THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Sign up to The American magazine's newsletters (below) to receive more regular news, articles and updates on America in the UK.
The American Conductor inviting the musical world to London
James Meaders moved from the US to the UK, and now he’s introducing Vox Anima London, his new UK based musical project with Choral Artistry, Music Education, and Cultural Exchange at its heart.
First published in the July/August 2019 edition of The American magazine
Thank you for talking with us James. Our traditional starter question, where in the States are you from?
I am most recently from New York City, but I was born and raised in the Deep South (Mississippi) and have spent much of my working life in that part of the country. I grew up on a farm, and that land is still in my family. Whenever possible, I make my way back there to walk on my little bit of earth.
How did you find yourself moving to the UK?
Well, it was love. I met the most beautiful English lady from Kent while she was on a birthday trip to New York, and after 40 or so trans-Atlantic flights, we decided it was time for me to make the move full-time to the UK
You recently set up Vox Anima London, an organization which allows you to bring American music to the capital. Why did you set the organization up, and what are your goals going forward?
I should make it clear that we do not exclusively promote and perform American music. American composers are certainly included in our offerings, but our focus is on the promotion and performance of the music of today’s composers, particularly choral composers. We live in a time in which there is almost an embarrassment of riches in the quality and breadth of choral music that is being written around the world, and we will do our best to share this wealth of music with global performers and UK audiences. “Vox Anima” means, “voice of the soul or spirit,” and I chose this name because of my own experience with music. There has always been a spiritual, if not supernatural, dimension to it for me, whether I have been performer or listener. Music has invited, encouraged, and challenged me to explore the depths of my own humanity and to embrace a shared humanity with an extraordinarily diverse set of people. My life and worldview have been dramatically shaped by these experiences, so it seemed a natural progression for me to establish Vox Anima London. Our primary goal is to create a space that allows the creative genius of today’s composers to intersect with a diverse set of global performers, resulting in the words of our tagline—Life to Music and Music to Life.
A big aspect of your work is supporting choirs from around the world performing in London. You're bringing young musicians to perform at the Cadogan Hall on May 26. What does it mean for those young musicians to have that experience of traveling and performing abroad?
Looking back, it is astounding to me that I did not travel outside of the United States until I was well into my twenties. I recently looked up the percentage of Americans holding a passport, and, shockingly, it is only 36%. When I was a university choral conductor, one of my primary goals was to provide opportunities for the students to travel abroad and interact with cultures and traditions that stretched, challenged, and enhanced their worldview. For these 125 young musicians traveling over from Texas, that is precisely my hope. I hope they will walk into places like Westminster Abbey with wide-eyed amazement and have a revelation of something beyond themselves that transcends their present reality. I hope that they will step onto the stage of Cadogan Hall as the culminating event of their visit to London and perform with these new revelations at the front of their memory, and I hope it will spur in them a desire to seek out these kinds of moments for the rest of their lives.
In another concert at the Cadogan Hall in June, you're joining ensembles from the UK and US to perform works by American composer Dan Forrest - what are you hoping for from this concert?
Over the past decade, Dan Forrest has endeared himself to thousands of choral musicians around the world. I am privileged to call Dan my friend, and am equally privileged to have conducted his three major works for chorus and orchestra at Carnegie Hall in New York in the span of the past five years. Dan is one of the most humble, gracious, authentic people that you could ever hope to encounter in a lifetime, and I think his music reflects all of those winsome attributes. There is an inherent beauty and authenticity in his music that immediately translates to the performer and listener--it is without pretence. What a thrill it is to welcome Dan here to London as Composer-in-Residence for the weekend. I am hoping that the visiting choirs love every moment of rehearsal together, that they take time to get to know their fellow choristers from the UK and other parts of the US, that they fall in love with London, that they sing a brilliant concert with Dan in attendance.
On your website - www.voxanimalondon.com - you mention that a word you've discovered from British English is 'Bespoke' which is like 'Custom' in the States - what other kind of words from that 'common language that divides Americans and English' have caught your attention!?
