[ Artist Spotlight ]

Simon Carrington

SIMON CARRINGTON has enjoyed a distinguished career as singer, double bass player and conductor. From 2003 to 2009 he was Professor of Choral Conducting at Yale and Director of the Yale Schola Cantorum, which he brought to international prominence. Previous positions include Director of Choral Activities at the New England Conservatory, Boston, and at the University of Kansas. Prior to coming to the US, he was a creative force for twenty–five years with the internationally acclaimed King’s Singers, which he co–founded at Cambridge University. More

When you are away touring, do you bring anything special with you to remind you of home?

A photo of my wife of 50 years and my bathrobe, or what we Brits call a “dressing gown!”

When you fly, what do you like to read? How do you pass the time?

I am afraid most of the time on planes I am desperately learning my scores, but I do read whenever I can: The Guardian newspaper when travelling east and The New York Times on the way back — and books between times. I have just bought Zadie Smith’s new collection of essays Feel Free for my trip to New York next week.

You maintain an ambitious schedule year-round; what do you do to recharge?

I continue to restore our old house in southwest France and have now taken on another project in the shape of a Georgian period former pub near Bath in England. I also walk or cycle whenever the opportunity occurs. One of the many pleasures of my Norfolk week is cycling to rehearsals from the Little House!

What is your favorite concert hall (aside from the Music Shed of course) to play in and why? And it doesn’t have to be for a musical reason.

My favourites vary in every life category! I have always been very bad at comparisons (I could never be a music critic). My current favourite is Birmingham Symphony Hall in the UK, Simon Rattle’s valuable legacy to the city with superb acoustics designed by the American Russell Johnson.  I had the privilege to conduct my choir from Birmingham University there earlier this year in a Debussy Festival as guests of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and their amazing young conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla.

What does it feel like right before you walk onto the stage? What runs through your mind?

My Norfolk experience is a little different as I am only conducting a very small part of the program myself! At the Music Shed I’ll be concentrating on logistics and details: are all the chairs in the right place, will the conductors remember everything we have rehearsed, have I got all my announcements ready with a list of whom I need to acknowledge!

Do you have any pre-concert traditions?

In my King’s Singer days, we did have a tradition: a two hour rehearsal beginning five hours before the concert, then an “English Tea” (in the contract wherever we were in the world), back to the hotel for a shower (and to slow the breathing down!) then over to the concert hall all fired up and ready to go. I adapt that timetable nowadays as
best I can!

Everyone dislikes as least one thing about their profession. Aside from being away from loved ones and home, what is your least favorite part about being a musician?

Program deadlines! I am constantly tinkering and never satisfied.

Is there a work that brings to mind a particularly happy memory? For instance, is there a piece that made you want to play your chosen instrument, or one that always reminds you of home or a favorite place? Would you share the work and the memory?

My mother was a cellist and my daughter, a professional cellist/comedian, now plays on my mother’s fine old English instrument. I was a rather disappointing schoolboy cellist but subsequently had more success as a double bass player! My first LP was of the Elgar Cello Concerto which always brings back memories of my youth, my formative years and the English countryside!

Do you find that your training and skills as a musician are helpful in non-musical areas of your life? Would you share an example?

I sometimes suspect that my 25-year career in a six-person ensemble running on democratic principles helped me subsequently to steer a path through the thorny thickets of faculty committees!

What is one of your favorite pieces of music and why?

Ever since I was a boy chorister I have loved the String Fantasias of Purcell. His handling of expressive dissonance and therefore of tension and relaxation in the language of music continues to guide my musical journey.

Was there a moment or circumstance that helped you decide to move from pursuing a career as an instrumentalist (double bass) to a vocalist, and especially as a member of a small vocal ensemble? And then from that career to conducting?

I suppose I had been a “professional vocalist” since the age of eight when I joined a cathedral choir which meant racing through new music every day. At school and then at Cambridge University I drifted into bass playing but discovered that my understanding of vocal lines helped my chamber and continuo playing and enabled me to carve a living as a string player even though I was never able to play virtuosic double bass concerti! My bass playing supported my family during the early years of The King’s Singers when the group was trying to find its feet (50 years ago this year!). As we became more successful I had to park the bass in a corner with much regret. The leap to conducting was a case of “as a used ensemble singer, what do I do now?” Singing in a small ensemble is highly demanding vocally and mentally. The King’s Singers silver jubilee coincided with my 51st year. To have continued would have been risky to put it mildly. I will always be grateful to the university choral fraternity in the US for giving me a chance to become a conductor (with minimum experience) and thus a teacher of conducting–and indeed the opportunity to have a “regular” job for the first time in my life– with benefits!

Is there anything about the way classical music is presented to the world that you would like to see change or evolve?

I am an old Luddite and am not in favour of trying to dress up classical music to popularize it. I have to admit I used to enjoy the experience of singing a pop number on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson on TV, then turning up to a concert hall somewhere where many of the audience had come to hear us as a result of The Tonight Show, sitting them down, “locking” the doors, and then singing them the whole of the Lamentations of Jeremiah by Thomas Tallis non-stop for 20 minutes! Getting the public through the doors is the main challenge, but then let’s present the music as is with no frills attached. We used to find that the beauty of the music was beguiling enough. What has always disappointed me in the US is the lack of easily accessible national classical radio stations available to dip into when the spirit moves. We are spoilt by BBC Radio 3 in the UK and France Musique in France – a combination of those kinds of resources plus enterprising musical education at high school level and enlightened parenting is more valuable than any spurious glitziness to brighten up the appearance of a classical concert.

Is there a particular piece of advice or insight that you share with your students about being a musician?

Take risks, develop your aural and sight-reading skills by challenging yourself rather than by following any particular method, sharpen your ears in all directions, always be expressive rather than methodical; never forget the importance of the texts in your choral performances. Good intonation, blend and balance are only part of the picture.

Often we hear people say that they don’t listen to classical music or go to classical music concerts for fear of not “knowing anything about it” or “understanding it.” How would you respond to them? What works would you recommend as an introduction to the choral genre?  

One of the reasons Arvo Pärt’s music has struck such a chord with people who have never paid much attention to classical music is it’s thoughtful and expressive simplicity. Much of this is based on the principles of so-called Early Music. To me unaccompanied Renaissance choral music is the most compelling of all if sung expressively, which is not always the case in contemporary performances. Some years ago at Norfolk the choir sang a short motet by an unknown Portuguese 16th century composer which told the story of a woman begging Christ to cure her handicapped son. Christ was on his way out of the door and this little piece ends in such a way that we are left uncertain whether he turned back to help her or went on his way. The composer achieves this heightened emotion with the simplest of means allowing the music to speak to us all, whatever our level of “understanding.” I remember a non-musician friend moved to tears, sitting in the Music Shed listening to us rehearse this obscure little piece.