Hidden talents5:19, 14th July 2017
You do all the groundwork, but someone else conducts the performance – it doesn’t seem fair. But for Neil Ferris, his appointment as the new chorus director of the BBC Symphony Chorus has exciting prospects, as he tells Clare Stevens
‘If someone had asked me when I was a student to name my dream job, I would have said, “conducting a symphony chorus”,’ declares Neil Ferris, as we take our seats for lunch in a noisy Central London café. ‘I still can’t believe that’s what I’m doing!’
Ferris was appointed earlier this year as chorus director of the BBC Symphony Chorus, and took up the post at the end of May, just in time to prepare the chorus for the BBC Proms season, in which as usual it plays a central role. As a result he has had to step down as associate director of the London Symphony Chorus, where he has been working alongside Simon Halsey. However, he will continue as music director of Wimbledon Choral Society, in south-west London, and joint artistic director of Sonoro, the professional chamber choir that he set up last year with pianist and composer Michael Higgins. He also continues as chorus director of the Royal College of Music and chorus master at the Endellion Summer Festival in Cornwall, as well as maintaining a very busy schedule leading masterclasses, workshops and short courses for singers and conductors in the UK and elsewhere. Until 2015 Ferris was head of choral conducting at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and a much loved music director of the Cardiff Polyphonic Choir – highlights of his time with them included live broadcasts with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, a B minor Mass in Llandaff Cathedral, the Welsh premiere of Gabriel Jackson’s Requiem, and the world premieres of two new works by Huw Watkins written to celebrate the choir’s 50th anniversary. The BBC Symphony Chorus appointment will enable him to consolidate most of his regular work in London.
One reason for his enthusiasm for directing symphony choruses is that he originally trained as a violinist, at Royal Holloway, University of London, so he is familiar with and loves orchestral repertoire and is not fazed – as some choral specialists can be – by the experience of conducting an instrumental ensemble. As a boy he sang in his local parish church choir in Chandler’s Ford, Hampshire, and at King Edward VI School in Southampton where both his parents taught, but singing was never a particular enthusiasm – ‘it was just something I did’.
An awakening to the glories of choral music was sudden, and came about when a friend encouraged him to join the Chapel Choir at Royal Holloway. Ferris was captivated by a combination of elements: the chapel’s ‘bloody amazing organ’; the inspirational leadership of its then organist, the Purcell scholar Lionel Pike; and the repertoire, in particular the music of Herbert Howells. ‘Funnily enough, my father had been a treble at Eton College in the days when it still had a choir school, but he had never really talked much about that experience when I was growing up. Then when I came back from university raving about all this amazing music we’d been singing in the chapel choir, it turned out he knew it all already!’
After graduating, Ferris earned his living primarily as a freelance violinist and peripatetic instrumental teacher, but continued to be involved with singing and choral conducting, including doing a term covering for Dr Pike at Royal Holloway Chapel. It was this that led to another Damascene experience: ‘I saw a leaflet in the music department about the Association of British Choral Directors’ (abcd) pre-convention choral conducting course in Cambridge; it was intended for the students, but I sent it off on my own behalf. The course was brilliant and I went on to do the first ever abcd extended course, with sessions taking place over a year, and then a more thorough postgraduate course at the Royal College of Music (RCM), where I had a fantastic time studying with Paul Spicer. Bob Chilcott was also on the staff and I learned a lot about choral music and conducting from him as well. I conducted the RCM chamber choir, which was full of people like Elizabeth Watts, Ben Johnson and Jacques Imbrailo, who have gone on to make a name for themselves as soloists.
‘I’ve also done the Sherborne Summer School course in orchestral conducting with George Hurst. But it was abcd that really set me on my current route; I’ve been involved with them ever since, and I’m immensely grateful to them.’
Ferris pays tribute to the first choir that hired him as their music director, the Genesis Chorale of West Byfleet in Surrey – ‘I loved them, they were so forgiving of my endless mistakes’ – and to Cardiff-based vocal coach Alison Ling, who has provided him with some of the understanding of vocal technique that he lacked through having trained as an instrumentalist, and has helped him to pass that on to his choirs. ‘She’s a wonderful singing teacher. I started working with her when I was at the RWCMD – I didn’t want to be the sort of conductor the teachers in the vocal department criticised for not knowing enough about singing!’
