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Time was when Oxbridge students (often organists) obsessed with early choral repertoire could simply decide that they wanted to form a classy vocal ensemble and then learn how to direct it afterwards. Numerous groups emerged and some, like The Sixteen, are still going strong, 40 years on. Those times will not come again, and the path to glory in this increasingly professional, demanding and specialised field is now spread with hurdles; so it is young conductors who might be the greatest beneficiaries of parts of this brief, easy-to-read book, discovering not only how Harry Christophers began his celebrated group via training as a chorister, but also learning about his personal approach to the preparation of programmes and the architecture of individual works. There is a particularly engaging discourse on Handel’s Messiah relating to Christophers’s appointment as director of the Handel & Haydn Society of Boston, setting him among conductors of today who eschew stodgy tradition for its own sake.

His interaction with singers, by contrast with some (in)famous directors, is based on positivity and affability: indeed, celebrated alumnus Christopher Purves, returning to speak to the aspiring youngsters of Genesis Sixteen, described membership of the group as being about ‘fun, friendship and forgiveness’. They say he has no ego and that this is a major key to the loyalty of his team. Reading this narrative, one might assume that there have been few vicissitudes until one learns of the £40,000 loss incurred by an American tour, leading eventually to a deficit of £100,000. Running a professional vocal group is like chucking bundles of £50 notes on the fire, so how did they survive and continue to thrive? There’s a frustrating lack of detail here, apart from a tribute to their celebrated ‘angel’, the wealthy investment banker and philanthropist John Studzinski and his Genesis Foundation. His support for commissions and the Genesis Sixteen training programme is clearly crucial.

Christophers acknowledges the element of being in the right place at the right time that has benefited the group; but it’s about what you do with those opportunities, and he has not wasted them. Mohr-Pietsch calls Christophers ‘a reluctant businessman’, but there’s no denying that he has built a cast-iron brand with canny marketing. Looking beyond the somewhat starry-eyed prose of Ms Mohr-Pietsch (did we really need to know that the raised arms of her new baby made her think about conducting?), one finds insights from Christophers and his singing colleagues in their authentic words that will be lapped up by their many fans and aspiring amateur choral singers.

REBECCA TAVENER Read the full review on Agora Classica


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