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Singing for Thanksgiving
The choral ensemble ORA Singers are presenting a special musical feast on November 22 in central London, at St John's Smith Square, to celebrate Thanksgiving. Suzi Digby OBE, the group's founder, told us all about her Transatlantic love of choral music, educating the next generation through her organization the Voices Foundation, and how the UK and US's cultural bonds have inspired a great musical Renaissance.
Thank you so much for talking with us Suzi. You founded and launched your vocal ensemble, the ORA Singers, in 2016. Can you tell us how it all started?
I had been commissioning works for my various international choirs since the 1980s. I woke up one day, four years ago, with the realisation that we are currently in a new golden age of choral music and that composers all over the world were writing, increasingly confidently, high quality music that brought beauty and power to audiences. At last, audiences were coming to hear new music. This was happening exclusively in the choral domain. I realised now is the time to be commissioning and encouraging the ever larger and more talented community of choral composers.
Regarding the 'reflections' idea, I was inspired by a concert in which a number of composers had been asked to 'reflect' a beautiful piece of Bach. This triggered the idea that I should launch a 100-composer initiative. We would invite 100, brilliant, international composers to write 100 'reflections' of 100 masterpieces of the Renaissance 'Golden Age'. Hence we could create a bridge, over 500 years, connecting two Golden Ages of small-scale choral works. It’s worth remembering that the Golden Age of music was, to the future of Western music, what Shakespeare (writing at exactly the same time) was to the future of the English language. In addition, I was excited to create a top-quality group of elite singers and present exciting live concerts with a 'theatrical' element: an immersive experience for modern audiences. Hence, 'ORA Singers' was born!
What first got you inspired by music, and in particular choral works?
I started singing aged 3 and haven't stopped. My father took me, aged 9, to the local church choir, where he sang tenor. That’s where my passion for choral singing took root. All the great choral repertoire got into my bloodstream. In addition, I have always been drawn to working with groups of people, young and old, encouraging them to experience the ecstasies of choral singing! I studied piano to a high level, and started choirs wherever I went.
You're British but you've led a truly international life; born in Japan, lived in Hong Kong, Mexico, the Philippines and the UK; a visiting Professor at the University of Southern California. Has your global life shaped your approach to music?
Very much so. Choral music reflects (and indeed shapes) culture more than anything else. To have immersion in all these various choral cultures (and access to hugely varied repertoire) broadened my musical horizons and inspired a global approach to my work. In addition, I have been fortunate enough to have observed and learnt from many great choral conductors around the world. And to have adjudicated hundreds of inspiring choirs in several continents. One of my hobbies, as I travel to remote parts, is to seek out local children and have them sing their songs with me... I spent several years travelling back and forth to South Africa, where I ran a teacher-training programme for Primary teachers in Soweto and down-town Johannesburg. We collected 200 African songs and singing games and brought them back to our UK schools as part of the Voices Foundation programme.
In 2014, you also launched your Californian professional vocal consort, The Golden Bridge. Were there any differences in the experiences of setting up a group in the US versus the UK?
Yes, it's quite different, although the concept is similar (I invite Californian composers to 'reflect' English Renaissance works, creating a 'bridge' between the Golden Tudor Age and the current Golden Age of choral composition, across 500 years).
The professional choral singers in California are among the best in America. They have very interesting and diverse musical roots. Many sung with the LA Master Chorale, which is phenomenal. It is very different from the London scene. The influences in Los Angeles are extraordinary: film music, jazz, gospel and other unique culturally diverse inspirations. There is a unique brother/sister-hood of choral composers. And many of these composers have been taught by the Californian 'Godfather' of choral music, Morten Lauridsen. They all have their own unique 'voice' and there is a freedom of style and individualism that I've not encountered elsewhere.
What has the US-UK Special Relationship meant to you personally?
With respect to the choral world, this is utterly vital.
The UK has an unbroken 500-year tradition of choir-schools (unique in the world). For many Americans, this tradition has been an aspect of their choral roots. And the 20th century British composers have been formative for many composers and singers in the US. The Anglican choral scene throughout America is very strong indeed.
For musicians and composers in the UK, the American choral traditions have been hugely influential, particularly in recent years, with travel, recordings and the internet. The British are in awe of the great American choirs and choral traditions and vice versa. Many American composers and directors come to my home town of Cambridge, England, to study our traditions, and most of our established professional choral groups tour extensively in America. It's symbiotic. And, of course, we all have a great deal to learn from each other.
Many know you as Suzi Digby, but your official title is Lady Eatwell. Do you use your official title in the States? Does it get you a better seat at the restaurant!?
No and no! Some folk in America think 'Lord' is a first name..! (I avoid it in the UK too. Professionally, it can be counterproductive...)
Speaking of Transatlantic culture, the ORA Singers will be celebrating Thanksgiving in London this November at St John's Smith Square. How did the idea come about to celebrate this most American of Holidays?
We have many supporters in the US. Many of these supporters are dear friends and wish to fortify the UK - USA cultural bond. With their help, we are able to commission from the long list of genius American choral composers whom we wish to commission. Given our growing list of American commissions, and our devotion to existing American repertoire (for example, the great, aforementioned Morten Lauridsen, who is performed by every choir in Great Britain!), this concert provided us with a magnificent opportunity. With regard to Thanksgiving, what an appropriate festival to mark! I only wish we had such a festival in the UK.