Taking stock of his career after leaving RWCMD and the Cardiff Polyphonic Choir, Ferris decided that the next thing he wanted to do was to set up a new professional chamber choir. ‘I happened to mention it to Michael Higgins, who works with me as accompanist to Wimbledon Choral Society and also accompanies the National Children’s Choir of Great Britain, and he said he’d be interested in joining me.’ Founded in the summer of 2016, Sonoro has already established a strong presence on the London concert scene, with a sell-out debut at St Martin-in-the-Fields and performances of Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Choir, Rachmaninoff ’s Vespers and Brahms’s Requiem; in addition the choir has performed in the London Chamber Music Series at Kings Place and the Wimbledon International Music Festival, live on BBC Radio 3 In Tune, been featured on London Live television, and has just recorded its debut CD of music by Frank Martin and James MacMillan, due for release on the Resonus label in early 2018. Sonoro’s USP is that it is a choir of professional soloists, carefully chosen by Ferris to produce a distinctively rich, full, colourful and flexible sound. ‘I allow them to use all of their voices, but we work very carefully in rehearsal to achieve a perfect blend and create warmth and resonance. That may seem contradictory, but it’s not – it can be done, if all the singers are using their technique effectively to control the sound they are making.’
A recent performance I attended of the Brahms Requiem, accompanied in the composer’s 1871 London arrangement for piano duet, proved the effectiveness of Ferris’s approach. It was thrilling to hear the singers skilfully negotiating the trickier corners that often challenge amateur choirs, and bringing such a range of timbre and dynamics to the performance. Their stamina was also an advantage in a work that is vocally tiring, enabling them to keep up the momentum and hold the audience’s attention through the final movements. It was clear that Sonoro is already developing a sound quality identifiably different from any of the other London chamber choirs.
Building on Sonoro’s initial success might have been enough for some conductors, but then along came the opportunity to take over the BBC Symphony Chorus. Ferris succeeds Stephen Jackson, who departed in difficult circumstances in 2015 after 26 years as chorus director. Many of the chorus opposed the decision not to renew his contract and some resigned in protest.
Since then, different chorus directors have prepared the chorus for its concerts while the BBC undertook what Paul Hughes, general manager of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, describes as ‘an open, transparent and competitive process in which the chorus was fully engaged. ‘We interviewed 18 people and short-listed seven, each of whom was given a whole project to prepare and take right through from first rehearsal to performance. Of course the repertoire was very different, ranging from Richard Rodney Bennett’s Spells to Mozart’s C minor Mass so it was impossible to create a completely level playing-field, but we felt this was the fairest way to do it, and it was very interesting to see how they all responded.
‘All the candidates met Sakari Oramo, our chief conductor, who felt there were some he could work with more easily than others. The chorus was asked to judge them objectively according to specific criteria, and their responses were collated. Ultimately of course it was the BBC’s decision, but in fact we were all in agreement that Neil was the best candidate, with the perfect combination of skills and personality.
‘He prepared the chorus for Philip Glass’s Itaipu, a difficult piece which needed a lot of rehearsals and is vocally taxing – we were impressed by Neil’s ability to show the chorus how to get through it without shredding their voices. He was extremely well prepared and he doesn’t stand for any nonsense, but he also has a lightness of touch and a ready wit.’ The appointment comes as part of a general restructuring that has seen the appointment of Grace Rossiter (another strong candidate from the recruitment process) as deputy chorus director and Helen MacLeod, formerly with the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, to the new role of choruses manager of the BBCSC and BBC Proms Youth Chorus. Coincidentally, David Hill has completed ten years as chief conductor of the professional BBC Singers, which often works alongside the chorus, especially at the Proms, and the Swedish conductor Sofi Jeannin has been named as his successor. ‘I’m thrilled to be working with Sofi,’ says Ferris. ‘She and I studied together at the Royal College of Music – she’s brilliant.
‘I will be using this year’s Proms season to get to know the chorus: we’re involved in four concerts, including John Adams’s Harmonium on the first night with Edward Gardner and the Youth Choir, and Anders Hillborg’s Sirens, which is a wonderful piece, on 28 July. In the autumn I’ll hear every current member sing and we’ll launch a recruitment campaign for new members.
‘I’ve already been talking to Paul Hughes and other colleagues about plans for the future; the chorus director has much more input than you might think. The resources of the BBC and what it can do for classical music are extraordinary – the thought of being part of that is tremendously exciting!’
Clare Stevens is a freelance writer, editor and publicist, specialising in choral and church music. She lives in the Welsh Marches, where she sings with Hereford Choral Society.