In 2015, after two years of giving concerts in Hampshire, Oxford and London, we decided to enter the London International A Cappella Choir Competition (LIACCC), then in its second year. Hosted by The Tallis Scholars and their director Peter Phillips at St John’s Smith Square, the competition was a real turning point for the group. I was keen to manage the expectations of the choir in order to reduce any pressure that could easily have built up as the competition progressed: and perhaps because of this we were able to perform without inhibition and be as true to ourselves as possible. For each stage we put together mini programmes, pieces that worked with the rubric of the competition but also told a story. In our heat, we performed Rudolf Mauersberger’s shattering Wie liegt die Stadt so wüst, a beautiful movement from Gabriel Jackson’s Requiem called Peace, my heart, and Nicolas Gombert’s epic Lugebat David Absalon. Our performances took us through to the final the following day.
We were up against The Epiphoni Consort and The Gesualdo Six, who both gave brilliant performances before us. For our final programme we sang William Byrd’s Laudibus in sanctis, Gabriel Jackson’s Our ags are wafting in hope and grief and the traditional Norwegian song Gjendines bådnlåt, before ending with Howells’ Take him, earth, for cherishing. We were praised for our versatility of sound in approaching a broad range of repertoire, and particularly for affecting the mood in the room and creating a tangible atmosphere. It is this feedback that has stuck with me the most, and it is this atmosphere that the group always strives to create. SANSARA won first prize and, perhaps more importantly, the Audience Prize, as voted for by the audiences from across the competition. Needless to say, we were delighted.
Several of the pieces we performed at LIACCC made it onto our debut recording, Cloths of Heaven, which was produced in summer 2016 and released in February 2017 by Convivium Records (this was reviewed in CM 2/17). The disc is essentially a concert programme, moving from darkness to light and framed by the opening and closing texts of the requiem mass, beginning with Manuel Cardoso’s stunning Introitus to his six-part requiem setting and ending with James MacMillan’sLux aeterna. The recording also features works by our two associate composers, Oliver Tarney and Marco Galvani, as well as previously unrecorded pieces by Malcolm Archer, Gabriel Jackson and Cheryl Frances-Hoad.
We recorded the disc in June 2016 in the wonderful chapel of Merton College Oxford, where I had just finished my undergraduate degree in Music. The process was another transformative one for the group, and the disc has since received high praise for ‘Perfect intonation and clean, pure sound’ (Observer) and ‘Breathtaking interpretations’ (Choir & Organ). The disc has been aired on BBC Radio 3’s The Choir, Breakfast and Essential Classics.
In the last two years we have performed in several UK festivals, including the Temple Winter Festival, Winchester Festival, London A Cappella Festival, and a special performance of Arvo Pärt’s music at St John’s Smith Square with the composer present. I had the immense privilege of meeting him and his wife after the concert and was humbled to hear how much they had enjoyed our performances of his music, particularly the incredible Virgencita, which is now one of our favourite pieces. One of the most striking things Pärt said was that the choir had ‘heart’. To hear this from the world’s most- performed living composer was amazing, and encouraged us to push the group forward into our next chapter.
Last year, we went on tour for the rst time and took a programme including Virgencita to northern Spain, performing four concerts as part of the Tolosa International Choral Festival. The concerts included music in English, music in Spanish and music in Basque; we have never been afraid of mixing in uences in our music-making. It was also fantastic to spend time with each other as a group – the eight days together in a beautiful hotel in the Basque mountains really helped strengthen some of the friendships that we have developed through being part of the choir, and we are looking forward to travelling together in the future.
As we move into our fifth year as an ensemble, we have had to take stock and ask ourselves the big questions that have been on our minds for some time: what are we? What do we hope to achieve? In endeavouring to answer these questions I have drawn on our experiences over the last few years to try to distil what it is about SANSARA that is distinct, and why it is something that we should continue to develop and nurture.
Since its inception, the group has had no single director or conductor. This is relatively new territory for a chamber choir, which is traditionally the voice of a single artistic vision, fronted by a single individual. Whilst clear direction is often necessary, particularly from a practical perspective (in rehearsal for example), we have developed a collaborative approach to music-making which encourages individual expression within the framework of a collective artistic focus. The result is a highly engaging – and engaged – group of professional musicians working together to get to the essence of the music we perform: our interpretation of its core truth and message.
Thinking about the music and approaching it in this way enables the group to communicate to its audiences with openness and transparency. As a collective body of voices, a choir is a living, breathing instrument with unparalleled expressive potential. SANSARA realises this through direct and honest music-making, always striving to conjure compelling atmospheres, and communicating with clarity and vivid integrity. With these elements in mind, our work is always rst and foremost about the music, whether it be from Tudor England or composed yesterday.
Now, in 2018, we’ve embarked on our rst large-scale project,Music of the Spires: a six-concert series in Oxford featuring works from the city’s unique library collections. For this year, we are focusing on the Forrest-Heyther partbooks held in the Bodleian library and six of the festal masses, with three by John Taverner and three by Robert Fayrfax. While most choral enthusiasts are familiar with the music of William Byrd, Thomas Tallis and their contemporaries, the music of the previous generation is much more rarely performed. We were keen to put together a set of concerts that would explore this remarkable repertoire and celebrate it in venues across the city.
The masses of Taverner and Fayrfax are astonishing compositional achievements and present immense challenges to the choir. The text is often set to be sung incredibly slowly, with long phrases dedicated to a single vowel. The music requires careful attention to unanimity of vowel colour and blend; it is music that employs the full potential of the human voice as an expressive instrument, without the emphasis on clarity of text that came later, in the music of Tallis, Byrd and their contemporaries. Moving between duets, trios and full sections, this repertoire is full of variety and has been a revelation to explore so far.
Although the project is primarily a focus on music from Tudor England, each concert features new music, to provide a contrast to the early repertoire. We have set pieces by our associate composers, Oliver Tarney and Marco Galvani, among others, against the backdrop of England’s unique musical inheritance. Bringing the two soundworlds together is always an exciting process, in rehearsal and in performance equally, as both old and new musics echo and re ect each other, often in unexpected ways. In the opening concert of the series, for example, Galvani’s Ave Sanctissima Maria was paired with Robert Parsons’ glorious Ave Maria. We tried to make these two devotional prayers to the Virgin speak to each other, through a shared poignancy and clarity of expressive gesture.
We hope to continue Music of the Spires into 2019 and beyond, with the aim of performing this wonderful repertoire in some of the country’s cathedrals and abbeys, as well as in the chapels and churches of Oxford. Other future projects include educational work, recording, and further collaborations with other ensembles and composers. With everything we do, we return to the guiding principle that music matters and has tangible – if often ambiguous – meaning, that is as relevant today as it has ever been.