Q&A with Terence Maskell

Auckland Philharmonia's Joshua Clark interviewed Terence Maskell, Artistic Director and Conductor of The Graduate Choir New Zealand, as he prepares the choir for our upcoming concert Stanley St presents Celebrate Christmas.

The Graduate Choir New Zealand and Auckland Philharmonia have shared a rich and beautiful tradition with Celebrate Christmas since 2006. Can you share some of your favourite moments from these experiences?

There have been so many wonderful moments that it’s difficult to single any out… I suppose last year was pretty special when we suffered unprecedented absenteeism through Covid-19 – yet we performed extremely creditably, despite fielding a much-reduced choir; that was a proud moment! Working with a number of distinguished conductors over the years, along with a great many wonderful soloists continues to be a high point in the choir’s calendar – especially when it is accompanied by generous commendation from these artists. Speaking of soloists – what a thrill it is to share the stage at Celebrate Christmas concerts with Grads alumni – Isabella Moore (2019) and Amitai Pati (2020) who performed with such ravishing and consummate artistry. We are always proud, too, that we frequently get to perform compositions by Chris Artley, a member of The Graduate Choir NZ since 2009, in arrangements specially penned for the Auckland Philharmonia and Grads. It’s always a personal special moment, too, to be able to conduct my arrangement of ‘Silent Night’ at the end of every concert… the poignant serenity of these moments is palpable. Christmas is a unique time of the year laden with wonderful music and loads of goodwill and the choir is very mindful of the privilege of performing with the Auckland Philharmonia at this special time; we value this relationship very highly indeed.

Grads has always had such a unique tone, notably because of such wonderful representation of Pasifika people, the quintessential male altos and, of course, the excellent work that you do with them. Can you talk more about what you think makes the Graduate Choir sound so special?

It’s a sound that typifies the choir and is unique I think in New Zealand. As Artistic Director I am always talking to the choir about the sound they make – coloured, of course, by my own 'mind’s ear' concept of what I want the choir to sound like; we work hard on this constantly. We have always deliberately encouraged a strong mix of local ethnicities and cultures in our choir and they, in turn, bring to the choir their own sound. We have not only a strong representation of the Pasifika community (20% at last count) but also a growing input from the Asian community (including Filipino). Blending and balancing this cultural mix comes with its own difficulties – for me as Artistic Director and conductor. For the most part, I would say that the Pasifika members bring especially a distinct lack of fear of ‘singing out’ – and it is therefore no surprise that this chamber choir has a ‘fortissimo’ that must rank amongst the richest and most powerful around. It is no secret that I have enjoyed the sound of male altos (having sung countertenor myself for the best part of my choral and solo career) and continue to encourage countertenors (if you can find them!) to sing with us; good male altos provide a distinctive ‘cut’ to the alto sound – a section which sometimes struggles to be counted amongst those present. Alas, we have had only one male alto for a couple of years now.

How has your experience been this year with the programmed repertoire, and can you share with our audience some insights as to what we have in store with the music?

This year there is a good chunk of that perennial favourite – Handel’s Messiah – with three choruses including the mighty ‘Hallelujah’. In stark contrast is a solo-choir piece, Eric Whitacre’s lush and evocative ‘Lux Nova’. In festive strain, the choir is joined by Auckland Philharmonia brass for a performance of Sweelinck’s ‘Hodie Christus natus est’ (usually performed unaccompanied). And what would a Christmas celebration be without some of the ‘lollipops’ including music by John Rutter (with an arrangement of ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ that we’ve never performed before!), and a chance for the punters to join in with Willcocks’s timeless arrangement of ‘O Come, all ye faithful’!

You have spent so much of your career working in lower decile schools and enriching their choirs often to a nationally competitive level. What drives your passion to do this, and how do you approach building an excellent choir in these schools?

In a nutshell, there is a special joy in igniting a ’choral flame’ in young people – and there is always the next cohort coming along, ready to move onwards and upwards. Along with the sheer joy of making music together with our voices, comes the clear corollary of instilling the sense of discipline that is needed to lift dots off the page and turn them into music. Young people respond so well to instruction that they perceive as being apposite and encouraging, and have a seemingly inexhaustible capacity for learning new and exciting material. Working in schools that perhaps do not share the enviable resources as others has its own unique difficulties and requirements: the Ministry of Education has replaced the decile-rating of schools with a different system, but most people still understand that ‘low-decile’ schools rarely have the resources that support a flourishing music programme. This is especially true, of course, for instrumental music – and this is why ‘voice’ is often the obvious medium for instruction and performance. Music is an expensive and time/resource intensive subject – and this holds true for choirs and those who sing in them. To be frank, there is no easy answer and no quick-fix… it’s essentially a lot of very hard work – working with young people who are frequently language-impoverished, who seldom play a musical instrument, who arrive with cultural tuning systems that are often divergent from Western systems, who almost never enjoy private music tuition and haven’t had the opportunity to learn how to read music. Music is our master and, if we are to do it justice, we must remain its servant; it’s a humbling concept but one that has meaning and has helped shape so many choirs in so many schools where I’ve had the privilege of teaching.

