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Interview with Alex Woolf – Director, Vox Luna Chamber Choir

Described as ‘a major presence’ (Gramophone), Alex Woolf, has already written music for many leading artists and ensembles, including the Tallis Scholars, and the London Symphony Orchestra and yet he’s still only 24!  His forthcoming commissions include works for the 2019 Ludlow English Song Weekend, and the Philharmonia Orchestra.  Alex is currently the recipient of a Royal Philharmonic Society Composition Prize.  

When and how did your interest in composing begin?

As a child I always loved practising piano, but found that improvising and inventing music around the pieces I was playing at the time was more fun than learning my scales…! 

What inspires you when you’re in the first stages of a new musical composition?

 Usually, I’m inspired by text in one way or another, even if I’m not writing a vocal piece. I’ve just written an organ voluntary in which all the rhythms come from the words of St John’s gospel; my string quartet In Perfect Silence follows the structure of a Walt Whitman poem. Words have real power for me when I’m writing, and of course in vocal music this connection is more potent still.

 Working with both choral ensembles and orchestras must present their own unique challenges , what aspects of each appeals to you in particular?

 It’s a cliché, but few things beat the sense of shared human experience whenever people sing together – that’s a huge reward when writing for choir. Orchestras and larger instrumental ensembles are incredibly thrilling to write for in a completely different way – you have a colossal amount of power at your fingertips, a seemingly limitless toy-box of possibilities…

 You formed the Vox Luna Chamber Choir last year, how did that come about?

I formed Vox Luna initially for the specific occasion of giving the first performance of my Requiem, with soloists Nicky Spence (tenor) and Laura van der Heijden (cello). The highest pleasure in music-making for me is writing for incredibly talented friends and bringing that music to life with them, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to put this into action. Happily, the choir was so well-received on that night that we’ve had a steady stream of engagements since. I’m thrilled that Vox Luna is really taking off as a professional choir: each singer is phenomenal, and it’s a happy byproduct that they happen to be some of the loveliest people I know too.

 Do you have your own distinctive approach to the music that the Choir perform? How do you achieve the sound that you’re after?

 In terms of repertoire, we definitely put an emphasis on music by living composers. 2/3 of the music in our Christmas concert fell into this category, and we’re keen to maintain this sort of ratio, presenting and celebrating the fantastically rich choral tradition we’re all part of, whilst always offering something fresh. In terms of our sound, the simple answer is that I trust each singer! They’re all completely brilliant at achieving that special purity and blend that I always feel can really set choirs apart.  

 Describe the process of putting together a programme for this year’s Dulwich Festival given the theme of ‘Belonging’

 It’s been a pleasure to put this programme together for this year’s Dulwich Festival. I’ve decided to approach the theme of ‘Belonging’ from three broad angles throughout the concert: a selection of sacred music which relates to the idea of ‘belonging to God’; music on the theme of love, centering around the idea of ‘belonging to each other’; and music which takes various aspects of nature as its starting point, as we contemplate our sense of ‘belonging in the world’.

You’ve stated that with each choral performance, you’re not only capturing the text, but also the scope scale and setting of the occasion, how will this be reflected in the programme at Christ’s Chapel in Dulwich, which celebrates its 400thanniversary this year?

 We’re excited to be performing in Christ’s Chapel in its 400th anniversary year. Our musical selection will reach right back to the decade of its consecration, with Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus, and I’ve selected each piece in the programme to be – I hope – ideally suited to the special atmosphere, size and acoustics of the Chapel.

We’re incredibly excited that your new work will see it’s world premiere at the Festival, tell us about it and its journey?

 It’s wonderful to have the opportunity to premiere my new piece The Darkling Thrush in Dulwich. It’s a setting of the eponymous poem by Thomas Hardy, which reflects on the natural world in a deeply moving and uniquely human way. The piece is built around a folk-like melody, which gradually expands in scope as the emotion of the poem intensifies; there are also some cheeky fleeting references to some very well-known liturgical music to listen out for as the words refer to a ‘full-hearted evensong’… I’ve programmed this piece in a rather avian section of the programme: it’s paired with Stanford’s The Blue Bird and Ola Gjeilo’s Phoenix.

What in particular are you looking forward to in your appearance at the Festival?

 I’m looking forward to performing in Dulwich for the first time, and hopefully beginning a really special relationship with the Festival! I’m particularly excited to share such varied repertoire in this concert. I love the idea that nobody in the room will have heard every piece before – hopefully we can spark some musical connections and interests!

 You’re still only 24 and you have already achieved so much, what professional ambitions do you have for the future?

 I try to have a policy of saying ‘yes’ to everything I possibly can do, and I hope that this continues to lead to a rich and varied musical existence! I’d love collaboration to be at the heart of what I do. The cliché for composers is that we’re all slightly solitary beings, but this doesn’t have to be true for so much of the time! Working with the BBC last year on the NHS Symphony was a revelation – bringing that project to life working with musicians and non-musicians alike was a truly special experience. For a long time I’ve wanted to write an opera, and a larger-scale orchestral piece. There are exciting things in the pipeline on both fronts, but I sadly can’t make these public just yet…

 

Vox Luna Chamber Choir
7.30pm Friday 10th May 
Christ’s Chapel, 14 Gallery Road, SE21 7AD
Tickets £12/ concessions £10
For tickets visit http://dulwichfestival.co.uk/event/vox-luna-chamber-choir/