An Interview with Stephen Layton and the Choir of Trinity College Cambridge
When you walk into the chapel of Trinity College Cambridge, you find yourself face to face with some of the greatest figures in UK history. Statues of the college’s most famous alumni stand near the entrance, among them Sir Isaac Newton and Alfred, Lord Tennyson; and the cool marble and warm wood of the chapel creates a glowing ambience in which the institution’s internationally celebrated choir rehearses and performs the music of composers such as William Byrd, Thomas Tallis and Henry Purcell – and many more.
If Trinity’s past is top-notch, so is the present. State-of-the-art technology now makes it possible for the choir to webcast its performances live online; and its recordings, too, are made here, allowing the choir to be heard in commercial releases that capture the purity and richness of its sound and the atmosphere of its home enviornment.
The choir’s director, Stephen Layton, has an unrivalled reputation among conductors from the British choral tradition; indeed, you quickly realise that when he says that this music gives him “a reason to live”, he is not exaggerating. Born into modest circumstances on a council estate, Layton became a chorister at Winchester Cathedral as a young boy; later he won a full music scholarship to the famous Eton College and thence became organ scholar at King’s College, Cambridge.
“Choirs like those in Oxford or Cambridge colleges and in cathedrals are singing, on a daily basis, music that’s been written over 5-600 years: music that’s always been there and is always happening,” Layton says. “It can’t be preserved just by manuscripts, it’s got to be preserved by performances.”
Relatively unusually, Trinity College’s choir of 30-odd students and young choristers includes girls as well as boys; and the selection of new students to join the ensemble depends, Layton says, on their mental agility, their commitment and their willingness to learn.
“I am looking for people who are quick-witted and sparky – and that doesn’t necessarily correlate to having a fabulous voice,” he says. “They might have a decent or average voice; there will always be some who have great voices, and you need that. But this is about teamwork. If you were to have a choir of Pavarottis, for instance, you’d have a terrible choir! I’m looking for interesting characters who will come together to make interesting music. It’s their interest and their imagination that’s the primary thing.”
Touring Australia with an ensemble of 30 young people might sound like a logistical challenge, but Layton’s enthusiasm proves that there is plenty to thrill them. “For some, it will be the first time that they’ve gone that far away from home. And I think for people from the UK there’s definitely a sense of wonder and excitement about travelling to that part of the world, certainly for a young person going for the first time. It doesn’t get much better than staring out from Circular Quay into Sydney Harbour.
“I enjoy going to Australia because I love sharing British choral music with audiences and I want to advocate the music that’s come from this country,” he adds. “It’s an extraordinary thing to walk onto the stage of a big Australian concert hall in front of 2,500 people and sing Tallis and Byrd. That’s what I live for, and in a way the further away and more different the place is, the more exciting it becomes.” He adds: “There are also some extremely good Chardonnays from the Margaret River area!”
The choir’s eclectic programme extends from the great Renaissance works of Byrd and Tallis through Purcell, Elgar and Herbert Howells to the substantial Mass by Frank Martin, which forms a centrepiece; then there are contemporary works by such luminaries as Arvo Pärt, Ēriks Ešenvalds, Einojuhani Rautavaara and Eric Whitacre, a specially commissioned piece by the Australian composer Joe Twist, and one by Trinity College’s young organ scholar, Owain Park, who, remarkably, already has a publishing contract with Chester Novello.
The programmes, Layton says, aim “to draw together the old and the new – and to confuse the boundaries between them. I find that a fascinating journey. That is why we begin with the music of Pärt; he’s a very interesting figure whose approach combines elements of old and new. I believe that in 100 years time we’ll look back at Pärt and see that he was actually a father figure for a certain soundworld that has lived on and that people will want to hear forever. It’s very appropriate that he should kick off a programme celebrating the fusion between what we’ve had, what we’re having now and, indeed, what lies ahead.”
The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge tour Australia 17 July – 4 August. For more information, and to book your tickets, please visit: www.musicaviva.com.au/trinity