Profile: Simon Grant, baritone, and the Boxgrove Choral Festival

Simon is singing in Rachmaninov’s Vespers and in Poulenc’s Mass in G at the Boxgrove Choral Festival 2023  on 2 and 3 September respectively.

What are you looking most forward to when performing at these concerts?

One of the great pleasures of being a freelance musician is forming friendships with colleagues: there’s something about the lifestyle that attracts like-minded sociable people. It’s always fun to look at an advance schedule and see who will be coming to a concert and who you’ll get to catch up with.

When Joseph Wicks set up The Beaufort Singers during my time at Cambridge, I suspect one of his aims was – and this is a very usual path I think for most groups – to bring together a great group of people and do great music. And with regards to the latter of those, we always tackle great repertoire with Joseph – the Poulenc Mass has a particularly special place in my heart as one of my absolute favourite settings. It will be a delight to revisit a challenging piece that is rarely done as it’s hard to put on without excellent forces, all whilst surrounded by wonderful folks.

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

I’d say one of my biggest influences as a musician was singing for Andrew Nethsingha almost every day for four years (until my tenure was rudely interrupted by Covid) at St John’s College Cambridge – I feel that I owe him a very great deal! An utterly consummate musician and director, Andrew was dedicated in enabling his singers to sing freely and with care about text and shape. He cultivated excellent musicianship in a very healthy way, and it was also there that I met fantastic colleagues, with whom and for whom I still sing today!

One of the funny links with St John’s is that the person who has taken over now from Andrew is Christopher Gray, another person of great influence to me from my time under him in Truro Cathedral during my gap year. He is another fantastic leader, and someone with confidence to challenge their singers with the new but suitable repertoire for them, who will do great things for that choir. I remember learning the Poulenc Mass in G with him down in Truro (one of the pieces in the Boxgrove Festival programme!), where it seemed like a big piece to tackle, but absolutely doable. I’m very grateful to him. 

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

Floating around as a London freelance singer can have a lot of particularly sticky challenges. One great thing about London is there’s a lot of work to go around, but you want to get the balance right between doing enough to make ends meet, and not oversubscribing yourself. And schedules often don’t line themselves up so you need to be firmly confident when asking the indulgence of administrators/organisers in allowing you to deviate from a travel plan, or even from not doing every bit of work in a particular patch. Pulling out of work can also be very daunting – it feels very selfish even when it’s the right thing for you to do for yourself as a young professional. And no one teaches you the rules of when you can and can’t, or perhaps should and shouldn’t is the better wording, nor the right way of going about things like offering to find a deputy for yourself or not. It can be very nebulous! But ultimately the nice thing is that a lot of the work is done for patient people who will understand if you give enough notice of your needs. 

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

I remember doing some recording sessions recently where the singers in the group weren’t particularly enamoured with the music we were recording (all shall remain nameless), but a pleasure of doing so was that we were able to quietly have a laugh about it. It’s one of those things – you’ve got to get on with the work at hand and do your best, but with good friends as colleagues, you can have a good gossip as well! But, of course, this can have a negative side if it gets out of hand and becomes at the expense of colleagues your own ranks the ranks. Everyone knows everyone in the small world of choral music! 

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

Two examples come to mind with this. The first is a living composer, James MacMillan. Firstly, I love a lot of his music – I think the Seven Last Words is a masterpiece. But one question I’m often asked – as someone who spends a lot of time in religious places singing spiritual music – is about my views or my own beliefs.

I won’t get into that here, but I remember an interview with MacMillan where he stated that the dissonance he puts into his music is almost representative with his own struggles with his faith, and vice versa for the consonance. Perhaps this is quite a reductive view of composition, but I like it as a jumping off point. I think the reason why I feel the Seven Last Words to be so brilliant is that they have so much expression of pain and fear and humanity, in what is so often such the simply joyous occasion of Easter. 

