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Interview with Michael Emery in Fanfare on LUX AETERNA

February 14, 2022

William Kempster

BY WILLIAM KEMPSTER
Englishman Michael Emery talks about his work with the Danish National Vocal Ensemble (DNVE), his background in Choral Music and broadcast recording, and the inspiration behind the DNVE's new recording dedicated to the contrasting works of two giants of 20th century Hungarian music.
Michael, before we talk specifically about the new recording of 20th century Hungarian Choral Music from the Danish National Vocal Ensemble (DNVE) on OUR Recordings, I'd like to ask you how you came to be associated with this choir. I understand you are their "Artistic Director"?
"Artistic Director" is indeed my job title here, and it means that I have broad responsibility for the overall direction of the DNVE in artistic terms, not only planning the repertoire for concerts, recordings, broadcasts, tours, and other artistic activities, but also our quite extensive programme of learning and outreach work.
Could you give our readers some background on how an Englishman came to assume such a position with one of Denmark's foremost professional choirs?
Until 2015 and for the previous 15 years or so, I had been doing a very similar job working with the BBC Singers—the BBC’s own professional chamber choir—in London. To cut a long story short, the Head of the performing groups at the Danish Broadcasting Corporation (DR) approached me in 2015 to ask whether I’d be interested to come and work with the choirs here. Although I had always wanted to work abroad the opportunity had never come my way. I already had a very high opinion of the DNVE through its many recordings, had worked with some of its conductors at the BBC and Copenhagen seemed like an interesting place, so I accepted the position. I came here at the beginning of 2016—thinking it would be fun to do for four or five years—and I’m now starting my seventh. I love the choir here, DR is a fantastic place to work with great resources, and Copenhagen is one of the world’s great ‘small cities’. So I’m very content!
Probably the majority of our readers are in the United States, and the concept of State-funded Choirs and Orchestras is now quite foreign to the Classical music scene here. Can you describe to us how the DNVE fits into this European model, and what the 'mission'—for want of a better word—of the choir is?
The DNVE is a musical ensemble ‘owned’ by DR, the national public service broadcaster here in Denmark, as is the case with many of the other European state broadcasters. As with DR’s other performing groups, the members of the Vocal Ensemble are full-time employees of DR, not freelancers. So they get holiday pay, sick pay, pensions etc. and it also means that they get to work together all the time: we do 15-20 projects a year, each lasting roughly two weeks. This means that, unlike freelance professional choirs which may come together on a ‘project’ basis, the singers of the DNVE are making music together all the time. It’s a small group—18 singers as the basic complement—and with this full-time membership they are able to develop a musical ‘closeness’ which is very powerful. They get very used to each other’s voices and musical characteristics, and to working creatively together. I tell this to everyone, but there’s a quite extraordinary ‘team spirit’ about this group, and they are actually more like a family—in the way they look after and look out for each other, as well as in their music-making together—than any other choir I’ve ever experienced.
The current public-service funding model here means that every Danish citizen who pays for a medielicens here [a 'media license', which is required of Danish residents who have a television, radio, computer, or Smartphone, in order to access the internet] pays for us to exist, along with the DR Symphony Orchestra, the DR Big Band, the other DR choirs, as well as the whole shebang of DR’s broadcast activity: radio, TV, online, digital, and so-on. So for me, as Artistic Director, it’s really important that the width and breadth of the DNVE’s ‘artistic offering’ has relevance to the greatest possible part of the Danish population. That means we have to try to be relevant to everyone, whether you’re a hard-core choral music buff, someone whose interest in choral repertoire comes through membership of your own amateur choir, somebody who’s specially interested in particular corners of the repertoire (early music, or contemporary music, or whatever it might be), or maybe just a member of the general Danish population who loves the very Danish tradition of singing-together. There is a terrific tradition of communal singing here, and a huge repertoire of folk/national songs which every Dane grows up learning at their parent’s knee. Danes love to sing them, and hear them sung, and we often include some in our concert programs, so I feel we also have a really important role as custodians of this huge treasury of national song. In fact we recorded a selection of these pieces a couple of years ago—on a CD entitled Årstiderne—consisting of 28 Danish Songs charting the seasons of the year. It is also available on OUR Recordings:
https://www.ourrecordings.com/albums/%C3%A5rstiderne
On top of this performance activity, we also have an extensive programme of learning and outreach work. We work annually with advanced composition students from the Royal Danish Conservatoire, who develop and write new choral pieces through a series of workshops with our DNVE singers. We also work regularly with young professional conductors from both Denmark and abroad. For a week in May this year, for example, we’ll welcome five graduate conducting students from the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale University who’ll be working with the DNVE preparing and rehearsing a concert they will present together. Then there is our program of ‘Come and Sing’ events aimed at the amateur choral community, as well as some great projects working with youngsters in schools, which COVID-19 stopped, but which we hope we can recommence soon.
