, town halls and churches in smaller towns. I think it’s reasonably safe to say that there will always be a hardcore audience of passionate music-lovers who will look for what they want to hear and travel to the concerts of their choice, but music needs to attract new and younger audiences, many of whom are not so likely to be attracted to these formal settings, especially as they may not be fully familiar with what’s on offer. So I think the key is to make music in interesting venues that already go some way to removing the formality barrier. The venues themselves can generate interest in attendance. So let’s all think outside the box and bring new ideas, new and interesting venues to make concert-going an experience for many more. Include art exhibitions, gardens, lovely food and drink and anything else you can imagine! ” (Neil Franks)
This is an exciting and important addition to RSCM’s catalogue. Authoritatively edited, clearly laid out, and handsomely presented, this volume is ideal for every choir performing this classic work.
Bertie Baigent, Director of Music, St Marylebone Parish Church, Marylebone
The Royal School of Church Music announces the publication of a new Critical Edition of Sir John Stainer’s The Crucifixion, edited by the leading Stainer expert, Professor Jeremy Dibble, using Stainer’s original manuscript, recently given to the Durham University Library. This handsome new edition has comprehensive introductory, editorial and performance notes, uses state-of-the art music engraving, and includes facsimile pages from Stainer’s original autograph manuscript. The new edition is compatible, page for page, with existing editions, so can be used where others will be using other editions.
The Crucifixion: A Meditation on the Sacred Passion of the Holy Redeemer is an oratorio composed by John Stainer (1840–1901) in 1887. It is scored in 20 movements for a SATB choir and organ, and features solos for bass and tenor. The words were selected and written by Reverend William John Sparrow Simpson. Stainer intended the piece to be within the scope of most parish church choirs and it includes five hymns for congregational participation. Its structure is clearly modelled on the scheme of choruses, chorales, recitatives and arias of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, which in 1873 Stainer had introduced into the Music for Holy Week at St Paul’s Cathedral.
Written for St Marylebone Parish Church, Marylebone, London, where Stainer’s former pupil William Hodge was organist, The Crucifixion was premiered there on 24 February 1887, the day after Ash Wednesday, where a choir of boys and men was directed by Stainer himself with the organ accompaniment provided by Hodge. It received its first performance in the United States at St Luke’s Church, Baltimore, on Palm Sunday, 3 April 1887. Aided by positive press coverage (some of which is pasted into the front and back of the autograph manuscript), the work was quickly taken up by parish choirs throughout Britain, the Empire and the United States and soon became a fixture of Holy Week. There have been performances in St Marylebone Parish Church annually since then, and in its Good Friday performance this year, the choir will be using this new edition for the first time. Stainer envisaged that The Crucifixion should be available to as wide a range of church choirs and organists as possible and the work remains a staple of the repertoire of choral music for Passiontide and Easter.
Publisher: RSCM Press
Available direct from the RSCM’s webshop https://www.rscmshop.com/books/9780854023363/stainer-the-crucifixion–new-critical-edition
For further press information/review copies, please contact Frances Wilson firstname.lastname@example.org
British composer and singer Joanna Forbes L’Estrange has been commissioned by the Royal School of Church Music to write a special anthem to celebrate the Coronation of King Charles III on 6 May 2023. Read on to find out more about Joanna’s musical background, her influences and inspirations, and why there are “no rules” to composing…..
Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
When I was 8 years old, my foster father suggested to my younger sister and me that we join our parish church choir of Bisley and West End in Surrey. The choir was small – I remember we only had one tenor, a rather elderly man called Harry – and Em and I were the youngest members by several decades, but it was there that I fell in love with singing in choirs and with church music. For the next ten years until I was 18, it was a routine of Thursday evening choir practices and Sunday services, crunching up the long gravel path to the church, our freshly-washed, dusky blue robes draped over our arms. Most Sundays it was Eucharist but, once a month, we sang Evensong and these were my favourite services. We would often sing the hymn ‘The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended’ which I thought had the most beautiful melody.
