February 27, 2003

Interview with Simon Halsey

Chief conductor of the Rundfunkchor Berlin

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Simon Halsey and the Berliner Rundfunkchor

by Nancy Chapple

Berlin's Rundfunkchor will be performing a fascinating a cappella program full of contrasts on March 16. Klassik-in-Berlin had the opportunity to interview Simon Halsey, the choir's chief conductor, about the choir's history and his professional development. Simon Halsey

The Berliner Rundfunkchor sings about 20 concerts a year with the Berlin Philharmonic, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester, and the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin. They often get the opportunity to work on large-scale programs from Berlioz to Bruckner as they are twice as large as Berlin's other radio choir, the RIAS Kammerchor. The programming for 3-5 concerts a year is the chief conductor's responsibility, and "that's when the strange a cappella programs come about." Halsey stressed that it's essential for a choir to perform a kind of health check on whether they are really singing together. "I'm rehearsing the single voices for this concert much more than other conductors might. I'm absolutely obsessed with the clarity of detail in their singing. I want to make sure our vowels are all coming at exactly the same time. Rehearsing that way brings about fabulous results: they always sing in tune, but now their intonation is crystal clear."

The March 16th program combines a work from the 16th century with 2 world premieres and staples of the romantic repertoire: the composers in order of performance are Thomas Tallis, Johannes Brahms, Frank Michael Beyer, Antony Pitts, Charles Villiers Stanford and John Tavener. Why this particular collection? Halsey explains: "The program forms a mirror: first half - Renaissance, 19th century, new; second half - new, 19th century, new but sounds old. Premieres before and after intermission, Brahms and Stanford exploring the choir's traditional sound. And Tallis and Tavener are like pure air.

"Only ten minutes long, Tallis' sensational 40-part motet from 1570 cries out for a great companion piece. Antony Pitts, himself a choir singer and conductor, has taken Tallis' architecture and notes (At this juncture, Halsey shows on the piano that both composers simultaneously use elements of major and minor triads [e.g., c - e - e flat - g]. And also his color-coded Pitts' score, where the recurring chord is marked throughout.). The music is gently dissonant, not aggressive, combining elements of Tallis and a John Adams-like minimalism (Here he shows another example of a chromatic line broken into little rhythmic motives sweeping across the 8 groups of 5 singers from group 8 to group 1.). This forms a kind of gathering moment, very important in case you get lost." Halsey is delighted the choir loves the piece.

The evening's second premiere is by Frank Michael Beyer (whose 75th birthday early in March just happens to coincide with Halsey's 45th). Written for 12 voices, i.e. three groups of four, "The piece is cleverly designed and very complex rhythmically. It's quite long and hard. Wonderful sounds are built up vertically."

Our interview takes place in the choir office after a rehearsal. Choral singers file in and out, picking up copies of sheet music. The cramped office's cupboards are marked "Women's Voices" / "Men's Voices"; there are piles of copied sheet music everywhere and various calendars on the wall. Klassik-in-Berlin overhears two male singers: "I could get out of this rehearsal - but that will cost me close to 100 Euros - out of my own pocket." Singing in the choir is a job, it's what these folks do for a living. And yet when Halsey talks about them, they're definitely not just executing a job; they're a body of singers with lots of potential with whom it's great fun to work.

"You could describe the East German choral style as a distinctive way of singing as a group. Purity and exactness. What has been missing, however, is a sense of drama. If we have a chance to work on Bruckner or Bernstein, I'll choose Bernstein, as I want us to move into the more theatrical repertoire." The choir evidently used to be very respectful towards authority, perhaps a relic of their Eastern European background. "But things are changing. I was fifteen minutes late because five members of the choir came up to me with suggestions. One suggested that at three junctures I hadn't quite understood the German grammar in the Brahms; another that some rhythmic sloppiness was slipping in. I'm so glad they're doing that. That would never have happened when I first got here. I don't want them to assume the conductor has all the answers: I want them to share responsibility for the results, to take initiative."

In discussion, Simon Halsey is animated, lively, enthusiastic, a bit strained by his busy working schedule but eager to explain his take on Berlin's choir scene. Despite a degree in orchestral conducting, he became a choral conductor because he feels most at home with voices and singers. To the provocative question of whether it's more glamorous to be an orchestral conductor: "Well yes, it is. But - and please don't take this wrong - I wanted to dine at top table. If I can work together with the world's best choirs and orchestral conductors on great repertoire, it's a much more exciting musical diet than working with 2nd rate orchestras."

He splits his energy among the Rundfunkchor, the Netherlands Radio Choir and the City of Birmingham's Choirs. When asked if he'd become a Berliner, he said, "not yet. I like the city, but I don't know it well yet. My family is in Birmingham. They're with me here when the kids are not in school." He stressed his appointment was intended to bring in the same fresh air that Simon Rattle and Kent Nagano are breathing into their respective orchestras. "You could say I'm here to be able to work with Rattle and Nagano - I learn so much from them. I'm just starting my 3rd year with the choir, and I can't get away from the feeling that I need to prove myself here every day."