So that’s a brief summary of the major parts of my portfolio of activities here.
Moving on to this new disc, why Hungarian choral music, and why Ligeti and Kodály, in particular? Those are two composers who are not generally thought of together in terms of style.
Actually, there’s a lot that links Kodály and Ligeti together. Both Hungarian, as you say, and although Ligeti comes from the generation after Kodály, both were composers who felt their ‘Hungarian-ness’ very strongly and who sought to articulate it through a deeply-felt interest in their own national music. For Kodály that was something most strongly expressed through a powerful commitment to Music Education, especially via the vehicle of singing. The ‘Kodály Method’ of aural training and the Kodály Institute are still really important forces in music education both in Hungary and throughout the world. Then there is this huge repertoire of choral music Kodály produced—much of it rooted in folksong—for all sorts of singing groups, from adults to children. Ligeti knew, and had been taught by Kodály, but fled the Communist regime after the Hungarian Uprising in 1956—unfortunately leaving behind much of the music he had composed up to that point—and came to Vienna. In Austria he was suddenly exposed to the radical and experimental (and tantalizing!) developments European music had been exploring in the post-war years. So, two very different composers, whose music ended up going in quite contrasting directions, but who shared the—if you like—musical DNA of the soil of their homeland.
Our previous CD for OUR Recordings had been music by Frank Martin and Bohuslav Martinů, two composers who share similar names and the same year-of-birth, but who in every other respect—one Swiss and the other Czech—you might expect to have little musical connection with each other. But the juxtaposition of the two on that CD revealed some unexpected connections and shared interests. I was keen for this new CD, therefore, to look for another musical pairing that might make interesting listening. In this case, given the shared nationality and musical heritage of the two composers, you might expect the musical connections to be closer, but in fact (as you’ll hear) the two diverge, musically, in quite striking ways.
Can you perhaps give our readers some idea of what to expect from the Ligeti pieces on this recording, as it seems to me there are a couple of very different styles represented here.
That’s certainly true! In the four little Matra folksong settings (originally intended for children’s choirs) you hear pretty-well untouched traditional tunes from Hungarian village life. But there’s a quirkiness about Ligeti’s arrangements which I think tells you that there’s a creative original spirit at work here. The two pieces for a cappella chorus from the same year—Night and Morning—are brilliantly original: there’s a very clever use of scoring in the first one, where Ligeti repeats phrases in which the pitches are identical but the voices singing them change from bar to bar. It’s such a simple idea, but it gives the music a sort of glimmering effect. These two little pieces have very atmospheric, slightly expressionist texts, and the mood is quite intense. Lux Aeterna—which must count as one of the great original works of the contemporary (maybe the whole) choral repertoire—is an extraordinary conception: a very strict canon, in one respect, but at the same time the choral sound unfolds in this unusual way where the music flickers and seems to give off a strange, unearthly light. It’s rhythmically quite complicated, but Ligeti says you have to sing it with absolutely no accents or rhythmic emphasis. Of course, since Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s had this particular identity as kind-of music from outer space, but I think Kubrick simply found a quality that was in the music already.
