“We live in a world where it is easy to be lonely” Simon Halsey tells me. “If you belong to a choir, you have 30, 50, 100 potential friends.”

Not many people can claim as much experience in choral music as Halsey. An acclaimed musician, teacher and academic, he is the Choral Director of some great ensembles around the world, including the London Symphony Orchestra Chorus, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Chorus, the Orfeó Català Choirs in Barcelona and the Berliner Philharmoniker Youth Choral Programme – just to mention a few.

Simon Halsey at the Palau de la Música Catalana
© Ricardo Rios Baixa

In a world that is ever so fractured, celebrating differences – between people, countries and also choral music traditions – is at the heart of what Halsey does. “You don't want to go to Copenhagen and discover that the shops are identical to the ones in London, you want the food to be different in New York, and so on,” he says. “I want the music to be different. I want the choirs' sound to be different. We should learn from each other: we can share repertoire, we can share ideas but it’s absolutely vital that my English mind is challenged by different ways of doing things. That's what makes life interesting.”

“Every country has different traditions and education, so as an international conductor you need to adapt your work everywhere you go, and work in a different way,” he explains. “The English-speaking world is one world: we have relatively few professional choirs, very good choral education – particularly in our universities – and therefore the level of amateur choir singing is very high. Germany is very different, as it has 80 opera companies, all of them with some sort of professional chorus, and seven full-time radio choirs. That means that there are fewer chances for amateur singers to sing, for example, with the great orchestras.”

The differences in traditions between countries also affect the way in which choral ensembles approach a score. “In Spain there are fantastic choirs, but there is a smaller percentage of the population singing, so it is more difficult to recruit. The standard of vocal technique among amateur choirs is higher because they all receive singing lessons, but the British reading of music is much quicker. We get to the same standards after eight rehearsals, but the content of those rehearsals is different. I spend lots of my time in England building the sound, and a lot of it teaching the notes in Spain. But the end result is equally good.”

Simon Halsey and the Orfeó Català performing at the Palau de la Música Catalana
© Antoni Bofill

Halsey is the Artistic Director of the Orfeó Català Choirs in Barcelona, ensembles that are housed in a structure unique in the world, the Palau de la Música Catalana. This UNESCO World Heritage building was commissioned by the choir in 1908. They were keen to have a concert hall to celebrate Catalan music and to showcase the masterworks to the people of Barcelona.

“The Palau is the only concert hall in the world which has resident choirs but no resident orchestra, which makes for a very exciting place,” Halsey says. “It has fantastic rehearsal facilities and it was designed for choir music, so it’s a great pleasure to sing in there. It sounds good and looks sensational, but the thing that is really special about it is its extraordinary family of musicians which is absolutely unique in the world: it has seven resident choirs, from small children to adults, eight conductors and a faculty of singing teachers. It is the spirit of the place, rather than the acoustics, that is special.”

The concept of a musical family is very important to Halsey. In London, aside from the London Symphony Chorus – an auditioned ensemble which provides professional-level performances with the London Symphony Orchestra – Halsey also works with the London Symphony Community Choirs, un-auditioned ensembles that provide a musical community for the geographical area immediately around London's Barbican centre. “The community choirs perform twice a year with the London Symphony Orchestra,” explains Halsey. “We commission new music written by major composers in such a way that it is suitable for those choirs – perhaps music that does not divide the men very much, because alas we have fewer men than women. These will be performed with the London Symphony Orchestra, still rehearsed – but once a week rather than twice a week as for the London Symphony Chorus – and the goal is still the same: it’s a mixture of performance and enjoyment. ”

“Another example is the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.” he adds. “They talk about themselves as a musical community of 600 musicians, of which 82 are the professional orchestral members and the others are members of their choruses. There is a rather wonderful feeling that everybody is feeding off each other and learning about music and supporting the idea of an orchestra in a concert hall being at the centre of the city.”

Being able to bring choral music to as many people as possible is Halsey's mission. "The most important thing to me,” he tells me, “is opening up choir music to make sure that as many people as possible get the chance to experience the joy of it. I am talking about projects that encourage mass participation, of the sort that I have been commissioning and putting on in recent years. Those projects are completely blind to where anyone comes from.”

And diversity in music is a topic that is more and more talked about. “We recently did a professional survey of the LSO Choirs so that we could really understand where we were succeeding and where we were not. Although the choir looks fairly uniform from the outside, we discovered that we had 21 nationalities in the choir, and every conceivable age, sexual orientation and all sorts of different financial and educational backgrounds. That was quite an eye opener, because we assumed that we were rather un-diverse, and discovered that we were in fact extremely diverse. That has allowed us to concentrate on the weaknesses in our diversity as we look to recruit in the future. I guess everybody is going to have to look at themselves in a similar way.”

Simon Halsey leading an LSO Singing Day
© Kevin Leighton

But the diversity question will only be answered if there is sufficiently good music education in school. “We do have a very strange situation where music is understood by everybody to be absolutely vital to young people’s development,” says Halsey “and yet music and many arts subjects are not available universally across the state school curriculum. We should be extremely concerned and taking action about that.”

It's important to note that the music's outreach should not only be aimed to the younger generations. “We should be making sure that there is as much possibility for music to be made among older people as well,” Halsey says “to combat loneliness and all sort of other evils. But this depends on investment, and while our country rather seems to have lost its way for the time being, with our necessity to deal with Brexit, it is very difficult to see how we can really address the really important things while there is almost no thinking going on about anything outside the present political crisis… Perhaps when things ease, we will be able to address things further.”

Medical research show that singing aids mental health. “Breathing together, listening and using your brain for music are all things that make you healthier,” agrees Halsey. “In all my ensembles we have children, youths, adults and seniors, so that we are singing across generations. I passionately hate everything that Brexit stands for, so music is all about bringing communities together, encouraging people from different backgrounds and different countries to work together, using different languages, encouraging international understanding. I believe most passionately these things to be extremely important in a world that, at the moment, I find politically distressing.”

To bring choral music to the masses and into the future, another important aspect for Halsey is the creation of new music. “I am commissioning a great deal of music at the moment,” he says. “We have had wonderful contributions from Jonathan Dove, David Lang, John Luther Adams, and Roxanna Panufnik. I am hoping for new pieces from Caroline Shaw and Brett Dean.”

“I adore the English cathedral tradition, I am part of it, I grew up in it,” he clarifies. “But it’s very important that it grows with new music, music by women, music on new texts, music that is relevant to the 21st century. We need to be part of the world. Many of my colleagues are doing a fantastic job: I was at St John’s College Cambridge recently and this semester alone they are doing more than ten works written this year and last year. This is wonderful. The tradition must constantly live and change.”

And the future is full of interesting projects. “I am working with Peter Sellars, the great American theatre director, and Sir Simon Rattle on a staging of Bach’s St John’s Passion. Then with the London Symphony we are doing a work by David Lang called the public domain, and that's a piece for 11 conductors and 500 singers and it’s one of my big community projects. And in 2020, the London Symphony with Sir Simon Rattle will be having a big feast of Beethoven, both in London and all around Europe.”

If there is a secret to a successful choir, Halsey is sure it must have something to do with hard work and joy. “It’s a mixture of good preparation, good discipline and having fun. Musicians want to have rewarding, hard working and enjoyable rehearsals. Today, for example, I had the most wonderful time with the Radio Choir in Berlin, singing Bach, and we had many laughs but at the same time we went deep into the music, the text, colour, intonation and so on, but everyone was having a really good time, and I do believe that’s extremely important.”