British conductor Gavin Carr will be leading the South West Festival Chorus and the musicians of the Symphony Orchestra of India in a performance of Handel’s Messiah on 25 March 2014 6 pm at Bom Jesus Basilica Old Goa. Entry free. He spoke to the Navhind Times in an exclusive interview.


Tell us a little about Southwest Festival chorus. How old is it?

It began in 2001 in the town of Frome in Somerset, as a community chorus put together for the Frome Festival. The first concert was such a success and met with so much enthusiasm that it was decided to repeat the event the following year, and the Chorus has built steadily on this basis. 

What is the audition process? And how often does the chorus rehearse? I ask this because there is a surge of interest in amateur choirs here.

The Chorus is open to all singers of whatever ability, and we do not have auditions for them. Consequently, we get a very broad range of singer, from the highly experienced to the novice, and thus fulfill one of our functions, which is to give training to whoever wants it.

We meet twice a year, generally, in a Winter and a Summer School, at the end of which there is always a concert. These ‘Schools’ take place over a Friday night-to-Sunday evening span, and are very intense and full on, with much laughter and hard work side by side.

The Southwest Festival chorus as come as far East as China in the past, but this is its first tour of India. We hope this will be the first of many more.

We hope so too! These long-haul tours are such wonderful experiences for us, and I have always longed to travel in India, and so for me this is a dream come true and I look forward to developing friends in the country and possibly getting more involved in the country’s music-making. It is particularly good to hear that you, like the UK, are experiencing an upsurge in interest in choral singing. 

I guess you were a true-born musician, given your parentage. And your brother is a composer. How early in your life did you just ‘know’ that you wanted to devote your life to music?

With a Covent Garden Prima Donna for a mother, music was always as much a part of my life as the air itself. Truth to tell, I was always interested in both music and art, and have juggled painting with singing and conducting throughout my life. At present, conducting and singing are in the ascendant and occupy virtually all my time, but as a young man in my early twenties I emigrated to Australia (birthplace of my mother) and focused on painting, before the ‘secret’ of my musical proclivities got out and I became ever more enmeshed in the musical life of Melbourne and Sydney. Once this happened, I decided to take things to the next level, and trained in the USA and Europe. There has never been a moment, however, when I said ‘I will be a musician’; for me, that would have been akin to saying ‘I will now breathe air’ – music has always been there, and always will be so long as I have air to breathe. 

Is it easy, being both a singer and a conductor? Each has its own demands, and its own itinerary. Does one take precedence over the other?

A very interesting question, and one which I wish more people would consider! It is not easy being both a singer and a conductor – for a start, people find it hard to hold two concepts about one thing in their head at the same time, and for most agents, casting-directors, Intendants etc either I am a ‘singer’ or a ‘conductor’, but not both at the same time. The reality is that I have had to focus on my conducting for the last ten years to bring it to the level of my singing, and in this time my singing underwent something of an hibernation for a while, from which I am now very pleased to say it has awoken. I have fulfilled occasional singing contracts over this period, in particular with conductors who value my own particular vocal talents in certain repertoires, but I am now at a point with all my skills that I feel able to give my singing career some more attention whilst maintaining the conducting component at a high level. Once a singer, always a singer, it seems!

On a more philosophical level, it is a fascinating experience to come back to singing having become a successful conductor – I see so much more of what is really going on in a rehearsal or performance, and my body listens with a sharp-pointed focus that it only guessed at previously. I hope that this makes me a better singer, and I look forward to exploring the two side by side, as I am now at an age to attempt this synthesis in my life. 

I was interested to read about Wexford Festival Opera of which you are Chorus Master since 2011, and that it uses promising artists from around the globe, who have made first appearances there. We hope that this becomes the nurturing ground for young Indian talent as well.

Indeed, this Chorus at Wexford is something I am very proud to have founded and developed. I have a particular sympathy for the needs of young artists, and my twofold experience as singer and conductor makes me uniquely placed to appreciate the pitfalls of our profession and the skills required to circumvent them. It is an irony I am still not comfortable with, that I have had to give up my Wexford work this season to accommodate the other conducting work that makes up my year. However, I still stay in close touch with the Festival, and feed it promising young singers to keep its strength up! There is a young Indian baritone beginning to make his way that I am concerned to help as I can – Ross Ramgobin – an exceptionally promising singer, and I would be delighted to see more from India make their way into the profession.

In your career as a singer and conductor, you must have worked with the whole spectrum, from amateur to semi-professional to professional ensembles and choruses. Do you feel, like Sir Colin Davis, that there is a certain freshness and excitement working with amateurs? Is it easier to work with the pros in that they are more disciplined and ‘fine-tuned’? Which do you prefer, or is it fun working with everyone?  

If I had the sort of career that meant only working with pros I would certainly miss the element of exploration and dedication that amateur singers bring to the experience. There is nothing like the ‘glow’ of amazement and glory on the face of an amateur chorus when they achieve the very highest levels of expression in music. It is an experience full of a never-ending humility, to work with amateurs – I am at the service of their dedication, in one way: the choice they make to dedicate a portion of their busy lives to music-making finds it focus in the work I channel with them, and this is something I try never to forget. It is such a joy to see how very far a group of amateur musicians can rise into the stratosphere of achievement: in my work with elite Symphony Choruses, such as the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, whom I have the honour to direct, and the Philharmonia Chorus of London, we aim at the very height of musical expression, and we achieve incredible things with our amateur singers. With a chorus such as South West Festival Chorus, the joy is in aiming at the highest and surprising ourselves with both the journey and the achievement.  

Handel’s Messiah is a British ‘standard’, widely performed at least twice a year, at Easter and Christmas, and the British public knows it well. Do you feel that ‘less is more’ when it comes to performing this work? What are your thoughts regarding ‘mega’-performances, with large choral and orchestral forces?

Well, we know from Handel’s own large-scale performances of some of the celebratory music he wrote for the Monarchy that this was a composer unafraid of the grand gesture, and I defy anyone to look at the ‘Amen’ chorus in Messiah and think it small scale (although I did recently Chorus Master a performance in which an eminent Handel conductor had the chorus and orchestra sing the final cadence mezzo piano – which is not only an absurdity in itself, but was shatteringly demoralising to audience and performers alike). I have grown up within the nascent traditions of the Early Music movement, and have been delighted to reap its benefits as a singer, conductor, and listener, but at the same time one of my three or four Desert Island discs is the old Beecham recording of Messiah, which in its chorus work is quite simply the most thrilling thing – that final Amen chorus is the greatest single expression of grandeur and nobility I know of in recorded sound. So it is fair to say that I straddle the fence. I cannot agree with Joshua Rifkin that Bach intended his Passions for solo voices – having conducted Bach in the Thomanerkirche in Leipzig and Buxtehude in the Marienkirche in Lubeck, I think this approach is a moderately intriguing absurdity and nothing more. I like performing Baroque music with chamber-sized forces, fleet of foot and lean and hungry; but I also like challenging large-scale forces to sing and play with such finesse that the clarity of this chamber approach is manifested whilst incorporating the sonic exhilaration and splendour that only large forces can achieve. I respond on a visceral level to the qualities of scale in Handel’s music in particular, and I feel in my blood that here was a man who loved sound in itself as a means of bringing his listeners closer to the Sublime, and there is nothing more sublime or noble or grand or human than the music of Messiah, and so I will be working with our choir and orchestra to elicit that response from our listeners.


(An edited version of this article was published in the Navhind Times Goa India on 19 March 2014)