Clare Stevens

Q&A – Suzi Digby and the ORA

10:28, 8th August 2016

Suzi Digby OBE (Lady Eatwell) founded the Voices Foundation, Voce Chamber Choir, Vocal Futures (which nurtures young audiences for classical music), Singing4Success (offering leadership and ‘accelerated learning’ for corporates), and the London Youth Choir; her many other musical hats include that of Visiting Professor at the University of Southern California. Earlier this year she launched new London-based professional chamber choir ORA, with a debut CD Upheld by Stillness, pairing works by William Byrd with associated commissions from six living composers.

You spent the best part of 20 years focused largely on primary music education, but recently you have broadened your outlook with an extraordinary number of initiatives, including Vocal Futures with its ground-breaking performances of the St Matthew Passion and The Creation interpreted for those aged 16–22, the Scratch Youth Messiahs and now ORA. Is there a fundamental idea about the appeal to young people of works by the likes of Bach, Haydn, Handel and now Byrd that underlies all these projects?

I have to go back to my own experience as a teenager when a performance of the St Matthew Passion blew my world apart. I’m particularly interested in that demographic because at that age young people have developed a strong sense of themselves and how they relate to the world and are able to respond independently, outside the normal framework of education; great art can help them do that and they are ready to tackle the great masterpieces.

What inspired you to set up ORA?

Over the years I have commissioned many new choral works so I have come to realise that we are in the middle of a real golden age of choral composition that equals the golden age of Tallis, Byrd and their contemporaries in the renaissance. Present-day choral composers are combining incredible craftsmanship with ravishing soundscapes, and writing music that audiences want to hear that also has enough rigour to challenge good singers. I want to celebrate that with lots more commissions.

I was also inspired by fantastic, theatrical performances by I Fagiolini that brought music by Monteverdi and Tallis to life; and by Variations for Judith, keyboard settings of Bach’s Bist du bei mir by several composers including Judith Weir, Jonathan Dove and Michael Berkeley, written as a gift to Judith Serota on her retirement as Chief Executive of Spitalfields Music. That let me see what composers could achieve when writing in response to a work of genius; what possibilities were unleashed by that combination of discipline and freedom.

What form does your ORA project take?

We will be commissioning 100 composers to write 100 reflections on 100 renaissance masterpieces. The only stipulations are that they must be the same length as the original, and the beginning and end must have a tonal relationship that will enable them to be programmed together. Otherwise they can do anything they want with either the music or the text. We have already recorded seven new works alongside the music of Byrd and Tallis for Harmonia Mundi, and we aim to release two albums a year.

Will ORA be a performing as well as a recording choir?

Yes, we launched our first CD with two performances in the atmospheric and very appropriate setting of the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London, and we have plans for tours and festival performances. Imaginative presentation that really draws audiences into the music is an important aspect of our concept and we’re working with opera director and designer Patrick Kinmonth to achieve that.

How did you recruit the members of ORA?

Choral singing in England is also on the crest of a wave, and our singers are drawn from professional vocal consorts that truly are the best in the world. We have a fantastic pool of skilled singers to draw on who have the technical ability, skill in sight-reading, stylistic awareness and quick intelligence to tackle this ambitious project.

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