In conversation with… Chris Watson, musical director of Melbourne’s Trinity Choir

By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)

Recently I had the chance to speak to Chris Watson, musical director of Trinity Choir at Trinity College, Melbourne University. Chris is an accomplished singer originally from England, who has had a long career singing with renowned chamber groups such as Tenebrae and the Tallis Singers. Trinity Choir is a mixed voice college choir modeled on similar ensembles from Cambridge and Oxford. I was particularly interested in asking Chris how choirs steeped in history such as Trinity are bringing their music making into the 21st century.

Trinity’s latest CD Land of Dreams was named Limelight Magazine’s Recording of the Month for October 2019. You can read the review here

In January 2020, the choir will be embarking on an American tour, in collaboration with a number of American college choirs.

If you are intrigued by what you read below, auditions are now open for Trinity’s 2020 season (starting in March). In order to be eligible you must be studying at a university in Melbourne. Choral scholars receive an annual stipend of $4500, and participate in two rehearsals and two services a week. You can find out more about the program here and apply for an audition here

You’ve been musical director for Trinity Choir since 2017, after previously being based in the UK. Do you find that traditional church choirs like Trinity are viewed in a different way in Australia than in the UK?  

One of my biggest challenges is recruiting, and fighting against the perception that singing in choirs isn’t good for you. Trying to encourage people to see it as an important pathway, not necessarily into the musical world, but into any connection with the arts, through the experience you get as a performer. Trinity Choir has some quite illustrious alumni, Siobhan Stagg being the most famous.

One thing that I’ve noticed, I get told off occasionally for sounding critical and I don’t mean to, is that there isn’t a tradition so much here of sight reading. And all the core ensemble skills that are required to do the kind of stuff that we do.

I find people sometimes talk about choirs in the way they wouldn’t talk about string quartet, for example. You wouldn’t find a violinist saying things about small string ensembles that some singing teachers say about choirs. So that’s been a bit of a fight.

It’s interesting to note that in the world which I’ve come from, if you’re an undergraduate at university, singing in the college choir like Trinity, you wouldn’t be studying music. You might be studying music as an academic subject, but you wouldn’t be studying voice at a Conservatorium until postgrad. Whereas here, you’re doing both at the same time at the age of eighteen. So a lot of them get knackered! And that’s one of the differences I’ve started to notice.

What would you say to someone who doesn’t know as much about these college choirs and how they work? What do they offer in terms of a program for young singers?

The reason these choirs exist is to provide the backdrop to worship in a college chapel. They’re modeled on the Oxford and Cambridge model, where the choirs accompany the church services. The more famous ones still have regular services.

A by-product of providing the backdrop for services is that we get through a huge amount of music. We do two services a week, all together that’s about twelve different pieces of music a week, on two rehearsals. So you have to hit the ground running! It means you might not necessarily refine things as well as you would if you were doing a concert.

Our concert programs tend to be sacred music, and when I’m programming the services my primary purpose is to find something that’s liturgically appropriate or features a text from one of the bible readings. But I’ll also have a mind towards the concert program for that year. We tend to do two Masses a year… This year we sang the Vaughan Williams Mass in G Minor.

Next year I’m going to program Hubert Parry’s Songs of Farewell. There are six of them so you can put them down as anthems. When we learned Ross Edwards Mass of Dreaming for the Land of Dreams CD this year, we learned it gradually movement by movement. We performed little bits of it in services and gradually put it all together. We also did the Aro Pärt Passio this year.

We tend to do an international tour every two years. And in the off year, we do a domestic trip and try to do concerts locally as well.

Are the local concerts organised by the college or by you as the leader of the choir?

I organise the additional concerts. We also get invitations occasionally. We were invited to sing at the Peninsula Summer Music Festival this year. But when the directorship of a choir changes, it takes a little while for the reputation to build back up again.

Next year we have a couple of joint concerts planned, one with a choir from Sydney. We also have plans to work together with the Conservatorium and do some performances with the baroque string ensembles. We’re singing with Eric Whitacre when he comes to Monash University, and we’re doing another collaboration with The Song Company. And potentially we have an exciting recording project in the works…

Because of our commitment to singing the church services, and because the students are obviously studying, there’s a limit to how much we can fit into a year’s season.

What are your thoughts on the criticism I’ve often heard from singing teachers, that singing in choirs like Trinity which demand quite a lot of your time, can be harmful to your developing vocal technique as a soloist. (I’ve always taken that with a grain of salt, you obviously don’t want to burn out with too much on your plate, but surely as long as you are singing with your support switched on and not mindlessly draining yourself, choirs can be fantastic)

I would counter, that choirs like Trinity provide an unparalleled music education for eighteen year olds, and as long as they’re being encouraged to sing healthily… I certainly encourage my singers to sing healthily, I know that a lot of organist conductors don’t do that. I’m not one of those, I’m a singer conductor.

After a few years of working on your musicianship skills, you can go on to study voice if you want to be a solo singer. I would put it that way round. And that extends to me, I mean the fact that I am fifty and my voice is still healthy, after singing in the Tallis Scholars for twenty years, proves it’s quite possible to do both. You can sing healthily.

In terms of what I ask the choristers: I try never to use the word blend. I think a choir should be a sum of its parts. I think an engaging sound comes from everyone singing properly. If one person is singing three times as loud as everyone, it’s not going to work! But I ask, particularly the sopranos and altos, to match volume and vowel sound.

