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Australia Tour, Aug 2010 - The Canberra Times

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British musician Stephen Layton, who will conduct the Choir of Trinity College Cambridge on their Australian tour for Musica Viva, is frank about his method of choosing his repertoire from the vast store of magnificent music dating from ancient times to the 21st century.  “For me it’s purely down to my travels and experiences. It’s a very personal thing,” he says.

The choir’s program juxtaposes 16th century English works by Thomas Tallis, Robert Parsons and William Byrd and 20th century works by Charles Stanford, John Tavener and Benjamin Britten with works by contemporary Baltic composers including Arvo Part, as well as featuring a work written in 2007 by Australian composer Paul Stanhope.

Layton brings a wealth of experience to his conducting role. As a young boy he was a chorister at Winchester Cathedral. As a Cambridge student he was the Organ Scholar at King’s College and for 10 years he was the conductor of the Temple Church Choir in London so he has an intimate knowledge of great choral works.

Layton doesn’t believe it’s difficult to bridge the 500-year gap between the early English works and the contemporary works. “All this music shows a sort of commonality, a common root in singing,” he explains. “Singing is the most direct way in which we make music. It expresses the innermost self. When you listen to some of the composers like Part or Tavener or some of the more avant-garde Baltic composers there’s still this very strong connection with singing, with sound, with a choral line, with breath leaving the body.”

He’s designed the first half of the program so that the music fits into a sequence of keys. “So you’ll be beguiled from John Tavener’s Mother of God in A major to Parsons’ Ave Maria in A major to the Gloria in Praulins’ Missa Riginis beginning in A minor. A musician would realise with pitch that these pieces inhabit an extraordinarily similar territory even though they were written hundreds of years apart. Someone else may not quite realise why it was that these pieces which were so ancient or so modern were kind of fused together. I find it interesting how one can blur the boundaries between different generations of music. I’m not trying to present something that’s watered-down, pan-global music. No – far from it. I want to show that it may be new and adventurous but there’s always something of the past in it. Look at Bach: you have the French suites for the keyboard; you have the Italian concerto; you have music in a more Germanic style. He’s dipping into all sorts of cultures and bringing them together.”

Layton believes that after the revolutionary times and the fall of Communism in the late 80s and early 90s there was a sense in Baltic music of a breaking away from the traditions of Russian Orthodox church music. “But it’s interesting now,” he muses, “That in 2010 the Orthodox tradition is actually becoming very blended in Baltic music. In Bogoroditse Djevo, the piece by Arvo Part that we’re singing, he uses a Russian Orthodox text even though he’s someone who fell out with the Russian authorities. I think that the Orthodox chant is one of the things that politically kept alive the sense of freedom of flasnost agains the Communist repression. To put it in emotive terms, the chant was a cry of freedom from the enslavement of the Communist system”.

The choir of 34 young male and female undergraduates were all chosen by Layton who says that they have to be academic high flyers to get into Trinity College. Academic achievement overrules a stunning voice. Obviously there’s a difference in the sound of a mixed voice choir compared to a choir that consists of men and young boy choristers aged from seven to 13. “I wouldn’t say that the girls make a sound that’s particularly a big, blousy, soprano operatic sound – they don’t – they make a fairly young sound. It’s got perhaps a wider colour and a bit more vibrato generally. What’s interesting is the colossal amount of intellect and brain power on stage with these young undergraduates. The intellect of young boys can be very finely tuned but it’s not as developed. To get them to sing a program of Renaissance and Baltic music off pat is a much harder challenge than with older students.

The Baltic pieces are sung in Latin, written in this traditional language because their composers want their music to be sung in Australia and America and England. “If they write it in Lithuanian it’s not going to have a chance to be sung elsewhere in the world,” Layton explains.

Layton says the choir has just sung the piece by Paul Stanhope at a concert in Cambridge. “In the Lamentations Stanhope juxtaposes poetry from the Arab tradition with that from Israeli tradition in a very up to date take on the current situation. In the Book of Lamentations in the Bible there’s a cry about the problems in Israel thousands of years ago which William Byrd has set in his Civitas sancti tui which we’ll sing in Australia. In fact the choir initially found the Stanhope piece difficult to memorise and come to grips with, but because of that they worked hard on it and now it’s a piece that they very much look forward to performing,” he says.

“Paul Stanhope will be coming to our Australian rehearsals to work on the piece with us. There’s a mood of huge excitement among the choir members about the Australian trip. They’re committed to wanting to give the best they can in all this music because they sense there’s an audience out there that wants to come to hear them.”

Finally I press Layton to reveal his favourite choral work – and it’s back to Bach, to his Mass in B minor. “To me it has intellectual rigour, the Christian spirit and the humanity of the whole world. Bach had a vision of a world when none of us are quite here on earth.”

Janet Wilson