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V is for…VOCES8

We thought long and hard about whom we should feature today, 22 December, for the letter V. In the end, we decided to take the opportunity to branch out a bit and look at a secular ensemble which owes much to the tradition of cathedral music. For this reason, we are featuring the vocal ensemble VOCES8.

View our complete Advent Calendar here

Founded in 2005, VOCES8 enjoys an enviable reputation as one of the country’s leading vocal ensembles. Gramophone described their music as, “impeccable in its quality of tone and balance,” bringing “a new dimension to the word ‘ensemble’ with meticulous timing and tuning.”

The singers attribute their passion for choral music to their time singing in church and cathedral choirs as choristers and choral scholars and clearly demonstrate what a chorister’s training can lead to with the right level of determination and hard work.


Photo: Kaupo Kikkas

The group has toured the world, having performed at venues including Wigmore Hall, Bridgewater Hall, Elbphilharmonie, Cité de la Musique, Vienna Konzerthaus, Tokyo Opera City, NCPA Beijing, Sydney Opera House, Mariinsky Theatre Concert Hall, Victoria Concert Hall Singapore, Palacio de Bellas Artes Mexico City and many others. As the group celebrates its 15th season, it will perform in fourteen countries in the UK and across Europe, in Russia, in the USA and Japan, as well as make its debut visit to New Zealand. This season, the ensemble will collaborate with the Academy of Ancient Music, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, and with baroque violinist Rachel Podger.

VOCES8 in concert

VOCES8 has premiered commissions from Jonathan Dove, Roxanna Panufnik, Alexander Levine, Alec Roth, Ben Parry, Ola Gjeilo, Philip Stopford, Graham Lack, Thomas Hewitt Jones and Owain Park. 2019/20 sees Roxanna Panufnik as the group’s Composer-in-Residence, and Jim Clements as Arranger-in-Residence.

You can listen to excepts from VOCES8’s Christmas album here:

Through the VOCES8 Foundation, the ensemble supports a broad range of outreach work that reaches up to 40,000 people a year. The group runs an annual programme of workshops and masterclasses at the Foundation’s home in London, the VOCES8 Centre at St Anne & St Agnes Church. Dedicated to supporting promising young singers, the group awards eight annual choral scholarships through the VOCES8 Scholars initiative. These scholarships are linked to the annual Milton Abbey Summer School at which amateur singers of all ages are invited to work and perform with VOCES8. Through the separate VOCES8 USA Foundation there is another set of 8 talented Scholars.

Photo: Kaupo Kikkas

We caught up with their director, Barnaby Smith, and asked him what members of VOCES8 will be doing today:

We’ve had a very busy December, which started with concerts in Italy and Germany, followed by performances of Messiah with the Academy of Ancient Music (you can watch here), and has finished with a three week US trip which we returned from yesterday; the members of VOCES8 are therefore spending today mostly sleeping to recover from jetlag, and preparing for a family Christmas. It is unusual that we begin our holiday so early (in recent years its been 24th or even 25th December), so it’s particularly special to get a few extra days with our families, and to hopefully feel rested for Christmas day itself. This extra bit of time off before Christmas will also mean I can sing at a midnight mass this year; I miss singing in a church/cathedral choir, so that will be a treat.

We also asked Barnaby what was it about singing in a cathedral choir that inspired him to continue singing and what led him to where he is today:

VOCES8 was founded by myself and my brother Paul; we were both choristers at Westminster Abbey (1992-97), and now the group membership also includes former choristers from Winchester and Brentwood cathedrals, as well as prominent parish church choirs. I still look back on my Westminster Abbey years as the happiest of my life. Of course, the music was wonderful, but even better was the constant sense of adventure and camaraderie. Christmas time was always particularly special, and it was also unusual, because we had to stay all the way through to the 28th December so that we could sing at the founding feast day service for the Abbey. From a chorister’s perspective there were many advantages to this.  Notably, the headmaster (Gordon Roland-Adams, or GRA as we knew him, may he rest in peace) always had to be a great Santa and deliver our stockings in the dead of night; as you’d expect from mischievous choristers, we’d lie awake for as long as possible to try and catch him.  The Dean also threw a good party for the boys on the 26th, and we got to play hide and seek in the Deanery.  We also got two Christmas Days – one at school and one at home. What’s not to like?!

I wouldn’t be doing what I do today without having had the Abbey experience. It instilled so much within me: everything from a sense of discipline, to a deep love of singing and a passion for choral music which drives me to this day; but more than that, it helped me understand what you can achieve with hard work, and to realise the joy of making music with other people, the importance of team, and the value of friendship. Bringing joy and fulfilment to a congregation gave me a sense of self-accomplishment, and it enabled me to develop a social conscience and awareness which I engage with every day in the belief and knowledge that choral music can bring about positive change.

Watch VOCES8 sing ‘The Oxen’ by Jonathan Rathbone here:

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