Artists > Interviews > Finding New in the Old
by Maureen Buja | April 19th, 2015

standard Finding New in the Old

An Interview with John Clapham of the Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge

St. Johns College

St. Johns College

The Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge, was recently touring Asia and we caught up with choir member John Clapham for a talk about the choir and the tour. John graduated from St. John’s last year and is still a member of the choir for one more year. The male-only choir consists of young boys, ‘Choristers,’ St. John’s College students, ‘Choral Scholars,’ and the graduates, ‘Lay Clerks.’ Every once in a while a member of another college is permitted to join, and he’s known as a ‘Volunteer.’

The choir has a very busy daily schedule of performing Choral Evensong six days a week plus a morning service on Sundays. Because of the schedule, it’s difficult to be both a scholar and a chorister. John mentioned that the school will not permit those studying medicine to be in the choir, but the science majors can join but have to squeeze their labs in between rehearsals. The amount of music that the choir performs is a perfect setup for their life in the musical world after graduation: they’ve already seen and sung most everything!

Choir

Choir

The school was founded in 1511 and the choir has a history dating back to the 1670s. Its history in the 20th century was really restarted in the 1950s when Dr George Guest took leadership of the ensemble. He led the choir for 40 years and is responsible for its modern sound. The current director, Andrew Nethsingha, serving since 2007, had been an organ scholar under Dr. Guest and has continued his program of intensive performance and rehearsal.

Tomkins: When David Heard (Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge, Andrew Nethsingha, cond.)
One of the important modern parts of the repertoire has come from the commissioning of new works. John indicated that it was helpful for the choir to be able to have sessions with the composers. He said that so many new techniques were being called for that he found the modern notation couldn’t keep up with the composers’ imaginations. The interaction between the choir and the composer was an important part of creating the première of a new work.

Andrew Nethsingha

Andrew Nethsingha

We asked about the current tour to Asia and one aspect of the tour that the choir loved was the fact that, for much of their audience in Singapore and Hong Kong, the music was new. The director used the concerts, particularly the ones at the universities in Hong Kong and Singapore, as an opportunity to talk to the audience. He told them what the music was about and what they should be listening for and the choir found that they were learning about the music as well. The music they performed in Asia (Purcell, Mendelssohn, Handel, Parry, etc.) was extremely familiar for much of the choir’s home audience and so the choir has few chances to perform it. In Asia, however, the choir could sing their favorites and found a new audience for the music they love.

Vaughan Williams: O Taste and See (Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge, Andrew Nethsingha, cond.)
One of the encore pieces was the Chinese song ‘Mo Li Hua’ (Jasmine Flower), which had been arranged specifically for the choir by John. The choir had been encouraged to find something local for their Asian concert tour and this work, a Chinese folk-song from the 18th century, was a surprise hit. As a graduate of the College, John said that he now had time to learn new things, such as composition and arranging, that he hadn’t had time to pursue when he was a full-time student and he was grateful for the chance to apply them to this song.

The Asian tour of the Choir was a complete success and it was an opportunity for one of the truly great choirs of England to come back to Asia. John mentioned that their last appearance in Asia was a Japanese tour in the early 2000s and it had been over 20 years since they’d come to Hong Kong. All we ask is that they come back to Asia again, SOON!

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