By the time I arrived at Oxford University to begin my music degree, I was longing to sing in a really good choir. There hadn’t been a choir at my comprehensive school so my sole experience of choral music had been my little church choir. I remember being at freshers’ fair, walking among the many stalls of clubs and societies and feeling distinctly overwhelmed, when I suddenly spotted a sign saying “Schola Cantorum of Oxford”. I thought: how cool would it be to sing in a choir with a Latin name?! and added my name to the audition sign-up list. A week later, as I walked into the audition room, it occurred to me that I’d never done an audition before and I suddenly became nervous. Imposter syndrome properly set in when I was asked if I’d done Eton Choral Courses – um, no – or been a member of NYC – er, no. I hadn’t actually heard of either thing and was starting to wonder what on earth I’d been thinking putting my name on this list. However, I knew I could sing and I knew that I was a strong sight-reader, having studied the piano and cello to Grade 8 and been blessed with perfect pitch, so I gave it my best shot and….got in! A whole new world of choral music opened up to me over those next three years: we gave concerts in stunning chapels, recorded several CDs and went on tour to France and Japan. I was in choir heaven.
Three years after graduating from Oxford, I joined the five-time Grammy® award-winning vocal group The Swingle Singers as soprano and Musical Director. Over the next seven years I became obsessed with jazz vocal groups and jazz close harmonies, listening to recordings by groups such as Les Double Six, Manhattan Transfer and The Real Group. I wrote some arrangements, my first one being for the four female voices of the group, my arrangement of Amazing Grace. I also enjoyed twenty extraordinary years with Tenebrae, one of the world’s most respected professional chamber choirs, performing and recording many of the greatest choral pieces.
When I was in my early 30s, my foster father became ordained and, a few months before his ordination, he asked me to write a piece of music for our parish choir to sing. I replied “but I don’t compose music” to which he said, in his typical no-nonsense fashion, “well, it’s time you did”. My father Sebastian Forbes is a composer and my grandfather Watson Forbes had arranged hundreds of pieces for the viola but it had never occurred to me that I too could be a composer. I’d written a couple of pieces for GCSE Music but, to be a “proper” composer, I was under the impression that you had to have a calling at birth and be composing from the age of six to qualify. I also thought you had to be a man. I’d been born into a family of professional musicians, sung in choirs for over 20 years, achieved Grade 8 on two instruments and done a music degree and yet I’d never once been exposed to any music written by a woman. It’s unthinkable, really, but that’s how it was. I still have my chorister’s handbook from when I joined Bisley choir; the whole book is about boy choristers and there’s not one mention of girls. We’ve come a long way since then, I’m happy to say.
I am forever indebted to Reverend Richard Abbott for asking me to compose that piece because it set me on my path as a composer. When he died last November, following a long battle with cancer, my sister and I returned to Bisley church for the funeral and the choir sang my setting of Go forth in Peace, the piece I’d composed for his ordination.
All of my experiences singing in choirs have informed my composing but the most significant is my time singing in my local church choir. There are plenty of composers, my father for one, who write highly complex and challenging music; I love to sing that kind of music myself but, as a composer, that’s not what I feel moved to write. It’s strange to recall that after I met my husband, who’d been a star chorister in the choir of New College, Oxford, I went through a phase of feeling quite bitter that I hadn’t been a chorister in a big cathedral choir. Throughout my singing career I’ve become aware that most of my colleagues did indeed attend Eton Choral Courses and National Youth Choir when they were younger and, again, I have felt annoyed that I wasn’t given such opportunities. But now I realise my calling as a composer is to write the kind of music which choirs like the one I sang in as a child and choirs like it all over the world can sing and enjoy singing. I care deeply that my music is as accessible as possible to choirs of all sizes and abilities which is why I record demos of all of my pieces so that singers who aren’t necessarily confident in reading music can listen to their vocal line and learn the notes by ear instead.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
At the start of my career as a freelance singer I was full of self-doubt and rather shy. I’d come from a family of high-profile professional musicians, which felt like a lot to live up to. I was forever comparing myself with my viola-playing grandfather, my composer father, my opera singing uncle and aunt, wondering if I’d ever make the grade. I now know that comparison is the thief of joy – thank you Brené Brown – and try to avoid comparing my career with anyone else’s. I also didn’t know where to begin as a freelancer because, in those days, there weren’t all of the wonderful apprentice schemes that there are now. I had to learn to believe in myself, trust my instincts, forge my own path and seek out mentors. This is the advice I now pass on to young people entering the profession. Everyone’s route into the music business is different and there’s no single path to follow. We have to find our own way and hope to meet people who can give us good advice.
