Rhinegold Broad musical tastes: Sofi Jeannin

Toby Deller

Meet the Maestro: Sofi Jeannin

8:00, 15th August 2017

The future BBC Singers chief conductor draws on her experience of French and Swedish choral cultures

‘One could easily get intimidated coming to a group with such a strong British tradition,’ reflects Sofi Jeannin on her appointment as chief conductor of the BBC Singers, ‘and also a very strong British organ tradition, and I am neither British nor an organist. So I’ll bring whatever it is I can bring to the group. I think I have to try to be myself in the music because if you start to wonder if you fit into a British organist’s shoes, then that does not work.’

Currently director of the Chœur de Radio France, a post she took up in 2015, the conductor began her musical studies in her native Sweden before moving to France. ‘I was born in Stockholm but I lived in a small rural village and we didn’t even have a concert hall near where I lived, so it wasn’t easy to set my mind on being a professional musician when I was young. I started by studying singing and musicology and even contemplated more of an academic path, but then I realised that it was music-making that provided the most joy. So I went from Sweden to France and studied for a while at the Nice conservatoire. I went to the south of France mainly because my father lives there; we hadn’t lived in the same country since I was ten, so it was a good time to reconnect with family.’

The idea of specialising in choral conducting really took hold when Jeannin arrived in London to study for a master’s in the subject at the Royal College of Music, attracted by the prospect of getting to know the British choral tradition at close quarters. She began teaching singing at the RCM Junior Department soon after, and she herself sang as a mezzo-soprano with London Voices, the vocal ensemble with which she made her first recording as a conductor: Helmut Lachenmann’s Consolation I for the BBC. So she has well over a decade’s experience of music-making in Britain to add to her Franco-Swedish roots.

‘Sweden has a very strong vocal tradition as well: we have a similar past with the church being very involved in people’s lives – and in Sweden church and state separated in the 2000s, so it’s very recent. But Sweden has also never lost its link to popular heritage, popular culture, so traditional music is very important: at any occasion of life, people tend to sing: 600,000 people or something sing in a choir in Sweden and for such a small country that’s amazing.’

She regrets that France has lost some of that anchoring of music in the popular imagination and has a tendency to promote a theoretical educational approach. ‘It is a country that has a very intellectual basis of music learning, whereas the British are great doers. You can see that in French conservatories it’s starting to change, but for children learning music they have to do one year of solfège before they are allowed to touch the instrument. Luckily it’s on the way to disappearing.’

One thing France does have is the Maîtrise de Radio France. Jeannin has been music director of the state-funded choir school since 2008, around the time the organisation added a second site in the northern Paris suburb of Bondy to the one in the capital itself. ‘It’s 85% social housing, we have 24, 25 nationalities I think, and it’s only local children. We actually go out to schools and find them there.’ She likens the Maîtrise to British cathedral schools, although the age range (seven to 18 years) and musical training is greater. ‘Because we get them so young and give them from eight to 13 hours of music every week, they become quite free in their musical expression early on, so you can give them Dutilleux, Xenakis and other new music and they will read it.’

She likes to keep her own musical tastes, she says, as broad as possible, surely a necessity for the BBC Singers post. ‘I’ve done a lot of French music and Scandinavian music, for obvious reasons. When I was at college I did study quite a lot of British music as well because I was with a specialist, but we also spent time on Gesualdo and Monteverdi. I try to be quite a generalist, and I enjoy new music as well. This is why it’s exciting to be part of a group where we still commission pieces, still hold a responsibility for new music to appear. Having said that, whenever I do a programme of German romantic music I always say to myself , “There is nothing better than this!” But then, I just did a concert of Poulenc’s La figure humaine, and I can be excited about something completely wacky like that too.’

Sofi Jeannin conducts the BBC Singers at the Royal Albert Hall as part of the 2017 BBC Proms on 20 August

1976 Born Stockholm
1995 Studies early music at Conservatoire de Nice
2003 Studies choral conducting at Royal College of Music
2008 Musical director, Maîtrise de Radio France
2015-18 Music director, Choeur de Radio France
2017 Announced director BBC Singers, from July 2018

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