Q&A: Andrew Nethsingha1:44, 13th April 2016
The director of music at St John’s College, Cambridge, launches a new label in partnership with Signum. He speaks to Katy Wright
You’ve been recording with the choir throughout your tenure – why did you think it was important to create a record imprint with Signum Classics?
The choir has made nearly 100 recordings now, and the imprint gives us a lot of control over our choice of repertoire. The label will release one or two choir discs every year, as well as recordings of some of our distinguished alumni and exceptionally talented student instrumentalists. It will showcase a wider range of music-making in the college and not just the choir. It’s an exciting new step.
Do you find the recording process useful?
I think the recording process can help to bring us to higher standards which can then inform our subsequent performances. It reminds us of the importance of attention to detail and making things as perfect as you can, and it’s a good way to hear what we’ve achieved and think about how we can make it better. Our webcasts are useful in that respect too.
What are the first few releases?
Our debut release is music by Jonathan Harvey, which is coming out in May. We recorded a Christmas disc a couple of months ago. The next two releases will come out in the middle of next year: the first features masses by Kodály and Poulenc, and the other is a disc of music for violin and piano by the fantastic violinist Julia Hwang – she’s a real virtuoso.
Why did you choose repertoire by Jonathan Harvey for the debut release?
I feel very passionate indeed about his music. It really expresses his deep and intense spirituality, but it can also be ecstatic and overpowering, full of colour and energy. It’s amazingly varied. He was a student here at St John’s, and later became an honorary fellow. I first met him when we sang a special evensong in celebration of his 70th birthday. Virtually the last piece he ever wrote was The Annunciation, a very beautiful piece for our advent carol service in 2011.
Did his spirituality inform your interpretations of his music?
Yes, very much. I think that there’s more and more need for a sense of calm and escape in our hectic contemporary society. For a devout believer, Harvey’s music can bring you closer in your relationship to God, but for a non-believer it has an equally powerful message. You could call it spirituality or give it another name, but I think it’s of great relevance to everyone.
It’s your ninth year with the choir – can you pick some highlights?
There have been many! I’ve been very privileged to perform with the choir in some wonderful venues. It’s not just the glamorous concerts, though; singing our daily services in the chapel is at the heart of what we do. We try and incorporate a wide repertoire – I’m always trying to expand it in every direction.
Seven years ago we started having Bach cantata evensongs, which have been great educational experiences for the choir. We try and sing music that isn’t just church music sometimes – larger pieces with symphony orchestra. I’ve commissioned nearly 40 pieces since I’ve been here. We allow our singers to have that thrill of creating a new work and working with the composer. Although we perform a lot, we’re an educational establishment at heart and it’s important for me to give the singers exposure to as broad a range of music as we possibly can.
What have you found to be special about the choir?
My predecessors and I have all been extremely aware of the general tradition of the St John’s sound which George Guest established. I think that’s a unique thing and I try to explain some aspect of that style to the choir each day to try and keep the continuity. We’re also very privileged to have long rehearsals – an hour before each service – and the same boys and men singing every day. That gives us the opportunity to cultivate a distinctive house style and to create a choir with a very particular personality.