Somerville College choir continues its impressive rise. Today, there are twelve choral scholarships, two CDs out, and foreign tours in the pipeline. We spoke to David Crown about the six years since he became Choirmaster.

College choirs can be awkward undertakings. Early starts, unusual garments and the very concept of practicing should be enough to put many students off.

Yet in recent years Somerville College Choir has grown in experience and reputation under the leadership of Choirmaster David Crown, a musical omnivore whose own background was more instrumental than choral, playing the violin from the age of four and conducting youth orchestras in his early teens. A choral scholarship to King’s College, Cambridge, however, set him on a new path.

“It’s an excellent choir at Somerville and I find it really rewarding to be involved,” says Crown, whose full head of curly hair (reminiscent of Simon Rattle) suggests the role of conductor comes naturally.

“What’s really encouraging is to hear it being recognised as a good choir outside Somerville. At our concert last year someone told us afterwards: ‘I didn’t know Somerville had a choir and yet you sang better than Schola,” says Crown. [Schola Cantorum is the main University of Oxford Chamber Choir].

The choir has been recognised within the music industry too, especially since its two CD recordings: Requiem Aeternam, produced in 2012, and Advent Calendar, which came out in autumn of 2013.

Reviewing Advent Calendar, International Record Review noted the “musicality which has informed the selection of the music and of each individual performance, for all indeed are fine…a truly excellent and worthwhile disc.”

Crown said that he began by simply choosing pieces he thought the choir would be able to sing. Initially, the choir was “nowhere near good enough” to record a CD and simply needed training in the basics, expectation from the top, and good continuity. This was exciting, Crown says, but also exceptionally hard work.

There have been other challenges too. Somerville is a non-denominational College, which means the menu of services is more varied than in most College Chapels, reflecting not just different Christian denominations but different religions and philosophies too. This makes music selection more challenging, and the resulting songlist unusually varied.

“The musical connection can sometimes be a bit tenuous, but not all religions major on music, so we either try to complement the service or simply provide something secular to listen to,” says Crown. “Some singers won’t come to Somerville because they want the Evensong experience and, if you’re fixed on that, I wouldn’t try to dissuade you. But here you get to sing at a higher level than most choirs, and that attracts plenty of students with good voices.”

Since he began six years ago, Crown reckons half a dozen singers have been particularly good, with the potential to make a living from their voice. Nevertheless, he only expects one of them to actually do so, such is the unpredictability of a singing career. Having those exceptional voices in the choir does, however, help to pull up the quality of the rest. The aim then becomes persuading the other singers to be willing to take a lead.

“If your numbers are down because the wrong people are ill, then it can massively affect things,” he says. “You tend to have one or two leaders in each section but I want the new singers coming in to be able to carry things too. That’s the challenge – and with only eight weeks in the term, you have to make quick progress.”

Which points to another great challenge Crown faces: ensuring students practice. This will always be a challenge in an environment where academic commitments have to take precedence. It is also, Crown says, not yet in the choir’s psyche to turn up to rehearsal only if you already know your notes, but his aim is to instil sufficient pride in their singing for this approach to come naturally.

“My main aim just now is to drag those who might be a bit slack in practicing into that place, and so I want to build the expectation, as a lot of undergraduates don’t appreciate how much rehearsing is needed,” says Crown.

“Hopefully one day they will just join the choir and feel that is what is expected and part of achieving that is making the choir attractive enough for top singers to apply. A really good choir with CDs coming out should get talked about, which in turn encourages school music teachers to recommend Somerville to top student singers,” he says.

Crown bats away questions about favourite composers, arguing that he likes an enormous range and that diversity is beneficial to the choir anyway. One week might be early Renaissance plainchant, another week Schoenberg. His most important musical choices are for CDs and tours and, increasingly, Crown says the choir is alternating (year by academic year) between producing a CD and going on tour.

At the end of 2013 it was the turn of a CD (Advent Calendar) but 2014 is a year for public performances. Two performances of Bach’s St John Passion are due in March, one in Somerville College Chapel (7pm, 16/3), the other in St Mary Magdalene, Woodstock (7.45pm, 14/3), while a performance at St Bride’s, London famous media church off Fleet Street, is slated for the same month. In June, funds allowing, the choir plans to travel to the US, where it will perform in Washington DC and Boston. The US tour would include a performance in Washington Cathedral. (More details on Somerville’s choir can be found on its website and performances can be viewed on its Youtube channel.)

For the moment, however, it’s all about bringing the recent entrants up to speed and persuading them not to leave that practising to the last minute.

“I try everything to cajole them, from humour to extreme irritation, with hopefully not too much of the latter!” says Crown. “I want us to be talked about more and more and that means creating expectation and doing more gigs out of Oxford.”

In which case, all the signs are encouraging.

Funding opportunity

The Somerville Choir has just reached 250,000 hits on YouTube is about to embark on its first US tour, taking in Washington and Boston in the first week of July. They already have bookings at Washington National Cathedral and Trinity Church, Boston as well as a full schedule of performances. The students are making their own contributions to help cover the costs and conducting fundraising to support the Tour. Please do take a look at their exciting initiative:

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