Our Director of Music, Alex Patterson, shares his thoughts on our recent concert of Spem in Alium / Dixit Dominus
Photo credit: Ian R Marshall
Ellie Martin, Youth Choir Director, sat down with Alex Patterson to discuss the success of our recent Spem in Alium / Dixit Dominus concert on Saturday 2 March. Here is the interview transcript.
Why did you decide to do this concert programme?
The past two years, we’ve done a major work around the end of February / beginning of March time. As well as being very popular and successful with audiences, they work quite well for the choir; people seem to enjoy working on a big piece of music. But how do you top the Monteverdi Vespers and Bach’s Mass in B Minor? Spem in Alium by Tallis was the most obvious choice as it was a very different piece which could also be performed in an interesting way using the space in the Cathedral. Another good reason for doing Spem was that it needs lots of people, so it was a good opportunity for us to go back to our former scholars and cathedral choir members to see if they were interested in coming back to join us. It was also great to open the opportunity up to some of our older youth choir members, some of whom have been singing in mass with the Cathedral Choir regularly for a while now, and some of whom are fairly new to the Cathedral Choir experience.
Once we had settled on doing Spem as the climax of our first half, we had to figure out what to do alongside it. I didn’t want to do another piece in 40 parts as I’ve heard this done before and found it detracted a lot from Spem as a piece. I decided that we’d have some other music by Tallis, which we sing quite frequently at the Cathedral, but instead do it one per part. The Cathedral being ordered the way it is, if you’re sitting in the Nave watching a concert, you can only really see half the building, so having choirs singing from the Lady Chapel and from the Blessed Sacrament Chapel could potentially result in people being intrigued enough to have a wander down there. I was really happy to see people walking round the East End of the Cathedral during the interval, perhaps experiencing that part of the building for the first time.
You started the concert with plainsong. What was your thinking behind this?
Well, once I’d settled on doing Tallis, and thinking that the first half would showcase some more of Tallis’ music, I wanted to have a bit of a palette cleanser and go completely the opposite way of doing something in 40 parts, and just revert it down to one melody. I’m quite a passionate advocate of promoting female composers as well as music that generally isn’t as well-known as it probably should be, so I wanted to include some of the music of Hildegard of Bingen. It almost became like taking people on a journey, doing two pieces by Hildegard where it was just one melody, through to the full 40 parts of Spem. Her music has such a different colour and texture, particularly as we did it with just upper voices with a held pedal note (long note held underneath) in the altos, or with everyone in unison, which I thought would give a nice contrast to Tallis and all the English music.
And the plainsong is something you do every week at the Cathedral as well, so was that another reason to showcase it?
Yes, the style of it is quite up our street really, but what I love about the Hildegard is that it is quite different from the plainsong we normally do and the range can be quite extreme. It was the translation of O virtus sapientiae which really sparked my imagination, as it pre-empted how I saw the shape and spirituality of the first half:
O strength of Wisdom who, circling, circled,
enclosing all in one lifegiving path,
three wings you have:
one soars to the heights,
one distils its essence upon the earth,
and the third is everywhere.
Praise to you, as is fitting,
It was also important to have the strings perform just before we performed Spem, and the Chacony by Purcell (who was Tallis’ successor at the Chapel Royal) was perfect in setting the tone. It also ended in G, which is the starting note for Spem.
So lots of thinking behind the programme?
Yes, definitely. But it all goes beyond the programme of music too. I really wanted to tie it all in with the Cathedral’s 175th Anniversary this year too. It was clear that this would be a great opportunity to launch the celebrations and would also highlight the gems of the Cathedral, like the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, which still retains the original Pugin decoration. With the 1st March being Pugin’s birthday, it was nice to align our performance to the closest Saturday to it – 2nd March. The publicity is also Pugin-inspired - the ceiling of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, with its yellow stars on a blue sky, was a starting point for the flyer, which had yellow text on a blue sky background.
