Christmas can be a tough time for the music-lover. On some level we can appreciate a knitted Rudolf jumper, plastic mistletoe and tinsel jandals. But sometimes when the Christmas muzak starts to play at the local supermarket, the hollow tones of jukebox Jingle Bells can offend even the sturdiest amongst us. This is where Radio NZ Concert and British choral conductor Suzi Digby come to your rescue along with her vocal ensemble ORA. This Advent you can sooth your frazzled nerves with a well-crafted and performed Christmas carol, and you’ll be listening to a world first!
On the 1st December, Radio NZ Concert was the first radio station in the world to broadcast a new carol by the esteemed British composer John Rutter. In collaboration with Classic FM UK, Suzie Digby and ORA have commissioned and recorded new carols to mark Advent, with each day bringing a new work downloadable from a select group of international radio stations.
“It’s so exciting and I can’t believe it hasn’t been done,” Digby says. “Each day, we’ve picked up a number of radio stations across the world [including Radio NZ Concert]. Every day you get to download the next piece. They are all very different and wonderful. Christmas affords the opportunity to really present what is best about choral music. And each one I think is an absolute gem”.
The broader impetus for this Advent festival of choral music reflects the recent “explosion” of choral music in the UK. But it wasn’t always this way. Two decades ago choral music seemed to be disappearing from schools, churches and communities. Was Britain again risking becoming a Land Ohne Musik?
“It was really very alarming in the early 1990s. It was a dire situation. I can’t claim sole responsibility but I think it was a whole movement of people who became very determined to bring singing back to very young children. Because if mothers are not singing folk songs to their children and the children aren’t getting singing in schools, I think it is a real problem.”
A well-known music educator, Digby’s passion for education and tireless efforts in rekindling a love of music and singing in children came from her own background, which gave her a global perspective of the cultural importance of music in communities. Born in Japan, she has spent time in Hong Kong, Eastern Europe, Canada, America and Africa. “In South Africa I was running a program for five years in Soweto and downtown Johannesburg. Even there, there’s a risk of the indigenous singing culture being lost. What I was very interested in doing was recording all the playground songs, and the songs grandmothers remember from their childhood and recording them and bringing them back to schools in England. We have so much to learn from cultures where singing is sort of functional; you know, you sing to survive, you sing for rituals, you sing to go to war - for all kinds of reasons. And its spontaneous.”
Returning to the UK, her efforts have seen a revival in singing at schools, and even contributed to an infectious enthusiasm for choral singing in popular culture. The BBC’s Last Choir Standing attracted a mass following and became essential primetime viewing. This then generated the platform for conductor Gareth Malone’s television show going into schools and communities and encouraging people to sing. “So it’s sort of everywhere now, and it’s extraordinary to compare that to the desert of the early 1990s.”
Digby also attributes choral music’s resurgent popularity to a change in choral composition aesthetically, contributing to its accessibility and broader appeal. “For decades you would go to concerts to hear a Brahms Symphony, and they would sneak in a new piece in the first half, rather like having to take your bad medicine. There was always a sort of scepticism and suspicion from ordinary audience members about new music.”
“What is striking [now] is these new composers aren’t frightened of composing tunes which are accessible to audiences, but at the same time very high quality. It seems to me that it’s incumbent on us to make sure now that audiences want to come to concerts to hear new music. And this hasn’t happened for centuries really.”
Building a bridge across those centuries while offering something fresh and new provided the brief for Digby’s composers. The Advent broadcasts provide a window into Digby’s larger, more ambitious project. “The project that I’ve started with ORA is to commission a hundred composers around the world and to record ten albums. I’m asking them to respond to renaissance choral works, little miniatures. Because my thesis is that we’re in a second golden age of choral music. The first golden age being that of the Renaissance, you know the great Tudor composers William Byrd and Thomas Tallis, and the great Spanish Renaissance with Victoria etc. So my series of ten albums will find a series of really exciting and diverse composers, all of whom are just wonderful, and very different”
So, whether you just want to relax, feel Christmassy, be uplifted, or just escape the latest musical offering from the supermarket aisle, put your be-jandalled feet up, pour yourself a Christmas cuppa and find some musical respite with us and ORA this Advent.