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GETTING THE RIGHT SOUND: Conductor has spent a lifetime evoking magic from choirs worldwide

Simon Carrington knows what he wants in a choral sound, and in 2008 he and two dozen Kansas City area singers formed a choir that has had a huge success in producing that sound. The British-born conductor and singer, who began as a boy chorister and later was a member of the King’s Singers, says his approach for the locally based Simon Carrington Chamber Singers has some of the pristine quality of his European training, but not necessarily the airy, disembodied sound of some English choirs. “It’s flexible, it’s clean, we hope it’s vibrant, it’s never pinched and it’s adaptable to most types of music,” Carrington said recently from his home in France. “If you’re going to do Liszt and early John Taverner, you’ve got to be able to be flexible, otherwise you’ll have a sort of bold, blended sound which doesn’t really do anything.” Above all, he says, getting a correct sound “doesn’t necessarily mean all one sound,” but rather requires an approach appropriate to each era or composer—“adaptability of voice,” he says, “and the singers’ commitment to not always singing in the one way that they learned.”

This week Carrington leads a program called “Juxtapositions,” in which pairs or groups of similarly themed works are placed together. “The literature juxtaposes contrasting elements, showing how disparate pieces that are sacred and secular, old and new, light and dark, humorous and transcendent can come together as a coherent whole,” Simon says in a press statement. The program is the third annual performance by the choir, which meets for one intense week each June and which this year will perform both in Our Town and in Topeka—in addition to producing a recording that will eventually be made available to the public. “SCCS,” as it is called, consists of singers from around the U.S., many of them former Simon students—including several who studied with him during his years as director of choral activities at the University of Kansas. “It’s a kind of collection of good singer-musicians with which you can make music at rather high speed, because it has to be done pretty fast,” Simon says.

“Juxtapositions” consists of works that “on paper look curious together,” he says, but which strive to stimulate the imagination. Such a program is always a gamble, he adds. “It’s not like a string quartet, where you pick three quartets and put them in some sort of order and you’ve got yourself a program. With choral music, particularly unaccompanied choral music, it’s much more a question of deciding how and why pieces go together. I try to find a few links and then put them together and imagine one piece following another. … And then I try to sing it through in my head and see where it feels right.”

Simon says he never really set out to be a full-time musician, much less a choral conductor. “I never really got what I’d call a ‘choral bug.’ I did have that background: I sang as a chorister I then went to a school where there was a lot of music (The King’s School, Canterbury), and then I went to Cambridge, where I sang with David Willcocks. But I never had any real intention of turning professional in any sense. In fact I started as a double bass player professionally, and even then I wasn’t planning on becoming a full-time musician. It just kind of snowballed.” For a quarter century he sang with perhaps the most famous a cappella group in the world, the King’s Singers, where he became intimately involved with a vast choral repertoire. Gradually, too, he began to work with choirs in the summers.

“My passion for making music with choirs has come more in late years, since I went to KU, actually.” At KU and Yale he “really wanted to have people feel the power of choral music, particularly within small groups.” Now retired, Simon keeps an active calendar of international posts as conductor and clinician. “I’m totally untrained as a conductor, like a lot of British musicians,” Simon says, in a video interview on his website and on YouTube. “But I’ve developed my own way of doing things. In my head, I know how I want the music to go. And I love to try to create sounds out of groups of singers.”

Why has choral music remained so central to our civilization, century after century, the world over? “The sound of the natural human voice, or of more than one voice singing together, has the power to kind of strike through all the other things that surround you,” he says. “It has a sort of naturalness about it. When you focus on it—and realize that all the singers are doing is just using what they have, their bodies—it is a sort of fundamental form of communication, and hopefully it will not lose its power.” Choral music is threatened today, yet despite competition from the vast range of media available “the power of the human voice in consort is something that hopefully we will hang onto.” The key to choral music’s survival lies in its power to communicate, Simon says. “One of my biggest priorities has become rhetoric: Can you bring the poetry alive in the way that you sing it, and can you communicate that idea to people who have never heard either the choir or the piece before?” Choirs often over-rehearse, he says, “so that when they get to the concert they sort of ‘trot it out.’ By working at high speed with this group, we have to work hard together, because they’re reading fast—but they still need to project and really communicate with the people sitting in front of them.”

The SCCS’s program includes works by John Taverner, Pedro DeGamboa, Franz Liszt, Francis Poulenc (the Quatre Motets pour le temps de penitence), Benjamin Britten and David Lang as well as locally based composers Nick Omiciolli and Jean Belmont Ford. Also included are contributions by the High School Master Class Ensemble that Simon will coach during his residency, andRevelation Window (2010) by the British composer Bernard Hughes, which won this year’s SCCS composition competition. The program is at 8 p.m. June 10th at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral in Kansas City and at 7 p.m. June 11th at Grace Episcopal Cathedral in Topeka. For tickets see www.simoncarringtonchambersingers.com or purchase at the door. The High School ensemble will also perform at 6:30 p.m. on June 9th at the Plaza Branch of the Kansas City Public Library, in a program that is free and open to the public. For more about Simon, including audio and video clips, photos and reviews, go towww.simoncarrington.com.

Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.

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