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Interview: Peter Phillips, director of The Tallis Scholars...

24 January 2007

....and director of music for the new choral foundation at Merton College, Oxford

I can’t sing: I just conduct and direct. I am responsible for the blend of voices and their interpretation. I started The Tallis Scholars in 1973 when I was an organ scholar at St John’s College, Oxford. We were all undergraduates. Of course, some have moved on, but some of our members from ten years after that are still with us.

As a child, I was very musical, but my family was not. I played instruments and was always asked to sing in the musical productions — usually Gilbert and Sullivan. But when my voice broke, I did not sing any more. I was only 18 when I started The Tallis Scholars. There was an element of being in the right place at the right time; it just caught on.

The New York Times described us last year as “the rock stars of Renaissance vocal music”. I thought that was a good quote; there was talk at the time of getting us all in leather jackets, but that was not really going to happen.

We get paid for our concerts. Last year, we did 75 all over the world. We are about to start on a tour of Australia in February. The international side is crucial to our success. The Scholars are made up of ten singers, five men and five women — you need the equal numbers for the alto parts. They sing unaccompanied, and their voices are not too operatic.

There is not necessarily a divide between classical and pop. We worked with Sting on one occasion; he is incredibly talented, could read the music, and joined in very well.

A love affair is probably a good description of my relationship with Merton College, Oxford. It is the most spectacular religious building. The first time we sang in there, it was beautiful: there are incredible acoustics. As a group, we first sang in there at the end of the 1970s, when we had enough money.

The 25th anniversary of our recording of Allegri’s Miserere from Merton is coming up, and we are releasing a new recording also from Merton this spring, which is different because of new technology. But the voices sound pretty much the same, and the original is still on sale.

We stopped recording at Merton for a while, as it got too noisy, and we moved to Salle Church in Norfolk, the size of a cathedral. When we asked if we could record in Merton again, I was asked if the Warden, Dame Jessica Rawson, could sit in. I replied: “Only if she sits very still.” You can hear every rustle at a recording, and she was by the mike.

I asked why there was not a permanent choir rather than just having an undergraduate pick-up choir — which is very good, but not the same as a permanent one. This is reputable Merton College, I insisted. She put me on to the chaplain, the Revd Dr Simon Jones, who had been an organ scholar at Durham. He went for it, and we hold auditions for our first choral scholars this autumn. There will eventually be 16 undergraduate and graduate scholars. I would it like to get to 24.

I am looking forward to being in college again; I will have full dining rights and my own room. They are treating me properly. I am really excited to have this opportunity. My role will be to direct and attend the services; but I have an assistant, and, of course, ultimately I hope we will record.

I make music more than I listen to it, but I love reading, particularly books about the Middle East, as it is somewhere I have really enjoyed travelling and would love to explore some more. I have studied Arabic and can read it. The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz I have particularly enjoyed.

Family is very important to me; my wife is one of the altos in the Scholars. We married ten years ago in the eye of a cyclone in New Zealand, and have a nine-year-old son, Edmund. He is a chorister at the Chapel Royal in London, which does not involve boarding. It has a marvellous musical heritage, although at the moment Edmund seems very keen on rock music.

I would like to be remembered for making Renaissance music part of the normal concert-going repertoire. The sort of person who influences me is someone who enjoys life, but is also really disciplined in their work. I certainly am not inspired by boring, grey people.

I can’t really stand sermons, but have certainly sat through a few in the course of my work, not least when my son is singing. I find it odd that these clearly intelligent, gifted people can’t get their point across.

Deuteronomy and Leviticus and their stories seem an outrageous part of our culture, but I do feel strongly that the parts of the New Testament where we are encouraged to respond kindly to each other are really important.

I get unfailingly angry about the American-Israeli foreign-policy cartel and how it affects the Palestinians. We have performed in Israel, but I do not want to go back. I love Syria, and we have sung in Lebanon. We are always going to Syria: it is such a surprising country. If we are travelling as a family on tour, we do try and stay an extra night for the sake of my son.

 I rely on hobbies, as we travel around so much. I write a lot, particularly music columns — I’ve been writing in The Spectator since 1982 — and my journal. I enjoy cooking when I am at home.

When it comes to being locked in a church, I would probably choose to be with someone who could talk about religion properly. I have been quite impressed with the Bishop of London, who came to the Chapel Royal for Epiphany; or I would be happy with the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Peter Phillips was talking to Rachel Harden.



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