Acclaimed vocal ensemble The Sixteen has announced a series of online choral programmes, each of which has been filmed at a special location and features founder/conductor Harry Christophers in conversation with actor Sir Simon Russell Beale.
A Choral Odyssey will be shown across the next five Wednesdays and will treat viewers to choral repertoire that reflects the musical, political and social history of the venue in which it was filmed.
“We wanted to do something special, and I’ve chosen five venues where the music relates to that venue in some way or other,” explains Harry Christophers, who founded The Sixteen 41 years ago, just after graduating from Magdalen College, Oxford.
“We managed to persuade Simon Russell Beale to be the presenter, so in each concert Simon sets the scene, we do a few demonstrations of the pieces we’re talking about in those programmes, and then we perform those pieces in their entirety.
“So in each 50-minute programme there’s about 25 minutes of performance, and it works really well.
“I think the loveliest thing about this series is that each programme is much more than just a streamed concert – it really is a programme full of interest for everybody. Not only is there historical interest, people also get to see hidden treasures they don’t normally get to see.”
The tour kicks off this Wednesday at Magdalen College, Harry’s alma mater, where the group that later evolved into The Sixteen first performed.
The programme will explore the music of composers Richard Davy and John Sheppard, both of whom held the post of Informator Choristarum at Magdalen during the 15th and 16th centuries respectively.
The choir will perform Davy’s O Domine caeli terraeque creator and Sheppard’s Libera nos, both of which were written at Magdalen.
“It’s my old college anyway, so it’s very special to me, and we are performing these pieces in the very chapel where they were first performed,” says Harry.
“It was an amazing feeling for the singers to be there, doing this music five and six centuries later. It was incredible.”
From Oxford, the tour goes on to the church of Our Lady of the Assumption and St Gregory in Soho for a programme focusing on the music of Spanish Renaissance composer Francisco Guerrero.
“Guerrero’s music would have been heard in England when Philip of Spain came over to marry Mary Tudor,” Harry explains. “It was introduced to English musicians and indeed the English congregation at various services at the time.
“We found this lovely church in Warwick Street, on the edge of Soho, and it has the most beautiful mosaic of the Virgin Mary above the high altar. Guerrero’s music is very much connected to the Virgin Mary, so it just seemed to fit.”
The third stop on the tour is the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe, where music by Purcell will be performed in candlelight.
From there the tour moves on to Hatfield House in Hertfordshire, the childhood residence of Elizabeth I. The programme features the interesting pairing of Tudor composer William Byrd and the 20th century Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, whose shared suffering of persecution unites them across four centuries.
“Byrd was a Catholic writing at that time in Protestant England, so he was constantly in fear of his life, but I think Elizabeth had a bit of a soft spot for him,” says Harry.
“We’ve compared his music to music by Pärt, who lived through Russian occupation, so there are similarities. They both went through political and religious adversity.
The final stop is Penshurst Place in Kent, where the focus is on the medieval carol and how it has inspired modern composers such as Britten, Walton and McDowall.
An unusual inclusion in the programme is Green Grows the Holly, a rare surviving carol written by Henry VIII, who used Penshurst as a hunting lodge for much of his reign.
Harry explains: “The only thing that survives from the carol is Henry’s chorus. It’s a very soft, very lyrical carol, really quite sublime, but sadly the verses for it are lost. Whether they were sung to a popular tune at the time we don’t know.
“Cecilia McDowall wrote the verses for us, so it’s got a nice blend of old and new.”
Finally, on 23rd December, is a Christmas concert to be livestreamed from Cadogan Hall, with a mix of music old and new, from Palestrina and Byrd to Will Todd, Jonathan Dove and Cecilia McDowall.
For Harry, making A Choral Odyssey has been both joyful and emotional.
“During this period of lockdown it’s been an incredible thing to do. The amazing thing is that each film has been done in a day, because we couldn’t afford to go into major production over this, but the quality is fantastic and a tribute to everybody, the crew, the singers and the players, who just loved every minute.
“We all had to sing 1.5m away from each other, 2m between rows, which presented logistical problems, but everybody was so keen to sing and play together and be with each other, so in a matter of seconds those difficulties were over and we all had the most amazing time.
“One thing that comes across for me is the family nature of the group, the lack of any egos. I think it really shows what The Sixteen means to us and to a lot of people.
“Another wonderful thing this year has been the staff in all the places we’ve been to. They’ve been so helpful and appreciative of us being there. It makes me a bit teary, actually, because I think it shows human nature at its very best.”
Harry is now looking optimistically ahead to 2021, when he hopes the Choral Pilgrimage tour intended for 2020 can finally get going, possibly from April or May.
For now, though, he and The Sixteen are looking forward to sharing A Choral Odyssey with their audiences.
“We’re very excited about it!” he laughs. “We just hope loads and loads of people will sign up for it. It’s ridiculously good value – five programmes, £50 for the whole cycle. It is quality stuff, having the group singing live performances and being in those venues and that wonderful acting voice of Simon Russell Beale – what more do you want?!
“I keep watching these films over and over, and I’m still enjoying them!”
A Choral Odyssey runs from November 18th – December 16th, with the livestreamed Christmas Concert from Cadogan Hall on December 23rd.
Book at 0207 936 3420. For details visit https://thesixteen.com/a-choral-odyssey/