A greatly supportive initiative in the midst of such challenging times, Deutscher Chor London has launched the Corona Commissions project, commission composers to write new choral pieces during this period of pandemic crisis for their next concerts.
Musical Director Barbara Höfling talks to Composers Edition’s Késia Decoté about the choir and the project.
Barbara Höfling: I founded the German Choir 11 years ago, starting with 7 singers who would occasionally sing for German Church services or learn an easy song for pleasure. The group quickly grew and is today 50-60 auditioned singers strong. We rehearse in German, so most of our singers are longterm German Expats, but of course there are several Brits (mostly with a German parent or partner) and all sorts of other Nationalities.
Our repertoire is predominantly German (that is language, so Bruckner and Mozart get sung too)
Késia Decoté: What is the choir’s work with the repertoire from living composers?
BH: I have worked more than 20 years of my career as a professional choir singer, working with many new music ensembles including Ensemble Modern, Schola Heidelberg, BBC Singers and London Voices, as well as a soloist specialising in new music. So new music has always been important to me. I love to work with composers, developing a piece, see how to make it fit with the singers, and respond to current times and questions.
I have so far commissioned more than 60 new works and arrangements, both with the German Choir as well as for me as a singer, several of these have been recorded (mainly for German Radio)
KD: Please tell us more about the Corona Commissions. How has it started?
BH: The Corona Commissions started with a tweet. When the crisis started, my social media got flooded with stories from friends who lost all their work for the rest of the year within a day or two. I was lucky to work for a music publisher at that time, so was able to take advantage of the governments furlough scheme (although my freelance work disappeared as well). So I spoke to the German Choir trustees and suggested we turn this crisis into something creative. I donated a large part of my salary and we started a just giving campaign. That way we were able to raise 5000 GBP.
KD: And how did the selection of composers take place?
BH: When donations started to come in, I wrote a tweet, inviting freelance composers to get in touch if they wanted to be part of it. I had more than 90 composers getting in touch. And that is where it really frustrated me. How on earth would I be able to tell who needs a commission now most?
Then I visited their websites and listened to their music. I could tell what I like, but past works are no guarantee of what a composer will write, stylistically. There were certainly some of the surprises, and I received several pieces which were very different to what I heard on websites.
CE: How has the relationship between the choir and the composers been unfolding throughout these commissioning & creative processes?
BH: With Corona Commissions I tried to give the composers as much freedom as possible. There was the subject of fear (we had already before the crisis planned to have a concert around Halloween) and of course there are the restrictions about how many singers I’d have and what they are capable of singing. But apart from that, I let the composers do whatever they wanted.
I saw a film about Graphic designers the other day, and one of them said: We love restrictions! The more restricted we are, the better the results. I’m not sure if that is the same with music (is it?!), but I certainly learned that I should discuss projects with composers beforehand.
I am also surprised about the very different ways composers enjoy working with performers. In the past, I have always commissioned composers that I already knew from a performer’s perspective, so I knew how they would react when I would say something like “I can’t sing that, at least not beautifully, it’s too high for my voice or… I can sing this, but only once, not for 45 bars. Could you please adapt to that?”
And with an amateur choir there is also the question of “will they enjoy it?”. There is music that a professional singer will enjoy because it is different and a challenge, but an amateur will just not enjoy getting it wrong or working in mini steps to get complicated rhythms or chords right. So knowing the composer, I would know how he or she would react to a request like that.
Here, with Corona Commissions, I knew only one of the composers from previous work. So I discovered that there are very different ways of reacting.
At Composers Edition we greatly admire Barbara and the Deutscher Chor for this bold new project and are proud to have our Michael Cryne and Ian Stephens among their commissioned composers.