Chorus line: members of the Epiphoni Consort provide a pool of singers
Focus on Sound10:04, 14th July 2017
If you can’t find what you want, do it yourself. Tim Reader tells Matthew Power how he came to found an award-winning chamber choir that is about to launch its debut CD
An internet search lists over 300 choirs currently active in greater London. Yet surprisingly, there is room for a new one. Since its formation in 2014, the Epiphoni Consort came to prominence as runner-up in the 2015 London International A Cappella Choir Competition, and winner of Tenebrae’s ‘Locus Iste’ competition in the same year. The group has since staged performances of the widest scope – from one-to-a-part vocal consort to its full complement of 60 voices – and in July launches its debut recording on the Delphian label.
Founder and artistic director Tim Reader graduated from the University of Exeter in 2000. He had studied singing and conducting, but on leaving college didn’t feel that he wanted music as a career. Living in Bristol, he sang with the Cathedral Choir and deputised as a lay clerk at Wells and Gloucester: ‘I had developed a non-musical career for myself, and found – almost by accident – that I was [at the same time] improving my singing and doing professional musical work.’ It was clear that he was not alone: a significant number of musicians were following other careers but also performing with a professional attitude and level of skill.
On moving to London a decade later, Reader expected to be spoilt for choice when it came to finding choirs to sing with. ‘In reality, I didn’t find what I was looking for, and felt there was actually room for a new choir.’ For singers who have been used to singing professionally, even some of the best amateur chamber choirs can be unfulfilling because of their larger size. It is not uncommon to find ‘chamber’ choirs of 40 voices, and having more than three singers per part can seem pedestrian to some. Reader saw a reason for this: ‘If conductors audition good singers, they don’t want to turn them away, especially in amateur choirs where you can’t afford only to have, say, 16 voices available, because when people are not paid to sing they understandably have other priorities.’ So of their nature amateur chamber choirs almost have to oversubscribe their numbers to be viable.
Reader’s solution was to develop a pool of voices from which to draw. ‘At the end of 2013 I wrote to a number of singers, some of whom I knew personally, but I wanted to make sure it wasn’t just going to be a line-up of “Tim’s mates”, and also that I didn’t ask too many people from any one choir, as I would have quickly become unpopular with other conductors! I also had to promise people that the standard would really make it worth their while.’ Their first concert was at St Peter’s Vauxhall, where they have continued to give annual performances: ‘I borrowed some money to get the choir off the ground, but it was mainly done on a shoestring, calling in a few favours, borrowing music and churches to rehearse in.’ What seemed to be key to attracting high-calibre singers was to give them really ambitious projects: Epiphoni sang Evensong at Westminster Abbey and for its second concert programmed Strauss’s Deutsche Messe (in 20 parts) at St John’s Smith Square.
How does the flexibility of a pool of singers work? ‘We might decide to do the Byrd Great Service and if I want to use just 10 voices, I can, because the next month we’ll be doing something quite different and I can invite other singers to that. I very rarely have to turn anybody away; it has a way of working out.’ This spring the consort drew on its full strength to provide half the chorus (teaming up with London choir Pegasus) for a performance of Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican. But despite the changes in personnel from one concert to the next, there is sufficient overlap for Reader to find a cohesion and development to the wider group, as all the singers have now worked with him several times.
Reader has exhibited a courageous approach to programming – concerts this season include Russian 20th-century choral works, and the music of Pärt, Vasks and Tabakova at Southwark Cathedral. So what is the model for attracting high-calibre trained singers yet maintaining what is actually an amateur choir? Reader explains, ‘I decided that there would be no subscriptions for singers to join the consort, neither would we pay them.’ Interestingly, as the choir’s profile has grown, Reader has received an increasing number of enquiries from professional singers who are attracted by the variety of repertoire, flexibility of ensembles, plus the social side of working with the same people over several rehearsals and a concert, which is often lacking in professional work. One such is soprano Milly Taylor: after reading Music at the University of Birmingham, she too opted out of the profession but sought to continue the standard of singing that she had become used to: ‘I’ve sung in several London chamber choirs and the BBC Symphony Chorus, as well as the occasional Sunday morning depping role. I’m a project manager for the Rugby Football Union; this is where Epiphoni fits in well – I get professional standard singing with a full-time role in sport, and I’m so pleased I can do both.’ How easy does Taylor find it to adapt to different ensemble sizes? ‘We all have to be flexible in how we approach each concert. If it’s two or three to a part, I focus on the blend with the others on my line, whereas when we’re singing larger works, I focus on not straining the voice but still producing the necessary big sound.’
