Member of Cappella Caeciliana Philip O’Rawe: Now is the golden age of choral music

Cappella Caeciliana is at the moment standing on the doorstep for new beginnings. The choir, which was founded in the year 1995 on the feast of St Cecilia is this year noting their 25th anniversary. Based in Belfast, they have sung concerts and liturgies all over Northern Ireland, and have performed in Scotland, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Austria and the USA (including in Washington National Cathedral). Currently looking for a new music director for the choir, Cappella Caeciliana has faith that their next 25 years will be as successful as the first. In a conversation, a long time choir member Philip O’Rawe discusses the repertoire choices, the evolution of the choir, and the future wishes for the Cappella Caeciliana.

How did you come to Cappella Caeciliana?

Even though I studied computer science and now work in IT, I have always been interested in choir singing and sung through my childhood as well as in the university choir. I joined Cappella Caeciliana quite early, in 1996, and at that time it was very informal – simply a group of friends. I showed my interest in participating and managed to get into the choir by a simple friend invitation. Now the process of accepting new members is much more complicated and structured. We have a waiting list as many people want to sing in the choir.

What impact do you think singing in Cappella Caeciliana has on the singers’ lives?

Much scientific research has been carried out that proves the positive impact of singing in the choir. Our waiting list also proves that people are interested in singing and see the value of the choir. There are also some founder members who are still singing in the choir – many people stay here for decades. I think people enjoy it because it’s a way to meet a different community of people that you otherwise would not be able to meet, and to socialize every Sunday.

Cappella Caeciliana specializes in liturgical music that’s largely gone from weekly worship. How did you decide to perform this music?

The repertoire of the choir has significantly changed through the years. In the beginning, it was a traditional repertoire – mostly Renaissance music (that we still sing, but not as much). Now, much of our repertoire is works by contemporary composers.

It was a gradual change. I would say that it is great to perform contemporary music because it’s a golden age of choral music. Many very talented composers create new pieces for choirs, which will stand the test of time because they are just such good quality. People admire these composers, because their pieces are so profound and high quality, also often quite a challenge to perform.

In our latest CD, most of the pieces are contemporary, but the first CD that we recorded was based around the traditional choir repertoire. Contemporary music can be quite a challenge for the choir. For example, we performed the Irish premiere of Alissa Firsova’s Stabat Mater, a very demanding but rewarding piece.

We really like to record contemporary pieces and to add them to our concert programmes. Sure, we can’t perform only contemporary music, because we will not manage to gather sufficient audiences. But we make it balanced with traditional and contemporary items in a programme. Then people, who come for traditional repertoire, listen to the works of contemporary composers and are expanding their understanding of music. Listeners are often surprised that they really enjoyed listening to contemporary music. So we really value the fact that our repertoire is getting wider and that it is suggesting something new for the listeners as well as the performers.

Since you have mentioned that much of the choir repertoire is contemporary, how does the process of collaborating with composers looks like?

There have been a number of memorable collaborations when we commissioned pieces for composers and also performed with them in concerts. One collaboration that sticks in my mind is that in 2019 with a young composer in Belfast – Anselm McDonnell. Having heard us perform, he out of the blue composed a quite difficult piece for us (More Than Gold) that was very fulfilling to learn and perform. We in Cappella Caeciliana were happy to perform the work because he is a really promising composer in this part of the world and has won various awards. We have also commissioned pieces from contemporary composers, funded by a grant from the Arts Council, our local fund for arts. This is very helpful as our normal budget is not sufficient to allow us to commission high-quality compositions.

In the year 2015, we had our 20th anniversary and we wanted to perform music from composer James (now Sir James) MacMillan, acknowledged as one of the leading composers of our age. Our Musical Director – Donal McCrisken – decided that we shouldn’t only sing pieces that were written for other choirs. We should commission. That was the basis on which we approached James via his agent, just out of the blue. We were delighted to find that he was very enthusiastic about the offer to compose a work for us. We have now worked with him on a number of occasions, including at a workshop in London. He really likes what we do, always collaborates with great energy and has conducted us in two concerts. James is a really elite composer, always having so many things to do, so much work. We are really lucky to get on the top of his “pile”. The commissioned work (Ut omnes unum sint) was written for us and our founder members The Priests, with trio sections specifically for The Priests. James is a very generous man, for example he didn’t charge to perform with us in the concerts. This collaboration was hugely satisfying and we would like it to grow.

Another very distinguished musician who we have worked with is Eamonn Dougan, a London-based singer and conductor (Associate Conductor of the world-famous choir The Sixteen).  We collaborated with Eamonn three years ago in a concert in the Catholic cathedral in Armagh, where his father had been a chorister. He really brought us to another level, drawing on his vast experience as a singer and conductor. We have also undertaken workshops under his direction which have helped all the singers to grow.

