I Saw Eternity – (Conductor Interview) by Expressive Audio

An interview by Saskia Egeland-Jensen (Fanfare) with the conductor Adam Whitmore.

19th June 2024

I Saw Eternity – (Conductor Interview) by Expressive Audio

An interview by Saskia Egeland-Jensen (Fanfare) with the conductor Adam Whitmore.

19th June 2024

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In this interview, Saskia Egeland-Jensen speaks to Adam Whitmore, the Artistic Director of the Phoenix Consort, who started the ensemble alongside his Modern Languages degree at Durham University and also conducts the Durham University Chamber Choir. Read on to find out more about the Phoenix Consort, including why Adam founded it, what the group’s aims are and their current exciting project.

For anyone who hasn’t heard of the Phoenix Consort, what is it and why did you start it?

The Phoenix Consort are a freelance ensemble comprised of current and former students of Durham University. I founded the group with the aim of bringing friends together to sing in a safe environment during the pandemic. We sing music ranging from early renaissance music right through to contemporary compositions from all around the world.

What are your main motivations and passions as an ensemble?

Our main motivations are to display as professional a musical output as possible, combining our various musical backgrounds to allow us to sing the music we love, from contemporary compositions back five centuries to European early polyphony. Alongside musical endeavours, we are hoping to increase the influence of choral music around the North East and among younger generations as a whole, showing it to be a sociable hobby, as well as artistically rewarding.

Why do you think it is so important to share the influence of choral music with young people?

With the changing policies and focuses in schools, choral music is not as often sung in schools, decreasing so much of the genre’s introduction to today’s youth. Not only this, but we would like to show that despite the ever-changing musical trends of today, there is still beauty and consistency to be found in the compositions from hundreds of years ago, which gave root to the singing we hear on the radio now.

Why would you encourage other young people to join a similar ensemble if they have the opportunity?

The community aspect of choral music is the most important thing, not to mention that there is a choir almost everywhere for such a variation of experiences and abilities. It’s an art form that can so easily transgress the characteristics of a pastime, skill and even profession, all while musically fulfilling all those involved. There are so many skills to be learned and friends to be made by starting at quite literally any age.

The ensemble recently made its international debut performing at the 54th Tolosa Choral Contest in Spain. What was the experience of preparing for and performing at this competition like?

Preparing was extremely challenging, but rewarding, for this competition. It was a step up from our usual polished concert preparation, in that we had a magnifying glass over every chord and entry, striving for absolute perfection, knowing that we’d be being judged throughout. That said, after a long week of performing in a different city most days, we officially placed 3rd in both of our categories, marking one of the biggest musical achievements of our careers. 

What are some of the other most enjoyable performance experiences the ensemble has had?

Of course, our latest tour of the Basque Country in Spain was such a highlight, rounded off with achieving our prizes at the Choral Contest. The audiences were so appreciative that every concert filled us with this great sense of pride and energy. In the past, we also recorded Allegri’s Miserere, which involved many of our friends from university as well as the consort’s ‘core’ singers, which was a great day of filming/recording and our first leap into more professional recordings.

What venues does the ensemble aspire to perform in one day?

As an early music buff, I would have to say Wigmore Hall personally. Although for the spectacle, I’d love to sing in the Sainte-Chapelle in France.

What are some of the ensemble’s favourite works to perform?

Our two most fond areas of music to perform are usually the early European compositions, like Alonso Lobo and William Byrd, but also modern compositions; on our recent tour, one of our favourite pieces to perform was Eleanor Daley’s ‘grandmother moon’, with it’s dissonant harmonies making it so rewarding to perform no matter the style of the acoustic.

How does being in an ensemble help you stay motivated and enjoy performing music?

I think the motivation comes from this idea that when you sing with only one, two or even just a small number of people on your part, it then becomes your own and you take ownership of every phrase, every entry and all which the part contains. It’s the feeling of risk but also knowing that whatever you choose to express musically will be heard in any performance and recording, giving every concert something different and special.

What wider benefits does being in an ensemble bring to your life outside of music?

For me, the ensemble has opened up a whole host of different avenues. For example, through managing the group, I’ve had to learn about website building, email marketing, graphic design and so many other skills, not to mention the organisational aspects themselves. One of our altos, Ella, for example, has taken up a lot of the social media and design aspects of our work, which only adds another skill which helps the group in its own way.

The ensemble is currently crowdfunding to support the cost of recording its first album. What music are you hoping to record for this album?

The album will be composed of calming choral music by Alexander Campkin, inspired by his own journey throughout his life. The concept is that of a journey from darkness into light, drawing on personal difficulties and the ups and downs which we all experience in our lives. The emotional aspects of the music matches the soaring soprano lines, combined with some powerful compositional devices evoking the turmoil one faces when encountered with personal distress.