When I became Musical Director of The Swingle Singers, I had to deal with a few sexist comments such as “women are too emotional to be in charge” and “arrangements for just upper voices wouldn’t work because there’s no bass line”. It also took me a while to get used to the particular style of male banter peculiar to those men who’ve been choristers in all-male choirs most of their lives. Leadership of The Swingles had been rather male-dominated since the 1960s and so it was a challenge at the beginning to be a female MD but I’m happy to say that that tide had turned by the time I left the group and Ward Swingle, the group’s founder, wrote me a beautiful card thanking me for having established a sense of togetherness in the group, which meant everything. At Ward’s funeral eight years ago, my arrangement of Amazing Grace was sung as his coffin was lowered into the grave; that was a moment I’ll never forget.
Covid was a huge challenge to all artists, of course. I kept myself sane by being creative, writing and recording a lot of music at home, but I missed the camaraderie of being with other musicians. There’s nothing like it.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
I love writing to a commission brief because having certain parameters in place before I put pencil to manuscript paper actually gets the creative juices flowing more readily than when I’m composing without a brief. For example, with the commission for the coronation piece, the scoring, duration, subject matter and accessibility were all established before I began writing. Once I’d found my text, the music came relatively quickly. I’m currently working on a number of other commissions: I’m writing a grace setting for Churchill College in Cambridge for their non-auditioning choir Inter Alios to sing at formal dinners; the brief here was to keep it short and simple and for the style to be something along the lines of my Give us Gracewhich is a gospel-inflected setting of a Jane Austen prayer. I’m also writing a part-song for a wonderful upper voices choir in north London called Jubilate; for this one, I’ll write my own words which is something I enjoy doing; it’ll be about the joys of singing in choirs.
Of which works are you most proud?
It’s hard to say because each piece/song I’ve written has made me proud for different reasons. I’ve written a number of songs for upper voices, often incorporating ideas surrounding gender equality, including Twenty-first-century Woman which we recorded at Abbey Road Studios in 2018 with an all-female choir, band, engineering team and production team. I conducted the session and it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. We also made history by being the first ever all-female recording session to take place at Abbey Road Studios. That was a proud moment. I made a music video which features, among others, Prue Leith, Joanna Lumley, Ruby Wax, the Bishop of London, the Harlequins Rugby Team… I also wrote a song called A place for us maids to mark 40 years of women students at Cambridge and one called A woman (wearing bloomers) on a wheel which is a witty Victorian-style song about the impact which the invention of the bicycle had on women’s clothing. It’s been made into a wonderful film by the National Youth Girls’ Choir of Great Britain, filmed on location at the Beamish Museum in Durham. For the Military Wives Choirs of Great Britain I co-wrote a song, with my husband Alexander, called We will remember them which tells a war story from the perspective of wives married to fighting soldiers.
Of my church pieces, I think I’m most proud of my King’s College Service and my Preces and Responsesbecause they’ve been sung so many times by choirs in the UK and the USA. I’m also thrilled that Tenebrae chose to record my Advent ‘O’ Carol on their latest Christmas album. It’s a stunning recording.
How would you characterise your compositional language?
A good tune, something memorable such as a refrain or chorus, jazz-inflected harmonies, rhythms which spring from the natural rhythms of the words I’m setting. I’m not a ground-breaking composer, I’m not stretching the boundaries of choral music or finding a brand new compositional language. I don’t have any desire to win competitions (although I do have a secret desire to write an Oscar-winning end credits song for a film!) or to have accolades bestowed upon me. I just want to write lovely music which choirs want to sing.
