by Victoria Cooper, Director, Cooper Digital Publishing Ltd
ORA - "...a musical comet..."
As many of my AMS colleagues know, in 2015 I retired from my position as Senior Commissioning Editor of music and theatre books at Cambridge University Press, founding my company, Cooper Digital Publishing Ltd., to develop apps and iBooks in a wide range of areas.
Among other projects with my new work, I am especially proud to have been elected onto the Board of Trustees of the new professional a cappella vocal ensemble Ora, directed by Suzi Digby. Ora recently was launched at a private concert at the Tower of London and has just brought out its first CD, ‘Upheld by Stillness: Renaissance Gems and their Reflections’ (Amazon UK and Amazon US) with the Harmonia Mundi label. Ora’s second recording will be released in autumn 2016, with further CDs underway, and the group completed a successful US tour in May. Unusually for an a capella group, Ora also engages professional stage directors to produce full productions rather than traditional ‘stand and sing’ concerts.
Ora holds a unique place among performing groups, with their recordings and concerts combining both the early music repertoire with contemporary works. This pairing is of special interest as many of the contemporary works are directly commissioned by Ora through their dedicated composition programme.
By way of a bit of background, Ora was born out of a belief that we are in a second golden age of choral music, matching that of the English Renaissance. In recent years choral composition and performance have become especially popular in the UK, even reaching the more general market level, with successful television programmes such as Last Choir Standing (Ora’s Music Director, Suzi Digby, serving as one of the judges), and The Choir, charting the competition and progress of choral ensembles. Many will also be familiar with A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, the Christmas Eve service held in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, and broadcast worldwide by the BBC. As well as the more traditional repertoire, the Service offers modern choral works and, since 1983, a specially-commissioned choral composition is included each year. Yet, along with the growing interest and activity in modern choral music, it is also valuable to look back at the earlier repertoire, regard its legacy and resonance, and consider if inspiration can be found and stylistic relationships created.
Thus, Ora’s performances and recordings showcase classic choral masterpieces of the English Renaissance, and partner these with modern compositions, many specially written by contemporary composers. The brief is for the composers to contemplate how the early music repertoire—its techniques, styles, and vision—can inspire them as twenty-first century composers. Commissioning these new choral works, and championing contemporary composers, is one of the main goals for Ora. Moreover, in conjunction with its affiliate patron’s group Ora 100 the ensemble is dedicated to the creation of a choral repertoire for current performance and future generations. The commissioned composers range from more established names, such as Francis Pott and Roxanna Panufnik, to the younger generation, including Owain Park (b. 1993) and Charlotte Bray (b. 1982), among others.
As an example of this musical relationship, in their first CD Ora performs Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices, and then pairs this with Owain Park’s work, ‘Upheld by Stillness’, noted by the composer as a reflection on the Sanctus and Benedictus of Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices. Writing in the liner notes Park observes: ‘I was instantly drawn to Kathleen Raine’s ‘The World’, when looking for a text for this reflection. Its themes perfectly corresponded with my idea of Byrd’s Sanctus, being an expansive continually evolving work...Elements of the poem are reflected in this piece as well as melodic lines from Byrd’s original composition, which are often set against a backdrop of shimmering chords.’
In a similar way in the CD, Charlotte Bray offers her composition, Agnus Dei, as ‘a reflection on the Agnus Dei of Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices’: ‘The beauty and tranquility of the Agnus Dei in Byrd’s five-part Mass is most striking…A fragment of Byrd’s theme was taken as the starting point for my Agnus Dei. Harmonically, the piece is built on tone clusters, which were constructed from a germ of the harmonic language of the Byrd.’
Additional compositional pairings by contemporary composers, with the works specially commissioned by Ora, include Roxanna Panufnik’s ‘Kyrie After Byrd’—‘a reflection on the Kyrie of Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices’; Alexander L’Estrange, ‘Show me, Deare Christ’, a contemplation on the Credo of Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices; and Roderick Williams’ ‘Ave Verum Corpus Re-Imagined’, a meditative piece on Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus.
Ora’s Artistic Director and Conductor, Suzi Digby, OBE, is an internationally renowned choral conductor and music educator who has trail-blazed the revival of singing in UK schools and the community. Digby founded and runs the inﬂuential UK national arts/educational organisations: The Voices Foundation (the UK’s leading Primary Music Education Charity); Vocal Futures (nurturing young audiences for classical music); and the London Youth Choir (a pyramid of 5 choirs, 8-22, serving all communities in London’s 33 boroughs). Digby is also a visiting Professor at the University of Southern California (Choral Studies) and in 2014 launched her Californian professional vocal consort, The Golden Bridge.
Digby annually conducts 2,000 voices in the Royal Albert Hall in a scratch Youth Messiah, and on the lighter side of music has provided choirs for the Rolling Stones at the O2, Glastonbury Festival and Hyde Park, amongst other venues worldwide.
I hope Ora’s vision and music, along with their active composition commissioning programme, will be of interest to AMS colleagues, and to a wide range of listeners, including scholars, enthusiasts, performers, and composers.
Victoria Cooper is Founder and Director of Cooper Digital Publishing Ltd, established to create ebooks, apps, and digital products in the areas of culture, media, and healthcare. Most recently, Cooper Digital Publishing collaborated with InkPix Media and film company Ink Factory to create the interactive iBook, The Night Manager: Insider’s Guide, on Apple iTunes for the BBC and film company AMC, to accompany the very successful television series The Night Manager.
Formerly Senior Commissioning Editor of music and theatre books at Cambridge University Press, Cooper has written widely on the publishing industry and publishing history. She is on the Board of Trustees of the professional choral group Ora, Board of Trustees of the charity performing arts organisation, Vocal Futures, and Member of Council for the Handel Institute.