I recently heard one of the singers say, ‘I don’t think I can be in Trinity next year as my solo voice is becoming too big.’ And I didn’t say anything at first, but about three weeks later I said, ‘Come on, there’s no such thing as a ‘solo’ voice and an ‘ensemble’ voice’. I mean, that’s not entirely true, but certainly in the context of these young developing voices. I just want them to sing!

I’m not going to force the choir to make a sound that they cannot make. I don’t want them to feel like they have to hold back.

You mentioned that you are recruiting for next year?

Yes we are, for starting in March 2020. We’re particularly interested in hearing from sopranos! And on the topic of auditions, and what I said earlier about sight-singing in Australia- it’s no one’s fault, it’s that students haven’t been taught. It’s to do with how you’ve grown up and the pressures you’re under, and the kind of repertoire you’ve sung.

But I would argue that the benefits to the brain have become quite clear in studies. There are so many reports about the benefits of reading music, particularly about sight reading. I don’t there’s an excuse for not doing it! You wouldn’t teach a language without teaching reading, and music is a language.

In terms of auditions and sight-singing music, I don’t expect people to get it right the first time. I’m looking for someone who can notice where they went wrong, and to get it right by the third time. I supply all the music for auditions in advance, so it’s up to them if they want to spend a bit of time learning it.

The flipside of being a singer who relies totally on their sight-singing skills, is the interpretation of the music is at risk of being more shallow. But it does mean that when you have a tight time-frame in rehearsals, you can jump straight into the music making and not spend time learning the notes.

So how much freedom do you have in choosing repertoire?

I have complete freedom in choosing pieces, but obviously there are certain parameters. Selection is mostly determined by the text. I would actually call myself a bit of a liturgy geek! Some texts can be sung everyday and some are seasonal, like Lent. Once I know what text we need, I also look at difficulty of the pieces. So if there’s a really tricky piece, I also try to program some simpler ones.

Do you enjoy finding repertoire that isn’t as commonly performed?

I like a little bit of everything! I try to commission new works every year. In 2017 we commissioned a piece from David Bednall, who is an English composer in the Howells/ Walton tradition. His piece was as if Kenneth Leighton, Herbert Howells and William Walton came to Australia and had a love child…

Trinity Chapel exterior. Photo credit: Stella Joseph-Jarecki

Last year I commissioned Alice Chance, a young composer based in Sydney. Dan Riley is a member of the choir who also writes a lot of music for us. This year we commissioned Brooke Shelley, she’s also based in Sydney. Next year we’re commissioning an American composer to tie in with the American tour. In 2021 we will be performing a piece by Sarah Thompson. And in the meantime, anyone who wants to send me a piece, we’re always looking to perform new works!

I don’t want to sound evangelical, but as a recent immigrant, I really like being in Australia and I think it’s important that we promote Australian music. Every CD I’ve done with Trinity has featured contemporary Australian music alongside other music. I want to program contemporary Australian music against the best music of other genres.

I hate the word vision, but what would you love to see Trinity choir do in the next few years?

One of the sticking points is the fact that we are a church choir. People don’t want to go to church anymore. It’s trying to persuade people to come to this particular liturgy, which just involves sitting quietly for half an hour with their eyes closed listening to beautiful worlds and music. A kind of meditation, really.  That’s not to downplay the religious side of it, but I think you can get what you want out of it.

A lot of people avoid it because they think they won’t get anything from it. But I think these liturgies have a lot to offer everyone. They’re increasingly popular in the UK, some people describe it as a sort of ‘mind yoga’. I know a lot of atheists who go to Evansong!

Stained glass windows in Trinity College interior. Photo credit: Stella Joseph-Jarecki

Stephen Hough is a pianist who wrote a lovely short article about Evensong, about how it how it affects him… [I have copied Stephen Hough’s paragraph below]

“Evensong hangs on the wall of English life like an old, familiar cloak passed through the generations. Rich with prayer and scripture, it is nevertheless totally non-threatening. It is a service into which all can stumble without censure—a rambling old house where everyone can find some corner to sit and think, to listen with half-attention, trailing a few absent-minded fingers of faith or doubt in its passing stream. Most religious celebrations gather us around a table of some sort. They hand us a book, or a plate, or speak a word of demanding response. They want to ‘touch’ us. Choral Evensong is a liturgical expression of Christ’s Nolle me tangere – ‘Do not touch me. I have not yet ascended to my Father’ (St. John 20:17). It reminds us that thresholds can be powerful places of contemplation; and that leaving someone alone with their thoughts is not always denying them hospitality or welcome.”

One of the things I would love, is for people to see what we do as an approachable thing that anyone can come and access. The chapel’s open. We are there for the community, but we are there for everyone. No one’s going to try and convert you! It can be a friendly place. I mean, you can leave thinking ‘God is doesn’t exist, but that was a nice tune and those words were quite pretty!’

And the other thing I think is just to encourage the idea that high-quality choral singing is a good thing. And idea that sight singing and all the skills required are actually valuable skills, not just for music making but for language skills, mathematics, any of those things…

It would be lovely if there was a bit more rigorous discipline in music learning. Particularly, if people could start taking choirs more seriously, and stop thinking that it’s just something that failed soloists are doing. Not to dismiss them as being damaging to the voice. They can be a fantastic, healthy musical environment for young singers!

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