Jeremy Summerly in conversation with Shirley Ratcliffe about his work, two recent CD releases and a life-changing visit to the Middle East. From Choir & Organ July/August 2006

‘That’s so unfair,’ says a laughing Jeremy Summerly when I ask if he considers himself a teacher who conducts or a conductor who teaches. ‘I probably think of myself as a musician whose creative outlets have become primarily but not exclusively conducting and teaching.’

As a choral scholar at New College, Oxford, he came under the guidance of the then 32-year-old Edward Higginbottom, describing him as a major influence. ‘It was an exciting time. I saw Edward developing and I learned a lot from watching him.’ Andrew Parrott also helped to define the emerging musician. ‘Just after leaving Oxford I went with him on a tour of America. The way he approached music with his immense craft and musical facility knocked me for six.’

As an undergraduate Summerly sang in Oxford University’s longest-running chamber choir, Schola Cantorum of Oxford, maintaining links with them after he left by going on some of the foreign tours. Between 1990 and 1996 he took over as conductor: ‘Because I felt passionately about it and knew how it worked, I hit the ground running. It was fantastic.’

During the course of his career Surnmerly has given many premieres of leading composers’ works in their presence. Does he have any outstanding memories?

‘Ligeti,’ he replies without hesitation. ‘I think he’s the greatest living composer, and the privilege of working with him was enormous. I don’t think I’ve ever been so apprehensive in my life, he has such an acute ear and a very clear vision of how his music should sound. At the end of the concert when he held my hand and beamed I thought, “It doesn’t get much better than this.”’ Summerly indicates that there had been some rumblings within Schola. ‘I’m not sure people were entirely convinced we should be doing this and that they should be devoting a lot of their free time to learning obscure Hungarian texts and this very difficult music. As with certain difficult musical ventures, once it was over I think they saw how valuable an experience it had been.’

Research into early 16th-century Latin sacred music in England at King’s College, London, has been a considerable asset to his work as an editor for Faber Music. ‘I used King’s to understand the method of musicological research. The experience was very valuable but rather lonely as there were not many people working in that field. I think I realised that the new generation of choral conductors were doing their own early music research and I wanted to allow myself to be in that position. Making editions for Faber is a natural consequence of that work.’

‘Editing music is a fascinating area, isn’t it?’

‘Completely. Each symbol in early music doesn’t have one single meaning. It’s a question of trying to uncover what it really was the composer wrote. When you make an edition it is a translation and not a transcription. It’s one of the reasons why those of us who perform early music feel we have to make our own editions. I think we are mistrustful of other people’s editions. I would always advocate looking at the original sources.’

Summerly’s work as Head of Academic Studies at the Royal Academy of Music involves teaching harmony and counterpoint, performance practice and the history of music. His work also entails designing the curriculum.

‘It’s a big responsibility and very exciting. Nothing stays the same for very long; there is a constant sense of reappraisal. This means keeping in touch with the students to find out what they think they need; keeping an eye on the music business to see who is being successful and why, and from that trying to work out what the curriculum should be. Students are here primarily to perform but I believe fundamentally if you’re going to sustain a place in the music business for a long time you need the back-up of academic studies.’

The first of Summerly’s new CD releases is Children of our time (Hyperion CDA 67575) recorded by Schola Cantorum of Oxford in 1995. What is the story behind this?

‘Sir Michael Tippett was a patron of the choir and this project was intended to be for his 90th birthday. We decided to record the five Negro spirituals from A Child of our Time interspersed with modern compositions, because Sir Michael always stood for promoting new music.’ With music by Francis Pott and Antony Pitts already written, Schola Cantorum’s International Composition Competition of 1994 yielded winning entries by Nicholas O’Neill, Mark Edgley Smith and Eugenio Manuel Rodrigues. Ruth Byrchmore was then commissioned to write a piece for performance alongside the others.

‘Wasn’t this a very risky venture? New music by as yet unknown composers.’

