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Next stop, Oxford University and St. Edmund Hall. Betsy and I are joined by composer, conductor, teacher James Whitbourn. Or as he describes himself, a musician. We discussed the Oxford system of colleges and the wide range of choral opportunities it provides. I was fascinated by this because I had never taken the time to wrap my head around the fact that “choral music at Oxford” does not mean one monolithic thing. The diversity of approaches, philosophies and reasons for being for choral groups at Oxford is remarkable, providing students of many interest and skill levels an opportunity to make singing a part of their student experience. In addition to being a composer well known to American choral audiences for the GRAMMY nominated Williamson Voices recording of his Annelies, as well as many other fine works, James is the director of choirs at one of those myriad Oxford choral programs. Join us as we dig into his world and discuss their model for auditions, his philosophy on what it means to be a well rounded musician, the value of the “live and unplugged” choral art form and more!
James Whitbourn is an internationally-renowned composer recognised by The Observer as “a truly original communicator in modern British choral music”. A graduate of Magdalen College, University of Oxford, his career in music began in the BBC, for whom he has worked as composer, conductor, producer and presenter. His compositional output is admired for its direct connection with performers and audiences worldwide and for its ability to “expand the experience of classical music beyond the edges of the traditional map of classical styles” (Tom Manoff, NPR).
His largest composition is the concert-length choral work Annelies, the first major choral setting of The Diary of Anne Frank. Other notable works include Luminosity, written for Westminster Choir College and the Archedream dance ensemble, the Son of God Mass for saxophone, choir and organ and The Seven Heavens for choir and orchestra – a portrayal of the life of C. S. Lewis in the imagery of the medieval planets. His varied output includes several works written with and for his friend the late Robert Tear and works commissioned for the enthronement of the Bishop of Salisbury, an Easter Day Festival at King’s College Cambridge and the 1400th anniversary of Rochester Cathedral. He has also collaborated with former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, Michael Symmons Roberts and Desmond Tutu.
His choral works have been performed in many prestigious venues, and have been presented on acclaimed recordings, including six complete discs of his choral music. Of the latest of these – Annelies (Naxos) – Gramophone writes “the greatest accomplishment here is that James Whitbourn has written some music of great beauty”, Choir and Organ adding, “Whitbourn’s devastatingly beautiful and restrained treatment of the subject matter makes it all the more poignant”. His first Naxos Disc Luminosity reached No. 3 on Classical Billboard and of the “stunning music” heard on Living Voices, Choral Journal promised that listeners “will be transformed by the sheer beauty of the sonic experience”.
The greater part of his compositional output is in vocal and choral music, but his range of style incorporates the lush symphonic scoring heard in his early BBC landmark series Son of God (whose seminal themes form his best-known work, Son of God Mass, for choir, saxophone and organ) and the inventive orchestral textures of Annelies. His orchestral commissions include the award-winning work Pika, based on the bombing of Hiroshima, one of three large-scale compositions for symphony orchestra written with the poet Michael Symmons Roberts and performed by the BBC Philharmonic, who have also recorded many of his television scores.
Annelies, a concert-length work for soprano soloist, choir and ensemble, exists in two scorings, the larger of which – for symphony orchestra – was premiered by Leonard Slatkin at London’s Cadogan Hall in 2005. The work went on to receive its US premiere in 2007 and was premiered in a new chamber version by violinist Daniel Hope and American soprano Arianna Zukerman at The Hague, Netherlands, on Anne Frank’s 80th birthday in 2009. Its libretto is drawn from the Diary of Anne Frank, crafted into a new translation by Melanie Challenger.
His choral works have been performed on every inhabited continent of the world, especially in North America and mainland Europe. He enjoys a close relationship with Westminster Choir College, Princeton, who have performed several concerts of his music and where he has served as Composer-in-residence. He also has a special relationship with the Choir of King’s College Cambridge with whom he has worked for more than twenty years and for whom he composed the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis collegium regale premiered in Easter Day 2005.
Whitbourn has been commissioned to compose the music to mark several national and international events, including the BBC’s title music for the funeral of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and music for the national commemoration of 9/11 at Westminster Abbey – subsequently performed in New York on the first anniversary of the attacks. He also composed music for the BBC Events’ coverage of the sixtieth anniversary of D-Day,
Many of his choral works have been recorded by the Choir of Clare College Cambridge with saxophonist John Harle and tenor Robert Tear under Timothy Brown (Et Cetera KTC 1248), Commotio, with violist Levine Andrade and tenor Christopher Gillett conducted by Matthew Berry (Naxos 8.572103) and the Westminster Williamson Voices conducted by James Jordan (Naxos 8.572737, Naxos 8.573070, Naxos 8.573715), with saxophonist Jeremy Powell, organists Ken Coan and Daryl Robinson, soprano Arianna Zukerman and The Lincoln Trio. The Williamson Voices’ Naxos recording of Annelies under James Jordan was nominated for a GRAMMY award under the Best Choral Performance category in 2014.
He is popular on both sides of the Atlantic as choral advisor and also enjoys a profile as a conductor and producer, with four GRAMMY nominations to his name among many other international awards and nominations. He is a regular participant in choral preparation workshops and has worked with students at Princeton University, Rider University, Oxford University, Cambridge University and other educational and choral establishments. As well conducting the BBC Philharmonic, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and other leading orchestras, he directs the London-based vocal ensemble The Choir, whose acclaimed DVD recording of John Tavener’s choral music received a Gramophone nomination.
James Whitbourn is Senior Research Fellow at St. Stephen’s House, Oxford, a member of the Faculty of Music in the University of Oxford and Director of Music at St Edmund Hall, Oxford.