The Copenhagen chamber choir Camerata, who took the laurels at the 2017 London International A Cappella Choral Competition
Expression marks3:34, 7th November 2017
Their sound has been described as ‘soft as newly sprung buds and the snowy night’s twilight’. Andrew Mellor meets the award-winning Camerata Chamber Choir
Copenhagen-based Camerata Chamber Choir is no stranger to competition success, least of all in London. The year after its founding in 1965, the Danish choir participated in the BBC’s Let The Peoples Sing competition, returning nearly three decades later in 2003 to win the adult category outright. The ensemble has clocked up competitive victories in Italy, Hungary, at home in Denmark, and most recently at the London International A Cappella Choral Competition (LIACCC) in June, where it was commended by jury chair Peter Phillips for ‘good tuning, excellent blend and stirring interpretations across a wide range of repertoire.’ The choir is used to plaudits for technique and versatility, but critics and commentators are also increasingly talking of its combination of discipline and expression.
Nordic choirs may have a fine international reputation, but it’s a reputation normally based more on sound and intonation than on vividness of communication. That is one way in which the 25-member Camerata Chamber Choir stands out and, indeed, continues to evolve. Established by 20-year-old music student Per Enevold, it was soon being spoken of as one of the finest ensembles of its kind in Denmark. A 1968 review in the Danish daily Politiken praised the ensemble’s technique and blend, and specifically of Enevold’s shaping of ‘an obedient and responsive sound’ from a collection of talented individuals ‘with a special feeling for three musical epochs: renaissance, baroque and contemporary.’
That versatility remains, even if more recently it has shifted forward chronologically in emphasis. When Enevold eventually moved on to conduct the Danish Radio Choir and orchestras throughout Scandinavia, many wondered how ‘Per’s choir’ would survive without him. It did so under the guiding hand of one the great characters of Danish musical life, the conductor Michael Bojesen, who took over in 1989. Bojesen injected an extra degree of front-footed expression into Enevold’s crack ensemble, which was now exploring contemporary music – Danish and otherwise – with resolve. The choir was also becoming known internationally, touring to France, Italy, Estonia, the Czech Republic, Australia, the USA, South America and elsewhere. But critics at home were noticing the new depths of expression in the ensemble: ‘A sound as soft as the newly sprung buds and the snowy night’s twilight’ wrote Politiken of the choir’s sound in 1991.
Of course, such expressive depths come only from technique. And technique is probably best honed on the staples of the baroque and renaissance repertoire. Since 1977, the choir has presented annual performances of Handel’s Messiah at Holmens Kirke in the centre of Copenhagen (the ensemble’s 1999 recording of Messiah won a Danish Grammy). Those Messiahs are usually complemented by one other oratorio performance during the season, and have included Bach’s St Matthew Passion, Mozart’s Requiem and Haydn’s The Creation.
Such performances suit Jakob Hultberg, chief conductor since 2014, down to the ground. ‘I’m not at all a choral specialist!’ says the Swede, who works mostly in opera. He claims to have ‘learned so much’ from the experience of working with the ensemble, which describes itself as a ‘professionally working amateur choir’. Hultberg was offered the position in 2014 after appearing as a guest conductor during the choir’s extended search for a replacement for Bojesen’s successor, Martin Toft. ‘It is a very special sort of organisation with a very good way of running its affairs,’ says Hultberg, ‘which means I can focus on artistic matters.’
When I meet Hultberg in Malmö, he is preparing to conduct a run of over 20 performances of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker at the Royal Danish Ballet. That routine presents quite a contrast to the experience of working with an amateur ensemble that rehearses once a week and on a project-byproject basis, I suggest. ‘It’s a lot more different than I expected,’ the conductor responds. ‘Sometimes preparation can take longer, of course, despite the fact that these are good musicians and good readers. On the other hand, they offer an engagement and dedication that you would very rarely find in a professional ensemble. You can do amazing things in concert with this group; you can make music with every singer 100 per cent “present”.’
Hultberg’s focus on in-the-moment performances has taken the choir down new expressive roads and undoubtedly lay behind its victory at LIACCC. ‘When I first met the choir, I got the feeling that I could do whatever I wanted in the actual concert,’ he says, reflecting the responsiveness described by Politiken back in 1968. That played directly into the conductor’s hands in London – quite literally: ‘There were a lot of technically good choirs there, so I realised pretty quickly that we needed to do something else to win other than just display our technique.’ That ‘something else’ meant capitalising on the very special atmosphere created by the presence of Arvo Pärt, the competition’s prescribed composer, in the concert hall. ‘In The Woman with the Alabaster Box, we really focused on the intense atmosphere between the silences’, Hultberg says. ‘I told the chorus to flip the music and the silence, and really try to play the silence in the room. In the end, I thought some of the silences were louder than the music itself. I wanted to tell Mr Pärt afterwards how much he’d taught us about silence – that silence really can be music.’
The ensemble’s musical bread and butter might be romantic Scandinavian music and the great choral masterworks, but they have pioneered 20th-century and contemporary Danish composers in concert and on disc – Vagn Holmboe and Poul Ruders, among others – and will continue to do so. On 8 October they presented an hour-long programme called ‘Open Secret’, ‘a poignant celebration of spirituality and simplicity’, for which the Swedish composer Tobias Broström wrote specially commissioned percussion interludes to link works by Tavener, Pärt and Górecki. There is a possibility that the programme could visit Britain, perhaps as part of the invitation concert from St John’s, Smith Square, that formed part of the choir’s LIACCC prize package. And after recent 50th anniversary collaborations with the Royal Theatre and Danish National Symphony Orchestra, says communications officer Lise Kaltoft Bendixen, the choir will spend forthcoming seasons focusing again on their staple diet of a cappella repertoire. That in turn offers Hultberg a chance to work even more on the ensemble’s sound. ‘I think I have added a bit of warmth to the tone, a bit more body to go with the very pure, warm, elegant Scandinavian crispness,’ he says, drawing a sonic parallel between the ensemble’s sound and Denmark’s geographical position halfway between the European mainland and Scandinavia’s main land mass. ‘I started doing that with the Bruckner motets, which aren’t the most natural choice for this sort of choir, but which helped to develop more colour.’
Hultberg maintains, however, that the choir has ‘kept the special identity that it has had since 1965.’ Not that that precludes the singers from pushing themselves further into unknown territory. ‘We recently sang Reger’s Geistliche Gesänge, op.110,’ says Hultberg. ‘It’s a huge piece, 45 minutes long with no accompaniment, and in Reger’s typically extremely tricky polyphony – the most difficult choral piece I have ever done!’ On the testimony of Phillips and others, it shouldn’t have been too problematic. But then, any piece of music is about more than technical security, and this seems to be at the heart of Hultberg’s approach: ‘It has been our creed together for these last few years, to make music that is always alive, inspiring and dramatic. And I think we have succeeded quite well with that.’
Andrew Mellor is a journalist and former organist with a particular interest in the music and culture of the Nordic countries.