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conductor Karen Grylls on founding Voices New Zealand, and the choir’s journey to partaking with Māori music


Karen Grylls
Karen Grylls


Karen Grylls
is the founder and conductor of Voices NZ (Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir), one of many main chamber choirs in New Zealand. The choir’s vary is large, up to now they’ve collaborated with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and with the Kings Singers while after we spoke, they’d simply been working with composer Eric Whitacre on his Sacred Veil. Different main current tasks embrace Voices Love Opera, an occasion that needed to be deserted because of COVID however which noticed the group performing operatic repertoire together with music from Nico Muhly‘s Two Boys. 

The choir additionally engages extensively with New Zealand composers, in 2017 they carried out Passio by the late Jack Brody (1944-2015), in an immersive staging of a piece impressed by sixteenth century chant. Since 2000, the choir has additionally been extending its engagement with Māori composers and Māori music. In 2014 they carried out Requiem for the Fallen [a work which was subsequently recorded] created by composer Ross Harris, poet laureate Vincent O’Sullivan and taonga pūoro (Māori conventional devices) specialist Horomona Horo to commemorate the centenary of World Struggle I, for an ensemble that positioned Māori devices alongside the singers.

Karen studied in New Zealand after which the USA. Again in New Zealand she was requested to audition for the position of conductor of the New Zealand Youth Choir which had been based in 1979 by Peter Godfrey and Man Jenson. She then has spent 22 years on the helm of the New Zealand Youth Choir and the New Zealand Secondary College students Choir. By the point she had labored via a number of iterations of scholars in these ensembles, she realised that there was no appropriate nationwide ensemble for the younger singers to maneuver on to, that they wanted a spot with knowledgeable degree of music making.

Karen Grylls & Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir
Karen Grylls & Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir

She feedback that the singers of the Nationwide Youth Choirs of Nice Britain end at an earlier age than these in New Zealand, however within the UK the younger singers have a so many potential choices. However in New Zealand, which has a inhabitants of simply 5 million, there are far fewer alternatives for younger grownup singers to sing at knowledgeable degree. and there are definitely not sufficient alternatives for younger grownup singers to make a dwelling as knowledgeable singer. In a single day, she determined to discovered Voices NZ for these over 25, and thus too outdated for the youth choir. 

This resulted within the institution of a model, Choirs Aotearoa New Zealand or CANZ underneath which got here the youth choir and Voices NZ, and now they’ve New Zealand Secondary College students Choir on board too. The ensembles have each pedagogy and repertoire in widespread, and with all three it is very important do commissions and to have interaction with Māori traditions and music making. The choral teams are thus a part of the actual huge journey that New Zealand is engaged upon, partaking with Māori tradition and protocol, constructing relationships. And for Karen, this has had an attention-grabbing affect not solely on what they sing however the best way that they sing it.

Karen is about to step down from her submit at college (she is Affiliate Professor in Choral Conducting on the College of Auckland) and will probably be spending extra time with one other newly shaped group, the New Zealand Childrens Choral Academy, with the concept of growing expertise and expertise in youngsters in order that they will really feel the nationwide choirs.

New Zealand Youth Choir
New Zealand Youth Choir

Voices NZ is a versatile ensemble, typically performing as a chamber choir with 16 or 25 singers however generally utilizing 60 to 70 singers. Working with Eric Whitacre lately they used simply 24 singers, however when Donald Runnicles was going to conduct Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis in New Zealand (a challenge cancelled by COVID) they’d the talents to offer the choir. In November they’re performing Mozart’s Requiem with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, conductor Gemma New, with some 50 singers [further details]. The nationwide choirs give singers each the talents and the alternatives to carry out issues that they may not do in regional choirs. They current choral singing on the nationwide degree, in order that on the current memorial service for Queen Elizabeth II, Voices NZ carried out Hine e Hine organized by Māori composer Robert Wiremu.

Nevertheless it nonetheless comes again to the core repertoire, Karen feedback that if singers do not have the talents to sing Bach, then they won’t have the talents for later music. The Western choral canon is constructed on a cappella music, and this wants loads of expertise. For the time being Karen feels that singing in faculties has dropped considerably, and this space wants work to offer a agency foundation. So, they’re introducing these expertise by way of the New Zealand Childrens Choral Academy, not solely utilizing the Kodaly Technique however Māori musical expertise too.

Karen feedback that Bach and Māori music require totally different ability units. In Māori music there’s a totally different means of performing, far much less head voice and extra chest, partly as a result of this can be a music to be sung outdoors. Considered one of their earliest programmes to make use of Māori music was Spirit of the Land in 2006 which used all compositions by New Zealand composers. Later programmes blended the 2 worlds collectively, as an example the choir improvising chant over music carried out on Māori devices, and Karen has at all times been on this type of combine. The choir would possibly carry out a live performance the place we recognise every bit, or concert events the place there’s a actual mixture of items. Manner again in 1988, Sir David Willcocks, who was in New Zealand to conduct a efficiency of Orff’s Carmina Burana, commented that the Youth Choir wasn’t an English choir and that it wanted to go a route away from this custom. Now, Karen feels that they’re very multicultural. With Māori music, the devices use a unique tonality to Western music, and they’re studying to accommodate their fashion to the Māori world, making an attempt to have interaction with Māori music from the within out.

Karen Grylls & Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir (Photo Aja Letherby)
Karen Grylls & Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir (Photograph Aja Letherby)

For Karen, Voices NZ’s singing aesthetic is holistic, being completely engaged within the physique. Singers need to have the capability to sing a straight sound but additionally to have heat and a connection. While the sound is just not fully operatic, there may be heat and vibrancy, and for tasks such because the current one with Eric Whitacre they sang with a straighter sound. It’s this assorted palate which makes the choir so thrilling, and folks will be not sure who they’re. However this very flexibility is a part of the choir’s ethos, they’re fast to reply.

While the singers are paid, the revenue is just not sufficient to offer an everyday skilled job and lots of are academics, bankers, optometrists, legal professionals and such. Singers within the group need to have one other revenue, one other life. Voices NZ does round 4 or 5 main tasks a 12 months, and never each singer does every part. Many additionally sing of their regional choirs, in spite of everything singers need to sustain their ability. However all find it irresistible and provides themselves to it. Now they’re engaged in a journey to learn how to turn out to be a completely skilled group.

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