Preview: Quire Cleveland: a conversation with Guest Conductor Timothy Brown

Timothy Brown spent thirty-one years as music director of Clare College at Cambridge University and conductor of its well-known, mixed-voice chapel choir before deciding to retire early just a year ago to devote himself to other projects including guest conducting. That’s what brings him to Cleveland this week. Brown will lead Quire Cleveland in two performances and an open rehearsal of a program of English church music — something he knows quite a lot about, having been a boy chorister at Westminster Abbey and a choral scholar at King’s College, Cambridge under Sir David Willcocks before settling in for his long tenure at Clare. We had a wide-ranging conversation over coffee with Tim Brown and Beverly Simmons, one of Quire’s founders and its executive director — and mother of David Simmons-Duffin, whose experiences in the Clare College Choir directly led to Brown’s invitation to come to Cleveland.

Brown’s choice of repertory for his appearance with Quire Cleveland comes directly out of his day-to-day duties as an Anglican chapel choirmaster and his work with a choir whose job it is to sing the daily services of Matins and Evensong and the Eucharist. That represents a 500-year tradition from the pre-Reformation days of Latin church music through today, and in the case of Quire, who have championed early music, represents a plunge “out of its more accustomed comfort zone” into music of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.

Avoiding a complete survey of the English liturgical repertory, Brown decided to “dip in” to the rich possibilities a choir has at its disposal for each of those Anglican rites. The program he has devised for Quire roughly follows a “Day in the Life”, with Mass movements by John Taverner (ca1490-1545), Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) and Giles Swayne (b1946) interspersed with “Motets for Mattins” by Tallis and Ford, Psalm settings by Davies, Byrd, Berkeley and Gibbons, Communion motets by Byrd and Bairstow, Evensong anthems by Stanford, Purcell and Harris and Compline anthems by Sheppard and Mundy. After all that liturgical solemnity, the program ends with the somewhat impious Missa brevissima, by Giles Swayne, who teaches composition at Cambridge. (Swain describes its Agnus Dei as starting “on a mumbled monotone (as befits a trussed-up sacrificial lamb)” and its Miserere nobis as “an anguished call for assistance from a deity who is probably out to lunch”).

On leaving Clare College at the age of 63 — four years before Cambridge’s mandatory retirement age —Brown thought he would take a year off to contemplate his next move, but he was immediately offered several conducting positions. Last March, he was appointed director of the Zürcher Sing-Akademie, the new professional choir in Zurich, and he has forthcoming engagements with the Tonhalle Orchestra there and the Helsinki Chamber Choir in Finland.

His initial approach to guest conducting a “new” choir is simple. “I just let them sing and find out what kind of sound the choir can give me. Then I can begin to shape it and give them ideas”. And he likes that singing to be robust. “I’ve done the Lennox Berkeley Judica me many times and I’ve often stopped and wondered why the piece wasn’t working. It turns out that you have to really sing it. If you half sing, it falls apart”.

Brown is also big on words and their pronunciation — reflecting the fact that the English language grew up alongside English music from the Reformation onward. “If singers don’t use the proper vowels, they can’t achieve resonance in their voices. They also have to respect the relative strength of consonants”. And posture is a big subject. “Sometimes I’ve asked singers to completely straighten their bodies and sing without moving. It makes a big difference in their tone”.

Timothy Brown will have five rehearsals with Quire this week before the ensemble sings on Saturday evening at Trinity Cathedral and Sunday afternoon at the Church of the Resurrection in Solon. But the group has already spent several weeks working on the repertory under co-founder and artistic director Ross Duffin, who has also been busy preparing editions of many of the earlier works. Brown told us that he’ll be experimenting with different configurations for the singers, including having them stand in a circle so they can watch and listen to each other more clearly. “For the very last concert I conducted in the US with the Clare College Choir, we ended with Vaughan William’s setting of The Turtle Dove with the choir spread all the way around a big church in the midwest and the soloist at the high altar. They sang it without a conductor and that’s what I’m always aiming for”.

The public will have the rare opportunity to watch Timothy Brown in action at a public rehearsal of Quire Cleveland on Wednesday evening at 7 at the Church of the Covenant (free, but reservations requested by telephoning 216.223.8854 or by email).

During our conversation, Brown spoke lovingly of pieces he’s performed for decades. About some of them he has particularly strong memories. When he was a countertenor at King’s, he was asked by Willcocks to sing the solo at the beginning of Purcell’s Hear my prayer for a BBC radio broadcast. When the flashing red light on the microphone went steady, Brown opened his mouth to sing the opening “C” and nothing came out. Twice. Happily, the third time was the charm. That’s a story to share with the Quire Cleveland altos, who will have to begin the same Purcell piece this weekend!

— Daniel Hathaway