Q & A: Harry Christophers On The White Light Festival & A Big Year for The Sixteen

By Francisco Salazar

On Nov. 7, the White Light Festival in Lincoln Center will present the U.S. premieres of James MacMillan’s widely acclaimed “Stabat Mater” and “Miserere” as part of the 10th anniversary of the festival. Harry Christophers, music director and founder of The Sixteen choir, will lead both works alongside the Britten Sinfonia ensemble.

It’s a big year for Christophers, who is celebrating the 40th anniversary of The Sixteen and is making his White Light Festival debut.

The conductor recently spoke with OperaWire about his collaborations with James MacMillan and the importance of this year’s season for his career.

OperaWire: Since this is your first time appearing in the White Light Festival, what aspects of the festival are you most excited about? Why is it important for The Sixteen to perform as part of the White Light Festival?

Harry Christophers: The sheer ethos of the White Light Festival makes it a perfect companion to The Sixteen. They aim to illuminate the many dimensions of our interior lives and we at The Sixteen aim always to explore the emotions of our listeners by bringing them into our sound world and communicating with them.

OW: You are celebrating your 40th anniversary with The Sixteen. How has the group grown over the years?

HC: It is hard for me to imagine that that fledgling group of singers I put together in May 1979 has developed into the ensemble it is today. The aim from the very start was that we loved the music of the renaissance and wanted to perform it. The fact that over the years people started coming to our concerts and enjoying them, together with our growing realization that we should be bringing our music to a wider public has spurred us on. We love what we do.

Over the years the repertoire has developed greatly: of course the grass roots of the renaissance is still very much there but when I formed my baroque orchestra in 1985 to complement the work of the choir we have made numerous forays into the work of Handel and Monteverdi in particular and have also developed a fine balance with work from the 20th and 21st centuries.

Forty years is quite some achievement in the arts and therefore what better way than to celebrate in NYC.

OW: Tell us about James MacMillan’s “Stabat Mater” and “Miserere?” What do these pieces mean to you?

HC: In 2001, for the first time in our history, The Sixteen commissioned a new liturgical work: it had always been my intention to do this but I was intent on ensuring that it would be a composition that survived the test of time. James MacMillan was the composer and the result was “O Bone Iesu,” and I have no doubt that in this work we found that lasting voice. Thus, started a long and fruitful relationship with James.

Eight years later, in August 2009, we gave the world premiere of his “Miserere.” When I received the score, I was overwhelmed to see that James had dedicated it to me. The work had been commissioned by the Flanders Festival and the concert was in Antwerp’s glorious Carolus-Borromeuskerk. Even though Allegri’s famous “Miserere” was in the same program, it was James’ rendition of Psalm 51, in the composer’s presence, that received a prolonged standing ovation.

Personally, I think that James ranks amongst a trio of truly great composers of sacred music, the other two being Tomás Luis de Victoria and Francis Poulenc. They have a common focus in their total commitment to the Catholic faith, but, for me, what makes them so exceptional is their intensely personal approach to the Scriptures. Of course, it is always said that penitential texts bring out the best in composers and, as with Victoria and Poulenc, that is true of MacMillan.

James’ vision in his sacred works is second to none just as John Studzinski’s vision in creating the Genesis Foundation is second to none. John and I have collaborated on numerous projects over the past 10 years: “Stabat mater,” amongst others, was commissioned by Genesis Foundation for The Sixteen. Every one of those projects has emanated from John’s devotion to the Catholic faith and his love of the wonderful poetry which encapsulates Christianity as well as his laudable mission to promote and nurture young talent.

Three years ago, we embraced the “Stabat Mater,” without doubt the most powerful poem of the liturgy and one which has inspired composers through the ages, yet in recent times it has seldom been set to music. The musical world has waited a long time for a substantial setting of the “Stabat Mater.” The last major renditions were the very personal and powerful settings of Karol Szymanowski in 1928 and Francis Poulenc in 1951.

Sixty years on and, at last, we are witness to a new and equally personal work which I have no doubt encapsulates the power of the poem.

OW: Are there similarities between the two pieces? What are their differences? And what are their biggest challenges?

HC: First and foremost the “Miserere” is unaccompanied. The “Stabat Mater” is scored for choir and string orchestra. Both display a unique choral sound world, stretching the singers’ virtuosity and stamina. James’ Celtic influences are ever prominent but his blend of counterpoint, silence and understanding of the text set him in an exalted position among composers of sacred music. Both works are totally draining in emotion to perform yet utterly captivating for the listener.

The “Stabat Mater” requires both singers and instrumentalists to be at the top of their game; every executant needs great stamina. James divides the 20-verse poem into four large movements, each of five stanzas, each with its own variety of emotional response, from noble lament through fury and shriek to contemplative devotion. Breath control, furious tremolos, driving rhythms off the beat abound and a sound world which at times doesn’t seem possible
with just the assembled artists on stage.

OW: How would you describe James MacMillan’s music for audiences who have never heard his work? Since you specialize in Renaissance music, what does studying MacMillan’s work add to your interpretation of repertoire from the Renaissance era? How does it enrich your music making?

HC: This is very difficult to answer; in one sense his music is very approachable but in the case of the “Stabat Mater” one could also say that it is no easy listen. Why should it be? In his own words, James speaks of a “painful world of loss, violence, and spiritual desolation”, and those are the intense feelings packed into his score which we as performers and you as the listener will experience. We are surprised at every corner; he takes us into extraordinarily varied directions with soaring violin solos, so evocative and ethereal, to savage, violent tutti string writing, to whispers in the choir followed by ravishing harmonies, austere plainsong motifs to stratospheric solos. But everything is weaved together into the ultimate experience.

OW: You’ll be performing the “Stabat Mater” with the Britten Sinfonia. Tell me about your collaboration with this organization?

HC: Our collaboration with the Britten Sinfonia on this project has been a marriage made in heaven – both groups have had long associations with James’ music and both give their all in bringing this score to life. They, like The Sixteen, are musicians who really listen to each other, support each other and, above all, communicate with their audience. For us experiences like this come, if we are lucky, perhaps once in a lifetime.

OW: Why did you decide these were the perfect pieces to perform at the White Light Festival?

HC: Quite frankly I wanted the audience to witness these extraordinary works performed by artists who are at one with James’ astonishing music. We have had the privilege of performing these works in major cities in England and Scotland as well as the incredible setting of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. Collectively, we feel very honored and humbled by James’ work and are very proud of our association with him over the last 20 years.

Wherever we go, be it in the UK, USA, Australia or Europe, and whenever one of his compositions is in the program, surrounded by other great composers, it is always James’ works that have had the greatest effect on the audience. That says it all.

OW: What do you hope audiences get from the performance?

HC: This will be the US premiere of the “Stabat Mater.” We are so excited to bring what we know to be a masterpiece – the premiere at London’s Barbican Hall in October 2016 and subsequent performances in the UK and Rome all received standing ovations.

James digs deep underneath the surface of this 13th -century Marian hymn meditating on Mary’s suffering as she stands at the foot of the cross. Mary’s grief is so recognizable today to thousands of parents across the world especially in country’s ravaged by war and the consequent sadness and pain of refugees. This masterpiece makes us all think again.


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