The Guest Baton: Jonathan Grieves-Smith

Jonathan Grieves-Smith is guest conducting Sydney Chamber Choir for their Dixit Dominus performance this Saturday. He shares stories of growing up in a world surrounded by music, his love of Baroque repertoire, and the excitement of re-visiting interstate collaborations.

What’s your first memory of music?

There are no specific lightning strikes but there was the steady lure and hook of fine hymn tunes in my father’s Methodist churches, the sounds of my sister’s piano lessons, and sometimes when I was in bed my father would play the piano a little. Things changed when I was eight-years old and we moved to Wigan, in the northwest of England. I remember the Organist and Choirmaster of Wigan Parish Church, David Cutter, coming to my Bluecoat Primary School to try to drum up candidates for his choir. Well, there was no question as to my response but I was worried, needlessly as it turned out, about whether my Dad would be happy singing with the Anglicans! 

I dived into the chorister’s life with a joy that has never left me. All these years later I can feel the thrill of a damp chill October evening, the combination of beautiful sounds and visionary texts in a beautiful building, it moved me deeply, and I still shiver with anticipation at the menu of psalms, responses, canticles and anthem. Might tonight be Herbert Howells? The St Paul’s or Gloucester Service, or perhaps the Collegium Regale?! Wonderful, it was.

How did you first get your hands on the baton?

Very much by chance! After Wigan I went to Kingswood School in Bath and having caught the cathedral music bug ‘up north’ was very pleased to be in a city with a majestic Abbey and fine Choir, and to have the Abbey’s Assistant Organist, Marcus Sealy, as my organ teacher. Marcus was relentless in impressing on me the disciplines of score-reading, sight-reading, hymn-playing, accompanying, and even if I didn’t quite share his passion for Max Reger, he opened my ears to so much music and so many opportunities.

After Bath I had a gap year teaching music and sport at Starehe Boys’ Centre in Nairobi. Most days I pulled on my shorts and ran out to coach soccer or hockey, or to play fly-half or winger for Nondescripts Rugby Club, but Nairobi had a busy artistic life and I got involved with the city’s busy musical and dramatic life, accompanying, giving recitals, playing in productions of Dido & Aeneas, Gilbert & Sullivan, Messiah, etc. 

One day I was accompanying a women’s choir and observing the conductor gradually being wound up by the trials and tribulations of what was a rather inattentive group, until finally she could take no more, exploded at the singers and stormed out. All quite dramatic and amusing until I looked up to see the small choir cloistered around the piano saying, ‘Well, now you’ll have to conduct’!

I loved it that day and have loved it ever since. I had time to put a few concerts together in Kenya and then went as Organ Scholar to Sussex University where I trained the Chapel Choir, and very quickly became conductor of the University Choral Society, and almost as swiftly, Assistant Music Director to the great Hungarian conductor Laszlo Heltay with the outstanding Brighton Festival Chorus – and my, do I owe him a lot, not least for the ever-present voice of conscience in the back of my brain –. It was a chain of events I couldn’t have foreseen and which dropped into my hands very quickly.

This is Sydney Chamber Choir’s second (and most pleasurable) time working with you. What brings you back for a second round?

I enjoyed the first time so much, and so am delighted to be asked back to a group who not only have excellent musical potential and instincts but who have charted a singularly impressive path of commissioning, programming and collaboration.

And I like the human qualities of the group, they like to sing, they want to be good, they like to be together, and these qualities are important to the rehearsal process and affect the musical outcome.

How does working with a more intimate ensemble affect the way you approach the music compared to with the MSO? 

Whether a chamber group or symphony chorus, I think we are always trying to establish an intensely vital quality of listening so that our activity has the quality of the finest string quartets. Of course, the conductor must have a clear image of the music’s construction, tempi, colours and articulation, but if we can establish this quality of listening in, amongst and between the musicians, then together we can build extraordinary musical and emotional structures. 

I would suggest the musical and expressive targets are the same whether working with large or small groups and only vary with the demands of the music, but the individual responsibility of the singers in a chamber group always feels greater and very rewarding. In a large choir the individual responsibility is in fact exactly the same, but to establish the conditions whereby the singers can confidently take on the same independence and resolve in large sections is much harder. The challenge is the same everywhere, if everyone is a true leader you have the potential for outstanding music.

One of the reasons SCC loves working with you is because of the expertise you bring to interpreting Baroque music – you bring out rhetorical gestures and shapes from the busy texture in ways that really seem to breathe fresh air into these works – what are you most excited about for the upcoming Dixit Dominus concert with SCC later next month?

Thank you! I love the way the musical material in Handel’s Dixit Dominus talks - hectoring, asking, answering, arguing, agreeing, shouting, whispering; and how its musical characters walk in to scenes, trip, run, stride out, sit down and become quiet. The material is so direct and clear! And the words, like little rubber balls, bounce and leap with such brilliance and rhythmic energy – it is an athletic joy to pick them up, taste them, spit them out. And then, in the middle of perhaps this most virtuosic piece of choral writing, there is music for two sopranos of the most haunting entwining, like two young antelope delicately, tenderly sipping from a pool at the end of a long hot African day…exquisite.

And then there is Bach and his cantata, Christ lag in Todes banden, written when he was 22 years old, that reveals an acute observation of the human condition, and expresses it with an immense emotional directness. Words can describe the craft but I am defeated when trying to express the heart of such a work.

I am very, very pleased we are performing works by Pēteris Vasks and Iain Grandage, both of them new, powerful, exquisite, and from opposite ends of the same Earth. They are good men, with things to say and technique to say them.

Quite simply, it is a concert of immense emotional range and musical challenge – I am very excited to be doing this with Sydney Chamber Choir and the Orchestra of the Antipodes.

What are you listening to right now?

Mahler 3rd Symphony, Sibelius 7, two Handel operas – Susanna, and Theodora, and Bach - always Bach! – the Passions, but for always and for ever, the B minor Mass!