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Holy Week Festival Q+A: Elizabeth Ajao, The Choir of Royal Holloway

Posted on 2 March 2020

What inspired the programme you’re bringing to the Holy Week Festival? Tell us a bit about the music and what we should listen out for.

Our concert consists entirely of various settings of the famous Easter text Crucifixus pro nobis. Whilst some interpretations we will present date back to the early 1700s, we will be performing the UK premiere of Geoffrey Gordon’s 2017 setting, which features all of the intricate counterpoint which Lotti inspired in the 18th Century, but with the addition of stunningly deep and beautifully intense harmonic textures throughout. I’d recommend simply listening out for how each piece is related to the one before. Music is so much about inspiration, response and interpretation, so try to connect the dots as to which composition might have inspired another, and how the composers might be linked in ways that might have led to their particular response.

We hope that the Holy Week Festival will encourage all sorts of people to come and try something new. How did you first get into choral music?

My grandparents used to run our parish choir, so I went along to church with them as a baby and sat and listened. As I grew up, I would sing along, sitting next to my grandfather who would tell me when to sing, kneel and stand! When I turned thirteen, I was offered a music scholarship to Solihull School and auditioning for the chapel choir was first on my to-do list. The same happened when I started at Royal Holloway, I auditioned for the chapel choir and never looked back! Since, my love for choral music has blossomed into a deep-rooted passion, and my entire university experience would be totally different without doing exactly what I love.

If you met someone with no knowledge of classical music at all, which piece from your programme would you recommend they listen to first, and why?

I would suggest the Lotti 8-part Crucifixus. It’s probably one of my favourite pieces of choral music of all time – the Tenebrae recording of it has been at the top of all of my Spotify playlists since I heard them sing it at St. George’s Windsor! The music is simple to begin with: each part enters in canon, so you can choose a line for your ear to follow, or you can let the whole piece wash over you in all its contrapuntal glory. It’s the kind of piece you can get totally lost in – the scrunchy clashes Lotti has written will stick in your memory long after it finishes.

Tell us about a highlight of your musical career so far.

Singing the solo for Ola Gjeilo’s haunting setting of Away in a Manger at Royal Holloway’s prestigious Lessons and Carols service at Christmas. It was the first proper solo I’d ever been given in the chapel choir, and it was such a massive, famous and beautiful solo (not to mention that it’s my mum’s favourite), so to sing it at such a huge event was really special. I hope I did it justice, but either way I’m incredibly proud to have done it for this year’s festive period!

This year’s festival has a mental health and wellbeing focus, does music have a role in this for you? And do you try and bring this to your performances in any way?

Absolutely. There are far too many people in my life who have suffered with various mental health issues, myself included. I really struggled through the first few years of being at my new school, and sadly, those kinds of issues don’t just go away like a cold or a headache. While mental illnesses can be covered up with a smile and concealed with medication, music is a universal source of joy for most who struggle with mental unwellness. Listening to and making music can really help anybody who needs a break from being inside their own head. For me, singing and playing the violin is always the best escape, and being on stage brings light to me even in times of extreme darkness. I’m a very smiley person, and I try to bring as many people as much as joy as I possibly can with my stage presence: if I can make even one person in the audience smile during a performance, I’ve done my job for the day. It’s wonderful that someone else’s music can bring me joy, I love the idea that I can bring someone else joy through my music!

Quickfire round:

John or Matthew Passion? Matthew, I’m sorry but I just couldn’t live without Erbarme Dich!

Allegri or MacMillan Miserere? Allegri, I know it’s a basic answer, but I will forever be wishing my mezzo lungs could give me that top C…

A=440 or 415?  To listen to, 415, but to read, 440. I’m cursed with perfect-pitch, 415 hurts my brain (and my soul).

Christmas or Easter? Christmas! I prefer giving gifts, singing all of the gorgeous Advent music and how everything is about joy. You don’t get the sad bit before all of the happiness like you do at Easter.

Pancakes or Easter eggs?  Pancakes! I went through a period of time when I was younger when all I could cook was crêpes, so sometimes two out of three meals a day would be pancakes and I’m still not sick of them!


The Choir of Royal Holloway perform as part of the Holy Week Festival on Thursday 9th April, 1.05pm at St John’s Smith Square

concertHoly Week FestivallentMiserereprogrammeRoyal Holloway