Toby Deller

Artist of the month: Andrew Nethsingha

9:31, 12th December 2018

‘I’ve done daily services, I think, every year but one since the age of eight,’ notes Andrew Nethsingha, director of music at St John’s College, Cambridge, ‘so it is an important part of my life. When I was little I wanted to be an airline pilot on Mondays and Tuesdays, a train driver on Wednesdays and Thursdays, a dustbin lorry driver on Fridays because that’s when they seemed to work, and cathedral organist on weekends. So I’ve got one of my four ambitions.’

One way or another, then, he was likely to end up pressing pedals, pulling levers and looking in rear-view mirrors for a living, although he says that he is more of a conductor than organist these days. He has been in charge at the college, where he had been organ scholar as a student, since 2007. But his almost lifelong career amid the choir stalls began as a chorister at Exeter Cathedral where his father, Lucian, was organist. He went on, after his first stint at St John’s, to the assistant organist post at Wells Cathedral, before taking charge of the choirs as organist at Truro and then at Gloucester Cathedral.

‘I’ve been very lucky that all the places I’ve worked have been absolutely wonderful places. I suppose each building – each cathedral or chapel – has its own particular characteristics architecturally and acoustically, and has its own traditions musically. The St John’s tradition stems back to the pioneering work that George Guest and later Christopher Robinson and David Hill did. But when you work at Gloucester Cathedral, a huge part of it is the 300-year old Three Choirs Festival that has all sorts of traditions dating back to the early 18th century. So there are different jobs to do in different places.’

There is also a substantial educational aspect to his job, important at any institution where children play such a central role, but even more so at a college where the adult singers are also students. ‘We’re an educational establishment primarily,’ Nethsingha points out, ‘so it’s important that all the singers in the choir are educated and exposed to as wide a range of music as possible.’ The junior voices at the college are recruited at around seven years of age. ‘We’re always on the lookout for new choristers and they come from all over the place: some are very local here in Cambridge, some live maybe one or two miles away. One or two come from abroad: our most recent recruits actually are from Singapore. Anybody can try: what we’re looking for is potential not ability.’

‘For 60 years or so the choir has had a very distinctive warmth and expressiveness’

Describing his contribution to the St John’s tradition, he says, ‘I’m very passionate about the unique qualities of the St John’s choir. For 60 years or so it has had a very distinctive warmth and expressiveness and kind of relaxed nature to the singing, a particular way of phrasing and a particular sound world with gentle vibrato in the trebles and a big strong bass line. There are millions of things I could say about the sound world. I’ve tried to continue a lot of things my predecessors have done in terms of the breadth of repertoire: a certain focus on 20th-century British music as Christopher Robinson did; and more and more commissioning – that’s something that George Guest started. But I’ve tried to add new things as well: for instance, for the last 10 years we’ve had a series of Bach cantatas, we sing them liturgically in evensong every term.’

Some of the choir’s commissions appear in the choir’s latest recording, Advent Live, a compilation of music performed in 2014-17 during its annual Radio 3 Advent carol service broadcasts. ‘The themes of Advent are a bit different from those of Christmas so in a way they can be more slightly tougher subjects: it’s not just all shepherds and angels and so forth. There’s loads of variety in the texts.’

If it is not quite the ideal Christmas gift (Advent having literally just finished when the presents come to be unwrapped), Nethsingha says: ‘Well, it’s a little bit different from your average Christmas disc. It contains a number of very well-known carols, but also some less well-known ones. So there’s a big variety of timbres and instrumentations and styles and degrees of simplicity or complexity. This is actually the 99th CD that the choir has released but it’s the first one that has been made entirely from live recordings. But it’s also a bit like a sort of family photograph album, in a way: you’re retaining for posterity what a certain person looked like on a particular occasion. Everybody changes all the time so it’s sort of a unique moment: the same is true in our kind of choir.’



1968 born

1987-90 organ scholar, St John’s College, Cambridge

1990-94 assistant organist, Wells Cathedral

1994-2002 organist and master of choristers Truro Cathedral

2002-07 organist and master of choristers Gloucester Cathedral

2007- director of music, St John’s College, Cambridge

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