Jesus Choir-38


The Jesus College Choir from Cambridge will present a Sacred Choral Concert for Holy Week on 27 March 2013 at 6.30 pm at the Bom Jesus Basilica Old Goa, with music by Allegri, Byrd, Britten, Poulenc, Purcell and Tavener. Entry is free.

The Director of the Choir Mark Williams spoke to the Navhind Times in an exclusive interview.

The Jesus College choir is quite widely travelled, with recent concerts in Turkey, Belgium and the Ukraine, but this trip to India is the farthest it has gone?

The Choir enjoys performing all over the world, and in December 2012 we were delighted to have the opportunity to give a number of concerts in San Francisco, Portland and Seattle on the west coast of the USA.  I think that San Francisco is perhaps a little further from Cambridge than Goa, as the crow flies, but as we will be flying to Mumbai and then travelling by overnight train to Goa, this is certainly the most exciting journey the Choir will have made!

Tell us a little about the history of the Jesus College choir. 

Jesus College began life as a convent of nuns dating back to the 12th century.  In 1496, a college, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, St John the Evangelist and the Glorious Virgin St Radegund (commonly called Jesus College) was founded on the site of the nunnery and the convent church became the college chapel.  It is in that chapel that the Choir continues to sing services in the 21st century.  The statutes of the early sixteenth-century college include references to choristers and we know that boys and men sang in the Chapel for some years before both the chapel and the choir fell into disrepair.  In the middle of the nineteenth century, a friend of the College, Sir John Sutton, arranged for Augustus Pugin (the architect of the House of Lords amongst other places) to restore and refurbish the Chapel.  A new organ was built and the choir was re-established.  By the end of the nineteenth century the choir was flourishing once more and boys from local schools sang regular services with the undergraduates.  In 1982, following the admission of women as undergraduates at Jesus College, a mixed choir was formed in order to give female students the same singing opportunities afforded to male students.  It is this choir that you will hear in our concert on 27th March.  The College still maintains a choir of men and boys which sings two services per week in the Chapel, but the boy choristers will not be joining us on this trip.

How are choir members chosen? Is there a gruelling audition process?

Choir members are auditioned before they arrive as undergraduates and each year we typically take about seven or eight new students into the choir.  The auditions involve singing a chosen piece, performing various aural tests and an exercise in sight-reading.  Owing to the large amount of repertoire the Choir sings, sight-reading is an important skill but we are interested in potential as much as achievement and there is no doubt that the choral scholars develop a great deal in the course of their time in the choir, simply by virtue of singing such a large amount of music on a regular basis.

How often does the choir rehearse?

The College Choir, which is made up of male and female students, rehearses three times a week and sings two services.  The Chapel Choir, which is made up of men and boys, sings a further two services and the choristers have a further three rehearsals, so in total there are eight rehearsals and four services per week but only the Director of Music has to attend all of those!


How did you decide you wanted to be an organist? Were your parents musicians?

My parents would be the first to admit that they are not musicians, although they are very appreciative and extremely supportive.  It was my grandparents who first noticed that I could pick out a tune on the piano at a young age, and I began piano lessons when I was just six years old.  I sang as a chorister and soon developed an enthusiasm for the organ as a result of that.  Although I enjoyed playing the piano (and even the flute for a while), I always knew that I wanted to be an organist and I suppose I consider myself very fortunate to be pursuing the career I dreamt of when I was just a boy.

How do you juggle your many avatars: your own career as organist on the concert platform; in the recording studio for CDs and film soundtracks; as composer, writing and arranging music for TV and radio; and as Director of music at Jesus College Cambridge since 2009?

I enjoy the versatility of being involved in many different forms of music-making.  My work with the choirs at Jesus College takes up the majority of my time and is, thankfully, one of the most enjoyable aspects of my music-making, but I use time away from Cambridge to give organ recitals, to play harpsichord and organ continuo with early music ensembles, to record, to work with musicians in non-classical genres and to direct choirs in the UK and abroad.  I always return from working with other musicians, whether amateur or professional, having learnt something that I can use with the choirs at Jesus College and so being a Jack-of-all-trades hopefully makes me better at what I do!  I also greatly enjoy teaching at the College where I have a number of academic responsibilities.