Which conductors do you love to study in terms of gesture and interpretation?

The whole issue of gesture is a vexed and difficult area. There are, of course, certain conventions that pertain to directing singers (and orchestras) – the most important probably being the ability to give a clear beat and speed. Beyond that, there would seem to be as many conducting styles as there are conductors. Some of the best choirs worldwide perform for conductors who seemingly flaunt every convention! Much also depends on the quality of the singers one is directing; well-trained singers pretty much do it all beautifully anyway. In my opinion, gesture is more than just arms and hands; the whole body is involved and, for singers, facial expression is sometimes useful. Beyond the dots, signs and symbols on the page which give pretty good indications as to a composer’s intentions, the interpretation is up to the person in front. In this respect, my personal point of departure is primarily the text and how its meaning must shape the music. Without a text that is sung meaningfully and musically, there can be no communication from choir to listener – and we therefore do a disservice to the composer (and the poet). I have great admiration for a number of conductors (alive and dead) whose work I love; that said, always remember that it’s the hard work and inspiration that happens in rehearsal that makes the difference anyway – and it is the quality of this shaping process that ultimately makes great performances. That – and the quality of the singers!

A favourite orchestral recording, choral recording, and combined recording…GO!

So many very fine recordings – where to begin? Here are three:

Completed a few weeks before he died, Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto was one of the first orchestral works that grabbed my attention as a young student who played clarinet in the school orchestra – to the extent that I was motivated to learn it for a school competition. It was also one of the earliest vinyl recordings that I bought: a 1964 reading from the LSO and Jack Brymer conducted by Colin Davis. Many subsequent recordings (and live performances, including the Auckland Philharmonia) with reduced orchestras and the soloist using a basset clarinet (for which the work was originally written) have given a fresh understanding and clarity to the work.

The 2023 recording of Duruflé’s Requiem by the choir of Trinity College, Cambridge under Stephen Layton, performed in Saint-Eustache Church in Paris, must rank amongst some of the finest singing I’ve heard… always faithful to the text and to the composer’s intentions and with a choir that consistently produces such beautiful sounds… the organ playing isn’t half-bad either!!! And what makes it even more amazing is the fact that the whole Mass is sung from memory! All of it is wonderful, but the men’s fortissimo entry on ‘Kyrie’ near the end of that movement is simply stunning – and a real object lesson to us all.

Philippe Herreweghe’s 1990 recording of J.S Bach’s Magnificat must surely stand out as a fairly definitive account – and one I never tire of hearing. Such scholarly and beautifully mannered interpretations in both orchestra and singers – creating always the right ‘affekt’, all superbly and energetically articulated by the choir and orchestra of Collegium Vocale & La Chapelle Royale, with a stellar line-up of soloists. I had the privilege in 2001 of observing Herreweghe over three days as he prepared a Christmas concert of Bach cantatas in Ghent; an exacting technician – but such a musical result.

What advice would you give to our upcoming young choral conductors in the community?

I think that singing in a good choir is essential for anyone who aspires to end up directing. It’s rather like an apprenticeship; one may not always agree with the conductor, but if the end result is worthwhile, then one can forgive and learn from it. Listen critically to as much good quality choral music as one can – live and recorded; find the things that are worth trying (or not). Have a mind’s ear concept of the sound you want from a choir – and work towards that. Watch other conductors in action and decide what seems to work (or not). Start modestly (e.g. a parish church choir, a school choir) where one can fine-tune one’s skills and can afford to make errors on occasion. Moderate repertoire choice; ambitious, difficult music may not always be as rewarding as you anticipated. Try conducting the text and not just the notes! Sign up for a course in conducting if that is going to be important for you, remembering that convention is an essential part of the armoury. Know your score. Don’t be too hard on yourself – and develop a sense of humour.

What is your favourite thing to do for yourself?

I like cooking and travel... I have been invited to direct a workshop with a choir and conduct my own ‘Silent Night’ in Colombo, Sri Lanka this Christmas! Who could ask for more... glorious weather, great food and Christmas music!

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