Mikkel Nymand (our brilliant DR sound engineer), myself, and Marcus Creed had a lot of fun creating an effective sound balance for our recording of this piece. It’s mostly very quiet and Ligeti says it has to sound as if it’s coming from afar, but there are several places where the voices have to sing not only incredibly high, but also incredibly softly, so we had to experiment with several different microphone placements, as well as different placements for the singers in the studio. We’re very pleased with the end result which we hope captures the sort of unearthly, inter-stellar quality which the music requires. Mikkel Nymand supplies the following technical description of the rig for that piece: "It was a 'Decca Tree' of small diaphragm omni-directional microphones with natural colour and dynamics, plus just a slight flavor of large-diaphragm tube microphones a little closer. Further, an omni-directional stereo pair was used to capture room tone for the rear channels in surround. In post-production a lot of convolution reverb was mixed in, using a digital programme derived from the acoustic of the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge!"
Drei Phantasien is a sort-of expressionist nightmare, really. Ligeti throws just about every compositional technique and choral texture he can think of at the text. It’s incredibly taxing to sing: very difficult, musically complex, and vocally demanding. I really take my hat off to the DNVE singers and their ability to nail the piece in take after take. It was extraordinary, and their stamina was unbelievable. It’s a piece that might make some listeners run screaming, on first hearing, but it really does repay repeated listening. It’s mad, and unpredictable, sometimes violent, sometimes tender—and not always where you expect—but it really grows on you!
The choral music of Kodály is generally poorly represented in recordings by non-Hungarian choirs. Why do you think this is so, and what attracted you to this music?
Oh, undoubtedly the ‘problem’ is the language. Hungarian is quite a challenge for non-speakers. And that’s such a shame because Kodály writes so well for voices: the music is always beautifully scored and so grateful to sing. Some of his music has been translated into English—and there are other pieces, like the Missa Brevis, which are in Latin—but the rhythm of the Hungarian language, falling on the down-beat, makes it difficult to translate texts effectively into a language like English, with its pick-ups and upbeats. There are also very particular Hungarian vowel sounds which are not easy to get right, and all these sorts of things act as a barrier to many non-Hungarian choirs. Interestingly, though, I think the language was something our (mainly Danish) choir singers actually found relatively easy. Danish has (at least) 8 vowels, several of them subtle variants of the ‘ö’ sound, and I suspect that this perhaps made it easier for them to create the correct vowel colours for Hungarian.
We also benefitted from an extremely good, native Hungarian, language coach who brought some really fascinating insights into some of the really subtle inflexions which the language requires. There are places in Matra Pictures where—under her guidance—we were able to get beyond the limitations of Kodaly’s musical notation to a rhythmic flexibility which the language demands, but which cannot really be notated. That was fascinating—a really deep journey into the subtleties of the Hungarian language as well as the music—and we hope that any Hungarian listeners to the CD will feel that we have done justice to both.
As you work closely with these singers, can you give our readers some 'inside information' on how they responded to this repertoire? Outside of 'Lux aeterna', I would hazard a guess that most had not come across this music very often, if at all? Also, what was Marcus Creed's reaction when you proposed this CD to him and the group?
Actually, this was nearly all music which the group knows very well. We try not to record to CD before we have a good few concert performances of the relevant repertoire under our belt so that when we record we can draw upon the experience and knowledge (and excitement) of real-time concert performances with an audience. I think that is really important and makes the hard work and repetitiveness of the recording studio much more palatable. The starting point for the CD was in fact the desire to make a recording of Ligeti's Drei Phantasien. This is a work which many choirs tackle rarely, if at all. But for the DNVE with Marcus Creed it’s been a repertoire piece for quite a few years, and they are one of the few professional choirs who have sung this incredibly challenging piece regularly. I really wanted to commit that accumulated performance-experience to CD, with Marcus, from a choir who really know what it feels like to perform this piece in front of a live audience.
One of the great things about a broadcasting choir like the DNVE is that they learn to take in their stride music from just about every corner of the choral repertoire: from the most obscure reaches of Renaissance polyphony to new scores on which the ink is barely dry, so they’re incredibly skilled and expert in a huge range of musical styles and idioms. I actually think that for many of the singers this is half the fun and excitement of the job: every project, every week is different. So they certainly enjoyed tackling the big Ligeti pieces since they know them so well. The Kodály works were mostly new before we started scheduling them in concerts, in the run-up to the recording, but they really enjoyed singing them. They are great audience pieces, especially something like Mátra Pictures, with its insanely fast tongue-twisting final section!
