Tuesday, 16 October 2018

New conductor's looking for an emotional response

New conductor's looking for an emotional response

CHRISTMAS is coming, as we all know — and some people are already getting ready for it.

Not least Peter Asprey, the newly appointed musical director of Henley Choral Society.

Having taken up the post back in September he is busy preparing the HCS choirs for their Christmas concerts at St Mary’s Church on Saturday, December 10.

The first of these, at 2.30pm, will feature the senior and junior youth choirs, with the senior youth choir also set to join the main choir for the evening concert at 7.30pm.

Peter, 35, who was a music scholar at Eton before reading music as a choral scholar at Cambridge, now teaches singing at his old school. His previous appointments include a stint with the Berkshire Youth Choir.

“I really enjoy working with young singers and I hope very much that it’s always going to be a part of what I do,” he says.

“You can be completely yourself when teaching young people — I find that quite liberating. You can be as silly as you like.

“I have more experience with teenagers than I do with younger kids, so doing the younger of the two Henley youth choirs is more of a new experience for me.

“I’ve taught singing one-on-one to younger students but not as a choir, so that’s come as an interesting challenge.”

The age range of the junior youth choir is currently eight to 11 years, with the senior youth choir covering the remaining school years.

“At the moment our oldest girl is 16,” says Peter. “It’s girls and boys but we’ve got more girls at the moment than boys.”

The new musical director sees the continued development of the youth choirs, which were founded in September 2014 by HCS members Jo Dickson and Fi Harding, as being key to the society’s long-term success.

With this in mind, he is looking to pick up where his predecessor Benjamin Goodson left off.

“Initially it’s about getting more people interested in singing,” he says. “What we want to do is grow interest in the local area, so I’m going to go and do a workshop in a school in January in the hope that through that kind of process we’ll be able to recruit particularly more boys.”

Musically, too, he is ambitious for the senior youth choir, with events like the Christmas concerts and the society’s involvement in Henley’s Living Advent Calendar just the starting point.

“We’d love to get to the stage where we’re really singing in four parts — soprano, alto, tenor, bass. At the moment, because we’ve got some young boys whose voices are kind of changing, we’re not at the stage yet where we’ve got a completely four-part choir.

“As those boys develop, and hopefully stay, that will broaden out the repertoire that we can do. At the moment our repertoire is fairly light-hearted, I would say, and I’d love to be able to slowly introduce some more classical repertoire into that as well so that they’re getting a really broad range of music.”

When it comes to the choral society’s youngest members, the future is bright, according to Peter.

“The juniors are actually really healthy in terms of numbers and everything. I think it’s about introducing them slowly to reading music and it’s going to be about inspiring them to stay around so that they move into the senior choir — and hopefully giving them opportunities to sing in different venues and things like that.

“I’d love to take them to a cathedral or to somewhere outside of the local community as well — just so they get that kind of experience of singing in more really exciting places.

“My experience of singing when I was younger was that often it was those kinds of experiences that really sucked me in, if you like.

“Because not only are they wonderful experiences on a musical level, but they also are great experiences on a social level, and that’s such an important part of singing for young people — that social element to it.

“So we want to make it musically fun and engaging but also socially fun as well — that’s very important. If we can do both of those two things I think we’re on to a winner.”

Nor is it only Peter who thinks so. HCS chair Susan Edwards is highly impressed with his work to date. She said: “We have again struck gold with Peter — he has a huge range of experience and is perfect for leading both the choral society and the youth choirs. In a short space of time he has built an excellent rapport with the choir and we are already making rapid progress with the exciting choral line-up he has planned for us this year.

“Although rehearsals are hard work — as they should be — Peter is always ready with an amusing anecdote to help us relax and give our best. We are really looking forward to the Christmas concerts on December 10 when everyone will get the chance to meet Peter and celebrate Christmas with us.”

For his part, Peter is clearly relishing his work in Henley.

“It’s an interesting exploration when you start with a new choir because you’re not quite sure what to expect. I did an audition where I got the choir for about half an hour — which is nothing, really.

“What’s most enjoyable at this stage is just getting to know what the choir can and can’t do. And just getting to know where the strengths of the choir lie, what the sound of the group is, how they respond to different things.

“It’s like building a relationship, to be honest! You’re just trying to work out what the best way is of getting the best out of and helping this group of people to get the best out of their singing — that’s really part of the exploration at this early stage, for me. And that’s quite stimulating.”

From Peter’s point of view as a musician, the choir is effectively his instrument. “It’s something I was thinking about a lot over my summer break. What actually is it that I’m trying to do with my choirs? It’s basically about building the instrument and building the sound that you want.

“I think a lot of it is about trying to help people to understand that ultimately music is about expression — it’s about expression of emotion. Ultimately sound, and the sound we make, is just all a reflection of how we feel. If you phone me up and you’re in a bad mood I can quickly tell that by the tone of your voice.

“And likewise with singers, we’re doing an opera later in the year, so if we’re trying to act the part of mourners at the end when she dies, you know, we really have to embody that and that has to come through in the sound of our instruments.

“And that’s where it becomes I think really interesting because people have to then not just turn up and read dots on a page but they actually have to connect those dots to how emotionally they should be feeling. And that’s a real challenge for people.

“And I think it works best when one brings that approach into all the music. So I think it’s easy to see how that works when you’re doing opera — but how does that work when you’re singing a piece of church music?

“The answer is that there is still a text that demands an emotional response. And usually the composer has helped us with that in the way that they’ve set the text to music, but we need to respond to that as well.

“So very much an important part of my approach is thinking and talking a lot about that. And I hope that the singers who I work with enjoy that because it helps them to connect to something different.”

For more information on HCS’s Christmas concerts, and to book, visit www.henleychoralsociety.org.uk

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