Episode 85: “Exploring the Choirs of Europe” with James Whitbourn of St. Edmund Hall

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!

Episode 85
Episode 85

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 VoicesChoral Journal promised that listeners “will be transformed by the sheer beauty of the sonic experience”.

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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.

Episode 84: Exploring the Choirs of Europe with Gary Graden of St. Jacobs Kammerkör

The Second Installment Betsy Cook Weber’s Sabbatical Series!

In this stop, Betsy visits Stockholm, Sweden to see Gary Graden and the St. Jacobs Kammerkör. Betsy, Gary and I discuss how an American born director ended up learning from Eric Ericsson and never leaving. We also dive into the philosophies, practices and approaches that lead to such a virtuosic sound from this top flight Swedish choir. I was inspired by Gary’s passion for his job, which in his words is to provide his singers a high quality musical experience “interacting with great art.” In Betsy’s words, Gary is “in it to win it, but winning isn’t a trophy.” You won’t want to miss this conversation, or the concert clips!

Episode 84
Episode 84


was born in the USA and studied at Clark University, the Hartt School of Music, the Aspen Summer Music Festival, and with Eric Ericson at the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm. Gary Graden is a former member and tenor soloist with the Eric Ericson Chamber Choir, as well as the vocal ensemble Lamentabile Consort.

Gary Graden is presently Director of Music in the Stockholm Cathedral (Storkyrkan) and S:t Jacob´s church. He has also been on the faculty of  Stockholm´s Musikgymnasium where founded and conducted the Stockholm Musikgymnasium´s Chamber Choir. With this choir and the S:t Jacobs Chamber Choir he has won grand prizes and first prizes in several of Europe´s most prestigious competitions, including the European Grand Prize.

He has also participated in a wide array of national and international festivals including the Tolosa Festival in Spain, the IFCM World Symposia in Minneapolis and Kyoto, Sagra Musicale Umbra in Italy, Debrecen Festival in Hungary,  Koorbiennale in Holland, the ACDA National Convention in USA, and is currently artistic director of the international choral festival La Fabbrica del Canto in Legnano.

Graden has commissioned and premiered more than 90 works by such composers as Sven-David Sandström, Anders Hillborg, Nana Forte, Thomas Jennefelt, Steve Dobrogosz,  Bo Hansson, Agneta Sköld, Gabriel Jackson, Anders Paulsson,  Javier Busto, Vytautas Miškinis, Urmas Sisask, Georg Riedel, Carl Unander-Scharin, Stephen Leek, Damijan Močnik, Corrado Margutti, Giovanni Bonato, and Michael Waldenby.

He has conducted several orchestras including the Uppsala Chamber Orchestra. the Stockholm Royal Opera Orchestra, Stockholm Rebaroque, the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, Ensemble Philidor, France, and Camerata Strumentale Città di Prato as well as Orchestra da Camera Perugia in Italy. Above and beyond his specialization in the performance of contemporary music, he has performed such larger works as Handel’s Messiah, Mozart’s Requiem and Mass in c-minor, Bach’s passions and Mass in b-minor, as well as the Requiems of Brahms, Duruflé, Fauré and Michael Haydn.

Epiosode 84

Episode 83: “Exploring the Choirs of Europe” Rupert Gough of Royal Holloway

The First Installment of the a new series following Betsy Cook Weber on her Sabbatical

I am honored to present to you a new series of podcasts and videos with Dr. Betsy Cook Weber. Dr. Weber is on Sabbatical this semester, and she reached out to me to partner in documenting her travels across Europe. Her mission? To discover the “secret sauce” of many European scholastic and professional choral organizations. In the first installment Betsy and I speak with Rupert Gough of London’s Royal Holloway School. We cover the philosophy and practice that governs this fantastic choir from rehearsal and audition procedures to the challenge of getting British choirs to emote . Tune in for a fresh perspective and some beautiful sounds from their rehearsals.

Exploring Europe Series!
Episode 83

Rupert Gough has been Director of Choral Music and College Organist at Royal Holloway, University of London since 2005. He is also Organist and Director of Music at London’s oldest surviving church, Great Saint Bartholomew, which maintains a professional choir. He previously spent 11 years as Assistant Organist at Wells Cathedral where he worked closely with the choir both as accompanist and choir trainer. During this time he featured on 19 recordings as either organist or conductor, including six discs for Hyperion Records.   

His overall discography of nearly 50 commercial recordings encompasses work as a choir director, organist and harpsichordist, and includes the organ and choral works of Sir Percy Buck (Priory), the instrumental and choral works of Carson Cooman (Naxos and Albany), the complete works for violin and organ of Josef Rheinberger and choral works of Rihards Dubra, Vytautas Miškinis and Bo Hansson (Hyperion). 

Born in 1971, Rupert was a chorister at the Chapels Royal, St. James’s Palace, and won a scholarship to the Purcell School. He received (with distinction) a Masters degree in English Church Music from the University of East Anglia whilst Organ Scholar at Norwich Cathedral. In 2001 he won Third Prize at the St. Alban’s International Organ Competition. He is particularly renowned for his work in combination with violin as a member of the Gough Duo. The Duo’s many American tours have taken them all over the USA from Florida to Alaska. Recently they performed to audiences of 1,800 in Moscow and 1,200 in Hong Kong. 

As a conductor he has worked with a variety of professional choirs and orchestras including the Britten Sinfonia, the London Mozart Players, the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra and Florilegium. He has also been fortunate to work with many distinguished soloists including Julian Lloyd Webber, Antony Rolfe Johnson, Felicity Lott, Susan Bullock, Emma Kirkby, James Bowman and Wayne Marshall. This summer he will be working alongside the King’s Singers in their first UK Summer School.

Dr. Betsy Cook Weber is a Madison Endowed Professor of Music and Director of Choral Studies at the University of Houston Moores School of Music.  She teaches a full load of coursework, oversees the large and varied choral area at the Moores School, and is also highly active internationally as a conductor, clinician, adjudicator, and lecturer.