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BBC Singers interview

Roundhouse Radio interviewed Margaret Cameron, alto in the BBC Singers who will be performing as part of Voices Now, a day showcasing some of the UK’s best choirs following the huge success of the first Voices Now Festival at the Roundhouse in March 2011, which saw over 2,000 singers perform at the venue.

Read the interview below or listen here

So, tell people what the BBC Singers is about, because it may not be obvious!
MC: The BBC singers is a radio choir. We are a full-time, professional ensemble. We work for the BBC and we produce programmes for Radio 3. We do either a concert or a studio recording every week depending on what the needs of the Radio 3 network are.

Quite interesting to hear that you’re full-time. You basically go to work to sing, which sounds quite fun actually.
MC: Yes it is fun, we do everything, the whole repertoire, from very early to new commissions. A few weeks ago we were up in Scotland with the BBC Scottish Orchestra, doing the first Scottish performance of James Macmillan’s A Gospel According to St. John, which was an amazing performance to be involved in.

Brilliant. Now, explain how things work in a vocal ensemble – obviously, you’re an alto? What other bits do we have that make up the BBC Singers?
MC: We have the sopranos, on the top line, we have the basses on the bottom, and in the middle doing all the lovely harmony stuff, you’ve got the altos (the lower female voices) and the tenors (the higher male voices).

Now I was reading on the BBC Singers website that people can apply. What kind of variety of experience have you got within the BBC Singers? What are people’s backgrounds? Are you all singers by nature, who have worked their way towards this?
MC: They’re all classical singers, and there’s probably many pathways to a full-time job with the BBC singers, but most of us have been to university or to music college and studied our instrument, the voice, to a very very high standard.

It sounds beautiful, some of the stuff you’ve done. You’ve worked with a variety of composers and conductors. We were talking earlier about Gabriel Jackson, who’s your current associate composer. Do you think it’s important to keep changing your conductors and the people that compose for you regularly? I know that some people think its quite important to change things around so that things sound fresh, whereas others say stick with someone that knows your sound. What’s your opionion, and what do you think the BBC Singers prefer?
MC: I think both are true in balance. It’s good to have continuity. It’s good to be in a full-time choir because we get used to singing with each other and we know how we work together. It’s good to have a conductor for a period of time, someone that you get used to and who gets to know you and that you can work with. But it’s also very important to stay fresh. So it’s good as well, after a period of maybe a few years, that we move on and we work with another conductor or another composer starts writing for us. So I think both are true, it’s good to have some continuity and it’s good also to have change. And although we have a chief conductor and an associate composer, we work with a lot of conductors and a lot of composers.

There are some period instruments that feature in some of your pieces. As a BBC Singer, do you have much input into the final sound of the piece or are you very much instruments yourself, with the voice? How does it work when you’re working with a composer or conductor to finish a piece?
MC: Well it’s always interesting to work with a composer because they write things on their music, instructions, that can be interpreted in lots of different ways, so it’s really nice to be able to talk to them and say ‘what do you mean by that?’ and they can show you or explain to you, so that’s very interesting. But yes, we spend a lot of time in rehearsals discussing how the sound should be and how the words should be conveyed.

Is there a particular piece that you’ve really enjoyed performing, or you’ve taken a personal interest in recently?
MC: The piece that I mentioned earlier on, James Macmillan’s Gospel according to St John that we did a few weeks ago up in Scotland; I thought it was a wonderful piece. It was a piece for orchestra, a large choir which was the London Symphony Chorus, and we were doing a smaller chamber choir. There were 16 of us. And we were the narrator choir, so we were telling the story. The big choir were sort of directly involved in the drama of the Passion, and I really thought it was an amazing piece. A piece where you’re on stage thinking I’m so glad I’ve had the opportunity to sing this piece. And also a piece that I imagine will become part of the repertoire and will be performed many many times. So that was very exciting.

So tell us about a day in the life of a BBC Singer. So you turn up for work – is there any sort of warm up exercises that you have to do? How does it pan out?
MC: How it is, is that we do our own warm-up at home, before we turn up to work. Or there’s a small room where we can warm up at the Maida Vale studios, which is where we’re based. We go into our studio, Maida Vale 2, which is in the basement, so we don’t see much sunlight during the day. And at the beginning of a programme, our music arrives on our music stand, we open it up, it’s the first time we’ve seen it, so we’ll read it through with the conductor in front of us, and then we’ll start working on the nitty-gritty of it. We do music in a lot of different languages so we may have language coaches who come in and help us with the pronunciation and the understanding of different langauages. And then if there are other instruments involved, after a couple of days we start to rehearse with the other instruments. And by the end of the week, we’re ready with our performance.

It’s quite a quick turnaround then?
MC: Very quick.

Especially the learning another language as well. Give me examples of other languages. Are we speaking in terms of French, German, Latin?
MC: All those standard European languages plus some more unusual ones. We do the Scandinavian languages, we’ve sung in Finnish, we’ve sung in Hungarian. The piece I’m looking at for a concert in a couple of weeks is in Hebrew. So, yes. And Russian. We sing in many many different languages.

Do you pick up any words through doing that?
MC: You do pick up the odd word yes.

Perhaps not useful in conversation?
MC: Often very romantic language really for everyday conversation!

The BBC Singers work with a nationwide outreach programme, so you go into schools, and you work with youth choirs. Can you tell us a little bit more about that and the work you’ve done with schools and youth choirs?
MC: Yes, we go out to schools a lot. We go into the classroom and work with the school choirs, and the teachers who run the school choirs, and we’ve done projects where we’ve put concerts on together with the choirs that we’ve worked with. At the moment the project that I’m involved in is with setting up community choirs in the borough of Lewisham. And there are 5 community choirs that have been set up in different areas of the borough, so that they’re all quite particular to their locality. And they’re just fledgling choirs at the moment, but we’re working towards them being involved in the Voices Now weekend here at the Roundhouse, where they’ll be taking their first steps and performing on their own as choirs.

For someone like myself, and I’ve been saying this in every interview, who’s sort of starting out in classical music, and choirs, listening to this style of music, is there a particular composer of a piece that you can recommend to me to get stuck in?
MC: I think it’s so much a matter of finding the styles that make you tick, but I would listen to some Bob Chilcot, who works with us and has written some wonderful pieces for choir. When I was first listening to classical music, one of my O-level pieces was by Stravinsky, and I started listening to the Symphony of Psalms choral piece, and I thought that was absolutely wonderful. I would listen to some of the old masters – I would listen to Bach, maybe St Matthew Passion; I would listen to the Mozart Requiem; and I would also have a listen to James Macmillan’s St John’s Gospel.

And for those of us that are looking forward to coming to Reverb 2012, and this is possibly putting you on the spot, but perhaps a little tagline for your event? A reason for us to come and enjoy the instrument of the voice?
MC: Yes, come and listen to the voice because it’s an amazing instrument and you’ll be astonished at how many different colours and sounds can be achieved by the human voice, particularly a group of human voices – the amazing harmonies that can be produced.

We’ll be seeing you in February 2012, next year!
MC: Yes – I’ll be looking forward to it.