by Claude Willan, SFCA singer.
We don’t do a lot of klezmer music in the Church of England. But that wasn’t the only reason I was blown away the first time I heard the Choral Artists singing Jewish wedding music. Sitting in Mount Sinai Temple in Oakland in March 2012 I was transfixed by what I heard, and what I saw: a first rate choir, singing their hearts out and following the conductor with complete faith. They were taking risks and every single one of them paid off. They sounded divine. It was then I knew I had found the choir I wanted to join.
Rewind five years: I arrived in California from London to start my Ph.D. and move in with my (now) wife. Of course I needed to find a local choir to sing with. I started out singing as a boy chorister in Lichfield Cathedral when I was seven. I sang all through school and was a choral scholar at Oxford, where I did my undergraduate and Master’s work. I was lucky enough to sing in some stellar secular chamber choirs and I knew that was what I wanted.
But a great secular chamber choir was what I had trouble finding in California, for one reason and another. When years passed and I finally heard SFCA, it felt like coming home. There are so many things to love about the Choral Artists. The level of the singers’ musicianship, the level of their technique, their commitment; they’re all sky-high. The composers in- and not in- residence programme gives us access to some of the most exciting contemporary music in the world, before anyone else ever sees or hears it. And the repertoire is surprising, full of vibrant contrasts and unexpected connections. I would never have expected to see the thematic and musical links between Appalachian folk music and Francis Poulenc.
Most of all, though, choirs stand or fall by their directors. Magen is one of those conductors who makes you completely determined to get it right, follow her lead, and to make the music exactly how she wants it made. Learning with the Choral Artists this term I’ve seen how much the choir depends on her determination and the particularity of her artistic vision. Working with her and with the Choral Artists is unlike anything I’ve done before, but it feels just right. I look forward to all the seasons of music we’ll do – and maybe even some klezmer.