How do you work?
I write at my lovely old Steinway piano which I inherited from my father when he inherited his mother’s piano. I have to have a tidy room in order to feel creative so I often start the day with a general clear-up – I have two teenage sons so there’s always plenty of stuff lying around! Then I settle down, recite the text aloud a number of times until (with any luck) a melody begins to suggest itself to me. At this point, I start to sing as I accompany myself on the piano. Harmonies come as does an overall shape and, once I start to commit the music to manuscript paper, I’m immersed and tend not to come up for air until I’m hungry for lunch. If I feel blocked, I go for a blowy stroll across the fields into the village and usually get some great ideas as I walk which I sing into the voice-memo app on my phone, much to the amusement of passing dog walkers!
Tell us more about ‘The Mountains Shall Bring Peace’, your special coronation commission from the Royal School of Church Music….
I was keen to find words which reflected not only King Charles’s faith but also something of his passion for the natural world and his love of the outdoors. When I think of our former Prince of Wales, I picture him walking in the Welsh mountains or in the Scottish Highlands; I’m Welsh born and my father’s side of the family is Scottish so it’s familiar territory for me. I’m also all too aware that this Coronation is taking place during a very turbulent time for our country and our planet and so I was searching for words which would in some way give us all hope for the future. I settled on the opening verses of Psalm 72 because they perfectly encapsulate all of this and more. It’s generally believed that this Psalm was the coronation hymn for the King of Judah; the words speak of the king’s role in relationship to his people and to God. But best of all is the third verse which, in the King James version, reads: “The mountains shall bring peace unto the people”. What could be more perfect? It also gave me my title.
Central to the commission brief was a big, singable tune, the kind of memorable melody which anyone and everyone can enjoy singing at the tops of their voices. So, instead of writing the piece from start to end, I began with this melody, honing it over time until I was satisfied with it. When I was setting the words “the mountains shall bring peace unto the people” I created a melodic shape comprising rising and falling 4ths which, together with the melodic sequence, depicts the mountains.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
If you can make a living doing something you love, to me that is success. Contentment is everything. I may have made more money being a barrister (which is the profession suggested to me by a school career’s advisor!) but I don’t think that would have made me happy because I always knew, from the age of 2, that I wanted to be a musician. When I’d just graduated from Oxford I wasn’t ready yet so I did a PGCE and taught music in a secondary school for three years, having singing lessons every week until I felt ready to start auditioning for singing work.
I never take my career for granted and am grateful every day that I get to earn a living from composing, singing and coaching choirs.
What advice would you give to young/aspiring composers?
I would say this: there are no rules. Stay true to yourself and write the music you feel compelled to write, whatever form that takes. Authenticity is everything. By all means be inspired by other people but don’t feel you have to write like they do. We are all different and we were put on this earth to be uniquely ourselves. Don’t compare yourself with other composers; stay in your own lane.
On a more practical level, having additional strands of income which can sustain you during lean composing patches can be a lifeline. For me, it’s being a session singer for film and TV soundtracks and coaching choirs and a cappella groups. It’s good to have lots of strings to your bow if you want to be a freelance musician. I learned that from my grandfather Watson Forbes whose autobiography is actually called “Strings to my bow”. He was the viola player in the Aeolian String Quartet but he also wrote arrangements for the viola, conducted orchestras and was an examiner for the ABRSM.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?
We need to foster a love for classical music when children are in primary school and keep that going all the way through to the end of secondary school. Singing in choirs, learning to play an instrument, going to orchestral concerts, hearing wonderful choirs in beautiful acoustics….all of these experiences at a young age create adults who love classical music just as listening to pop music, playing in a band and going to see bands live create adults who love pop music. The trouble is that unless the government makes music a priority in schools again by investing in schemes such as free instrumental lessons for a year, trips to concerts etc classical music will be seen as elitist, exclusive to the independent school sector or to families who can afford to pay for instruments and music lessons. I went to very unremarkable schools but, in the 1970s, even there we had a recorder group in my primary school and sang every day in assembly and in the classroom. The problem we’ve got nowadays is that very few primary schools have someone who can even play the piano. It’s been proven time and time again that schools thrive where there is a good arts programme; failing schools have been revived by installing a good arts programme. Music should be an essential part of the curriculum as learning an instrument improves learning across the curriculum.