As artistic director, Tim Reader is careful to nurture his singers and give them the best experience, in rehearsals as well as concerts. Self-effacingly, he admits that he was not a professional conductor at the start and in the last three years has attended courses and studies privately with Neil Ferris, whom he also invites occasionally to train the choir in rehearsals. Another leap in the consort’s technical advancement has been to employ soprano Ghislaine Morgan as a vocal coach, and Reader also takes singing lessons with her, which produces a synergy in how he relates to the choir. How has Milly Taylor benefited from having a voice coach? ‘Ghislaine is fantastic – I’m now even seeing her privately for lessons. She’s taught me how not to be afraid of the voice I have, but to use it technically correctly and therefore produce the best sound I’m capable of. To have this support in an “amateur” choir is amazing.’
Listening to tracks from the forthcoming debut recording Sudden Light featuring the music of David Bednall, it is clear that the sound is very much of a collection of trained voices but without the expected honing to make them conform to a single blend: it is more of a balance of voices that gives the sound an attractive energy. Reader explains how the choir’s style is developing: ‘Finding the Epiphoni blend is an ongoing journey. We have a range of voices, styles and techniques and we are still exploring. At the moment we want to sound like how people sing when they are doing it properly and freely… we are exploring a move away from that very focused, straight sound that has been prevalent, and encouraging the singers in a freer style.’ Reader admits that a better awareness of choral singing from around the world is starting to give choirs in this country a wake-up call in terms of how varied and exciting the sound can be, once you stop trying to imitate the English choral style born out of the cathedral tradition.
When Epiphoni was signed by Delphian, they were advised that a single-composer disc would make for a strong debut recording. David Bednall (whom Reader knew from his time singing at Wells) had produced much choral repertoire which was unrecorded: ‘There is a breadth to the works on this disc including a 40-part motet, Lux orta est iusto, which is the standout piece and which we have performed in concert alongside Tallis’s Spem in alium. Bednall understands very well the practical considerations for a conductor; Spem is very hard and the Bednall 40-part setting is aurally interesting yet more straightforward to put together than the Tallis.’ Of the secular works on the disc, texts include works by Shakespeare, Milton, Yeats and Herrick.
Does Reader have a plan to commission new works? ‘I’m biding my time! I’d like our first commission to be something really epic. There is a limit to how many opportunities in a year there are to present new music; 2018 will probably be the year we seek a commission.’
Running the consort is a business now, and Reader has taken on an administrator one day per week. Not having subscriptions to rely on to fund the choir, Reader needed to find a different model: ‘We seek out as many professional engagements as possible – corporate work, weddings – and the consort takes the whole fee. It is now in a secure financial position.’ Concerts aim to be self-supporting and Epiphoni has received funding from the Arts Council for a specific project, while David Bednall was supported by PRS for Music for the Delphian recording.
Milly Taylor sums up the attraction of belonging to the Epiphoni Consort: ‘Having a mix of lawyers, project managers, teachers, musicians, arts managers, and engineers, but all with one common love of producing such an inspiring sound (and finding London’s best draft ales!) is really rare, and makes Epiphoni stand out for me as the choir to be in.’
Matthew Power read Music at the University of London and Trinity College of Music, winning competitions in Composition and Improvisation, and a piano accompaniment scholarship. He was editor of Choir & Organ for nine years and works in London as a musician and writer.