What music will you be playing to mark Thanksgiving, and how will you blend European and American works during the evening?
Thanksgiving is now synonymous with the annual American celebration but, of course, 'thanks giving' is also the literal meaning of Eucharist. When we were asked to perform in St John's Smith Square's Americana series and realised that the date of our concert was Thanksgiving in the States, it seemed apposite for us to create our own Mass of Thanksgiving. We have taken as its basis William Byrd's peerless Mass for Five Voices, using his Kyrie and Agnus Dei as lynchpins for the programme and placing between them a beautiful and challenging selection of choral works from Europe and America, from the Renaissance and the present day.
Some years ago ORA Singers commissioned 5 different UK based composers to reflect upon the individual movements of Byrd’s mass and some of these are included in this concert. Around these we weave American works that have grabbed our attention over recent times, starting with Eric Whitacre's Saint-Chapelle and ending the evening with Rene Clausen's beautiful Tonight Eternity Alone. We have well known American composers such as Morten Lauridsen and Nico Muhly featured alongside the upcoming talents of Dominick DiOrio and Ola Gjeilo, and we are particularly pleased to have commissions from two of the USA's finest composers, Paola Prestini and Julia Adolphe. Included in the concept is a side by side juxtaposition of settings of the Lord's Prayer by Leonard Bernstein (in this his centenary year), the late John Tavener and Julia Adolphe’s new commission. It promises to be a showcase of all that is good in the UK and USA choral traditions.
I also hear there's a US tour in the works for the ORA Singers?
That's true. We’ve performed a few concerts in the US already, and we were so overwhelmed by the audience reaction then that we're very keen to do more concerts in the States. We're currently planning to tour a number of major US cities in early December 2019, with an appropriately seasonal programme! We'll be releasing our second Christmas album this year, The Mystery of Christmas, due out on November 16th, and in the process of researching the music for it we've found all sorts of stunning modern carols. We can't wait to perform these live to American audiences.
You're also a recipient of the Winston Churchill Fellowship - which you've mentioned opened the door to your organization The Voices Foundation. Can you tell us a little more about the Foundation and its aims?
This is an endeavour that is deeply significant for me. In 1990 I travelled the world on a Winston Churchill Memorial Fellowship. I visited Youth Choir programmes and voice-based Music Education programmes in several continents. What I experienced in Hungary was a thunderbolt of enlightenment. No other country in the world has recognised Music Education as being an indispensable function of the development of the 'whole child'. And, thanks to Zoltán Kodály, this philosophy and the methodology he developed was systematically (through the Government) available to every Hungarian child. It’s no coincidence that there are more Nobel prizes per capita in Hungary than any other country. I put it down to their music education! Three 'Kodály' principles that have become mine: 1. Music Education must start at the earliest age; 2. It must be through the voice; 3. It must comprise a structured progression of learning (like the phonics methodology in literacy) for EVERY CHILD (irrespective of perceived ‘ability’). This is the backbone of the Voices Foundation. And I'm pleased to say that we’ve really pioneered a movement in the UK. Voices Foundation is in the National Government’s 'Music Plan' as the recommended (non governmental) body for singing strategy for all Primary schools.
What is the future looking for Choral Music, both in the UK and the US?
Very good indeed. Since the early '90s, when singing in the community, schools and churches was in dire decline, there has been a tidal wave of revival. A Renaissance, if you like. This is, to some extent, global, but the UK and the US have a unique and interconnected role in this. I passionately believe we are in a new Golden Age and the future is extraordinarily exciting. This is one of the rare aspects of today's world that we can confidently claim as positive and truly life-enhancing. Perhaps the decline of political stability and global cohesiveness correlates, in some way, to the rise of our 'Art'.
What do you hope visitors to the Thanksgiving concert will take away from the experience?
They will be transported into a world of beauty and powerful connectedness. Every single work on the programme is a masterpiece. We are committed, at ORA Singers, to 'immersing' our audiences (with both sight and sound) in a world that will will lift them out of the ordinary into the 'transfigurative'. This is what Great Art does. I do believe in a common 'soul' - everyone (from every culture) recognises, at some level, transcendental beauty and power. Being part of an audience of such 'Art' is a shared experience that transcends all differences.
After a concert, I always ask individual audience members: 'What was your highlight?' My hope is that there will be a moment that lives in the memory as a deeply enhancing experience.
Finally, what's the best thing about being Suzi Digby?
I would not have any other career and life (they meld into each other). I feel incredibly blessed to be able to make music and work with some of the most talented musicians in the world. And, hence, to affect positively the life of others. My motto is 'Sweet are the uses of adversity' (Shakespeare). Coming from a long line of refugees and expats, I tend to be endlessly optimistic and positive about life. I see opportunities everywhere. Certainly adversity has served me well in my attempt to improve myself and improve the life of others through music. I think that’s probably the best thing about being me! I also have a wonderful husband, children and (recently) twin grandsons. It doesn’t get much better than that...
Suzi and the ORA Singers will be performing at St John's Smith Square with a special Thanksgiving evening on November 22. You can buy tickets by going to https://www.sjss.org.uk/events/ora-singers, or by clicking on the poster below. Also, do go to www.orasingers.co.uk to find out more details about the group, including information on upcoming events in the UK and USA.