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Profile: Sachin Gunga, singer, choral director, organist, and teacher

06/03/2021

Who and/or what have been the most important influences on your musical career?

My parents were not musicians but always had music in their lives, and ensured immersion for my siblings and myself.

Peter Gould, then the Master of the Choristers at Derby Cathedral (and now retired to our area near Portsmouth) went round the schools looking for singing talent and that is how I managed to become a chorister there. I’d previously learnt the piano and violin but it was Tom Corfield, the assistant organist, who got me really interested in the organ: along with Peter, he was hugely influential and encouraging. Tom used to say, “the organ is not really an instrument; it’s a machine”, and showed me how to modulate its output by altering phrasing, length of notes, emphasis, tempo and sound.

Though I’m primarily now an instrumentalist, I still have a strong attachment to singing. The voice is a very personal instrument, and I believe music is expressed more sincerely when it is sung; the singer puts a little bit of themselves into the performance.

I studied Classics at Cambridge: I started to appreciate the bridge between language and music. My real love at this time was singing in the college and university choirs and playing in the orchestra, and after graduation I was able to stay on as the acting chapel organist for a year.

I then did a post-grad Master’s degree in Music at the Birmingham Conservatoire, under Henry Fairs. He did make sure I played the right notes, but was gently encouraging about interpretation.

I subsequently held organ scholarships at Truro Cathedral (under Chris Gray) and Wells Cathedral (under Matthew Owens), completing my ARCO diploma in 2011.

My first Assistant Organist position was at Llandaff Cathedral in Cardiff. Unfortunately I was made redundant after only a few months as it was suffering from financial issues, which made me question the stability of the job.

However I then spent ten months at Lincoln Cathedral as Acting Assistant Director of Music. This had a superb music department and a stunning organ. I much admired the improvising style of Colin Walsh, who used the harmonic influences of Langlais and Messiaen to great effect in the cathedral’s grand acoustic. Aric Prentice, Director of Music, was also a great inspiration.

What have been the greatest challenges of your musical career so far?

It’s been sometimes challenging to follow a professional music career without a music degree, but I benefited from spending two years studying at Birmingham, allowing additional time to improve my technique.

I’ve often been the accompanist for choirs, which to be effective especially with accomplished choirs needs a lot of communication with the MD: you need to be able to anticipate, and this is further complicated if you are sat up in the organ loft relying on a screen!

What for you are the particular pleasures and challenges of collaborating with other musicians?

The job relies on close collaboration, and is so varied. I have found myself arranging for close harmony (at Llandaff this was for the “Low Rangers” group), and at the other extreme arranging for choral scholars here at Portsmouth Cathedral.

As a teacher, it’s great to work with younger people, especially when there’s the rhythm of regular services. It’s satisfying to teach them something new, to get the notes and interpretation sorted.

The pandemic has made things difficult in this respect, but the Cathedral team has shown itself to be adaptable, using Zoom and recordings to enable me to hear the individual voices, and then pulling in the recordings together for use in services. I’ve also taken this approach with the St Richard Singers, and with my separate “Hoc Exsilium” project I’ve made 13 virtual recordings of choral pieces (and counting). Listen to the most recent Hoc Exsilium recording (Allegri’s Miserere).

Are there any composers with whom you feel a particular affinity?

As an organist, I love Baroque music, but also a lot of C20th English composers, such as Howells: his Requiem is a favourite, as it is unaccompanied and very moving, speaking about the loss of his son. It can be very effective in the right acoustic. I also admire Elgar and Vaughan-Williams, balanced by C20th French composers such as Langlais and Duruflé.

Which works do you think you perform best?

Those pieces which I can connect to most closely emotionally.

Which works or performances are you most proud of?

One example of a close emotional connection, while I was in Wakefield, was a Passiontide service in which I conducted movements from Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s St John Passion. I found this deeply moving, particularly the simple but heartfelt beauty of the Bach.

What advice would you give to those who are considering a career in music?

While music is something certainly to be enjoyed, be prepared to put in the time and effort!

How are you keeping yourself usefully occupied and sane in the pandemic?

I am busy with a lot of different projects, including virtual choir practices, which have gone much better than I had expected. I am grateful that I am able to continue to play at the Cathedral. However I am also really looking forward to a return to normal music-making with full choirs and no need for social distancing.

When this happens, I hope that our audiences and congregations will give us their full support.

Please come and support St Richard Singers in its Come & Sing Stainer’s Crucifixion, either as a singer or viewer.

Born in Derby, Sachin trained as a chorister in Derby Cathedral Choir and studied organ under Dr Tom Corfield. He read Classics at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, before going on to study for a Master’s degree at the Birmingham Conservatoire. He subsequently held organ scholarships at Truro Cathedral and Wells Cathedral, and assistantships at Llandaff, Lincoln (acting) and Wakefield Cathedrals.

Sachin has been Sub-Organist of Portsmouth Cathedral since January 2018, as well as School Organist of The Portsmouth Grammar School. In September 2019 he became Music Director of St Richard Singers in Chichester. In April 2020, he set up the Hoc Exsilium virtual choir project, an online initiative to give choral singers the opportunity to sing sacred works during lockdown.

Sachin lives in Portsmouth with his wife Hannah. He still enjoys singing, and maintains an interest in languages.

Here’s one of his organ solos on the Cathedral Facebook page (Bach’s O Mensch bewein’).

Author: Simon O'Hea with Sachin Gunga

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