These are the sort of relationships that choir members really enjoy. Requesting pieces, discussing, learning, performing… Collaborations are difficult to organize, but they are worth it and are very important for Cappella Caeciliana.

As I know, now the choir is searching for a new artistic director. How is the search going?

Yes, our musical director is about to change. The founding conductor Bob Leonard retired after three years and then since 1999 Donal McCrisken has directed us for 21 years, all of which have been very successful. I would say it’s quite a challenge to find a new conductor because there are probably no high caliber directors that are sitting and waiting around idly for a choir to call them. They are all busy and they already have choirs that they are conducting, they have events that they are organizing. We have cast the net quite widely, for example to Dublin which is two hours away from our base in Belfast. There are great conductors there as well as in London. So when searching for the new Musical Director we are looking widely in different directions as we want to select the best person.

Scheduling future concerts and the anniversary repertoire is currently difficult since we have not yet selected the new Musical Director. We want the new person to feel free, not obliged to adhere to a pre-planned schedule, and we want them to present their own original ideas.

The Cappella was founded on the feast of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians. What does the figure of St. Cecilia symbolizes for the choir?

The St. Cecilia feast in November is a very important date for us, we always try to have a concert around that date. Also in our repertoire, we have tried to combine pieces about St. Cecilia and the celebration of Cecilia, despite there not being many pieces with this theme. St. Cecilia is very important for us as a symbol and patron, it matters to us as a part of our ethos and I believe that it makes us a better choir.

You have recorded five CDs. How did they show the growth of the Cappella Caeciliana?

First of all, the choir has got bigger. In the beginning, it was around twelve people and now it’s twenty. Therefore the repertoire has changed (for example with many pieces scored in eight parts rather than just standard four-part) as more people has allowed more flexibility. I hope that the quality has also improved over time. We are always trying to improve and add new things. I see that the choir is growing together with recordings and performances.

Sadly I think that our most recent CD was our last because now many people only stream music online, there are not even CD players in new cars. This is quite unfortunate since we would previously make a reasonable profit from CDs and it was also a good snapshot of the time – what was the repertoire, what was the blend of voices, how we performed. This is a connection to the choir as it was at the time. Also in the CDs, there is always some background information in sleeve notes that explained a lot of things about the tracks, and about recording and how it was made. Now people usually stream music without any context and I think it changes the experience of listening to music, people don’t have such a good understanding of what they are listening to as they did before.

What are your thoughts on the future of religious music?

I would say that we in Cappella Caeciliana – by performing liturgical music that’s largely gone from weekly worship – are helping to save a vanishing tradition. Today in a regular church (as opposed to a cathedral) you will rarely hear Latin sung any more. During services, it is not commonly sung. Also, Latin is now only rarely taught in schools in this part of the world. The audiences have lost the ability to understand the beautiful and historic words in Latin that we sing. Only older people remember, but they will soon be gone from the audiences as well.

We are delighted when contemporary composers write pieces in Latin and particularly so when, for example with James MacMillan’s compositions, we know they will last because they are of high quality. We try to focus on that and we try to keep the Latin tradition alive, broaden the work, which always brings more attention to the choir. We try to get balance in our repertoire when performing, either in churches or concert halls.

Also, we are trying to maintain the tradition of performing in various churches that we want to receive more attention – historic as well as modern churches. In Ireland, we have some very fine ecclesiastical architecture, and the buildings in which we perform are important from the cultural and community points of view. This was well articulated by Archbishop Eamon Martin when speaking at the end of our concert with Eamonn Dougan in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh, on Palm Sunday in 2017 – he said that this glorious building had spoken to us, through the divinely-inspired music which we had just sung.

What future projects of Cappella Caeciliana excite you the most?

One big thing is our 25th anniversary next season. We haven’t organized anything about it yet since we don’t have a new Musical Director. Another important moment that we are waiting for in the future of Cappella Caeciliana is our tour in Kraków, Poland this Easter. We regularly try to tour and organize concerts in other countries. Of course, it is quite expensive, but it’s very important for us. The singers have fun, they see things that they would not normally see, they try and do things that they would not normally do. Also a tour to Poland is more affordable for us than in most other countries. Members also feel very fulfilled, the tours are something that everyone greatly looks forward to.

What is your wish for the Cappella Caeciliana?

I can’t speak for the whole choir, but I think we wish to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the choir well. We wish the start of the next 25 years to be as successful as our first quarter century. Hopefully, people will continue to find the experience of being a part of the choir satisfying and people will still want to join us and listen to us. I hope the choir will keep stimulating both its members and its audiences. We would like to continue to broaden our repertoire with contemporary music, to perform in new venues, to do some local and international touring, also to bring new music to audiences and – very importantly if we are to sustain this tradition – attract more young people to listen to the wonderful music which we are privileged to sing.

Thank you for the conversation!

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