Hugh Lydon believes singing is music in its purest form. From a choir boy at Westminster Cathedral to teaching kindergarten students at John Septimus Roe Anglican Community College Lydon has sung everything from Gregorian chant to Peter Coombe. He is artistic director of the Giovanni Consort, director of music at Christ Church Claremont and in his bid to bring a singing revival to WA he helped found the Perth Choral Institute. Read on as Hugh gets vocal about choral music.
What music gets your heart racing?
I’m really into anything with a clear pulse that drives the music. Working in a school, I need to listen to an eclectic mix of music in case something slightly left-field can help teach an educational concept, so it’s always fun to discover something that makes me move. Works that really get me going include Such Sweet Thunder by Duke Ellington, Blue Monday by New Order, Prokofiev’s Dance of the Knights, the Agnus Dei from Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Choir and Shadows by Melbourne producer Way of the Eagle.
What calms you down?
I’m a huge fan of Gregorian Chant. The simple nature of a single line of unaccompanied vocal music always allows me to slow down and listen; the music will morph depending on whether one voice or multiple voices are singing, or whether they are conducted or not. The lack of tempo, bar lines and even a specific starting pitch allows a singer’s musical interpretation to be the main force behind the performance, meaning that every performance is unique.
What do you sing along to?
At the moment my children are really into September by Earth, Wind and Fire, so that gets played in the car a lot! I’m also one of those people who tends to sing along with whatever happens to pop into my head. A lot of singing goes on both at home and at school, particularly as I teach a number of Kindy classes, so I’ll often find myself unwittingly belting out a Peter Coombe song or something from Play School. It does raise a few eyebrows from time to time.
How are you preparing for your concert on August 18th with the Giovanni Consort?
Kristin Bowtell has already begun rehearsals with 12 singers for our Americana Concert. We will be joined closer to the time by two percussionists and the exciting young organist Alessandro Pittorino, who has returned to Perth for a visit from his current home in New York. Closer to the time we will move into Wesley Uniting Church to get a feel for the space and to explore moving the singers into different parts of the building for particular pieces – something that we have done in previous concerts this year. We will also have an opportunity to utilise different lighting set ups and work out the best way to project the lyrics of each piece onto the walls of the church; we prefer our audience members to be able to see the singers performing easily, instead of having their heads buried in a program!
What do you hope the audience will experience?
First and foremost I would like the audience to hear the highest possible standard of choral singing. It is my long term ambition to turn The Giovanni Consort into a salaried choir of sixteen full time members, as I believe this size of professional vocal ensemble does not exist in Australia. To do this we aim to consistently provide exceptional audio-visual experiences of diverse choral music in a variety of performance spaces. For this particular concert, all of the music has been written by American composers, some of whom are still alive today. Pieces include works by Charles Ives and Leonard Bernstein, an arrangement of Steve Reich’s Clapping Music for voices, and a Depeche Mode song arranged by Eric Whitacre. We would like to the audience to discover the diverse compositional styles that are shaping the modern repertoire for many choirs around the world.
Lydon and the Giovanni Consort
As a child you spent five years as a chorister at Westminster Cathedral, performing at the Royal Albert Hall, on television and performing with some of the world’s most prominent classical artists. It must have been an amazing introduction to choral singing.
It was a fantastic five years, and really taught me the skills that I still use today as a teacher, performer and conductor. The boys in the choir would sing seven services a week (two on Sundays, with Mondays off) in the Cathedral, with a huge amount of varied repertoire on constant rotation. We would have to attend the boarding school to be part of the choir, and would perform on Easter Sunday and Christmas Day, so didn’t get as many school holidays as a typical British student. A typical Sunday morning congregation would total about 2,000, so performing to large numbers also became normalised quite quickly.
Most of the time music would only be rehearsed on the day of the service, so we all developed a strong sight reading ability quite quickly. We would perform everything from Gregorian chant to newly commissioned masses, including works by Roxanna Panufnik and Sir John Tavener. For concerts there would be a slightly longer rehearsal period, but as these performances were in addition to the services, which were never cancelled, we needed to work quickly. The same applied to recordings, of which we would do a minimum of one a year, always working at night time to avoid traffic and planes. We would still have a normal school routine, so all of our practices would happen either before or after school. It was busy, but certainly worthwhile.
The audition process to join the choristers was interesting, as the Master of Music was not looking for the finished product in an eight year old boy. Instead, they were looking for a particular tone that they could fit into the choir, reasoning that all the other required skills, such as reading music and learning how to pronounce multiple languages could be taught over a one year probationary period. This is something that has stuck with me ever since; it is important to give people the opportunity to develop and grow into a role, rather than expecting them to posses the entire skillset already. This is applicable in every sphere of life, not just music.
Since you arrived in Perth in 2010 you have thrown yourself into the music scene here as a teacher at John Septimus Roe Anglican Community School, director of the Giovanni Consort, and director of music at Christ Church Claremont. More recently you have been part of setting up the Perth Choral Institute. How did this come about?
