sat 13/07/2024

First Person: 15 years of Tenebrae, a lifetime of choral music | reviews, news & interviews

First Person: 15 years of Tenebrae, a lifetime of choral music

First Person: 15 years of Tenebrae, a lifetime of choral music

As his choir prepares to light up Holy Week, its founder Nigel Short looks back

Nigel Short and TenebraeChris O'Donovan

Having just celebrated a birthday the wrong side of 50 years of age I confess to regularly pinching myself when I dare to look back and see the higgledy-piggledy route my life has taken to bring me to the present day, as we celebrate 15 years of Tenebrae. Not just the odd lucky break here and there but seemingly a lifelong sequence of odd twists and turns, of chance meetings and associations, every one of which has resulted in me landing at the current co-ordinates of life.

And what a place it is! Fate, destiny, luck? Call it what you will, but I know only too well that none of these things alone can endlessly propel us forward. There are individuals accompanying us every step of the way who help, encourage, inspire: selfless people who are that rare breed who don’t just look out for themselves but who take delight in realising potential and happiness in others.

Nigel Short choir pictureI clearly recall walking into my local church in Solihull for the first time as a seven-year-old and being transfixed by the architecture of such a huge (as it was to me then) building. Norman arches, an impressive organ case with golden pipes, rows and rows of church pews choir stalls, an elaborately decorated high altar with enormous candlesticks: all things I had never seen before. The other thing that seemed to go hand in hand with this impression was the sound of boys' voices in the distance wafting up to the vaulted ceilings. I had arrived to see if I might join my local church choir (Short and fellow choristers outside the Solihull Church pictured above) and even before I’d sung a note I think I’d made my mind up that this was something that I wanted to do.

I found the combination of all these new things utterly captivating and yet I’d arrived there entirely by accident. With the advantage of hindsight I now know this was the biggest stroke of luck I’ve ever had. No one in my family was remotely musical, nor were we church-goers. I had simply spoken to a boy at school who was already a chorister and for some reason decided to tag along that day after school to see what it was all about. My parents knew nothing about my visit and indeed, when I finally got home later that evening and informed my mum that I’d joined the choir and would need to attend choir practice three days a week and spend all day Sunday at church too, I think she looked very closely at me to see if I’d received some kind of bang to the head that day at school…

I loved singing treble and I loved the opportunities to sing as a soloist too. I knew that come the day my voice would break that I would have to continue in some way. Again I was very lucky in that the choir at St Alphege, like many parish church choirs up and down the length of the country, welcomed choristers with broken voices to stay on and continue singing alto, tenor or bass alongside the adult members of the choir. Endless encouragement and support regardless of whatever painful cracks, squeaks and groans uttered forth from the remnants of my treble voice, meant that I was able to continue singing and enjoy the wonders of beautiful choral music for a few more years before having to decide what on earth to do with the rest of my life.

King's Singers in the 1970sAfter nearly 20 years of more lucky breaks and opportunities, I found my enthusiasm for singing on the wane for the very first time. I adored the music I sang but simply not the experience of singing itself. I’d been very fortunate to land a job in the vocal group The King’s Singers in 1993 (pictured left) and had a fabulous time with them, learning what felt like pretty much everything there is to know about ensemble singing, but it just didn’t feel like the end game to me for some inexplicable reason. After seven years and with the millennium approaching I knew I needed a change of direction. Time for another stroke of luck.

A few months before I was due to leave the group I attended a dinner after a concert in Switzerland and ended up talking to a lovely couple who lived in the town of Villars-sur-Ollon – a village in the mountains where there was a ski resort. I told them I wanted to take a year out to learn to ski, and they replied that there was a chalet next door to where they lived that was due to become vacant at the end of the year. A new Swiss chapter began as I was warmly received into the Villars community. For the first time in decades I was able to revel in this new experience of waking up and not having to hum before I’d even got out of bed to see if there was any voice there or not. Still, it took a very short amount of time for everyone in Villars to realise that I was not blessed with much ability to ski..

Conversations turned to the issue of what on earth I was going to do for a living as this skiing fad came to an end. I still couldn’t say with hand on heart that it was a lightbulb moment as I vaguely mentioned that I still loved choral music and maybe I’d like to try having my own group of singers in which I directed rather than sang. By word of mouth news of this conversation reached the ears of Lady Valerie Solti, another Villars resident, who got in touch to say that the senior pastor of Geneva Cathedral was a good friend of hers and that he wanted a concert of Christmas music the following December. Tenebrae was born and amid yet another large dollop of luck I had the couple to whom I'd originally spoken about the skiing year, Craig and Barbara Pollock, to thank as they took the choir under their wing offering us management for many happy years, helping me to establish Tenebrae’s reputation for delivering on its motto - Passion and Precision – in all our performances.

There have been some extraordinary highs for Tenebrae since the year 2001 – and one indescribably painful low too. Losing Barbara in 2010 after her five-year battle against breast cancer was devastating and nearly saw the end of Tenebrae, too. Any artistic director is nothing without the gifts of those around him or her and it was the professional talent, enthusiasm and emotional input of our singers from day one that helped the choir enjoy such success so quickly. A collective determination to hold a memorial event for Barbara held at St Bartholomew the Great was the clearest possible indication that we had to keep it going. Over 50 professional singers came to sing to a packed church with family and friends of Craig's and Barbara’s from all over the world.Nigel ShortNow, on our 15th anniversary, we embark on a new Holy Week Festival, something I’ve thought of trying to create since the very start. A sequence of concerts and liturgical events throughout the week featuring some of our finest musicians and some of the most beautiful music ever written all in the wonderful setting of St John’s Smith Square. A particular highlight for me will be hearing Tenebrae sing Tallis’s setting of the Lamentations and all of Victoria’s Tenebrae Responsories in the liturgical Offices of Tenebrae, overseen by Reverend Paul Dominiak, Dean of Chapel at Jesus College, Cambridge.

Hearing these intensely beautiful and dramatic musical settings of the Holy Week narrative any time is special but to have them sung within the service for which they were originally composed will be a rare opportunity. There will of course be a proper Tenebrae candle stand with candles being extinguished one by one until the proceedings end in total darkness, followed by Strepitus (a loud noise representing the earth quake that followed the death of Jesus) and then a lone candle emerging as "the light of Christ". Above all I hope the week will provide a setting for anyone who wants to observe and experience a sequence of events that will further intensify the most dramatic and poignant moments of the Christian calendar.

I couldn’t possibly have dreamt of doing anything for a living that I love more than hearing the wonderful musicians of Tenebrae sing day after day. Since that first time in church as a seven-year-old the sound of voices singing together has captured something in my heart and the excitement is as strong today as it’s ever been. Quite how I have arrived at this point in time coming from my background is a strange tale with many elements of luck. There is, however, no mystery about one thing and that is that I could not have benefited from all the fortuitous moments and crossroads in my life without the help and support from so many people along this path. I  am a very lucky and grateful man.

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