WHEN OLD IS NEW: Choir from Oxford’s not-so-new college to perform at Venue Visitation
Europeans have a different concept of the passage of time than we do. The “New College” at Oxford and the famous choir associated with it were founded in the 14th century (imagine how old the oldcollege was!). Six centuries later the Choir of New College continues to sing services six days a week at one of Oxford’s most splendid chapels — a sort of continuity that Americans find difficult to fathom. On April 13 Kansas Citians will get to hear this thrilling 30-voice chorus of men and boys, as part of Venue Visitation’s Fine Arts Society series at Visitation Church, in a wide-ranging program of music from a half-dozen centuries and a half-dozen countries.
But those attending this must-hear concert will be seeing just one facet of what it’s like to tour with 16 boys aged 9 to 13, who sing the treble parts alongside lower voices of 14 university students and members of the Oxford community. The Visitation concert is one of seven they’ll be performing across America under their director, Edward Higginbottom, and includes not just “ancient” music of Tallis, Taverner, Allegri and others but also contemporary scores by Jonathan Dove, Petr Eben, James MacMillan, Jonathan Harvey and Adolphus Hailstork.
But Higginbottom, who has led the choir since 1976 and was recently named Oxford’s first choral professor, says the tour is not just about singing. “When we go abroad with the children, we need to take an opportunity to introduce them to new places, so they can understand where they are,” he says. “So we’ll be working at their understanding of the U.S.A., some of its history, some of its cultural idiosyncrasies. … What’s important to children these days, apart from being polite and considerate, is understanding what it is to be a part of the global village. We enter another culture and we want to come away with a real affection for it.”
In Our Town they’ll visit the Kemper Museum, just the latest in a series of museums around the world that the boys can’t seem to get enough of. “We do try to interest them in things other than Disney World,” Higginbottom says, “and paintings are one of those things. They can be alarmingly intelligent about art. They’ve seen a lot of it, and they’re up for something that might seem bizarre — taking 11 to 13-year-olds to an art gallery, which most people would think is a crazy thing to do. But our lot actually seem to rather like it.” The timing of activities is crucial, though, and the schedule must always focus on the concert. “What’s crucial is that the concert comes at absolutely the best moment in the day for them. They have to be paced during the day, not just so they have some energy left, but that the day is, as it were, leading up to this point. That’s the demanding part.”
The choir’s sound is famous the world over, documented on more than 70 recordings that have garnered Grammys and all sorts of other awards. Their vast repertoire is part of the mission of a university choir, Higginbottom says. “What we’re doing is bearing witness to this huge repertory of music that is the expression of faith lived and experienced in many places and at different times. We could, on the one hand, sing only Byrd and Gibbons and be the world leaders in that music. But we wouldn’t be educating these young people to understand and appreciate, through their performance, a wide variety of styles.”
One thing you won’t hear from the Choir of New College is the heady, disembodied sound formerly associated with English choral style. Recent generations have looked to a warmer, earthier, more engaged sound, both for practicality — being heard over an orchestra, for example — and aesthetics. Higginbottom and his choir have been at the forefront of this movement, which has pushed them toward a more “international” sound. The lighter style of yesteryear was useful for choirs doing lots of singing, he says, because it is gentler on the voice. “But it does seem to miss out on some important aspects of singing. Everybody feels more engaged in the music if they’re physically engaged. That physical engagement is what I think gives the child more a sense of owning the voice, of it meaning something to him, of being able to make it very expressive and give it color.”
Technique is critical in the choral education of the “trebles,” and much effort is devoted to both individual and group vocal training. “What I would like is for every single voice to be a soloist,” Higginbottom says. “There will be times you don’t want those voices to be capricious, they need to know how to blend, but basically it’s a group of solo voices.” A full half of the boys will go on to professional music careers, and many more will work part-time in church jobs and other such activities. All of the adults in the choir were boy choristers either at Oxford or elsewhere, and many have become world-renown — among them tenors Ian Partridge and Timothy Robinson, countertenor James Bowman, Rogers Covey-Crump of the Hilliard Ensemble and — a name familiar to Kansas Citians — Simon Carrington, formerly of the University of Kansas music faculty and currently director of the local Chamber Choir that bears his name. Moreover John Schaefer, canon musician and organist at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral locally, was himself an organ scholar at New College in the late 1960s.
“Edward has made New College an amazing institution,” Schaefer says. “It’s always been good, but he has had the time to make it really great.” Of the older English choral style that was more prevalent during his time at Oxford, he added: “The choir strives to be true to the style of the repertoire. I think we’ll hear a variety of sounds in the different works.”
In addition to keyboard and conducting skills, Higginbottom is aided by a comprehensive grasp of music history, vocal and choral style, and performance practice. He emphasizes technique and an intuitive expressive understanding of the music. “These children have a very intensive program of acquaintance with a wide range of music at the real cutting edge, where they’re having to perform it,” Higginbottom says. “It’s very demanding.”
The familiarity with many styles helps form musical taste, he says, but it also enhances the way they sing. “What’s fascinating is, I don’t have to say anything about what they should or should like, or that they should admire a particular composer — they will tell you themselves. And they will tell you that the ones they do admire are Mozart and Bach. They can’t get enough of the works of those two. And then there are other composers who are very popular among the adult population that they see right through, as kitsch.”
The Choir of New College, Oxford performs at 7 p.m. at Visitation Catholic Church in midtown. For ticket information, go to visitationfineartssociety.com or call 816-235-6222.
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