What’s the one thing in the music industry we’re not talking about but you think we should be?
Gender bias. I have been singing on film soundtracks for over 20 years and have never been conducted by a woman and have only once (last year) recorded a soundtrack composed by a woman. It used to be the case that all of the sound engineers and producers were men too but that has changed in recent years and you’re just as likely to see a woman setting up the microphones etc as a man. We now have (at last) girl choristers and women lay clerks and choral scholars so things are gradually moving in the right direction. Let’s see more women on the conductor’s podium in London’s studios next, please!
What do you enjoy doing most?
Spending time with friends who enjoy making music for fun, even if it’s also their profession. On New Year’s Eve, our house was full of friends and music. We had everything from a teenage bagpiper to a jazz jam around the piano with our sons Harry (piano) and Toby (double bass) to an impromptu performance by my friend Grace Davidson (soprano) of Handel’s Let the Bright Seraphim, accompanied by Nigel Short (Artistic Director of Tenebrae) on the piano and trumpet obbligato courtesy of Mark Armstrong (NYJO Director), to a raucous sing-song of a brilliant arrangement by my husband Alexander L’Estrange (who writes for The King’s Singers) of ABBA’s Happy New Year at midnight. We also love to have a cappella singer friends over for dinner and to sing Take Six arrangements for fun. Once a month, we meet up with friends in a pub in London who love to sing 16th-century music by Tallis, Tye, Byrd and Gibbons from part-books with original, early notation. Eclectic is the word! No matter what the style of music, there’s nothing better than making music with friends.
The Mountains shall bring peace is Joanna Forbes L’Estrange’s specially-commissioned coronation anthem for the Royal School of Church Music. Find out more about the project here
Follow the project on social media with hashtag #singfortheking
Joanna Forbes L’Estrange is an internationally renowned British soprano and jazz vocalist, specialising in contemporary music of all styles. A Master of Arts music graduate of Oxford University, she began her career as soprano and Musical Director of the five-time Grammy® award-winning a cappella group the Swingle Singers and, since then, has enjoyed a busy freelance career as a concert artist, studio session singer, song writer, choral composer and choral leader. She has also appeared on television as a judge for the Sky 1 series Sing: Ultimate A Cappella.Joanna has performed on many of the world’s most famous stages, from New York’s Carnegie Hall to Tokyo’s Orchard Hall to La Scala Milan and the Châtelet in Paris. In the UK, she has sung to a packed O2 Arena with Pete Tong and the Heritage Orchestra and at the Proms, Edinburgh International Festival and Glastonbury as well as for the Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. She is much in demand as the soloist for Will Todd’s Mass in Blue and her solo concert repertoire also includes Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts and numerous works by Steve Reich, Stockhausen, John Adams and Luciano Berio, whose iconic masterpiece Sinfonia she has performed fifty times with the world’s leading orchestras and conductors. Recordings include a cappella and solo jazz albums, contemporary orchestral works, CDs with the award-winning chamber choir Tenebrae and hundreds of soundtracks to video games and Hollywood films.Joanna’s choral compositions and songs are published by RSCM, Faber Music and andagio. In 2018, she made history by organising and conducting the first ever entirely female recording session at London’s Abbey Road Studios, recording her song Twenty-first-century Woman as a charity single for International Women’s Day with an all-female band, choir and production team. All proceeds from downloads of the song go to charities supporting girls’ education worldwide.
Episode 2 of the Piano 101 podcast with The Cross-Eyed Pianist and Dr Michael Low is now available on YouTube, Spotify and SoundCloud
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