Skip to Content

Nigel's Blog

Nigel’s Anniversary Blog: January 2021

Posted on 19th January 2022

I wonder how I might have reacted if, in 2001, someone had told me that Tenebrae would still exist in 20 years’ time. Not only that, but that we would have made nearly 40 recordings (winning a handful of awards along the way), sung in many of the world’s finest venues, and performed and recorded with some of the world’s best orchestras. I’m not at all convinced I would have believed it or even dared hope for it. Yet here I am in 2022, proud to be the Artistic Director of an extraordinarily talented group of musicians, and discussing all sorts of projects with our brilliant young manager, Alex, as we plan for the next decade.

It goes without saying that there are many, many people I need to thank for their ongoing support and encouragement over the past 20 years. For those who aren’t familiar with the story of Tenebrae’s unlikely genesis, here’s the short version! In spring 2001, the late Lady Valerie Solti asked me over coffee if I could organise a Christmas concert in December at Geneva Cathedral, where another choir had just withdrawn from a date. I fairly casually said of “Of course, no problem”. The next time I saw Valerie she told me she had confirmed the concert with the senior Pastor at the Cathedral, and she fired off half a dozen questions at me that made me realise I might have bitten off more than I could chew…. What was my choir called? Could I send a recording so that the Pastor could hear us? He was anxious to ensure that the music would be appropriate, and that we ourselves were of suitable quality to perform in such a splendid Cathedral. Why should they choose us over other choirs with well-established reputations? Oh dear…

I remember a flurry of nervous and excited conversations with my old friend Andy Gray and his boss, Barbara Pollock. Together we came up with a plan that would enable me to deliver the concert, have some fun making music with old friends, and not bankrupt myself having to pay for 20 singers’ flights, hotels and concert fees. It was all rather daunting but, as has happened frequently throughout this journey, I was blessed with some good fortune in the people who happened to be around me at that moment. Another friend introduced me to a well-known philanthropist living in Switzerland, who in turn asked if I could provide a Christmas concert for a charity that she supported. I said “Yes, of course, no problem”, but then she promptly asked for three concerts: one in Switzerland and two in London! This wonderfully kind lady supported the choir for many years, and that early support put us well and truly on the road to achieving everything we needed to pull those first few concerts together. We made a recording rather hurriedly, and I composed a short cantata [The Dream of Herod] that was a little edgy and had some elements of theatre. The performers turned it into something really quite special – especially the amazing baritone Colin Campbell, who gave a spine-tingling performance in the role of Herod. In that very first programme there was plenty of traditional Christmas music and some fun repertoire at the end, but this particular piece was picked out in a CD review, and within a few months we were receiving invitations from numerous festivals in the UK. Barbara Pollock kindly stepped up and agreed to co-found the choir (which by this time we’d agreed to call ‘Tenebrae’), and we created an Association Les Amis de Tenebrae and registered it in Switzerland. Along with her husband Craig (of Formula 1 fame), Barbara supported the choir by donating office space and providing expert management. It was an incongruous association with the world of elite motor sport, but for all the history of tough business dealings in that world, I found the people we dealt with were all incredibly kind and refreshingly open.

Tenebrae in the early years: Lausanne Cathedral, Switzerland in 2005

The thanks I have to extend are to many and varied people. Too many to name, but there are a few without whom Tenebrae would never have even got off the ground: Barbara and Craig Pollock, Andy Gray, Valerie Solti, Steve Long (Signum Records) and a handful of early supporters who gave so generously. When Barbara sadly passed away at the age of just 53, a few of our singers – Gabriel Crouch, David Allsopp and William Gaunt – were instrumental in helping to put in place our first full-time General Manager, Aoife Daly, who saw us through the thorny business of becoming a registered charity in the UK. We found our wonderful Chairman, the late Sir Roger Gifford, who cheerily steered the choir and our growing Board of Trustees through another 10 years of performing, recording, and touring the world. His premature death last year was a huge and unexpected blow, but we hope that he would be proud of all that we’ve achieved in the past year, in spite of the challenges. When Aoife moved on we welcomed our next GM Henry Southern; an irrepressible force of energy and positivity, who seemed to need almost no sleep and whose enthusiasm for Tenebrae was infectious to everyone he met. Under Henry, tours to America became a regular part of our work (particular thanks to our wonderful US agent Christie Starrett), our educational programme really started to take off, and we have now even made it down under to tour Australia twice. And of course, our fantastically talented singers are at the heart of everything we do. Each and every one of them has played their part in building Tenebrae’s reputation for delivering ‘Passion and Precision’. By the way, I’ve still not heard from any Swiss banks or watch-makers who’d like to sponsor us given the similarity in our ethos…

And now we find ourselves in our anniversary year. Like all artists living and working through the pandemic, we have faced monumental challenges, but our young, brilliant and dynamic management team have made sure we’ve remained busy and able to continue making the music we love so much. We recently commissioned new music from composers Josephine Stephenson and Roderick Williams, and these new works join a growing library of commissions including the astonishing Path of Miracles by Joby Talbot (a gift that keeps on giving). Josephine’s beautiful and haunting work, Into the Wreck, gave us the opportunity to work with actor Juliet Stevenson, and brought us back once more to the idea of performing with a little more theatre involved. It’s still something I’m keen to develop further, especially given some of the amazing venues we perform in such as Canterbury Cathedral or King’s College Chapel. The first half of the 21/22 season has already delivered some personal career highlights: I can’t think of anything more exhilarating than closing the year with a performance of Handel’s matchless Messiah at Elbphilharmonie with the Academy of Ancient Music, and a team of soloists that included three former members of the choir in Grace Davidson (my wonderful wife!), Martha McLorinan, and my old mate from the Royal College of Music, Matthew Brook. The concert went by in something of a blur, as my emotions were often getting the better of me and all those people I’ve mentioned above were in my mind. As always though, the real stars of the show were the choir. If you watch the YouTube film of the entire performance you’ll see the wonderful audience reaction, and when the choir stand up to take their bow… well, you’ll see what I mean.

With the Academy of Ancient Music at Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg in 2021. Photo: Daniel Dittis

A huge ‘thank you’ from the bottom of my heart to everyone who has been a part of Tenebrae over these last 20 years, whether you’re one of our singers, a member of our management team, a supporter or indeed an audience member. I know it’s a cliché, but Tenebrae really wouldn’t exist without you. And now for the next 20 years…