Profile: Peter Gambie, conductor

Who have been the main influencers on your decision to pursue a career in music?

My father was an enthusiastic if flawed tenor and my mother was an accomplished pianist who won scholarships to the Royal Academy of Music and Royal School of Needlework. She chose the latter.

Mike English, my music and organ teacher and choirmaster, was my mentor. I recall him showing me the score of Spem in Alium at the age of nine. It was nearly as tall as me and immediately went on my bucket list. He introduced me to conducting Tudor church music from the age of fourteen. He gave me my first professional engagements as a countertenor, performing the standard repertoire of Purcell.

In more recent years, I’ve been delighted to come full circle by engaging Mike’s son Jon who is a very fine professional tenor.

With his encouragement I applied to and got a place at Dartington College of Arts. I studied composing under the dominating figure of Helen Glatz, who was a disciple of Gustav Holst. My principal studies were composing and choral conducting. My sitar tutor, Ustad Imrat Khan, had a profound influence on me, introducing me to the philosophy and poetry of Rabindranath Tagore, as well as the aural challenge of Indian music, which has 22 divisions in each octave.

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

I’d like to recount two completely different concert experiences as conductor.

The last time I conducted St Matthew Passion with the Southampton Choral Society (SCS) and players from the BSO and the Royal Phil, the Evangelist suddenly became unavailable one week before the concert. His deputy then pulled out just 18 hours before the concert, leaving me scrambling through the night for a replacement. I did find a substitute for him but I was exhausted by the time of the concert.

I have always been fascinated by JS Bach’s B Minor Mass. It’s a vast work which encompasses the human spirit, communicating hope and faith, and transcends all cultures. It may be something to do with maturity and understanding the human condition – but the last time I conducted it (in 2007) was perhaps the first time I fully understood it.

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

There’s often a titanic struggle between a conductor and soloists, which is not always completely resolved. Mood, style and ornamentation don’t appear to be problematic, but tempi are often an issue. It can be quite difficult to make the transition from the rehearsal, where the conductor calls the shots, to the performance, where the conductor has to follow the soloist.

I love working with the mezzo-soprano Diana Moore: she has the rare combination of a very pure voice with the ability to always wanting to listen and learn. We worked together on a Verdi Requiem where we were able to produce a quite different interpretation after I’d asked her to view it as an opera, rather than as a sacred piece.

And I love working with amateur groups such as the Renaissance Choir, which I’ve described as a “marriage made in heaven”. Our close relationship means that the choir responds willingly to me and we achieve an excellent output as a result. Empathy is key.

How would you describe your musical language?

I would describe it as “heartfelt”. I aim to communicate the composer’s original intent through extensive research. Knowing music “from the inside” means that you have to understand the composer as a person and then communicate that to your audience.

How do you work?

Industriously. I am busy around 3 hours a day, 365 days a year: I’ve already mentioned my interest in researching the repertoire. Besides that, I will be investigating new music, working out novel programming and so on.

Which performances are you most proud of?

During its week-long tour to Rome and the city of Palestrina in 2016, the Renaissance Choir both visited Palestrina’s house and sang in Palestrina Cathedral.

Going to Palestrina’s house was an enormous privilege – it felt a bit like a pilgrimage – and standing in his living room, singing his music, was a truly magical moment. The manager of the museum was clearly very moved.

I believe that the choir’s later performance in the exquisitely beautiful and acoustically perfect Palestrina cathedral was simply the best concert it has ever given. We received a standing ovation from the entire audience, which included members of the elite Palestrina Federation. It was wonderful to have visited the cathedral which the great man oversaw the design from an acoustic perspective.

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

I have a love of many works by Victoria, Palestrina, Tallis, Byrd and Lassus, derived from my early days singing in my church choir, as well as Mozart, Poulenc and Stockhausen. The interest in Stockhausen derives from my studies at Dartington, which possessed a studio filled with superb synthesisers where I composed a lot of experimental music.

Which works do you think you perform best? Why?

Obviously, renaissance music.

But Poulenc’s eccentricity appeals to me. His appeal derives from the fact that he is emotionally contradictory with himself: his frequent bi-tonality (writing in two keys at the same time) might suggest that he is unsure of his religious faith. He is always a challenge and a joy to perform.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I can recall going to my first opera, The Marriage of Figaro, at the age of 12, with Tito Gobbi, Joan Carlyle and Geraint Evans. I recall the huge genius in Mstislav Rostropovich as he gave the world premiere of Lutoslawski’s cello concerto. Also while at Dartington I remember sitting at the feet of Ustad Imrat Khan, as he played sitar in the dark.

My worst concert experience was when I was performing Mozart’s Laudate Dominum with the SCS with Dame Emma Kirkby. In the first movement I realised I’d taken the wrong score with me to the podium. Instead of trying to conduct the work for another 40 minutes from memory, I stopped the orchestra, walked off and grabbed the score. It was highly embarrassing but Dame Emma was very gracious about it.

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

I have taught hundreds of students, but to my knowledge only three of them have actually made it as professional musicians. Don’t embark on this career unless you are really sure!

How would you define success as a musician?

In my opinion, if a musician is happy, they are successful, and I have been blessed with a great deal of happiness. Unfortunately, this is not a given, as some musicians become unhappy and injured.

Susan Yarnall Monks’ daily singing videos

Do go and have a look at these short videos, which choir member and singing teacher Susan Yarnall Monks produces every day. She’s got a huge range of skills, and contributes greatly in rehearsals, yet she is very humble about herself.

Peter Gambie studied music at Dartington College and Reading University. In the 1970s, Dartington was a unique mixture of hippy culture and fans of Renaissance music, so Peter learnt to be a conductor as well as a sitar player. He also spent many hours in an electronic music studio, much to the despair of his singing and violin tutors.

His early career was a mix of teaching in schools in Hampshire and composing weird-sounding electronic music, some of which was performed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall (often to audiences of less than ten people). Radio 3 also broadcasted Peter’s compositions but it is not known whether anyone listened.

Realising that electronic music wasn’t catching on, Peter focussed on teaching, establishing a method of music education which became a model for secondary schools across the county and beyond (until successive governments decided that music in schools was a luxury). But he was still searching for something…. until he became The Renaissance Choir’s conductor in 1992, which has provided him with some of his richest musical experiences.

“A marriage made in heaven” is his summary, describing the many wonderful moments they share in their quest for musical perfection. The choir seeks professional standards and understanding, constantly challenging themselves with music of increasing complexity. Empathy between conductor and choir is central to high-quality performances: both parties are fortunate that this quality is developed to an advanced degree. Even a twitched eyebrow brings the appropriate response.

Peter is also proud of his long association with Southampton Choral Society. His nine years on the podium have included performing with Dame Emma Kirkby; scooping a £10,000 Community Arts Award from the BBC which resulted in the commission of a major work about slavery; and performances of the standard classical repertoire for orchestra and large chorus, including an original version of Orff’s Carmina Burana involving video images, Bach’s B minor mass and St Matthew Passion, Mozart’s Requiem and many more.

Peter and his wife, Mary, are the busy and proud grandparents of nine grandchildren.

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