Tell us about Spem in Alium as a piece – why is it special?
It’s just quite a remarkable piece of Renaissance polyphony and a piece that I think begs a live performance. You need to be in the space with the performers. There’s a lot of ebb and flow, a real tug-of-war for the listener’s ear with some different antiphonal effects where the choirs are in constant dialogue with each other, but critically, he reserves all 40 parts singing together for key moments - the first one isn’t until bar 40. Later on in the piece there are also moments where he gives a beat’s rest for the entire choir before they’re all in again at the same time, but just for a few beats of the music. It’s exhilarating and full of such variety of emotion. There are times when the music is very still and so tender, but times where it’s incredibly syncopated and there are so many rhythmic ideas happening at the same time. It’s constantly changing and you just enter this different sound world – it’s got this magical quality, almost like you are swimming underwater.
Tell us a bit more about why you decided to do it with the eight choirs standing around the Cathedral, rather than just having everyone at the front in a traditional set-up. That will have affected how you heard the piece, depending on where you were sitting, so what was the thought process behind that?
One of the downsides we have at the Cathedral is that the nave is actually quite small, resulting in quite limited seating. You might end up stuck behind a pillar or in the side aisles without a good view. One of the things I wanted to make sure we did was to make sure that the people in the side aisles were close to something in the concert, which is another reason why we did different motets around the cathedral, in the chapels and behind the altar. We knew that it was going to be a sell-out concert, so we wanted the 100 people sitting in the transepts to be able to have a unique view of the choir.
Spem is one of those pieces that, as a conductor it’s quite an amazing experience conducting it, because you feel everything, all the choirs pulling against each other or handing musical ideas over to each other. To be in the middle of that is something quite special, so to be able to share that with other members of the audience was a really lovely experience. I wanted them to feel part of it, almost participating in it, despite not singing it.
So you mentioned people coming back to sing in Spem. How did you go about getting at least 40 singers on board?
We’re in regular contact with our alumni due to some of the long-standing friendships that have developed, so there are people who do regularly come back and sing. It was about trying to piece everything together in a spreadsheet and figure out where the blanks were. As well as the alumni, we also brought on board some friends of the choir who sing with other choirs in the city.
Why do you think people were so keen to take part?
For some people, I think it was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I know quite a few singers wanted to do it because they’d never done Spem before. I think the reputation of the Cathedral Choir has also grown quite considerably over recent years and given its wonderful acoustic, the opportunity to sing in the Cathedral is really appealing for a lot of singers.
Let’s talk about Dixit Dominus. You worked with the Helix Ensemble for this piece. Can you tell me about the group and your experience working with them?
We worked with the Helix Ensemble for the first time in the B Minor Mass concert last year, and they seemed to really enjoy it. They seemed to get a lot out of working with us as a Cathedral Choir and some of the players who joined us for Tobias and the Angel last June were still buzzing about the Bach. For this concert I wanted to make sure that we did a piece where they could come back and be a part of it, which is why we included Handel’s Dixit Dominus. They are a wonderful group of people to work with. There’s no sense of snobbishness or elitism with that group, it’s just about music and trying to make the music as good as possible whilst also being supportive of each other and enjoying themselves. It was great to be joined once again by John Keys (Director of Music at St Mary’s Church, in the Lace Market) on the chamber organ. We’ve worked with him quite a lot and maintain a very positive relationship with St Mary’s, which goes back to my predecessor Neil Page.
What was the thinking behind having step-out soloists from the choir for Dixit, rather than bringing soloists in like for the Bach?
Well one of the key things about the Cathedral Choir is that it’s a developing choir and we want to give our singers platforms and opportunities for them to develop as musicians. With the nature of Dixit Dominus, I thought it would be good to offer those solos to members of the choir who were singing in the concert. I was really blown away by the dedication to learning the music and wanting to work on the music before the concert to get it completely right and to do it justice. I think it’s quite nice that it’s not about ‘I’m the soloist’…there’s no ego there and we’re all working towards the same goal. I think that’s quite a nice thing and it seemed to work well with the piece because the number of solo arias is quite small.
