Meet the Maestro: Nicholas Jenkins8:00, 19th April 2018
It was while conducting continental choruses that Nicholas Jenkins set his sights on Glyndebourne, where he is now chorus master. He spoke to Toby Deller about his previous positions and his passion for community-based singing projects
So much for easing into a new job. ‘I’ve done probably the hardest bit of music I will ever have to do at Glyndebourne on the first day of arriving, which was Brett Dean’s Hamlet,’ recalls Nicholas Jenkins, the company’s new chorus master. Upon taking up the post in September 2017, his principal responsibility was to prepare the chorus, many of whom had not been involved in the summer festival, for an autumn touring season that included the production premiered a few months earlier.
He arrived at the post a trained conductor and singer whose career began as a chorister at Hampton Court Chapel Royal (where he is now a trustee). ‘Now I’m closer to the operatic world, but the discipline of church and choral singing in England is extraordinary and the skills you learn going through that process – sight-reading and blending within a group, the give and take between voice-parts in renaissance polyphony – all give you a musical grounding that you never lose throughout your whole life.’ You also learn to relish tackling music of many styles, so it is no surprise that Jenkins absolutely loved, in his words, the challenge of Hamlet.
The Glyndebourne appointment comes after several years’ gradually assembling experience as an itinerant chorus master across Europe. ‘I’ve had a few surprises along the way, but I followed my passions and my interests and I would say that those were the guiding force in my trajectory.’ As an itinerant chorus master, this journey so far encompasses work in the UK at English National Opera and Opera Holland Park as well as longer appointments abroad at what is now Dutch National Opera and the Choeur des Musiciens du Louvre in France.
‘I do feel almost as though I’ve had three different lives in the last 15 years,’ he says. After an initial period singing and conducting around London, his enthusiasm for 19th-century French opera led him to seek out Marc Minkowski, for whom he became assistant conductor on numerous operatic productions. Indeed, it was thanks to that association that one of those surprises came along.
‘I was essentially headhunted by Dutch National Opera, which used to be Netherlands Opera. I had been assistant conductor with them on Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, so they saw me conducting rehearsals and singing in roles. I became their interim chorus master between 2012 and 2014 and did five productions as chorus master, probably with the most generous rehearsal time that I’d ever had for music rehearsals with a chorus or choir. That was really a bit of an eye-opener for me: just seeing how some of the continental choruses, and that one in particular, really prize the work that they do in music rehearsals.’
It was during his time there that the ambition of one day working at Glyndebourne began to develop, a particular attraction being its mix of permanent members and freelance singers, a combination that, he says, fuses several exciting elements. That fondness for diversity is reflected in another strand of his professional life: directing community-based singing projects such as New Sussex Opera and Blackheath Halls Opera. Proof of his commitment is the fact he gave up the latter – a grand-scale production involving amateur and professional singers and players from various sections of the south east London community – only last year.
‘I definitely feel that I sharpen up my own skills by varying between working with, for example professional choruses and orchestras and also community-based groups and children’s choirs. I think that the skills involved are very slightly different, and yet also very much the same as well.’
But it is not only for his own professional development that he enjoys such work. A similar example is the choir that he has run for numerous years at the University of Greenwich, another group that he is only now (as we meet, in fact) preparing to leave. ‘Over the last few years in particular, this group has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done, encouraged by the support of colleagues around me. It has forced me to focus my own ideas about how musicians and singers are very multi-skilled and disciplined individuals who have so much to offer the world around them. I think, in the world we live in now, we need to share that, to constantly work on the best ways of interacting with the world around us so that everyone else can get the benefit of how much we’ve all learned and what we’ve got to share.’