Where did the inspiration for working with Alexander Campkin come from?

A few years ago, we sang one of Alexander’s pieces, The Crimson Sun, which then led me to get in touch more recently; the discussion evolved from one about programming some more of Alexander’s music into the devising of a plan to take his music, some of which is not recorded, to as high a level as possible and make it our debut recording and first step into the commercial album sphere.

What is so special about the pieces you will be recording?

Making the debut recording for any piece feels like a privilege and there are many of those on the album, allowing us to put our own stamp and become the group that makes the composition heard, not just imagined. As well as this, some of the commissions on the albums, such as ‘Bright Apollo’ were written for groups such as Apollo5 whom we aspire to from both an ensemble but also musical standpoint.

How does it feel to be working towards recording the ensemble’s first ever choral album?

It’s a huge step forwards for us, but it has given us a great opportunity to expand our network of singers and give people in Durham the opportunity to be a part of something more permanent than they would normally be able. The transition from preparing things for concert to the perfection required for a recording has been a challenge but a great opportunity to gain this session experience which is often so hard to come by for younger musicians and singers at the start of their careers.

How will having recorded an album help the ensemble to progress?

The album will be our first commercial project, involving proper publishing and we’re hoping it will widen our scope as an ensemble. Not only is the session experience a great thing for us to have, but also the fact that we will have something permanent to share and put our names to, upon which we can create more programmes and launch more projects. The album will allow us to reach audiences outside of our geographical confines and not necessarily through our normal social media routes.

What are some challenges that most people might not be aware of when it comes to recording an album?

Not only does recording and publishing an album come at significant cost, especially for an ensemble of our size and age, but also the time committed to ensuring the music is as polished as it needs to be to create as close to perfect a recording as possible. The project has involved a lot of juggling, from venue hire, consulting professional engineers and producers, marketing, funding, making it about more than just singing the notes. That said, it’s been one of the most rewarding challenges we’ve faced so far as an ensemble.

How can people support the ensemble’s recording project in addition to donating via your Crowdfunder page?

As well as donating on the Crowdfunder, anyone can help by sharing our latest posts on social media, including the posts about the project so far. With every person that shares one of our posts, it opens up the possibility for extra listeners to the album, viewers of our website and YouTube and overall more support, which allows us to continue singing. We appreciate any and all support across all platforms.

Where can people follow the ensemble to see updates about the recording project and hear more from you?

We are online (www.phoenixconsort.com), but also on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, on which you can message our accounts. Alternatively you can reach the ensemble via email: info.phoenixconsort@gmail.com to find out more about what we do and the recording project.

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In this interview, Saskia Egeland-Jensen speaks to Adam Whitmore, the Artistic Director of the Phoenix Consort, who started the ensemble alongside his Modern Languages degree at Durham University and also conducts the Durham University Chamber Choir. Read on to find out more about the Phoenix Consort, including why Adam founded it, what the group’s aims are and their current exciting project.

For anyone who hasn’t heard of the Phoenix Consort, what is it and why did you start it?

The Phoenix Consort are a freelance ensemble comprised of current and former students of Durham University. I founded the group with the aim of bringing friends together to sing in a safe environment during the pandemic. We sing music ranging from early renaissance music right through to contemporary compositions from all around the world.

What are your main motivations and passions as an ensemble?

Our main motivations are to display as professional a musical output as possible, combining our various musical backgrounds to allow us to sing the music we love, from contemporary compositions back five centuries to European early polyphony. Alongside musical endeavours, we are hoping to increase the influence of choral music around the North East and among younger generations as a whole, showing it to be a sociable hobby, as well as artistically rewarding.

Why do you think it is so important to share the influence of choral music with young people?

With the changing policies and focuses in schools, choral music is not as often sung in schools, decreasing so much of the genre’s introduction to today’s youth. Not only this, but we would like to show that despite the ever-changing musical trends of today, there is still beauty and consistency to be found in the compositions from hundreds of years ago, which gave root to the singing we hear on the radio now.

Why would you encourage other young people to join a similar ensemble if they have the opportunity?

The community aspect of choral music is the most important thing, not to mention that there is a choir almost everywhere for such a variation of experiences and abilities. It’s an art form that can so easily transgress the characteristics of a pastime, skill and even profession, all while musically fulfilling all those involved. There are so many skills to be learned and friends to be made by starting at quite literally any age.

The ensemble recently made its international debut performing at the 54th Tolosa Choral Contest in Spain. What was the experience of preparing for and performing at this competition like?

Preparing was extremely challenging, but rewarding, for this competition. It was a step up from our usual polished concert preparation, in that we had a magnifying glass over every chord and entry, striving for absolute perfection, knowing that we’d be being judged throughout. That said, after a long week of performing in a different city most days, we officially placed 3rd in both of our categories, marking one of the biggest musical achievements of our careers. 

