The Cantus Ensemble – An Interview
From their origins in Greek tragedy and the Italian Renaissance, choirs have long held importance in religious communities with singing an integral part of daily prayer and worship. Today, however, the trend for less traditional choirs and informal singing groups has seen choral singing experience something of its own revival with renewed interest from the public and mainstream media. One example of this new wave in the choral movement is The Cantus Ensemble. A 30-strong, London-based chamber choir composed of recent graduates and choral scholars from the UK’s top universities, I met with the group’s founder and director, 26-year-old Dominic Brennan, to find out more…
Why do you sing and what made you want to start The Cantus Ensemble?
I’ve sung since an early age, primarily because it’s one of the most social forms of music-making, and secondly because I think singing is the purest form of music, one made using the human body and therefore an activity that anyone can attempt. I started The Cantus Ensemble with the aim of creating my own choir so that I could continue to conduct after university and because I felt there was a real niche in the market to fill. There seemed to me to be choral dichotomy in London. There were professional choirs which required a huge amount of your time and whose membership was made up of people who would consider themselves ‘professional’ singers, and there were community and chamber choirs whose membership hadn’t changed for over thirty years and whose music-making had suffered as a result. I wanted The Cantus Ensemble to enable excellent singers to sing music to an excellent standard but enjoy the social side of music-making too, essentially conserving the best bits of singing in a very good university chapel or chamber choir.
What do you hope to achieve with the choir?
Well with the current group, the sky’s the limit! We’re very excited to be in the planning stages for the first of several album recordings and that is something that I hope goes really well and continues. Aside from continuing with and enhancing our own concert diary, I hope we continue to be booked for more film and TV recordings and one element of our work I’m passionate about is our educational outreach which I hope will continue to go from strength to strength. We don’t have any corporate or local government financial backing, we are self-financed and fortunate to have a handful of very generous patrons who believe in what we do, so it is even more remarkable, I think, that one of our first aims was to work with schoolchildren and introduce the medium of a choir to them. If we can get the right funding then I’d love that work to blossom as it’s amazing to see the reactions of young pupils as they hear their own compositions literally brought to life by a proper choir for the first time!
How does your age affect your performance and approach to choral singing?
I think our age and vitality is our greatest asset. Our concerts are anything but boring recitations of standard choral music. My main rule is that if the choir isn’t enjoying singing a piece of music then there is no chance that the audience will enjoy listening to it, and so I’m constantly preoccupied with ideas of how to make a certain piece of music really sparkle or come to life in the concert setting, whether that involves the way you sing, the forces you use or the positioning in a space of different elements of the choir.
How much time do you commit to the Choir, is it a full-time job?
It’s my baby, really, so I run it in any spare time I have around my full-time job. I’m fortunate to be ably assisted by a committee made up from members of the choir who runs things like concerts planning, publicity and finances.
Does it bother you that choirs are often only associated with Christmas concerts and village halls?
Not hugely but it does hearten me that people who have been dragged along to some of our concerts have then ended up coming of their own accord.
What are your opinions on programmes such as The Choir and Last Choir Standing?
It’s easy for some musicians to be snobby about them but I found The Choir particularly moving in places as it really pushed the angle that singing in a choir is a real social tool and can have such a positive effect on you and those around you. If anything I think it made my parents a little more impressed by what I was doing with The Cantus Ensemble, because it explained the toil and stress that goes on for months before you can craft a beautiful concert performance!
What is your favourite piece to sing?
Tricky one really, nothing beats a rousing rendition of Jerusalem but Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Choir is quite something – you can hear us sing some of it on our soundcloud page here: https://soundcloud.com/the-cantus-ensemble/frank-martins-mass-for-double. Away from choral music I’m definitely a Frank Sinatra fan, so ‘My Way’ or the beautiful ‘It was a very good year’ do it for me.
What makes a good choral singer?
A good choral singer starts with being a good musician – that enables you to understand what a composer wants from you the first time you sing a piece. More than that, a good ear is essential as that helps you to pitch your notes, be sympathetic dynamically to other voice parts and to recognise when you might not be blending into the texture so well. Being an excellent singer is obviously helpful but I place more emphasis on how a singer’s individual voice blends with the rest of the choir, that is key. Finally, I ask for commitment from all my singers so that they look at trickier bits of music at home in between rehearsals so that we can spend as much rehearsal time as possible on crafting the performance.
What is the audition process for The Cantus Ensemble and how do you decide whether or not someone’s voice will fit into the choir?
Every member of the choir is asked to re-audition every two years and there are auditions every summer to fill gaps in the ensemble. The process is relatively straightforward: the candidate prepares a piece to be sung with three other singers (we’ve found it makes the audition less scary!) and once they’ve sung that in the audition there is some music to be sung at sight, some scales to assess which part their voice belongs to, and some aural tests to ascertain how much of a musical ear they have.
Why mostly graduates? Is it an age thing?
Because that was the original aim of the choir, enabling these brilliant young singers who wanted to be lawyers, accountants, teachers, etc, and not ‘professional’ musicians to continue to sing to a high standard after graduating from university. However, I must stress that we don’t admit singers based on age alone – we have plenty of singers in their thirties!
What do you expect from an audience?
That they come with an open mind and that if they don’t like one piece of music, they stick at it as the next one is probably going to be completely different. If they like what they hear then we hope that they’ll tweet about it, stick it on Facebook and tell their mates!
What’s the atmosphere like off-stage? Are you all friends outside of the choir?
We’re a big group of mates. We’re in the pub after every rehearsal and there are a few choir couples, so no doubt some Cantus weddings and babies in the pipeline too, we hope! I think one of the main reasons for our success so far is that we get on so well. It means that there is an open dialogue between me, the conductor, and the singers: they’re happy to suggest ideas to me as much as they’re happy to go along with whatever crazy ideas I have. We laugh a lot – I don’t think you’ll find a choir that laughs more!
The Cantus Ensemble will be performing a concert of French songs in St George’s Bloomsbury on November 8th with their hugely popular Christmas concert at St Botolph-without-Bishopsgate on Saturday 13th December. For full dates and all the latest news and updates, follow them on Twitter (@cantusensemble), Facebook or visit their website, thecantusensemble.com