We’ll be joined on the 12 March by choral director Aoife Hiney.
Hello Aoife, I really can’t wait to sing with you again in a few weeks time. What are the things that you start thinking about in the run up to a workshop day like this?
Hi Helen, I’m really looking forward to catching up with you and I’m very excited about this workshop. At the moment, I’m concentrating on the repertoire, imagining how we’ll approach it on the day, and it’s also time to think about scheduling and sequencing so that the day runs smoothly.
How did you get into conducting?
The more I sang with choirs, the more I wanted the chance to conduct a choir. I felt that there must be something magical in having the chance to transform a written score into sound, to try to understand what the composer wanted to convey, and to communicate that to the performers through gesture.
I had conducting classes as part of the degree programme, and then I started signing up for the AOIC conducting courses. When I started working as a music teacher, I had my very own choir to conduct, and then I had the honour of being the assistant conductor of New Dublin Voices under Bernie Sherlock.
In Dublin, I had the chance to sing with inspirational female conductors such as Bernie Sherlock, Orla Flanagan, Ite O’Donovan and Blanaid Murphy, who demonstrated that what really matters is hard work and dedication. In my experience, choral conducting is not as male-dominated as orchestral conducting.
Will you tell us a bit about your background? Where are you from, how did you get into music?
I’m from Crossmolina, in County Mayo, Ireland. When I was 9, I started piano lessons with Nonie Leonard and by the time I was 11, I had already decided that I wanted to be a music teacher just like Nonie!
In secondary school, I had the chance to participate in musicals and the choir, and also started singing with the local church choir. Then I went on to complete a degree in Music Education in Dublin, which meant lots of opportunities to sing and to learn. In 2005, Bernie Sherlock invited me to join a new choir she was setting up, New Dublin Voices. I learned more from singing with Bernie than anyone could imagine – from historically informed performance practice to identifying compositional devices – it really was learning by doing!
Who are your musical role models?
There are many people I’d like to be like when I grow up! Bernie Sherlock is my hero, but I must also include António Vassalo Lourenço and Vasco Negreiros here in Portugal, and of course our own Brian MacKay. These conductors constantly surprise me with their innovative repertoire choices, with how they interpret repertoire in such a way that the music suddenly makes perfect sense and with how they manage to teach so much in rehearsal – almost without us singers realising!
Apart from their wonderful conducting and music-making, these conductors are generous – both with their time and their knowledge – and sincere, as you quickly understand that they are motivated by their love of the music, and that what they want most of all is for the singers and the audiences to love it too.
What is your favourite thing to sing? Are there any particular pieces which draw you back time and again?
Hmmm…good question! I love pretty much everything that Jaakko Mäntyjärvi has written, particularly Canticum Calamitatis Maritimae, and I’m a fan of contemporary composers like Michael Holohan, Ivan Moody, Eurico Carrapatoso… I enjoy singing early music, and I’ve had the chance to be part of first performances of recovered works here in Portugal. I also have a soft spot for the Swingle Swingers arrangements…
Tell us a bit about your choir in Portugal. What have you been working on with them recently?
I started my chamber choir, Voz Nua, in 2012 as part of my masters research, and when I finished my masters, I decided to keep going with the choir. I would always say that I am primarily a music teacher, and hence Voz Nua is an un-auditioned community choir, open to all who wish to sing, as I don’t think anyone should be excluded just because they didn’t have the opportunity to have music lessons. I teach musical literacy and vocal technique during rehearsals, and we have singers of all ages and various nationalities.
We have never charged admission to any of our concerts, as we want to share our music-making with anyone who would like to hear us. In keeping with the community philosophy, and welcoming all who wish to sing or to listen, we also try to promote the work of young composers – have a listen to ‘Devir’ by Voz Nua on youtube, a piece written by a young Brazilian composer.
We launched a Christmas CD, Nativitas, in December 2015, and we’re about to start work on pieces that I commissioned for the choir, which I’m very excited about. One of the singers plays the laud, so I’m also planning a programme of early music so that we can share a concert with him.
What took you to Portugal? And you’re a regular contributor to Zezerearts Choral Festival. How did that all come about?
To make a long story short, I decided that I needed to do a masters in choral conducting, and spent a year researching where to go. I wanted to go somewhere with a different culture, with a language that I thought myself capable of learning. I came across the masters programme at the University of Aveiro (UA), and really liked their philosophy of equally promoting theory and practice. So, I started to learn Portuguese and moved to Aveiro in 2010. I had intended to stay for a year…but I’m still here!
The more time I spent at UA, the more I liked it, and I decided to apply for the PhD programme. I work at the research centre INET-md – a hub of activity, between masterclasses, international conferences, guest lectures, with an impressive multi-disciplinary team of researchers.
A singer from the National Chamber Choir of Ireland recommended that I get in touch with Brian MacKay, a name I knew from my days on the committee of the Kodaly Society of Ireland. I gave him a call, and he invited me to the Zezerearts Choral Festival in 2013. I loved it, I learned a lot from Brian, and subsequently got increasingly more involved, including helping out with the logistics of running such a busy festival! I think that the Zezerearts Choral Festival provides an important space for choral singers to develop their skills in a different environment, to switch off from their regular work, and concentrate solely on singing (and perhaps a bit of sunbathing and sightseeing). It’s great to see the festival going from strength to strength, to see familiar faces year after year, and to welcome and get to know new singers.
What are you most looking forward to about the workshop in East Grinstead?
Singing great music in a fantastic venue! I’ve always really enjoyed ‘come and sing’ events, so I’m looking forward to meeting the participants, and getting stuck into some fabulous repertoire…