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Sirens - a chat with our director

As we get ready for our next concert on 3rd November, we asked Dom our conductor a few questions about the repertoire featured in this exciting concert...

So, Dominic, all set for another Cantus season?

Yes! It's been a long summer planning all of our exciting concerts and events for the 2018/19 season and auditioning over sixty fantastic singers, but no

w we’re in the swing of things at rehearsals and all working hard to get this exciting new music learnt ahead of our first concert on the 3rd of November.​

What was the thinking behind the repertoire for ‘Sirens’?

I’d come across Mason Bates’ Sirens and Sarah Kirkland-Snider’s Scenes from Unremembered earlier in the year – the American choral scene is awash with fantastic choirs, choral directors and composers – and both pieces struck me as intensely dramatic. Added to that Frank Martin’s Songs of Ariel, which sets to music texts from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and we have a fully dramatic set of works for the audience to enjoy. Each piece is so unique and has such a special sound-world and palette of emotions, but in tandem, and with Alex Knox’s new dramatic interludes, they present the audience with an exciting and immersive dramatic event.​

Cantus has increasingly performed new music, is there a particular thrill in preparing music for audiences that won’t have heard it before?

Absolutely – although we’re not a professional choir we have, with the support of our wonderful patrons, now held two composition competitions and each time it has been a joy to bring music to life for the first time. As a conductor you are often able to shape things much more with relatively unheard music as there are no pre-set audience expectations: you couldn’t, for example, conduct ‘Nimrod’ from Elgar’s Enigma Variations at double speed now – it jars with what we have come to expect. So new music feels inherently vibrant and ‘fresh out of the box’ – the new works we’re performing are certainly like nothing heard before in the UK.

I am beyond excited to bring Mason and Sarah’s choral music to the UK for the first time – both of them are exceptional composers with a real gift for creating unique sound worlds and timbres and bringing drama to life through music. I know that in the wonderful setting of St George’s, Bloomsbury, their music will dazzle our audience – they won’t have heard anything like it live before.

This is the second November in a row that the concert will have performed music by Frank Martin. What is it that you love about his choral music?

Frank Martin is famous primarily for his Mass for Double Choir, which we performed last year and is an introspective, reflective piece – one man’s conversation with God. He had a real understanding of the breadth of choral forces and is able to use them so well, giving each section of the choir their own moment to shine and using vast changes in texture to provoke transitions of mood. Songs of Ariel is such a delightful piece with the choir used at one point as a swarm of buzzing bees, another time as tolling bells and at a really dramatic moment the power and depth of the sea. We’ve really enjoyed getting to grips with the music – its not easy, but it should be a treat to sing and listen to!

What first drew you to Mason Bates’ ‘Sirens’?

One of Cantus’ alumni, the incredibly talented Jeremiah Cawley who is based in the States, responded to my request to find new and exciting choral works in the guise of Joby Talbot’s Path of Miracles which we performed two years ago. He knew of Mason’s work and suggested I listen to Sirens. It is such an appropriately beguiling piece of music as he brings the drama of the sirens from The Odyssey to life. What really drew me in though was that Mason considers how other cultures have viewed Siren-like figures in the past – from the mystical German ‘Lorelei’, to Pietro Aretino’s 16th Century sonnet to the stars who it was believed each had a siren atop them, to Jesus Christ, arguably one of the most hauntingly charismatic sirens in history. For each subject the composer uses a different language and a completely different compositional style. It really is a feast for the ears.

And similarly, what first drew you to Sarah Kirkland-Snider’s music?

When I was looking into contemporary American composers, Sarah Kirkland-Snider’s music popped up a few times, and I was directed to her vocal & orchestral masterpiece Unremembered. It is an utterly remarkable work, the like of which I’ve never heard before, and that freshness is so exciting. In her own words, Unremembered is ‘a meditation on memory, innocence, and the haunted grandeur of the natural word [which] recalls strange and beautiful happenings experienced during a childhood in rural Massachusetts.’ The work is soaked in atmosphere and emotion and I was delighted to learn that Sarah had recently finished a suite of the movements for choir and piano. Sarah’s music is dense with emotion and nuance but at the same time is accessible from the get-go and I know our audience will absolutely love it.

Alex Knox is returning to add dramatic elements to the concert, can you divulge any more information about this?

Well, I have to keep some secrets, but I am delighted that my good friend, Alex Knox, will be returning to fulfil a similar role to the one he performed for our Path of Miracles concert a few years ago. Alex has written some new texts that he will perform which will enhance the dramatic experience completely and I can’t wait to work with him again.

How would you sum up the concert, for anyone sitting on the fence?

Sirens is going to be a wonderful, immersive choral and dramatic evening in a superb setting with music to enchant, beguile and entrance. Don’t miss out on two European premieres, sung by a choir at the peak of its powers - it’ll be brilliant!

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