We in Goa had several pipe organs in our magnificent churches in the past, but they fell out of use due to disrepair, and now the tradition has vanished. Any suggestions on how to resurrect this tradition? It is expensive to repair or reinstall the instruments, and one would simultaneously have to teach a new generation how to play on them, when such teaching doesn’t exist here anymore.  

A neurologist once told me that playing the organ is an activity which engages more parts of the brain than any other he could think of.  The organist must manage both his hands and both his feet, read the music, select stops, listen to the sounds he is making and, when accompanying a choir, watch the conductor.  It’s quite a complicated business and so the key thing for keen young organists is to ensure that they have a very sound piano technique.  There’s little point in trying to introduce the feet into the equation until you have mastered playing with both hands.  Therefore, any community looking to encourage young organists must first encourage young pianists who can graduate to playing the organ once they have learnt how to play the piano to a high standard.  Of course, the principal appeal of organs to young people is the opportunity to make lots of noise.  One of the reasons that there are more male organists than female is that boys are naturally attracted by large machines and an organ is a mechanical and musical wonder to a small child.  It’s important to preserve good organs, not only to beautify the liturgy of great ecclesiastical buildings, but also to draw in young musicians who will be attracted by the opportunity to play on fine instruments.  In the UK, a good deal of refurbishment of organs is now funded by private benefactors.  To pay for the restoration or construction of an organ is a gift which repays the donor in many ways.  Organs are often beautiful to behold and fine monuments in themselves, but the sound of a great organ filling a beautiful building lifts the soul, and those who are able to afford to assist the church in this way, will get great pleasure from knowing the effect that their gift has had on all who hear it.

The collaboration project in Mumbai between the Jesus College choir and the music charity Songbound sounds truly inspirational! Is this a first for your choir? Tell us more. How did it get started?

In 2011, I travelled to India with a group of musicians and agents to look at opportunities for cultural exchange between the UK and India.  I was very struck, in conversation with a number of people running educational programmes, by the observation that there is often a resistance to music-making from parents who feel that their children should be studying rather than doing fun things like singing or playing an instrument.  I felt that a choir of students from Cambridge University could be excellent ambassadors for both music and study, showing that it’s possible to study Engineering or Maths or Law at one of the world’s great universities and to sing in a choir, and that the two inform and feed off each other.  And so I returned from that trip wondering how I could put together a project.  I then saw a film made by a good friend, Joe Walters, called ‘The Sound of Mumbai – a musical’.  In that film, a group of children from a slum in Mumbai, were invited to take part in a concert in the NCPA with an orchestra.  It was tremendously exciting for them and the film captured the immense joy and pride that they took in their singing.  However, one line from the film stayed with me and that was after the concert had ended when one of the little boys observed that he had hoped that somebody in the audience might notice him and offer to help him in his ambition to become a great doctor, but everyone had gone away and now he was just left with memories.  To this end, I decided that Jesus College would collaborate with the maker of this film, Joe Walters, who founded ‘Songbound’ a charity which runs choirs in various slum centres.  It was very important to me that we would not only visit a number of slum choirs in Mumbai, but also raise the money to fund these choirs once our trip had finished.  The students at Jesus College have been working very hard to raise money through cake sales, marathons, beard-growing competitions and a good deal else, and I’m pleased to say that we are now in a position to make a donation to Songbound that will support each of the choirs we visit for a further three years once we have left Mumbai.  This legacy means a great deal to the Choir and I am very proud of all they have done to make this possible.

Is this going to be a long-term collaboration? How will the continuity be maintained?

Most undergraduate degrees in Cambridge last for just three years, and my vision is that the Choir of Jesus College will visit India every three years so that each student who passes through the Choir makes at least one visit.  Each time, we will seek to raise the funds to support the work of the choirs we visit, so that there is a continuity and a legacy.  My greatest dream is that one day, some of the children we will have worked with in these slum choirs, will be able to visit Cambridge and sing with us in our own chapel.

We certainly hope to have you return to Goa, perhaps to collaborate with our El Sistema-inspired charity Child’s Play (India) Foundation.

I have only visited Goa once before but it made a deep impression on me and I am greatly looking forward to returning with the Choir of Jesus College.  If you will have us back, I am sure we would be delighted to return.

(An edited version of this article appeared in the Navhind Times Goa India on 24 March 2013)