Suzi Digby on founding and directing ORA Singers

On 16 March, ORA Singers launch their residency at LSO St Luke's with the Design Series, in collaboration with acclaimed stage-designers. Ahead of the performance, ORA Singers' founder and director Suzi Digby gave us a tantalising glimpse into what the ensemble has in store this March.

'It’s hard to fault the vocal qualities of ORA Singers, the choral ensemble formed by Suzi Digby,' said The Times in their review of ORA's performance at LSO St Luke's last year. 'They sail through the air with an almost astonishing purity of tone, perfect balance and togetherness – ideal weapons for their chosen repertoire, Renaissance masterpieces and the new fruits of contemporary composers.'

For their forthcoming concert, the ORA Singers continue to perform their signature fusion of music from the Renaissance Golden age and the current era, something that was key to Suzi Digby's vision when she founded the ensemble three years ago. An internationally renowned Choral Conductor and Music Educator, she is credited for trail-blazing the revival of singing in UK schools and the community. We sat down with her ahead of the concert to find out more.

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The performance will focus on musical settings of text from the Song of Songs. What do you think it is about the Song that has inspired so many composers to base music upon it?

Even the title, Song of Songs, is musically inspiring. This book, from the Hebrew bible, is a highly poetic description of erotic love. It is full of allegory, suggestion, sexual imagery, longing, desire, teasing ... I can’t think of a sacred text that affords a greater range of inspiration for a choral composer. Beauty, sex, yearning, fulfilment, naturistic imagery (lush fruits, flowers, thorns ...). In addition to all this, there is the centuries-old question of the deeper interpretation of this book. And its illicitness (frequently the subject of censorship). What more could a composer wish for?

This concert will feature the world premiere of Donna McKevitt’s Reflection of Ceballos’ Hortus Conclusus, Amica Mea. What can you tell us about the piece?

We couldn’t wait to fill our commission spot with a new reflection by Donna Mckevitt for our first Design Series concert. Donna is better known for her popular music, film scores and interesting cross-genre collaborations; she was just the perfect fit for an exciting new commission whose world premiere would be alongside exciting new concert designs from another distinguished artist at the top of her respective profession.

Donna’s composition draws it roots from an experiment on the interval of a perfect fifth, taken directly from the Ceballos original. In the composer’s own words, 'I was seeing how much I could break the rules and write in parallel fifths!' Mckevitt also commented, 'In a lot of my work in film and dance I have extremely short deadlines and not the luxury of experimenting with a fifth or sixth idea. So for me this was a wonderfully creative and peaceful experience. I set out to create a setting of King Solomon’s nuptial song to his bride that was both respectful to its place in Christian scripture but also one that reflected the passion of the moment.' We were delighted to give Donna the opportunity to write for our 18 exquisite singers, we think it will be a truly beautiful and meditative part of the evening.


As you mentioned, 16 March will also be the first performance in ORA Singer’s new Design Series. Can you tell us about designer Nicky Shaw’s plans for the Jerwood Hall? How will the designs enhance the music?

We don’t want to give away too much about Nicky’s plans, you’ll just have to come and see for yourself! We didn’t set many restrictions on her, so her design really is a reaction to, and inspired by, the music we will be performing. She has said previously that she wants to give the concert a subtle ecclesiastical feeling, with the clever use of shapes, light and shadow. She is also a great fan of the Jerwood Hall space and its flexibility, so we’re confident that her design will enhance what is already a sublime and transformative event.

As the Artistic Director and Founder of ORA Singers, what was the vision that motivated you to start the group? And what do you think sets ORA apart from other vocal ensembles?

The lightbulb moment which led me to found ORA Singers (exactly three years ago) was a sudden realisation that we were in a new Golden Age of choral composition. As a prolific commissioner of new music, internationally, over 25 years, it dawned on me that now is the time to be commissioning the many brilliant choral composers who are composing, with increasing confidence, music that is beautiful and powerful, with the potential to have a ‘transfigurative’ effect on new audiences and music aficionados alike. But impact at this level requires the finest performers around. Hence, my desire to form a recording and performance group with the best choral musicians in the world.

To create a lasting legacy of this new Golden Age, we are commissioning 100 composers to ‘reflect’ 100 Renaissance masterpieces from the last Golden Age of a cappella choral works, that of the Tudor age (and its equivalent on the Continent). Our discography (with the harmonia mundi label), is a vital part of this vision. We have now released five albums (with our new Desires album out in March) and, with our residency at LSO St Lukes, hope to build a passionate and loyal audience base!

What do you look for when you commission a new work?

We ask our composers to ‘reflect’ a Renaissance work. We try to give them as much freedom to ‘reimagine’ the original work. They can use the existing text, fragments of text, or a completely new text. They can secularise a sacred text or vice versa. They can compose in any musical genre and with any number of voice parts (up to 18; the standard ORA Singers grouping). We ask them to keep the length of their composition to that of the original. We have a long (and growing) list of composers we wish to commission. They are all outstanding.

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What musical features characterise contemporary choral music as music of the 21st century? What are contemporary composers exploring in their work?

What is exciting about commissioning today is that composers seem to be less restricted/‘fashion-bound’ than at any time in the past few decades in terms of harmonic language, style and genre. Our commissioned composers cover a range of choral ‘languages’: neo-tonal, experimental and gospel-influenced. I am very interested in commissioning electronic music and jazz for future albums, all based on the Renaissance polyphony ‘reflection’ concept. All our composers to date have found this to be a wondrous spring-board for creativity and originality.

The New Statesman described you as ‘a serious force for good within Britain’s music education system.’ Why is it important to revive singing in schools and in communities?

To a large extent, we have already seen a significant revival of singing in schools, communities and churches in recent years. The situation in the early 90s was dire. Singing was disappearing from these communities. For complex and multiple reasons, we have seen a choral renaissance in recent years. And not just in the UK, although my belief is that the UK now leads the world in this field. Through the Government’s Sing Up (£40 million to singing in Primary schools) a few years ago, singing is now back in Primary schools; there is a massive increase in ‘registered’ amateur choirs and, very recently, a credible study suggests that choral Evensongs around the country are gaining in popularity and are increasingly better attended. This is wonderful news. Yes, I passionately believe that singing is vital for the ‘holistic’ health of the individual and for society. And that this should start at the youngest age. Through the Voices Foundation (now 25 years old), the London Youth Choir (which serves multiple communities and all London boroughs), both of which I founded, and all my community choir work over the decades, I have dedicated much of my life to this revival. The trend is in the right direction.

What can we look forward to from ORA Singers over the next year?

We celebrated our third birthday this month! This is a bumper year. Since winning the German music industry award (Opus Klassik, Best Ensemble of the Year) last year, things have taken off. This year we release our sixth album, ‘Desires’; we record Tallis’ Spem in Alium and Sir James MacMillan’s 40-part ‘reflection’ of it – an ORA Singers commission. We have several Festival engagements, including Cheltenham Festival, Bath Festival and others; we have two international tours (Germany and the US); our first young composer competition (with mentoring for young composers in state schools throughout the UK) and, most importantly, our ‘Design Series’ residency at LSO St Lukes!

 

 


Suzi Digby and ORA Singers will perform at LSO St Luke's on Saturday 16 March and Saturday 1 June.