What are some of the other most enjoyable performance experiences the ensemble has had?

Of course, our latest tour of the Basque Country in Spain was such a highlight, rounded off with achieving our prizes at the Choral Contest. The audiences were so appreciative that every concert filled us with this great sense of pride and energy. In the past, we also recorded Allegri’s Miserere, which involved many of our friends from university as well as the consort’s ‘core’ singers, which was a great day of filming/recording and our first leap into more professional recordings.

What venues does the ensemble aspire to perform in one day?

As an early music buff, I would have to say Wigmore Hall personally. Although for the spectacle, I’d love to sing in the Sainte-Chapelle in France.

What are some of the ensemble’s favourite works to perform?

Our two most fond areas of music to perform are usually the early European compositions, like Alonso Lobo and William Byrd, but also modern compositions; on our recent tour, one of our favourite pieces to perform was Eleanor Daley’s ‘grandmother moon’, with it’s dissonant harmonies making it so rewarding to perform no matter the style of the acoustic.

How does being in an ensemble help you stay motivated and enjoy performing music?

I think the motivation comes from this idea that when you sing with only one, two or even just a small number of people on your part, it then becomes your own and you take ownership of every phrase, every entry and all which the part contains. It’s the feeling of risk but also knowing that whatever you choose to express musically will be heard in any performance and recording, giving every concert something different and special.

What wider benefits does being in an ensemble bring to your life outside of music?

For me, the ensemble has opened up a whole host of different avenues. For example, through managing the group, I’ve had to learn about website building, email marketing, graphic design and so many other skills, not to mention the organisational aspects themselves. One of our altos, Ella, for example, has taken up a lot of the social media and design aspects of our work, which only adds another skill which helps the group in its own way.

The ensemble is currently crowdfunding to support the cost of recording its first album. What music are you hoping to record for this album?

The album will be composed of calming choral music by Alexander Campkin, inspired by his own journey throughout his life. The concept is that of a journey from darkness into light, drawing on personal difficulties and the ups and downs which we all experience in our lives. The emotional aspects of the music matches the soaring soprano lines, combined with some powerful compositional devices evoking the turmoil one faces when encountered with personal distress.

Where did the inspiration for working with Alexander Campkin come from?

A few years ago, we sang one of Alexander’s pieces, The Crimson Sun, which then led me to get in touch more recently; the discussion evolved from one about programming some more of Alexander’s music into the devising of a plan to take his music, some of which is not recorded, to as high a level as possible and make it our debut recording and first step into the commercial album sphere.

What is so special about the pieces you will be recording?

Making the debut recording for any piece feels like a privilege and there are many of those on the album, allowing us to put our own stamp and become the group that makes the composition heard, not just imagined. As well as this, some of the commissions on the albums, such as ‘Bright Apollo’ were written for groups such as Apollo5 whom we aspire to from both an ensemble but also musical standpoint.

How does it feel to be working towards recording the ensemble’s first ever choral album?

It’s a huge step forwards for us, but it has given us a great opportunity to expand our network of singers and give people in Durham the opportunity to be a part of something more permanent than they would normally be able. The transition from preparing things for concert to the perfection required for a recording has been a challenge but a great opportunity to gain this session experience which is often so hard to come by for younger musicians and singers at the start of their careers.

How will having recorded an album help the ensemble to progress?

The album will be our first commercial project, involving proper publishing and we’re hoping it will widen our scope as an ensemble. Not only is the session experience a great thing for us to have, but also the fact that we will have something permanent to share and put our names to, upon which we can create more programmes and launch more projects. The album will allow us to reach audiences outside of our geographical confines and not necessarily through our normal social media routes.

What are some challenges that most people might not be aware of when it comes to recording an album?

Not only does recording and publishing an album come at significant cost, especially for an ensemble of our size and age, but also the time committed to ensuring the music is as polished as it needs to be to create as close to perfect a recording as possible. The project has involved a lot of juggling, from venue hire, consulting professional engineers and producers, marketing, funding, making it about more than just singing the notes. That said, it’s been one of the most rewarding challenges we’ve faced so far as an ensemble.

How can people support the ensemble’s recording project in addition to donating via your Crowdfunder page?

As well as donating on the Crowdfunder, anyone can help by sharing our latest posts on social media, including the posts about the project so far. With every person that shares one of our posts, it opens up the possibility for extra listeners to the album, viewers of our website and YouTube and overall more support, which allows us to continue singing. We appreciate any and all support across all platforms.

Where can people follow the ensemble to see updates about the recording project and hear more from you?

We are online (www.phoenixconsort.com), but also on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, on which you can message our accounts. Alternatively you can reach the ensemble via email: info.phoenixconsort@gmail.com to find out more about what we do and the recording project.

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