Tenor, Hilliard Ensemble

- By John Iverson

Q1. The Hilliard Ensemble has been together for over 30 years now. What in your opinion has held the group together all these years, and what has allowed them to endure in a constantly changing artistic environment?

30 years is a long time! One of the reasons that the group has endured is probably because there have only been 5 changes in personnel in those 30 years, one of which was right at the beginning, so there has been continuity.
Another reason is that all of us have sung in choirs and as soloists and i think we all genuinely believe that in the Hilliard Ensemble, we get the best of both worlds. We're all chamber musicians at heart and love performing together. Also, we all have an input into the work that the group does and the direction that it takes.
The other factor is that the group has never stagnated, we are always trying something new. Though the four of us still perform alot by ourselves, we have music written for us with string quartet, chamber orchestra, symphony orchestra, choir and organ etc. We have a huge variety of projects that we can take part in and that keeps life interesting for us and our audiences.

Q2. Outline what personnel changes, if any, have taken place with the ensemble over this time span.

As i mentioned earlier, there have been only 5 changes in personnel. The original line-up was David James, Paul Elliott, Paul Hillier and Errol Girdlestone. David James is the only one left that has been in the group since the start.
Errol left very early-on. He was more of a pianist than a singer in any case and now has a successful conducting career. He was replaced by John Nixon. Rogers Covey-Crump and John Potter replaced John Nixon and Paul Elliott i think at least 20 years ago. Gordon Jones replaced Paul Hillier approx 13-14 years ago.
Finally, i joined the group in 1998 and for a while we had five members. We did take the opportunity to perform some 5-part music, but in the main John Potter and i were sharing a job because he was becoming very busy outside the group. John left in 2001 and we reverted to a four-man group.

Q3. Briefly outline the musical background of the four current members of the ensemble.

We have all been through the cathedral music system as boys and as adults. My history is fairly typical. I was a chorister at St. Pauls Cathedral in London, i went to Cambridge University to study Economics and sang in St. John's College Choir and when i left, i sang in Westminster Abbey Choir for a while.
I think that only Rogers went to music college and he was initially an organist. We have all sung as soloists and in other small ensembles.

Q4. What is the main difference between performing works by a living composer such as Arvo Part, and say a Renaissance composer like Palestrina?

Of course, the obvious difference is that you can work directly with the composer and consult them about any notes or markings that you're not sure about. You can find out what sort of effect they're after, which isn't always obvious looking at the page.
With early music, we are restricted to consulting the academic experts, who don't always agree with each other. Singing Palestrina is pretty instinctive, but it would be wonderful to have been able to ask Guillaume de Machaut a few questions.

Q5. Are there any difficulties, technical or otherwise, when switching between early music and modern contemporary music during a performance?

Not especially. We approach all the music that we do in a similar fashion. Every piece of music has different challenges, but in the end, most of the skills that you require are the same such as the ability to listen to one another, sing in tune etc. We like mixing early and contemporary music in the same programme. It is interesting that some people have difficulty telling which is which when we sing music like Machaut.

Q6. How did the collaboration with the great Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek come about, and what kind of an experience has it been working with him?

I wasn't a member of the group when the collaboration started, but Jan Garbarek is a fellow ECM artist and i believe that it was the head of ECM, Manfred Eicher, who first came up with the idea. I don't think any of the Hilliards had any idea how successful it would be.
Since i joined the group, i have performed many concerts with Jan and i can honestly say that it is a very special experience. It has a completely different feel to our other concerts. Wherever we perform, we get large, appreciative audiences, many of whom would never normally come to one of our concerts. It has been a very good way of reaching new people. We perform in some fantastic venues including many of the wonderful old european cathedrals in which the atmosphere is superb. No concert is ever the same as any other and Jan is a joy to perform with.

Q7. What has led to the increased popularity of a cappella performance ensembles such as the Hilliard Ensemble, Chanticleer, and the Irish choir Anuna?

I'm not entirely sure how to answer this question. I'm not really aware of the popularity of the other groups you mention and i confess i haven't listened to them. When the Hilliards are on holiday, which isn't very often, i feel the need to escape music for a while! I think that you're probably in a better position to answer this question than i am.
One thing i would say, is that small vocal ensembles are probably just finding their correct position in the overall market. There has always been plenty of small-scale instrumental music on offer, but until recent years, most vocal music has been either solo or choir music.

Q8. How does the groupís namesake, British miniaturist painter Nicholas Hilliard, fit into the picture, and what was the inspiration behind choosing him when naming the ensemble?

Firstly, can i say how glad i am that you know that we are named after Nicholas Hilliard and not Paul Hillier! You wouldn't believe how often we have to explain that.
I wasn't around when they chose the name, but i believe that they wanted to avoid just choosing the name of a composer like other groups at the time. Nicholas Hilliard was alive at the time that much of the music the Hilliards then sang was written. He worked on a small scale, but what he produced was close to perfection. I think that it was their aim to do something similar. (maybe i'm reading too much into it, i don't know!)

Q9. Tell us what the Hilliard Summer School is all about, and what types of events take place during these programs.

The Hilliard Summer School is our chance to pass on some of our knowledge and expertise to other ensembles. It is for ensembles similar to us, singing one to a part, up to 8 voices. We prefer to have groups that already exist and have repertoire that they wish to work on. The standard of the groups varies quite a lot. Some of the groups we have taught in the past have gone professional and become very successful including Ensemble Amarcord, Singer Pur & Trio Mediaeval. Most of the groups are just people that enjoy singing together and performing an occasional concert from time to time.
It takes place in Germany at Schloss Engers on the Rhine near Koblenz usually in the first week of August. This year the dates are 31st July - 6th August. Further details can be found on our website.
We work with the groups individually and together, and each group is working towards performing in 2 public concerts. In the first concert, they perform some music of their own choice. We have a composer in residence who writes music for each group to perform in the second concert. This year it will be Joanne Metcalf, who is Assistant Professor of Music at Lawrence University, Appleton, Wisconsin, who has written some wonderful music for us in the past.

The current members of the Hilliard Ensemble are:
DAVID JAMES, countertenor
GORDON JONES, baritone

The Hilliard Ensemble
(Photo © Friedrun Reinhold)

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