Interview With Jeremy Summerly, Conductor

by Karine Hetherington

Karine interviewed conductor Jeremy Summerly in preparation for KOFMA’s ‘Come and Sing’ event on Saturday 10th November. We will be singing Haydn’s ‘Mass in the Time of War’ to commemorate the armistice. 

What does the Armistice mean to you?

I have a picture of my grandfather in my study. I look at it every day. He is going off to war with a pair of shoes he had made for himself. He was from Northamptonshire.  The story goes that he was a commander in France and that knowing his younger brother to be there too, asked him to join his battalion. My great uncle was only sixteen and like so many others, he had lied about his age so that he could enlist. He was killed on the train he took to meet up with my grandfather. My grandfather never got over his younger brother’s death.

What made you choose Haydn’s Paukenmesse which we will be singing?

Haydn’s personal title for the work was in fact Mass in the Time of War, which he wrote in his own hand on the finished manuscript. It is perfect for our Armistice commemoration. Haydn composed this mass in 1796 when Austrian troops were doing badly against the French in Italy and Germany, in the European War. Austria faced a very real threat of invasion. It is an unusual piece for Haydn as Haydn is so often associated with light, buoyant music. But at the beginning and the end of the mass, and in part of the middle, there is this undercurrent of threat. Whilst it’s an optimistic piece, it does leave us with a feeling of uneasiness. It’s a beautiful work and brings all parts of the choir and orchestra together, but I have to say it’s a very challenging sing.

Which brings me to my next question.  Training singers in one day… how do you do it? Having already taken part in a ‘Come and Sing’ with you I remember how panicked I felt when you ran through the work at record speed the first time. I feared I would never learn my part for the evening performance. Gradually however, as if by magic, you pulled all the singers and the orchestra together, and it was the most thrilling experience. I still don’t know how you pulled the whole thing off so spectacularly…

Well I don’t treat amateur singers any differently to how I treat my professional choir. I think you have to set a speed at first, where people are really working hard to keep up. People want you to introduce them to a new piece of music and want to sing as much as possible. I tend to set a fast pace to see how it’s going and then I take my foot off the accelerator where necessary. I then go back, review the piece. The second time you learn more and start to feel more confident.

Did you have a musical childhood?

Yes, because I was brought up in the 1960’s – before the Internet, before daytime television. My sister and I played our recorders when we were bored. And then I would go on to piano. I always say that if I had grown up now, I would never have turned to music. Too many distractions!

Did you know you would end up as a conductor?

No. Not at all. The second piece of good luck I had (apart from having no internet) is that my voice broke ridiculously early, at ten and a half.  I was a cathedral chorister at Lichfield. After that I was encouraged to wave my arms around in front of the choir. My first experience of conducting. If that had happened today, I would not have been given that opportunity. I would have been thrown out of the choir!

If you want to join Jeremy for this unique event, here are some vital links to acquaint yourself with the music and singing parts.

A YouTube link to a performance by a non-auditioned choir in Kansas:

Vocal parts

You can book a ticket for the Come and Sing event here; or if you’d rather simply watch the performance, you can book a ticket for the concert in the evening here.

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