Profile: Alastair Ross, countertenor and choral director

Alastair is the Musical Director of The Choir Church Project and Alto Lay Clerk at Portsmouth Cathedral.

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

I was a chorister at York Minster from the age of 7 to 13, singing daily choral evensong – so choral singing is in my veins! James Bowman was my alto “pin-up” (who has recently passed away) inspiring me to grow in confidence as a performer. I also greatly admire composer and mentor Philip Moore, who directed the music at the Minster for 25 years.

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

To look after my voice – I’m a countertenor.

I’ve overcome my performance anxiety to some extent by getting involved in outreach, where I introduce people to choral singing. It allows me to empathise with those less confident in front of an audience/congregation and to nurture, drawing from my own experiences.

I found my first degree, in early countertenor performance at Trinity Laban, somewhat frustrating. I loved the performance aspect, less so written academia. Furthermore, a countertenor shouldn’t be marked on how they sing jazz! 

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

There’s a special pleasure in learning – that comes about when you’re around people who are different to you. It allows the group to strengthen as a collaborative, drawing on their greatest assets. 

As a composer, how would you describe your musical language?

A cappella. I really only write pieces for voice, very often for the higher voice registers of women and children, and usually with a Scottish influence (inherited from my mother and my own time in Aberdeen/Edinburgh). Many of my pieces are individual dedications for events such as marriages. One example is to be found on SoundCloud.

As a composer, how do you work? 

I find a text I like and write it up at the piano in one session.

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

Again, I love the Scottish influence in Sir James McMillan and Gabriel Jackson. McMillan’s A New Song is exquisite, full of “Scotch snaps”. And Philip Moore is in my opinion the greatest living writer of choral plainsong reimagined.

I spent many years singing under Philip Thorby’s baton at Trinity Laban Conservatoire, who demanded an authenticity of early music performance depending on the era in which the work was written. His knowledge was astonishing and stylistic performance became second nature. 

Which performances are you most proud of?

As a soloist singing in Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms at The International Arts Festival in Malta – a packed basilica with a huge Maltese chorus. It was very special.

Leading a children’s choir at half-time at Fratton Park (home of Portsmouth FC) in front of a crowd of 18,000 people. We performed an original football track, written by Mark and Helen Johnson from Out of The Ark Music in torrential rain! View it here on YouTube.

What are your most memorable experiences, either as a performer, composer or listener?

As a composer, hearing two of my compositions sung at York Minster.

As a performer, joining St Paul’s Cathedral Choir at St Paul’s Cathedral to sing Bach’s St John’s Passion. Such a great atmosphere: black cassocks by candlelight.

As a listener, Andreas Scholl with James Bowman – two “greats” – in the Usher Hall, Edinburgh.

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

Have another specialism: don’t make your career too narrow. I’ve been able to make the transition to pastoral/ teaching work, and it’s definitely given me a new lease of life.

How would you define success as a musician?

If you connect with people, and leave some positive impact on their lives, then, I’d call that success.

What would you like to be doing in 5 years’ time?

Directing a gifted group of singers in a fine place of worship.

I’m also interested in harnessing the exploding demand for singing that’s been encouraged by the National Schools Singing Programme. Hats off to the Hamish Ogston Foundation!


About Alastair

Alastair has sung with the choirs of Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Winchester, Guildford, Chichester and more, as well as holding positions at York Minster and Canterbury Cathedral. 

In 2018, Alastair relocated to Portsmouth to lead The Choir Church Project. The CCP Portsmouth is working to establish new Christian communities among local schools, and has established connections with local charities and Portsmouth FC. It’s an important part of the outreach from Portsmouth Cathedral, and a key component of it is building enthusiasm around sacred music. 

After 5 years with the Anglican Diocese of Portsmouth, Alastair is soon to take up a new outreach role with the Catholic Diocese of Portsmouth in the summer of 2023. Watch this space! 

If you’re into podcasts, search for ‘Magnifichat’ on your podcast provider. You’ll find a series that Alastair has created of in-depth interviews and choral music with 3 of the biggest names currently on the circuit, including Philip Moore. Further info at https://www.magnifichat.co.uk.

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