Profile: Jeremy Backhouse, conductor – leading the 2023 Petersfield Musical Festival open choral workshop

Jeremy will be directing the 2023 Petersfield Musical Festival open choral workshop, featuring the Bob Chilcott Songbook, on 23 September 2023 in Petersfield.

What are you looking most forward to when directing this workshop?

In these kinds of workshops I’m always keen to take the singers well beyond simply learning the notes towards sharing my views on the music and communicating its emotion. I hope it will be a balance of hard work and fun music-making!

So, I very much hope to be able to build rapport with the singers, engage on a personal level and thereby get the best out of them.

Why might the Bob Chilcott Songbook have special appeal for singers?

I’ve commissioned works from Bob on a couple of occasions so I know he is a fantastic composer, who achieves wonderful effects in a simple way.

The Songbook contains works he’s written over many years: nine classic Chilcott songs including original pieces and arrangements of original material.

The movements are varied: some are fast and others slow. Some are spirited, others are reflective. Some are folk songs from the four Nations, others are songs containing Native American and Japanese texts. One reviewer says, “apart from anything, the pieces are well crafted and fun to sing, and you may find some new Chilcott gems here you otherwise may have missed.”

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

My mother was the organist and choral master in our local church, and my father sang in her choir. My elder brother introduced me to new forms of music from a young age.

I began my musical career in Canterbury Cathedral where I was Senior Chorister. Allan Wicks was organist and master of the choristers there during my time. He was a truly inspirational teacher and conductor, and one who championed contemporary music, such as by Messiaen, Maxwell Davies, Tippett and Leighton.

After completing a music degree at Liverpool, I moved to London and joined the London Symphony Chorus, which brought out the fascination for conducting I’d had from an early age. I saw how conductors such as Claudio Abbado were able to communicate effectively in gestures, in facial expressions and in the eyes.

I’ve pursued a freelance conducting career for many years, and have been the sole conductor of Vasari Singers, the internationally-renowned chamber choir, since its inception in 1980.

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

From a musical perspective, one of the biggest challenges was conducting the “Symphony of a Thousand”, Symphony No. 8 by Mahler, one of the largest-scale choral works in the repertoire, with the Vivace Chorus and the RPO in the Royal Albert Hall. Any pre-concert nerves were calmed by the time I reached the podium, though: I knew that this was where I was supposed to be and what I should be doing with my life.

The biggest most recent challenge has been getting through Covid and ensuring all my choirs kept engaged during the lockdown period.

I found inventive ways to keep people together musically, including getting singers to accompany backing tracks and discussing the pieces performed online. It was so wonderful when we finally all came together again, and in some instances, I was pleasantly surprised at how good the singing still was despite it all.

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

I am a deeply collaborative musician. Rather than instructing those in front of me, I prefer to try to guide, encourage and cajole – and of course engage with them on both a personal and musical level. So, more like democratic teamwork rather than a teacher/pupil relationship.

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

I’ve got very wide musical tastes and don’t admire composers from any specific era. I love Bach and Mozart; Mahler and Richard Strauss bring out my interest in Romantic music; Ravel my interest in early C20th French music.

I’m especially keen on contemporary choral music, and in the name of my two principal choirs have commissioned and premièred more than 30 works (examples here), including pieces by Chilcott, Todd and L’Estrange, hopefully creating classics for the future. I love the often-dissonant tones of MacMillan, someone who really writes from the soul.

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

The award of the prestigious Sainsbury’s Choir of the Year competition in 1988 provided the Vasari Singers with a springboard towards greater things, and was a huge achievement.

I’ve been Music Director of the Vivace Chorus since 1995 and we’ve performed some ambitious programmes including Howells’ Hymnus Paradisi and Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater, Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony (No. 2), Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible, then Mahler’s ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ (No. 8) and Verdi’s Requiem.

As an audience member, Claudio Abbado has filled many memorable moments:

the silence at the end of a particularly moving performance of Mahler 9 where time seemed to stop. And I have had many great experiences where Janet Baker (I’m a huge fan!) has performed.

I’ve got many great memories of when the early music scene exploded in the 1980s. One such event was the countertenor Michael Chance singing the Agnus Dei in the Bach B Minor Mass along with the Monteverdi Choir under John Eliot Gardner.

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

You need a powerful “call” to follow a career in music and be thoroughly convinced that it what you’re destined to do! It’s tough: you need a balance of skills besides innate talent: you need self-confidence, and excellent networking skills. But you also need a fair dose of luck!

How would you define success as a musician?

I’d define this – from the perspective of a conductor – as being when you are able to get your musicians “beyond” the notes, allowing the music to speak for itself.

Again from my own perspective, I am keen to avoid the music from becoming sterile and over-pure. I prefer a performance that might be slightly less polished yet which gets to the soul of the music.

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

Doing a bit less. I have a plan in place to reduce my various permanent conducting jobs, although still staying involved with those choirs in some less formal way. I will then be looking to expand my ad-hoc workshop and guest conducting opportunities, so continuing to conduct for a while yet! I’m not sure conductors ever truly retire, do they?!

In the meantime, come and hear the Vasari Singers perform the Rachmaninov Vespers at 7pm on Saturday 14 October at St Paul’s, Knightsbridge.

About Jeremy

Jeremy Backhouse is one of Britain’s leading choral conductors. He conducts the 140-strong Vivace Chorus, Guildford, and the Vasari Singers, recognised as one of the finest chamber choirs in the country (visit its YouTube channel). Recent recordings with the Vasari Singers include the Vaughan Williams Five Mystical Songs with Roderick Williams, who also appears on their new CD of Christmas fun and festive carols, due for release in October.

Jeremy champions contemporary choral music and has worked closely with Bob Chilcott, Roxanna Panufnik, Gabriel Jackson, Will Todd and many others. Jeremy has also worked with a number of the country’s leading choirs, including the BBC Singers, the London Symphony Chorus, the Philharmonia Chorus, the London Choral Society and the Brighton Festival Chorus. Read more.

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