I would always classify myself as an educator first and foremost, and have been very fortunate to work alongside some very passionate and supportive people. The Perth Choral Institute originated as the initiative of Matthew Hughes, former Principal of John Septimus Roe Anglican Community School. The school has a long tradition of supporting the Arts in young people, particularly in the field of choral music. Over the years, many JSRACS students were fortunate to be sent on courses around the world, including the choral courses held in Eton, UK.
It was felt that a similar experience to these should be nurtured within WA, which may allow a wider group of singers to experience what it is like to be part of a high level ensemble. As a result, the Perth Choral Institute was founded in 2017, and it has expanded each year to try and foster a culture of singing within all aspects of WA. This is done through residential singing schools for school and university students to Boot Camps for people who want to learn a particular style of ensemble singing, be it Gospel Music, Opera Choruses or Christmas Carols. These days the Perth Choral Institute is no longer underwritten by JSR, and is instead an incorporated association. Hopefully it will continue to grow year on year.
Composer Mark Applebaum says music should above all else be interesting. What do you think is the most important role of music?
Quite simply, music makes everything better – if you are watching a film, attending a sporting event or going out for dinner, the addition of music will enhance the experience. Music is present in every aspect of our lives, even if it is in the background, and its absence makes for a less interesting time.
You have a soft spot for choral music – what is so special about groups of people singing music together?
Singing is free; you don’t need to buy an instrument, nor even be able to read music to make a beautiful sound. When you put a group of people together who have a shared passion and ask them to sing, you are creating music in its purest form. As far as I’m concerned, you cannot get much better than that!
Where did you learn the skills to be a choral director?
I was rather thrown in the deep end to be honest. When I first arrived in Perth, I was confident enough to conduct school ensembles and musicals, but had never been paid to conduct a group of professionals. The most advanced ensemble I had conducted was the orchestra of Trinity College Dublin. Similarly, I would regularly sing in ensembles such as St George’s Cathedral and the JSR Chapel Choir, but had never actually had an opportunity to conduct a choir.
The previous General Manager of the Giovanni Consort, Cian Elliott, phoned me a number of years ago, and invited me to conduct their performance of Victoria’s Requiem. I gladly accepted, and got stuck into learning the repertoire. At that point I realised that I have been fortunate to learn from many great choral conductors, especially James O’Donnell and Ralph Allwood in my formative years.
I always try to utilise their rehearsal techniques whenever possible, but I’m aware that what works for one group may not be as successful elsewhere. To that extent, I try to view a rehearsal from the point of view of the experience and ability of the singers, and work out what I would want to achieve if I was in that specific choir, be it in a school, the Perth Choral Institute, or with the professional singers of Christ Church Claremont and The Giovanni Consort.
What is your most electric moment in the concert hall/cathedral?
I have been incredibly lucky to have performed some huge works from a very early age. There are two that stand out for me still. The first was being part of the 1995 First Night of the Proms in the Royal Albert Hall singing Mahler 8 as an 11 year old was a very special experience, with Sir Andrew Davis conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra and some amazing soloists.
The second was actually this year; for our second concert in the 2018 Giovanni Consort series we performed an Australasian concert in the Cabaret Cave in Yanchep National Park. Perry Joyce conducted 17 singers, who performed in 9 languages including Chinese, Japanese and Nyoongar. That was the highest standard of singing I have been involved with as an adult, and the setting of the cave was the perfect venue for that repertoire.
Giovanni Consort performing in Cabaret Cave
What’s the thing you love most about your work?
I love seeing the progression of a musician from school student to fully fledged professional; there are a number of current members of The Giovanni Consort that I taught in Middle or Upper School. It is a special feeling to see the potential in an individual become fully realised over a number of years. There are a surprisingly high number of past students and staff from JSR who have made an impact on the performing arts world, both in WA and further afield. A lot of that has to do with Simon Lawford, who was the first director of the school’s Chapel Choir. There are many people who owe him a lot.
What is your favourite place in Perth?
There are so many areas in Perth that are truly breathtaking, but personally I could spend every day in Guildford and not get bored. It seems to have something that appeals to everybody.
Do you have a soft spot for anything else in life or is it all about the music?
My family will always come before everything else, even music. Margaret is an incredible superhuman who is so supportive of my unusual ideas, yet is the ideal person to keep me grounded! Arthur and Jim, my two boys, provide a daily opportunity to be silly, and love music and singing as much as I do. My mother-in-law Pat acts as a third parent, and without her support I would not be able to do a quarter of what I currently do. The same applies to my own parents, who fly over from the UK every January to look after the boys while the Perth Choral Institute Summer Schools are running.
Besides that though, I love cricket, and am somewhat of a tragic. We had two cats growing up called Slip and Gully…
Thank you Hugh Lydon for participating in Celebrity Soft Spot. You can find more details about the Giovanni Consort’s Americana concert here.