Conducting the sounds of sacred song
The BBC Singers.
By Kernan Andrews
A MEDITATION on Christ’s final words on the Cross and a homage to the patron saint of music, St Cecilia, will form part of a pre-Easter concert of sacred contemporary music in St Nicholas’ Collegiate Church.
The concert, which takes place on Friday March 22 at 8pm, will feature the BBC Singers, on their first tour in the Republic of Ireland in 20 years, singing James MacMillan’s ‘Seven Last Words from the Cross’; Benjamin Britten’s ‘Hymn to St Cecilia’; Irene Buckley’s ‘Sanctus’, and John Tavener’s ‘Funeral Ikos’.
They will be joined by the String Chamber Orchestra and the ConTempo Quartet, and one of Ireland’s leading conductors, Fergus Sheil, who also selected the programme. It was the work of the Scot, MacMillan, which provided the initial inspiration for the concert.
“I just fell in love with the MacMillan piece when I first heard it,” Fergus tells me during our Monday morning interview. “I wanted to have a way to perform it in Ireland and with a choir different than what Irish audiences are used to. The BBC is also interested in broadcasting it.
“‘Seven Last Words’ is often performed as a meditation as Jesus’ last words on the Cross: “Father, into your hands I commend My spirit” although that’s longer than seven words. It’s actually the seven phrases he utters on the cross: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’; ‘It is finished’; ‘Father, into your hands...’ MacMillan is very religious, a Roman Catholic, he often writes and speaks on religious matters, so it is a natural theme for him to take, trying to imagine what the scene at Calvary would have sounded and felt like.”
Two of the highlights of the evening will be works by two of the very finest composers in modern classical British music - Britten and Tavener. The inclusion of Britten is apt, given that this year marks the centenary of his birth. The piece to be featured is the Suffolk composer’s homage to the patron saint of musicians - St Cecilia.
“Britten is a really interesting composer,” says Fergus. “There is a very English sensibility to his work, which doesn’t always go down well with Irish audiences. People hear German, Italian, and French music and can enjoy it as or apart from that, but there is something about English music that has never caught on. That is starting to change though, and as time goes on audiences are beginning to appreciate his significance.”
In terms of sacred/Christian music, John Tavener is arguably the greatest composer of the post WWII era, with only Arvo Pärt to rival him, and so his inclusion makes sense.
“‘Funeral Ikos’ is really beautiful,” says Fergus. “It is about that moment between crossing over between this life and, if you believe in, as John Tavener does, the afterlife. It is about looking forward with joy to the world to come but sadness at the world and people you are leaving behind. It’s very spiritual.
“What I like about Tavener’s music is the simplicity, and the textures he writes are beautiful. Just listen to ‘The Protecting Veil’ where he creates amazing stillness from a sustained drone in the background and the cello playing over it.”
Although a career in music was never an expected or predestined path for Fergus, his background certainly made it at least a very likely future route.
“There was always music going on in the house I grew up in Clontarf,” he says. “My father played piano in his spare time - classical and jazz. There were seven of us and each of us played an instrument. There were three pianists! You can imagine it was bedlam!”
While at university, Fergus became interested in choirs and vocal work. “I grew up in an instrumental household so I wanted to get involved in other things,’ he says. “I took singing lessons and worked with opera and choir singers.”
This led him to work with a variety of conductors, who, “opened up a different world of music” for the Dubliner.
“You can be passive about music, just see it as a background thing,” he says, “but I met conductors who showed me how music can be as exciting and as gripping as a film and I was excited by the fact that music could matter so much.”
This eventually led to private conducting studies with Leon Barzin in Paris and to winning the 1995 BRI Conducting competition from Britain’s National Association of Youth Orchestras. Since then Fergus has appeared with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, Ulster Orchestra, Irish Chamber Orchestra, Northern Sinfonia, and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.
However Fergus’ passion for the human voice never deserted him and, in addition to being a conductor, he has also worked extensively with Scottish Opera, Welsh National Opera, Opera Ireland, Wexford Festival Opera, and Opera Theatre Company, while in the choral field he has worked with professional, amateur, and youth choirs.
The conductor waving his/her baton during an orchestral performance is one of the most common images in classical music, but what, actually, is the conductor’s role?
Fergus likens the role of a conductor to that of a film director. The director has the overall vision for the piece and guides the actors along that route, to ensure both cohesion and the best possible performance.
“The difference, though, with a director is once the play or the film start, they can just sit back and don’t have to do anything,” says Fergus. “The conductor, though, is still needed on stage.”
He also sees conducting as akin to sculpture. “The conductor is moulding a sculpture in real life and in real time, you almost have a telepathic relationship with the musicians. You can actually anticipate a mistake, and almost will it not to happen. It’s unbelievable how much influence you have.”