‘That’s why it wasn’t released originally. Ten years later we listened to it again and I’m really proud of it. The music of these young composers is so good and the quality of the singing is extraordinarily accomplished. Simon Perry of Hyperion thought so too and agreed to release it. It’s a tribute to Sir Michael’s work and his involvement with Schola Cantorum.’ The disc is very interesting because it shows how these composers were writing at that time and the singing is very skilful; it’s a notable achievement.

The recording of John Tavener’s Lament for Jerusalem (Naxos 8.557826) came after the Choir of London’s ground-breaking visit to the Middle East with  Jeremy Summerly and Tim Brown. The choir was established in 2003 by John Harte and Michael Stevens. It is for UK-based professional singers ‘dedicated to putting their musical skills to effective charitable use’. Projects are underlined by a ‘belief in the capacity of music to transcend national, reIigious and social frontiers’. An orchestra was established in 2004. The first major overseas visit was to the Palestinian Territories and Israel in December 2004. It is clear that Summerly and the musicians were overwhelmed by the experience and he tries to recount some of the events.

‘We worked with the wonderfully dedicated Jerusalem Chorus in Ramallah because the members are not allowed through the checkpoint to Jerusalem. We also worked with two Arab/Israeli girls’ choirs and did a number of concerts in Israel and Palestine. There was too much work for one person so I basically stayed in Jerusalem and Tim [Brown] travelled around. We sang the Christmas Eve service in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and in Jerusalem’s St George’s Cathedral on Christmas Day. While we were staying in Jerusalem we found ourselves sitting next to one of the most controversial political figures of the day, Mordechai Vanunu, the Israeli whistleblower. In fact we were partly responsible for getting him thrown into jail overnight, as he tried to follow us to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.’

While they were out there the choir’s instrumentalists were joined by players from France, Germany, Palestine and Israel. Was it easy to get the Arab and Israeli musicians working together? ‘No. Some will absolutely try to make it work but it’s not easy. Each has a reason to mistrust the other because of the injustices on both sides. Music is a facilitator but the problems are still there. I’m convinced music is a starting point; without it you haven’t a hope. We met a couple of conductors who said the same thing: “The politicians have tried, but it’s up to the artists now.”’

‘Do you think music has the capacity to heal?’

‘I’m utterly convinced of it.’

‘Barenboim has been doing this, and it’s been the theme of his Reith Lectures.’

‘In a sense Barenboim paved the way for us, although we’re working in a different arena. There are a lot of amateur choirs out there so we can work with people who are relatively untrained and give them an artistic feeling of coherence that can transcend their lives.’

Lament for Jerusalem brings together Christian, Judaic and Islamic texts. Scored for full orchestra, the composer reduced the score for the tour. The performance took place in a Roman Catholic church in Abu Ghosh, a small town overlooking the old city of Jerusalem. Arab and Israeli instrumentalists took part in the performance.

‘The power of the piece is extraordinary. I think we touched a raw nerve. The experience made us realise how redemptive the power of music is in the way it affected everyone there, which is out of proportion to anything a politician can say. At that point we realised we can do what words can’t with the right ammunition. Sometimes it feels like a fight, because not everybody understands what you are doing there and are suspicious of you.’

Shortly after returning from the tour Naxos agreed to record the Lament. It’s a stunning performance. ‘We performed on the back of all that powerful emotion, all the emotional baggage we’d picked up. Everyone gave all they had.’ As with a lot of Tavener’s work it’s a slow moving piece that is gradually working towards an ecstatic climax. Was it difficult to conduct? ‘Yes. It lasts 50 minutes and during the first half you have to beg the performers to be really disciplined in keeping it understated. You’re right that in the best sense of the word the effect of it is ecstatic and the mixed audience in Abu Ghosh picked up on it.’

The group will return for a longer tour at Easter 2007 and will take more performers with them. ‘We now have the confidence to be even more aggressive about making the people on the ground work with us. We’re used to the fact that it doesn’t always work, but unless you insist it’s not going to happen. We’ll do whatever it takes to get people making music together. I’m getting excited already.’

Whatever It Takes


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