The concert was a sell-out with lots of people buying tickets on the door for seats with no view of the choir. Why do you think people were willing to buy a ticket even though they wouldn’t necessarily see the performers?
I know just from anecdotal feedback that we had before and after the concert, that people wanted to hear Spem in Alium live, so that was quite a huge draw. I do think the reputation of the Cathedral Choir has grown quite considerably and that people thought, ‘Oh, the Cathedral Choir are doing something, let’s go and support that because it’ll be good’. I’ve seen that with a lot of the events we’ve done over the past year, like with the Cabaret, which is something completely different. But people seem to sort of trust the Cathedral Choir brand now, and know that they’re going to be in for a good evening of music, whether it be jazz and barbershop, Carols by Candlelight, which was also very busy, or this concert.
What was the biggest challenge about the whole concert?
Definitely getting Spem together. As we had people coming from all over the UK to sing in it, we couldn’t have a proper rehearsal with all 40 parts until the evening before the concert so it was quite unknown as to how it might come together, never mind whether it would work with the choirs spread around the Cathedral.
So you weren’t sure if that layout you wanted would work until you actually rehearsed it the night before the concert?
I had no idea. We had a Plan B, which I was reluctant to do, but luckily we didn’t need it!
What were the highlights of the concert for you?
The response to Spem was incredible. The applause went on for quite a long time. You could see that people were visibly moved, and then they gave us a standing ovation. It was overwhelming really, when you think, actually yeah that was something quite special. You could sense, from where I was anyway, that people were transported and were having a very rich experience, be that spiritual, musical, religious…there was a lot going on, and it reminded me why I do live music, and why I enjoy working with choirs in that building.
I was also very proud of the soloists in Dixit, particularly with some of the soloists who had come on quite a long journey in the 3-4 weeks beforehand in developing their performances and then knocking it out the park in the concert. That was really great.
The concert as a whole seemed to have quite a profound impact on people in a variety of ways. It reminded me that what we do as a Cathedral Choir is actually quite important and reaches way beyond the 11.15 Mass.
So what would you like to do next?
That would be telling! I don’t want to fall into the trap of what a lot of other choirs do and just keep doing the same standard repertoire. I’m always trying to think of new ways to do things, so if we’re going to do a standard piece of music, can we do it in a new way or can we present it in such a way that it’s giving opportunities to other people. We’ve built up some great relationships over the past few years, most notably the Nottingham Music Hub, so perhaps we can develop opportunities for young players to sit side by side with the adults, replicating what we already do with our singers in the Youth Choir. We’re in regular contact with them about how we can develop projects for the future and create further opportunities for children and young people, regardless of background, and I see our concerts playing a big role here.
Do you think that you wanting to do things in a new and interesting way, or involving other organisations, comes from your experience working for the Arts Council, or do you think it’s a more personal thing?
I think it’s always been a personal thing. I’ve always felt like an outsider when it comes to classical music, because I came to classical music via film music, which I know is frown upon by some people. I’m just passionate about music, be that film music, plainsong, Benjamin Britten, 80s pop, whatever, and I love working with people to try and make music with them, regardless of background of training. I think it’s very easy to be bogged down in the way things ‘should’ be – be that the actual music theory or the sort of social construct of concerts, which I’m quite keen to break. For me, the music is not what’s on the page but what happens in the room between people.
What are the best things about being Director of Music at Nottingham Cathedral?
To be able to work with such a wide range of people and to see how they develop over time, and to see them go off and do a varied range of things and come back to sing with us. It’s about the people. That’s at the heart of what I want to do. The set-up that we’ve got here provides a nurturing environment for people to develop as musicians and grow in confidence, and I like that we can do that whilst maintaining quite a high standard of music-making so that Masses are well served musically.