That list would have to begin with musical terms like crotchets, quavers, minims, etc., instead of quarter notes, eighth notes, half notes. As a conductor, using those terms regularly in rehearsal has required some adjustment. My wife and I will often be in a conversation and one of us will say, “I have no idea what you are talking about—this is never going to work!” (all in jest, of course). I find myself saying, “brilliant,” and “lovely,” and “extraordinary” more than ever before in my life. The phone will ring, and I will hear, “Is that James Meaders,” instead of “Is this James Meaders,” and I find that ending a conversation on the phone requires several restatements of “bye” at an increasingly higher pitch level. It’s impossible to get off the phone! I told one of my choirs that their concert had gone “quite well,” which would be complimentary in the States. The next day I received an email from one of the saddened members that I was disappointed in their performance. “Quite well” is average or below here in the UK, it seems. One of the funniest examples occurred when I needed a headshot from a female colleague for my website, and I said, “just send over one of your glamour shots.” She looked at me with astonishment and said, “I beg your pardon.” It turns out a glamour shot is something much different here. Yikes! Oh, and let’s not even talk about pants.
Is there anything you've missed about the States whilst being in the UK, and is there anything you don't miss?
It has taken some time to get used to the “density” of living in this part of the UK—roads are narrower (sometimes the width of one car for two-way traffic and who has to reverse?), detached houses are not the norm, and it always takes longer to drive anywhere than I anticipate. I miss summer—you know, that time over a 3-month period that you can put away your coats and safely wear shorts every day. I miss cookouts on massive grills—still can’t call it a barbeque—and holidays like July 4 and Thanksgiving. I tend to import peanut butter (Jif Extra Crunchy) and cornmeal for cornbread, and, after living in Manhattan, I miss the convenience of Starbuck’s on every corner. I’m a bit of a football and baseball junkie, so I miss watching games at reasonable hours and having friends around to discuss the games (although our local vicar is a huge Tampa Bay Bucs fan and NFL Fantasy guru). What do I not miss? I don’t miss extreme weather, like tornadoes, hurricanes and blizzards, and I have yet to be bitten by a mosquito while living in England. I don’t miss mosquitos.
When bringing US choirs to the UK, what UK sights do you recommend them seeing, and what sights particularly capture your interests?
I know that the first couple of times I came over 20 years ago, I spent most of my time in London. When your time is limited, you certainly want to visit the iconic sights in London—Westminster Abbey is a must, St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square—but I would suggest getting to Borough Market to sample the plethora of fresh food options and taking time to walk along the South Bank. The water taxis are great fun, so a trip out to Greenwich on a water taxi is a fabulous way to spend a few hours. My best advice, though, is to make time to get outside of London into the countryside. I live in Kent, so I am obviously biased, but there are so many possibilities in “the garden of England”—strolling along the White Cliffs of Dover, taking in the history of Leeds Castle, walking the Pilgrims’ Way into Canterbury and staying for Evensong, breathtakingly beautiful Chagall Windows in the quaint little church at Tudeley, raw oysters in Whitstable, and fish and chips on the beach in Folkestone. (Don’t forget to take your mac.)
What do you hope Vox Anima London will bring to the UK and US?
At the top of the home page of our website are these words—SING the music of today’s composers, HERE in historic London, TOGETHER with singers from all over the world. I hope that we will provide a unique opportunity for choral ensembles and choral enthusiasts around the world to gather in London to rehearse and perform this brilliant new music with exceptional conductors, professional soloists, and professional orchestral musicians. We are working toward three ultimate goals—Choral Artistry, Music Education, and Cultural Exchange. My work with Vox Anima London strives to place those targets at the centre of everything that we do.
What do you hope visitors to your concerts take away from the experience of listening to the music and seeing those musicians performing?
I hope that they will be inspired by a group of singers coming together from all over the world to make beautiful music, and I hope that they will come away wanting to hear more of the music of these fantastic living composers. As I said earlier, making music has always been a transformative, spiritual experience for me, and I hope that our audiences will be moved in similar ways while being captivated by a group of performers who are completely invested in the moment.
Finally, what's the best thing about being James Meaders?
From the time that I was 18 years old, I have been fortunate enough to make a living following my passion as a musician—how incredible is that?! And now, to find myself in England at this stage of my life with an opportunity to create Vox Anima London from the ground up by drawing on 25 years’ experience as a choral conductor in the US! It all far exceeds my capacity to imagine.
May 26, 2019
The musically-rich state of Texas sends more than 100 of its finest young musicians to perform well-known favourites and introduce captivatingly contemporary selections from the choral and classical repertoire.
June 1, 2019
Vox Anima London hosts outstanding choral ensembles from the United Kingdom and the United States to join forces to perform the music of American composer, Dan Forrest. With Mr Forrest in attendance as Composer-in-Residence, the music featured on the program will include Jubilate Deo and Te Deum for choir and orchestra, as well as Michael John Trotta’s recently-composed For a Breath of Ecstasy, for string orchestra and solo oboe.