I understand the making of this new CD ran into problems, and that it is something of a triumph for the group that it finally got done. Can you take us through some of the hurdles you had to overcome?
I think ‘triumph’ certainly sums it up, although ‘marathon’ might be another way of putting it. The two big Ligeti pieces are both for 16 voices, which means that in an 18-voice choir there’s no spare capacity if anybody goes sick or is absent: you simply must have the voices who have rehearsed the pieces for your performances. This is not the sort of music where, if someone goes sick the day before the concert, a deputy can jump in and take over. In 2018 we’d programmed concert performances of Lux aeterna and the Drei Phantasien with the intention of going into the studio to record them in the November. Unfortunately, when we came to the recording week we had an outbreak of coughs/colds/seasonal afflictions which singers pick up at that time of year, but it affected enough of the group that we had to change plans and record something else instead. It was, we thought, very bad luck, but just one of those things. We managed to reschedule the recording for a few months later in early 2019, but then the same thing happened. With a group like the DNVE, plans are fixed months in advance, and because we have broadcasts as well as concert-giving commitments it’s not easy to re-plan projects at short notice. By the time we were able to look at making a third attempt to record it was late 2019, and by this time the DNVE line-up had changed. Some new members had joined the group, while other regulars had absences, so the team included some singers who would now be encountering these very complex scores for the first time. We decided we shouldn’t record until we’d had the opportunity to perform the pieces in concert with the new team at least a few times.
In early 2020 we were at least able to put down the Kodály tracks, but late in the Spring COVID-19 appeared in Denmark and performing activity began to slow up. At the end of the year it stopped entirely. There was a lockdown in Denmark. All of DR’s musicians were sent home and by the time the DNVE was able to reconvene fully—in mid-2021—the choir hadn’t sung together for nearly six months: not the moment to embark on such a vocally challenging recording. I began to think the project was simply doomed and wondered whether we would ever manage to get the music in the can. In the Autumn of last year—with a Ligeti-team now markedly different from the one who would have made the original recording two years earlier—we decided to have one last try. In August we were able to carve out some extra rehearsal days from the schedule and to fly in Marcus Creed for some intensive preparation. In September we finally got into the studio and were able to get all of the Ligeti pieces done. Even then it was touch-and-go: Lux aeterna and the Drei Phantasien are pieces for which everybody really has to be in a sort of Olympic state of vocal fitness, as they are so vocally taxing that if any of the singers are feeling even slightly ‘under the weather’ it becomes enormously challenging. But we did it! I am so pleased that we have, and so proud of this great choir and their absolutely dogged determination, over many, many months, to make this CD see the light of day!
You are in the unusual position of not only having artistic input for this project, but also being closely involved with the technical production of the recording. How did that second string to your bow originate?
That’s really a consequence of my BBC background: my work there involved not only the artistic leadership of the BBC Singers, but also the production of their broadcast output—radio and TV—as well as CD recordings. That’s not uncommon in the world of broadcast music ensembles. My predecessor here in Denmark was the same, and it meant that I arrived at DR with a joint background both as a Radio Producer as well as Artistic Director.
In my own experience, I regularly included recording projects for my choirs as I believe the discipline brings a different kind of focus to the music-making process, one that compliments the live performing experience. Do you have any thoughts on this sort of thing when it comes to the fully professional singers you work with?
It’s a very interesting experience for a broadcasting choir like the DNVE - for whom most performances are live concerts or live broadcasts or both – to spend time in the recording studio. Of course, live performance is what all musicians exist for, but I think in a recording situation they also really appreciate the chance to ‘dig deep’ into the music they perform, to refine and perfect their performances and—with the conductor—try different solutions to the challenges posed. So performance and recording are really complementary disciplines and I think the DNVE would all agree that it’s great for their development as professional musicians to have the opportunity to do both. It deepens their relationship with the conductor and with each other. It is also incredibly impressive to witness: this ability to just ‘throw the switch’ and time after time effortlessly reproduce a particular passage while accommodating minute musical adjustments which add another layer to the interpretation. It certainly deepens my already boundless respect for this remarkable group and their work.