For their newest album, Celestial Dawn, Anna Lapwood and The Pembroke College Girls' Choir came together to offer a shared personal response to lockdown, mixing repertoire old and new.
This album was conceived in lockdown. How was it going through that period with the choir?
It was obviously such a tricky time for everyone, and I was really impressed at how resilient the girls were at just adapting to whether we were going to be online or in person for any given week. I remember in the first lockdown we were doing all sorts of things on Zoom, and they all put on a brave face. But at one stage we were singing through the Parry Nunc Dimittis and there's a moment when it splits into thirds. They got to that bit and they all lost it at the same time: suddenly singing the third and hearing that the other part wasn't there just hit home for them – that they weren't together, that they weren't singing in person.
How was it when you were able to all perform together again?
It was amazing – yes it was two metres apart, but it was amazing. But then everything shut down again. I remember being told just before one of our evensong services that this was the last one and we didn't know when we were coming back. And I was standing there conducting it with tears actually streaming down my face, because I knew how much it meant to them and how much it meant to me. So this album represents that journey: it was trying to capture the emotional intensity of that two year period and how, by the end of it, if anything, the girls' love of singing and their passion for singing had increased ten-fold.
Can you explain something about how you went about choosing the repertoire for the album?
It was very much a collaborative process with the girls. I talked to them and it was a bit of a free-for-all with everyone saying, "No we have to include this!" They had strong opinions about some of the things that we couldn't fit in in the end. But the whole point of it really is to show that it's possible – not easy, but fulfilling – to bring together the very traditional with the really contemporary, with music that's still being written and new commissions, and to put it together in a way that is not only satisfactory but also enjoyable and exciting – as a listener too, I hope.
Does it then also reflect the special position of the choir – the fact that it's as rooted in a tradition but is also a major departure from it?
Yes, completely. With everything I do with the girls I try to make sure that they have a say, to let them have a say in shaping the direction of the choir. But what's really lovely is that they just adore doing a diverse repertoire, because they see themselves represented in it. It's not like I'm having to push a political agenda on them or anything; they just enjoy it. And similarly, it being an all-girls choir, they love feeling like they have that safe space to have conversations – whether it's about puberty or career choices. I think gendered spaces can be really important, and just as an all-male choir can be a very positive space in some ways, so can an all-girls choir too.
For people less familiar with English choral world, can you quickly explain some of the advantages and disadvantages of the tradition?
Historically the choral world has been a very male-dominated place, the opportunities were only really for boys to sing. Salisbury Cathedral Choir made the first big step forward when they introduced girl choristers, and there has been a massive increase in opportunities for girl choristers in the last 20 years or so since. It's really exciting to see that now in basically every city a girl could have the opportunities to be a chorister – even if they're not always equal to the boys. We are definitely getting there, but the big concern at the moment is making sure that opportunities for boys don't drop off as a result. And that is always on my mind as well, because I've worked first-hand with several boy treble lines and have seen how rewarding that experience is for them.
In many ways it's similar to the work you do diversifying the organ as an instrument…
Yes, the frustrating thing is that it seems to be seen as the exception to have a good female organist; it seems to be the exception as opposed to the rule. And some people say, "But look at you, you're successful, so we can't have a problem". But it's much bigger than that, and it's about trying to show young girls that that is something they could do if they wanted to: it's a space where they belong, just as much as the boys. Again not trying to exclude boys in any way, but just trying to encourage as many people as possible to take up the organ, regardless of whether they're male or female.
Do you see the effects of what you do first-hand?
Yes, and it's all worth it when you get even one girl coming up to you and saying, "Oh, I've just started organ lessons because I've seen what you've been doing on Instagram or whatever. I love it and I want to be an organist". And you know what, even for that one person, it's totally worth it.
Celestial Dawn is out on IDAGIO now.