On Monday, 4th September 2023, we welcomed organist, conducter and composer Anthony Gray as our new Musical and Creative Director!
We are thrilled that Anthony has joined Halifax Choral Society. Soprano Liz Hegarty spoke to Anthony about his background, his favourite music and his plans for the Choral Society. Read her questions and his answers below.
Q. Did you grow up in a musical household?
A. Yes - my parents are both musical, and met in a choir. They were both studying at Nottingham at the time, and joined the University choir, meeting in the alto section. Mum also spent a number of years as a primary school music lead, and it was through Dad’s time as Chaplain to the Bishop of Blackburn that I joined the Cathedral Choir as a treble, and have never looked back! The guidance of Richard Tanner, Greg Morris, James Davy and others at that time was a formative part of my musical journey.
Q. As a child, did you play any musical instruments?
A. The piano was always being played in the house, whether by my parents, pupils of my mum, or me! I started playing the piano at a young age, and graduated onto the organ when my voice broke around age 14. I also attempted to play the clarinet (to a not particularly high standard), but my main musical passions were keyboard related.
Q. What was your favourite music as you grew older?
A. Having graduated to the organ, I began to take a keener interest in both the Anglican choral repertoire I had grown up with, and also in more secular organ music. I also grew into a relationship with musical theatre, through working with my head of music at secondary school on a number of school productions. Simultaneously, I developed a more fulsome grasp of the oratorio and concert repertoire through accompanying and singing with local groups in Ilkley. I also began to grow very fond of jazz, partly through the experience of attending gigs in Bridgnorth, where my grandad played a role in organising the annual jazz festival.
Q. And now?
A. I am still a great jazz fan, as well as a lover of essentially any choral music. My main passions lie in the Baroque and Contemporary repertoires as well as many of the dramatic large-scale oratorios of the Romantic era. I am especially keen on promoting new music wherever possible and engaging audiences with the ‘Classical’ repertoire in new and interesting ways. As a performer, I thoroughly enjoy playing much of the 20th century British and French repertoires from composers like Howells, Whitlock, Duruflé and Alain.
Q. You studied at University of Cambridge, where you were an organ scholar. How much time did you devote to that?
The organ scholarship at Cambridge took up a decent part of the working week. It’s often said that holding an organ scholarship (especially at one of the big choral foundations) is like trying to do a full-time job alongside studying for your degree. Whilst the commitments at my own college were less demanding (two services and one rehearsal each week), I also undertook playing at St John’s college once a week, as well as deputising at other colleges, and at churches in both Cambridge and London. I also spent a lot of time as the Musical Director of a number of theatre productions, including visiting the Edinburgh Fringe twice for runs of three different musicals.
Q. What else did you study?
The academic course was very varied, and I focused a lot of my study on some of the practical aspects of keyboard technique, fugue, tonal (or pastiche) composition as well as historical study of Messiaen, Purcell and the St Matthew Passion. I really relished the possibility of sitting one paper which was as broad as to encompass a century’s worth of musical history, alongside another which might cover a two or three year period in one composer’s life.
Q. Did you sing in a choir or band?
Alongside the organ scholarships I held, I also enjoyed playing in pit bands for theatre shows, playing for a number of concerts as a continuo player for Cambridgeshire Choral Society and others, as well as occasionally being found ‘noodling’ something akin to jazz at a May Ball or other extravagant event…
Q. As an accomplished musician, what attracted you to becoming a Choir Leader?
A. My love of choral music and its emotional engagement with an audience is at the heart of this work. Choral music speaks to me as an audience member in a way that no other music does. I also love working as a choral director with a huge variety of people from the amateur to the professional, and from young children to those who may have been singing for 50+ years.
Q. Musically, what have been ‘stand out’ moments for you?
A. There have been many! I arranged some brass parts and wrote fanfares for for Southwell Minster’s broadcast of the Easter Day service on Radio 3, which was a very special experience. I’ve also treasured hearing my own music sung by the BBC Singers and Bob Chilcott on Radio 3 too. In terms of my own performance… playing the organ at the Royal Albert Hall aged 15, the numerous choir tours with Cambridge choirs (including a Messiah tour of Hong Kong and Singapore), directing the choir of Pembroke College live on Bosnian state television (which we were only made aware of after the event…!) and so many more…!
Q. And now, Halifax Choral Society; what encouraged you to apply for the post of Musical and Creative Director of our choir?
A. I have long been an admirer of the numerous excellent choral societies around our most beautiful part of the world. We have such a proud and excellent tradition of music-making of this kind, and I have always been keen to be a part of that wherever possible. Halifax Choral Society, being the oldest choral society in Britain, brings with it an obvious historical pedigree and artistic imperative which I am hugely looking forward to rising to. I have also really enjoyed listening to some of the choir’s recorded output from recent years, as well as following projects such as the anniversary commission from Philip Wilby. The choir’s history of performing some of the best and most exciting pieces in the repertoire is enviable, and I was hugely excited to apply to lead the choir into the next phase of its existence.
Q. The choir has a proud heritage, 205 years continuously performing, never missing a Messiah despite two world wars and a global pandemic. What is your take on that?
A. This is a remarkable achievement! It speaks not only to the commitment to fine music-making, but also to the endurability of both the piece (which is of course a wonderful one), and also the format of this type of concert. A programme consisting entirely of one piece, from one composer, has to be so tightly designed and consistently excellent in its creation that a 205 year history of performing the piece shows just what a special creation the Messiah really is. We already have a fabulous line up of players and soloists ready for this year’s performance, and it will be an honour to be in charge!
Q. And now, moving forward, what is your vision for the choir?
I am very keen to expand the choir’s repertoire such that each season’s programme is more varied and interesting than the last. Whilst it is hugely important and musically enriching to perform some of the oratorio ‘big-hitters’ such as Elijah or The Creation (as we will do in 2023 and 2024 respectively) I am also very keen on the idea that broadening the range of styles and genres of music in which a choir sings can only serve to better the overall sound and vocal longevity of each singer. We have some really exciting programmes planned over the next couple of years, and I can’t wait to see what both singers and audiences think!
Outreach and recruitment
For a large-scale chorus like Halifax Choral Society, it is very important that we make every effort to be open to as wide a range of people as possible. It is imperative as an organisation with such history that we serve to widen opportunities for learning and participation wherever possible. For much of the repertoire we will sing as a group, it is important that there is a good grounding in the basics of musical theoretical understanding, but this is a difficult thing to achieve for those who might not have had this early in their life. This is one particular area I’m very keen to nurture and grow, and hopefully as an organisation, we can offer help, support and education to anyone who wants to sing with us in some of this amazing repertoire.
Maintaining and improving our quality of sound
Whilst I have touched on the importance, to me, of singing a wide range of repertoire in a variety of styles, it is also important to look after our voices, and not to push ourselves beyond our limits. This is why I already have some different rehearsal strategies and techniques planned for our rehearsals in the near future - some of which the choir may not have been used to before! We are also very fortunate to work with some very fine musicians and accompanists, who I know will make rehearsals as efficient and enjoyable as possible. I can’t wait to get started!
Thank you, Anthony. I know the choir are just as keen!
Anthony Gray ‘in conversation’ with Elizabeth Hegarty