The second is with J. S. Bach, who is of course the best composer of all! I was never a good composer, and I don’t at all mean to say that I feel an affinity with that level of talent, only that I enjoy relating to him as someone of daily craft and dedication in his work for the church, writing monumental amounts of music regularly for different services. Having experienced a singing role where I sang seven services a week, that regularity can become a truly valuable part of your daily life – and I miss that structure at times now I don’t have a similar position. It helps that I love his music too – he also poured a huge amount of expression into much of his work, as with my first example, and I think sometimes liked to show off a bit – but what’s wrong with that? 

Which works do you think you perform best? Why?

Unsubtle music with big loud bits, because it’s fun and infantile. But also I love one-to-a-part polyphony, where you can take charge of your own lines, sing freely and enjoy the shapes. Enjoyment is key.

Which performances are you most proud of?

What I miss most about St John’s Cambridge daily evensongs are the psalms to Anglican chant. I’m sure lots of church musicians will say that these can be deadly dull (in fact I hated them as a boy chorister!), but not so with Andrew: they were very special. It’s really hard to convey why. There was so much focus on meaning and text – wonderful poetry encompassing vulnerability, desolation, joyfulness – and nuance even whilst singing to the same repeating pattern of chords (and perhaps especially because of this). We recorded a disc of psalms towards the end of my time there, and I’m sure that I’ll look back on it as probably the recording of which I’m most proud. 

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

As an impressionable teenager, I remember going to see Mahler 2 at a Prom after a week-long choral course where the ending had been played to us in an evening session. Of course, it has an incredible bit of choral stuff at the end – quiet and shimmering chords even though the chorus could be absolutely huge, before an awesome (underlining the word “awe”) climactic end. This was almost the perfect gateway to the world of orchestral music – I never played an orchestral instrument, and I still don’t know a lot of the repertoire. Since then, I’ve sung this piece, as well as Mahler’s 8th, which has a much greater use of choir, and Mahler remains one of my favourite composers – perhaps showing a link back to my comments about enjoying music with loud bits… 

It also took me ages to get into opera, as someone with a background of choral singing, which has a very different technical grounding. And then in my final year of university, I went to the Royal Opera House to watch La Bohème, and my jaw was on the floor for 2 hours. The power of these singers – Charles Castronovo and Sonya Yoncheva and many others – who had trained to be able to do such incredible technical work with their voices was a revelation. It’s still my favourite opera, but I decided to dedicate a lot of time to learning all about opera, and applied for a job at the ROH as an usher, to immerse myself in the world and see as much as I could. And I just sang my first role in an opera, at the wonderful Endellion Festival in Cornwall! 

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

This is a really hard question. It depends a lot on the type of career. I suppose I can only really advise on my path as a choral freelancer. It’s ups and downs as a freelancer: you get to do a lot of amazing things, and then it can be very tough and tiring (or indeed, tiresome).

If you love music (which really is step 1) and you want to do it as a career, I think sensible advice is that you need to be prepared to be versatile and train a whole menagerie of skills. Well-balanced social skills are key – be able to promote yourself without cringing too hard, but also don’t do it all the time. Try and say yes to things, but don’t burn out. And don’t piss people off. Musically, good sight-reading is a big help.

And with the versatility thing, it’s a good idea to have a side hustle that’s a bit more stable, especially for times of year where work gets more sparse – this could be musical or non-musical! I’m about to embark on a two year process of qualifying as a solicitor, and whilst this is a pretty heavy side hustle for the moment (I expect music will be the side hustle for the time being), I chose to do it because I wanted something very different to music in my life and I think at some point (perhaps in 5-10 years’ time) I’ll aim to strike the right balance between the two for me.

How would you define success as a musician?

Keeping the love for music strong. Do this however you need to: whether it’s by exploring other genres, not doing too much of it / avoiding the bad gigs, starting your own projects.
About Simon

Simon is a freelance baritone based in London who has often worked with professional groups such as Tenebrae, The Sixteen, Sansara, ORA, Recordare and the Gesualdo Six, and various church choirs including a regular position at St Clement Danes Church, the central church of the Royal Air Force. He was a choral scholar at St John’s Cambridge where he recorded multiple CD’s, broadcasted services, and toured Asia and Europe. Before that he was a choral scholar at Truro Cathedral.

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