Sofi Jeannin

Light conductor

1:57, 3rd July 2018

‘She is a conductor who makes difficult things possible’ is the early verdict on the BBC Singers’ new chief conductor. Sofi Jeannin talks to Stephen Pritchard about the importance of training, her love of British music, and stepping into David Hill’s shoes

It seems extraordinary that it has taken until 2018 for a woman to be appointed chief conductor of any BBC performing ensemble. In the 90 years since the corporation was established, women have become presidents, prime ministers, leaders of commerce – bishops – but only now has our public broadcaster felt ready to appoint a female leader to one of its six ensembles. The inspirational Swedish choral director Sofi Jeannin, who has taken on the BBC Singers, points out that she was also the first in France, where she conducted the French Radio Choir: ‘I hope it won’t be long before there are other appointments.’


In a cramped office at Maida Vale studios, her famed attention to detail is immediately evident, as she carefully marks a copy of Poulenc’s Salve Regina. ‘There are so many mistakes in this edition,’ she laughs, before clearing the desk, settling back and turning on a beaming smile, her warmth and spontaneity filling the room. Jessica Gillingwater, an alto with the Singers, described her admirably: ‘She emits light.’


Jeannin has been guest conducting with the choir since January 2017; so how does it feel finally to be in charge? ‘The BBC Singers are an institution,’ she says. ‘You feel that you are part of something much bigger than yourself and I think the members feel they are part of something bigger, too.’


Her work all springs from her admiration for the British choral tradition. ‘As a student, I came to study here because I had long admired British performers and British music and I have always been interested in that particular sound. The Royal College of Music’s library is a treasure trove of manuscripts and first editions. I was very fortunate to “swim” in that and to have Paul Spicer as my teacher. Among many things, he helped me discover the more obscure side of Britain’s choral heritage.’


While she comes over as a person who is not easily overawed, she says it was quite daunting to come to Britain from a small country such as Sweden: ‘Even though it is a singing country – everyone sings – there are not so many choral institutions. Even the professional Swedish Radio Choir is part-time.’ And she says it is a little daunting to take over from David Hill, who, along with other distinguished conductors of the Singers, comes from the English organist tradition. ‘I’m not an organist – but all you can do is try to be yourself and make music according to your convictions.’ After three years with the French Radio Choir and now the BBC Singers, can she explain how radio choirs differ from other ensembles? ‘There are few permanent jobs in the singing world, so the daily contact of a radio choir puts it all on a human scale. They are “family” – and the different generations within the choir means that huge amounts of experience is being passed down all the time.’


Regarding the sound of the BBC Singers, can it sometimes be too fruity for repertoire items from, say, the English renaissance? Sonically, she says, these performers can go anywhere: ‘Sometimes you just have to rein them in. It is quite a gutsy way of singing. It’s exciting to see how far we can push it, but it all depends on the music. This ensemble is such a powerful instrument, with 18 to 24 voices, but the music has to dictate all the time. It’s the ultimate motivation at the centre of what we do, the root and the finality. The harmonics will not come through if you push it too much. A few years ago conductors seemed to be a little bit afraid of full sound, but smooth textures can sometimes seem a bit static. We have to build bridges between these soundworlds.’


Jeannin’s collegiate approach is winning admirers in the choir. ‘She is a conductor who makes difficult things possible,’ says Jessica Gillingwater. ‘Her level of preparation is phenomenal. And such is her apparent unflappable calm, she makes the complex seem entirely attainable.’


Tenor Chris Bowen agrees: ‘As a singer herself, she understands what we need. She is thoughtful about our wellbeing and knows how tough the repertoire can be on the voice. If the music is complicated, she understands that you need adequate rehearsal time and clear signposts in performance. She listens carefully, shaping the sound, prepared to change her approach if she feels it’s not working.’


So what makes a BBC Singer? ‘We look for musicians even more than singers,’ says Jeannin. ‘Of course we are careful about the colour of the voice, its elasticity, range and warmth, but we look for curious, versatile musicians. Auditions involve quite a lot of ensemble singing – it is vital to find osmosis, that magic when we sing together. And you have to be quite the acrobat to join the BBC Singers because the music demands it. We need to make sure the voice has a technique solid enough to deal with all this contrasting repertoire. It sounds impossible, doesn’t it? Yet I auditioned altos recently, and it was incredible to see the level of singing in this country. Amazing voices, amazing musicians. Something must be right in singing training in this country!’


Training is something very close to Jeannin’s heart. While she is leaving the French Radio Choir, she is retaining her leadership of the Maîtrise de Radio France – the French Radio choir school – a remarkable feature of French cultural life. She is very conscious that free singing and musical training, while theoretically available for all children, depends a lot on where the children live and whether their parents are aware of the opportunity. Believing that ‘we should all have access to culture, as we do to healthcare’, she set up a branch of the choir school in Bondy, a suburb in northeast Paris, 10 km from the centre and one where public housing predominates. ‘It came from an artistic idea. We needed more choristers; it was

important to have younger children. I did not have the right sound for quite a lot of the repertoire.’ To achieve this, she overturned the audition process. Education inspectors agreed she could audition every child unless their parents refused. Before, parents had to give their consent to an audition, which might have excluded recent immigrants, who were yet to speak and read French, and would be unaware of the choir school’s existence. She now has 29 nationalities at her school, pointing out that families far from their countries of origin often find it important to keep their vocal tradition alive at home. Children from these families can now enjoy choir training, individual voice coaching and piano lessons. She says modestly that it makes her feel useful: ‘It makes you reflect on why you are a musician.’ Would she see herself establishing something similar in Britain? ‘Yes, I would, if time – and budgets – allowed.’


For now, Jeannin is busy preparing for the BBC Singers’ future, planning programmes with producer Jonathan Manners, encouraging new composers to write. ‘I love that feeling of opening a new score and not knowing what’s going to come out. I feel honoured to be part of an institution that has a mission to commission and champion new music.’ She plans to commission composers who have not written much for voice or come from a different soundworld. And she has a plea: ‘Some composers feel obliged to tone down their adventurous writing for instruments when writing for voices. I’m interested in those who do not compromise.’


She admires the BBC’s approach to programming, which requires that a reading committee examines new compositions and the producer works with other ensembles in shaping programmes. ‘When I suggest composers, it goes through channels. I like this. It’s hard to be objective sometimes. You have to be able to step back and see what is for the greater purpose of the BBC. I think it’s very healthy that I cannot dictate what the season will look like.’


Things will certainly be intriguing. Jeannin’s expertise in French repertoire will see a programme of Lully and Rameau joined by an Indian dance troupe ‘to underline that a coded language exists in both aesthetics’. There will be new Scandinavian work alongside core repertoire pieces such as the Christmas Oratorio, as ‘it is a part of anyone’s healthy diet to sing Bach.’


She concludes: ‘How musicians live in this country is unique. Sometimes the demands are too harsh, but the standard of ensemble singing and orchestral playing shows how to successfully combine the force of the collective with the strength of the individual. I think that’s a very British thing.’

www.bbc.co.uk/singers Stephen Pritchard writes on music for the Observer and Bachtrack, the classical music website. He trained at Portsmouth Cathedral and sings with the English Chamber Choir.

From Rhinegold Media & Events
Featured products